Mr. Speaker, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed how we live, how we work, how we interact with other people. Over the past six months, the pandemic has taken an especially heavy toll on Canadians who are members of vulnerable populations. We have learned that COVID most negatively impacts our most vulnerable—seniors, people experiencing homelessness, Canadians with disabilities, racialized Canadians, persons who use substances, and persons with mental health challenges—along with those who work to support them. As restrictive public health measures are lifted and our economy reopens, we must remember there are vulnerable people in our communities, as well as those who support them, who will continue to need our help in order to stay healthy.
Our government is responding to these needs through funding provided to the provinces and territories under the safe restart agreement, which was just announced by the first ministers on July 16. The agreement is far-reaching in its intent and scope. The $19-billion commitment will help provinces and territories, which have had to respond to COVID-19 in unique ways and have already made major investments, and will continue to do so, in critical areas, including health care and vulnerable populations. It includes funding over the next six to eight months to support capacity in health care services, procurement of personal protective equipment and support for Canadians facing challenges related to mental health, harmful substances or homelessness.
The funding will also support infection prevention and control measures to protect vulnerable populations, including residents at long-term care facilities and those requiring home care. This money will complement the Public Health Agency of Canada's ongoing efforts to provide guidance to health care providers, facility directors and administrators on resident care within long-term care homes.
Funding provided under the safe restart agreement will also be used to support other vulnerable populations, such as homeless Canadians and those living in remote or isolated communities.
The agreement is an example of the extraordinary federal-provincial-territorial collaboration that has characterized our collective response to this pandemic. It is an indication of our deep and ongoing commitment to protect the health and safety of all Canadians.
The safe restart agreement is the latest in a series of actions that our government has taken to support vulnerable populations throughout this crisis. Access to support or prevention programs by those fleeing family and gender-based violence has become more difficult in the context of community lockdowns and social distancing practices. In recognition of this, our government has announced new initiatives to help reduce the impacts of abuse and violence within vulnerable families. A $7.5-million investment has been made in the Kids Help Phone to help support mental health and crisis support for children and youth, an acknowledgement that without school, children may be particularly at risk.
There is also $50 million in new funding being provided through the Reaching Home program to women's shelters and sexual assault centres, including $26 million to women's shelters across Canada to distribute to shelters right across the country, $4 million to the Canadian Women's Foundation to distribute to sexual assault centres, and $10 million to support Indigenous Services Canada's existing network of 46 emergency shelters on reserve and in the Yukon.
These measures will complement other economic and financial measures to assist vulnerable individuals and families through this crisis, including the enhancement of the Canada child benefit and support for the charitable sector.
Our government also recognizes the significant and unique challenges faced by black Canadians and other racialized populations during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As the crisis has unfolded across the country, it has become clear that we need more information on certain groups at higher risk of exposure to COVID-19. As a key social determinant of health that can affect an individual's access and willingness to seek medical care, racism is a public health issue.
Canadians who, before the pandemic, were at greater risk of poor health owing to systemic discrimination are likely to be at greater risk of suffering COVID-19's direct and indirect consequences. Given this, the Public Health Agency of Canada and partners are undertaking a number of activities to improve Canada's knowledge on the impact of COVID-19 on racialized communities.
Canada has recently established a new national COVID-19 dataset, approved by Canada's special advisory committee on COVID-19. This dataset includes race or ethnicity as a key variable to be collected in the national COVID-19 case report form, which is used by the provincial and territorial governments to report COVID-19 cases to the Public Health Agency of Canada. Until now, with the exception of a section for identifying and classifying cases as indigenous, data on these variables was not collected. Thus, this new dataset represents an important advance in Canada's ability to track the relationship between COVID-19 and race or ethnicity. However, it may take some time for all jurisdictions to be able to collect this data.
The mental health impacts of systemic discrimination can also have negative implications for physical health. Our government is working to advance knowledge of the intersections between the mental and physical health of black Canadians through an initiative on promoting health equity called the mental health of black Canadians fund. This fund is supporting projects that generate knowledge, capacity and programs that promote mental health and address its determinants for black Canadians. All funded projects are led by black Canadian experts or organizations, and they are informed by the mental health of black Canadians working group, comprising experts in research, practice and policy from diverse black communities right across the country. Funding recipients have demonstrated great resiliency during the COVID-19 pandemic and are working to continue planned activities in the pandemic context.
We also recognize that public health measures have taken their toll on the mental health of Canadians, with feelings of isolation, lack of access to usual support networks and living in fear of the uncertainties caused by the pandemic. Targeted mental health initiatives such as this are in addition to the broader supports that have been developed to help Canadians stay healthy and informed during this difficult period. For example, the Wellness Together Canada portal was developed to link Canadians to mental health and substance use supports. As of July 10, more than 283,000 Canadians had accessed the portal.
Under COVID-19 and the mental health initiative, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research has also launched, in partnership with four provincial research agencies, a funding opportunity to better understand mental health, including substance use of both individuals and communities due to the pandemic.
In parallel with the COVID-19 pandemic, many communities continue to struggle with a second public health crisis, namely the devastating impact of substance abuse and the overdose crisis. The pandemic has exposed people who use drugs to additional barriers when it comes to accessing health and social services. While necessary public health measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19 may sadly also have had unintended consequences, including increased toxicity of the illegal drug supply and reduction in the availability of life-saving services.
We have made it easier for people to access the medications they need, such as those necessary for opioid agonist treatment, such as Suboxone and methadone. Pharmacists now have the ability to extend and renew prescriptions.
We are supporting community-based projects across a wide variety of topics and we will continue to do whatever is needed to help and protect Canadians.
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to participate in this take-note debate, because there is so much of which to take note.
First, it was satisfying to see the members of the House, proven by our attendance here under almost normal procedures and practices, on Monday and Tuesday for debate and passage of Bill and to correct and improve emergency funding for the wage subsidy program and one-time payments for persons with disabilities, who were, like seniors and students, somewhat of an afterthought for the government in its COVID emergency funding programs.
The Monday and Tuesday sittings, unlike this now outdated hybrid talking shop, has proved that we can endure a prolonged arrhythmia that has been imposed on the beating heart of our Canadian democracy by the Liberal government, which finds transparency and accountability inconvenient.
As many, if not most, communities in Canada, certainly in the national capital region, return slowly, with precautions, to normalcy, surely this place should do the same. I hope we will have more members physically present for more days at a time and more committees meeting regularly in place with appropriate safety measures.
I would also like to take note of the exemplary service of my Hill and Thornhill constituency office staff during the lockdown, Michael, Judith, Braydon, Beverley and Perri-Anne, working largely from home to serve the range of extraordinary requests for assistance, assisting folks stranded abroad, employees and employers trying to navigate the ever-changing range of emergency funding programs, visa and passport issues, families divided by non-essential travel restrictions, the interruptions of wedding plans, funerals and university studies, the distribution of personal protective equipment and support for food banks.
The lockdown caught us in the midst of relocating our constituency office from Clark and Yonge in Thornhill to Centre Street just west of New Westminster, but we completed the move, finally, in June and are up and running, although not yet accepting visitors inside the office. The major limitation of normal services now involves passport renewal and visa support, awaiting the reopening of Service Canada and other agency offices.
Absolute normalcy, whether in our ridings or on the Hill, is still some time off. However, as we encourage, as parliamentarians, employers to reopen and resuscitate dormant sectors of Canada's economy, so too do we in the official opposition encourage the Liberal government to revive, as I have said, this place, the beating heart of our Canadian democracy. The Liberals prefer government by news conference and sermons from the PM's cottage stoop, but it is time to get back to parliamentary basics, which brings me to another matter of which I want to take note.
For decades, in power and out, the Liberals have advocated—
Mr. Speaker, as I was saying, for decades, in power and out, the Liberals have advocated the replacement or reduction of many of our parliamentary practices and procedures. They regularly float the idea of a four-day work week, no Fridays, and since the mid-1990s, they have pushed for electronic voting in the House of Commons. They said that it would free members and ministers for travel and work outside the House.
Now, under the guise of a health precaution in the time of COVID, the Liberals in the past couple of months have pushed in the procedure and House affairs committee for major changes in the way government is done, including remote electronic voting that would be permanent.
The Liberals claim that remote voting is just a pandemic measure, but some Liberals are saying, on the record, that they want to vote from afar so they can spend more time in their ridings. Others have made it clear they are looking for a digital voting application that would effectively be permanent modernization.
Though the majority on the procedure and House affairs committee recommended that various voting procedures be tested before being adopted, the Liberals have pushed ahead with their web ambitions, propped up by the Bloc and the NDP, ignoring what is going on in other legislatures in Canada and other democracies.
At Westminster, the mother Parliament, the House has adopted physical distancing to its regular voting process; applied attendance limits; authorized remote voting, then reverted to in-person voting; and tried proxy voting, then returned to lobby-based voting. As well, all committees have been productive while experimenting with these various procedures, while our Canadian House has been dormant, with neutered sessions like this, and a few days devoted to compressed sittings to pass and correct emergency funding legislation.
During this time, Ontario's legislative assembly continued its spring session until today, with a new voting procedure in lobbies. British Columbia's legislative assembly resumed June 22, with hybrid sittings, and is expected to sit until mid-August. Saskatchewan's legislative assembly sat, with attendance limits and using a proxy voting procedure, from mid-June until July 3. Alberta's legislature will continue its spring session until tomorrow. The only provincial legislature without effective pandemic sittings worth noting is Nova Scotia's. It is the only one with a Liberal majority.
We may have had reason in March and April to suspend proceedings, but arguments for resumed sittings in May were valid, and those arguments are much stronger today. Our Conservative members on the procedure and House affairs committee were reassured by the House administration's analysis, showing that 86 members plus the Speaker could be seated in this chamber in full compliance with physical distancing. While members from distant ridings may have to adapt to multi-week blocks without the usual weekend flights home, this would be, as my colleagues on committee have observed, a trifling sacrifice compared to the hardships of Canada's earliest parliamentarians.
Therefore, safe, responsible, in-place voting is responsible and you, Mr. Speaker, have offered six different voting methods, each compliant with public health guidance. Our Conservative plan for safe, responsible House sittings would bring Canada's democracy out of its Liberal-induced coma and would have the government properly held accountable.
The final matter which I find worthy of taking note involves the 's ethical failings, ethical failings which have infected others in his cabinet and caucus.
When our Conservative government created the Office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, it was thought that the commissioner's investigation of violations of the Conflict of Interest Act or code by ministers or members required no major penalties, that naming and shaming of a minister or a member's ethical breaches would prevent further violations. As we have seen over the past five years, naming and shaming simply do not work with a shameless .
We have had two major investigations of the which reported in findings of major conflict of interest violations. Let us remember that there are still loose ends to both the “Trudeau Report” and “Trudeau II Report”.
In the case of the first report, a Federal Court ordered the current Commissioner of Lobbying to review the decision by her predecessor to not investigate the lobbyist in the matter of the illegal vacation. That order is still pending, although it was suspended when the Prime Minister's Office immediately appealed that Federal Court ruling.
In the case of the second report of the SNC corruption scandal, the Ethics Commissioner concluded that while he gathered sufficient factual information to find the guilty of violating the Conflict of Interest Act in attempting to improperly influence his attorney general, directly and indirectly, he was “unable to fully discharge the investigatory duties.”
Also, the Liberals often choose to forget the $100 fine imposed by the commissioner on the for failing to report receiving a gift of expensive leather-wrapped sunglasses in 2017.
Now there is the WE to me to he to his scandal, which the Ethics Commissioner is now again investigating the , a scandal that has cast a long shadow on others in cabinet and the PMO.
This scandal is yet another powerful reason for the restoration of all the practices and procedures of the House.
Mr. Speaker, I thank my hon. colleague for a reasonable suggestion, which unfortunately, in the House procedure committee, was pushed aside by the Liberal members on that committee, who were supported by the Bloc and the NDP.
Our issue is in regard to remote voting. It is not so much that we are against remote voting, but we have great concerns with the web-based system Liberal members have been proposing since 1997. We have seen in other legislatures and democracies video-based voting, using the technology we are using here today in the hybrid House, which would be equally effective here and certainly verifiable. We have security provisions with regard to who participates in these hybrid sessions. It is one of the six alternative voting procedures our Speaker has honourably presented to the committee.
Unfortunately, the Liberal members on PROC, again, supported by the Bloc and the NDP, have bowled ahead with this vision of voting via smart phone, on an iPhone, which we simply, in the Conservative Party, find unacceptable.
We also wish, and we discussed this at PROC, that we followed the mother parliament in the United Kingdom, where a variety of approaches have been tried, such as voting electronically, voting by video and voting in the lobby, one at a time, safely distanced from each other. As well, with regard to your point, which is a good point, about our far-flung members, some of them have underlying health problems or family members with underlying health problems, and now that social spacing is no longer allowed on our national airlines, there are considerations. Those alternates of video voting or voting by other means have been put forward and were discussed.
The official opposition's basic issue with the majority report, the Liberal, Bloc and NDP report from PROC, is that it did not adequately consider or test other approaches.
Mr. Speaker, today I would like to go back to the subject I talked about during members' statements on Monday. This time I will have 10 minutes to speak rather than just 60 seconds, so I can add some context to my remarks.
My statement on Monday was mainly about the delays in immigration processing, which were already way too long before the pandemic. Those delays are even more problematic now, since they are having even more dramatic consequences for families that are separated from their loved ones and deprived of their support because of the time it takes to process their applications.
To begin I would like to talk a bit about my professional experience because then the link will become clear. Before being elected to this place, I had a short but very rewarding career as a young lawyer. During that time, I worked on international child abduction cases.
International child abduction happens when two parents have different nationalities and one of them decides to take the child out of the country, or refuse to return, without the other parent's consent.
Over the years, my mentor, who worked on this type of file for a long time, noticed that there was an increase in the number of cases of parental abduction. That is not because people are abducting their children more often but simply because, over the past 30 or 40 years, we have had the capacity for international mobility, which has resulted in more binational couples, more families where the parents are not of the same nationality. That is a growing phenomenon.
If we do not do something about the delays in sponsorship processing times soon, the problem could get worse in the coming years, because Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada will likely only get more and more sponsorship requests. We therefore need to nip this problem in the bud.
Over the course of my career, I also had the pleasure of working with immigration lawyers. Some of them decided to quit private practice for the greener pastures of legal aid. I want to give a shout-out to any of them who may be watching at home. When they made that decision, they were unable to keep all their files and I took over many of them, including sponsorship files. I was therefore able to see first-hand how the interminable delays and existing procedures were undermining the quick review of sponsorship files. Here are a few telling examples.
When I filled out sponsorship applications, I would take all the forms, put an ID sticker on each one, stack them in the right order, seal the file and send it to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. In many cases, the file was sent back with a note about a missing form. The returned file would be completely disorganized and would often include the supposedly missing form. If that happens when just one official has handled the file, I shudder to think what it would look like after passing through the hands of several officials.
I also frequently noticed a problem with the checklist of items required to evaluate a file. I would complete this list before sending the file. The official would check it, item by item, and return the whole file when he or she found that an item was missing. I would add the missing document and return the file. The official would continue to check the items on the list and send the file back again if another form was missing. I would then send the missing document.
In the meantime, a form might no longer be up to date and I would be asked to fill it out again. I had some clients in France who could easily sign documents. However, it was a little more complicated for my clients in Iran to sign the required documents. Another one of my clients was a member of the military in a jungle in Central America and his only means of communication was a satellite phone. Having him sign a document was a nightmare.
All of this happens just because the officials do not take the time to check the whole list before sending back the file. I have already pointed out these problems in committee.
It seems to me that the officials should open the files as soon as they get them. In fact, this is creating the false impression that the files are being processed more quickly than they really are. Sometimes it takes a year before the file is actually opened. Often the 12-month deadline is not actually met, but it is calculated from the moment the file is opened. In reality, the families are waiting much longer for their file to be processed.
There are also problems related to the fact that these are paper files. I occasionally received a file that was not addressed to me and had to do with a client I did not know at all. I have also found documents belonging to someone else in one of my files.
I have also heard some horror stories about paper case files. When a foreign visa processing office closed down for a move, someone discovered a whole bunch of files that had fallen behind a filing cabinet. They had been there for 10 years.
There is a real problem associated with paper files, and it is all the more pressing because of the COVID-19 crisis. Officials have not been able to telework because they are still working with paper files. As a result, applications have been languishing for months, adding to the existing delays.
That is one thing we absolutely must review quickly. It was already a problem before the crisis started, and it is even worse now. We need to push hard to get those files digitized.
Something else the crisis has taught us is that a lot of things can be done remotely. As we have seen, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada has started holding virtual citizenship ceremonies for new citizens.
An interview is often required at the end of the sponsorship process, to authenticate the relationship between the sponsor and the person being sponsored. Why could that not also be done via video conference? This is a legitimate question. That would address another problem that existed long before the crisis. I want to talk about a situation we are now seeing in Cuba. The office in Havana closed its doors and is no longer conducting interviews in person. Individuals are required to travel to Mexico or Trinidad and Tobago for their landing interview, the final step in the sponsorship process.
This seems like a good time to say that it would fix the problem if the government started processing permanent resident cases through video conference. This has been done for citizenship cases and citizenship ceremonies. As a lawyer specializing in international family law, I knew about Zoom long before the crisis started. Since abduction cases are often handled very quickly, with hearings scheduled close together, our clients were not always able to appear at their hearings. We used Zoom in those cases. If Quebec's civil courts were able to do it, there is no reason why Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada cannot.
No offence to my colleagues, but I must say that my current role as immigration critic is probably the best portfolio, because it involves so much compassion. Unfortunately, it is also one of the most heart-wrenching portfolios. Since Monday, I have been getting a lot of comments on my Facebook page. People have been reminding us how hard it is to live without their families, how hard it is for young children to live without one of their parents at a formative time in their lives, how hard it is to be separated from loved ones during a pandemic. It was true before the crisis, and it is even more true now.
We need to work together to address the issue of processing delays. I doubt that the parties are going to make this issue political or that every party is going to fight tooth and nail to defend a different position. I do not imagine that any of my colleagues would say that processing delays should be even longer.
We need to bite the bullet and decide together to make this a priority. We need to put more personnel, and therefore more money, toward dealing with immigration files.
That is one thing I would like to see in the next budget, since we have not actually seen the March budget yet. I would like to see more money to clear up the massive backlog, which just keeps getting worse, and bring in a computer system that would fix a lot of problems.
Despite all that, I have not even touched on the issue of foreign workers, which has been a problem during the crisis. I have not even touched on how refugee cases are being handled, which has also been a problem during the crisis. I have not even touched on the issue of international students' applications.
Today I am making a heartfelt plea for everyone to work together to improve the whole immigration process, so that people will not have to make heartbreaking choices if ever there is another crisis. I am making this plea so that nobody ever has to choose between two equally distressing cases because we do not have enough resources to handle them properly.
I urge all my colleagues to work together to improve our immigration system.
Madam Chair, I sincerely thank my colleague for his question.
I do not claim to be an immigration expert. However, I do know that we should distinguish between the sponsorship of a spouse and the sponsorship of parents and grandparents. The government set a quota for the sponsorship of parents and grandparents and that is why we have a lottery or selection system. That is not the case for the sponsorship of a spouse, which does not have a limit. There is a distinction to be made between the two.
However, I do have a few recommendations to make about the sponsorship of parents and grandparents, since that is the question that was asked. In Quebec, for the sponsorship of a spouse, there is no assessment of the spouse's financial capacity. The sponsor does not have to prove that they are on fairly solid financial ground to sponsor their spouse. Other provinces set out specific amounts. In Quebec, the only stipulation is that the sponsor cannot be on welfare.
For parents and grandparents, sponsors must prove that they have enough income to support their parents and grandparents for a given period of time. Unfortunately, I noticed that with the lottery system, anyone can apply for the lottery without having to prove that they have enough money. There is not even a quick assessment of their financial capacity.
In some cases, I filled out sponsorship applications for parents and grandparents knowing full well that the applications would ultimately be rejected on financial grounds. These people were taking a spot from others who would have been able to sponsor their parents or grandparents. A simple pre-assessment could improve the system.
I think we could have a great many debates about which system to use. Is the lottery a good thing, considering that technologies are not the same around the world? This system gives an advantage to those who have faster access to the Internet. Many aspects are in need of review. It would be worthwhile to look at whether we can pre-assess a sponsor's financials.
Madam Chair, I commend my colleague for her speech. I would urge my colleague from to contact my colleague from Saint-Jean for help with his constituents' immigration files. He should not hesitate to reach out to her. She is very efficient and approachable, and she knows how to get files moving.
Like many of my colleagues in the House, I have immigration cases in my riding that have been delayed, that have been held up. Some are pretty heart-wrenching, because they are applications for family reunification. Some of these cases have been dragging on for years. In one case, Ms. Gaudreau of Drummond has been waiting nearly 10 years. Her partner is Cuban, and they have a special-needs child. His file has been dragging on for an unbelievably long time.
I can tell you about another case where a woman had a baby with her Cuban partner, and they trade off who travels to see the other. Lately, this gentleman has been unable to get a visitor visa because officials believe he will not want to go back to Cuba. However, since he has a child living here, I think it can be presumed that he would be willing to take steps to stay with his family.
That is what I am getting at. I feel like visa applicants and potential immigrants are often viewed in a bad light. I think that we should be trying to challenge that perception and change attitudes towards the whole immigration application process.
I would like to hear my colleague's thoughts on that, because this is an issue that I am beginning to be very concerned about, especially as regards my constituents.
Madam Chair, I thank my colleague for not putting any pressure on me with regard to managing and resolving cases.
The issue of whether someone does or does not need a visa to be sponsored is indeed a concern. During the crisis, we saw that sponsored individuals from countries where a visa is not required were able to come join their families, whereas those who were from countries like Cuba could not. I would like to point out that this was already the case before the COVID-19 pandemic, so it was not the pandemic that created this situation.
It has been suggested that a special visa could be created for these people. I think that idea is worth looking into, but I see where it might lead to problems.
It was suggested that this type of visa could be issued only after a security screening, an assessment of genuineness of the relationship and acceptance of the sponsor based on financial criteria. However, if all those steps are required to obtain a visa, why not just process the sponsorship application? If an individual already has to go through all those steps to get a visa, there is not much left to do in terms of processing the sponsorship application, so the process would become almost meaningless.
I am concerned that if the government starts issuing this type of visa, the prior existence of a sponsorship application could be used to deny a tourist visa. A sponsorship application should not compromise one's ability to get a visa, especially when the applicant has made it clear their goal is to immigrate.
Officials could justify not processing an application any faster on the grounds that at least the person has access to their family in the meantime. The problem is that, even if a tourist visa gives them access to their family, the visa prohibits them from travelling. They also have to pay higher tuition fees, and they cannot use the health care system.
All that could delay processing of sponsorship applications because that is the crux of the issue. We cannot let a band-aid solution distract us from the real problem: processing delays.
Madam Chair, I would like to start my comments today by thanking the Government of Canada for bringing forward the legislation this week. I thank the members of the government for listening to and working with our leader, and with me and the New Democratic Party.
During this period of unprecedented upheaval and insecurity, it is vitally important that all parties, all politicians and, indeed, all Canadians work together to get through the COVID-19 pandemic. We know that it is only through our collective work that we can ensure that no one will be left behind and no one will fall through the cracks, and that we can rebuild our country and our communities in the months and years ahead.
There are great pieces in the most recent legislation, and I thank all parliamentarians for passing this bill. Nearly two million Canadians living with a disability will finally get support; small businesses will have more protection under the wage subsidy program; and people who mistakenly accessed the CERB will not have to worry about facing punitive actions.
I also want to applaud the members of the House for their flexibility and accommodating spirit that have allowed us to continue the important work of democracy in the face of COVID-19. We have had to be creative and nimble in the face of a reality that has turned our collective ways of working on their head. Our normal way of doing things was impossible; and, all things considered, we have done an admirable job of representing our constituents, working hard for Canadians and ensuring that our COVID-19 response was one we could all be proud of.
However, let us not forget that we could have avoided so much stress and uncertainty over the past four and a half months. We could have implemented a universal support system that would have ensured that every Canadian was protected. That is what the NDP called for, and it would have gotten more help to more people, faster. It would have meant that people living with disabilities would not have had to wait over 130 days to get the support they desperately needed. It would have meant that students and recent graduates would not have had to bear the terrible burden of not knowing how they were going to afford to go to school in the fall and, let us be honest, it would have made the embarrassing spectacle that we are currently looking at with the government giving money to a certain foundation unnecessary. It would have made life easier. It would have made it less stressful for workers, families and seniors, and it certainly would have been a more elegant and simpler solution compared with the bit-by-bit, piece-by-piece rollout of support we have experienced.
I do want to talk a bit about some of my concerns with the COVID response and some of the things we need to continue to look at going forward.
First, we heard for weeks on end from the that people living with disabilities would get the help they needed to get through this pandemic. Then, when the government finally did bring a motion forward, it managed to leave out the majority of Canadians living with disabilities. The current government is very good at making promises. It is very good at announcing solutions. The only problem appears to be actually delivering on these promises.
This week, the government has brought forward a new program to help people living with disabilities, but once again it is not sufficient. It still leaves out many Canadians who need the support. The NDP voted for this legislation because it means that thousands more people in ridings like Edmonton Strathcona will get the help they desperately need, but once again too many people living with disabilities are being left out. The government must commit to working with the provinces to ensure that every Canadian who is living with a disability is protected and can live in dignity. Dignity is not negotiable. Dignity is a right of every Canadian, and people living with disabilities deserve no less.
My riding is also home to hundreds of small, independent businesses: restaurants, bars, creative shops, things that are not found anywhere else in the world. These businesses are crucial to our local economy, and I am worried that many of these shops that make Edmonton Strathcona feel like home are not going to exist in a few weeks. So many of these businesses, including the salons, the tattoo shops, the dance studios, clothing stores and gift shops could have benefited from the Canada emergency business account program, but they could not access those loans due to their business and employment structure. When the changes came, they were too little and too late.
The commercial rent assistance program has been a demoralizing experience for so many small business owners in my riding. For example, every day for the past three months I have heard from people like Claire, who owns a wellness clinic. She is eligible for the CECRA program, but her landlord refuses to participate. Too many landlords like Claire's simply refuse to access the program, as it would take money out of their pockets.
Commercial rent assistance is a critical piece of this puzzle, and if the assistance had gone directly to tenants and businesses, rather than to landlords, we could have saved thousands of small businesses. Now those businesses may be gone. Those business owners' dreams are over and their employees are looking for work.
Within two days of the pandemic being declared, the government made tremendous efforts to ensure the liquidity of our financial system, guarantee export contracts and underwrite risks for very large businesses in Canada. We should have used that same initiative to support our small businesses.
My riding of Edmonton Strathcona is home to a number of universities, colleges, post-secondary institutions and campuses. The University of Alberta is the largest. It has a long and illustrious history of being a Canadian university that we can all be proud of. It is, in fact, the university that I am an alumni of, like many members of the House. However, the impacts of COVID-19 on universities and colleges in Alberta are dire. For example, the University of Alberta currently has an infrastructure deficit of over $1 billion. With COVID-19 impacting tuition, revenue opportunities are important. Post-secondary institutions are at risk.
Let us not forget the students who attend these devastated institutions. Students and recent graduates need the support now. Actually, they needed that support in April. Do not forget that students and the Canadian Federation of Students have been asking since April for the federal government not to forget Canada's millions of students and recent graduates left behind during this crisis. This group noted that the Canadian youth unemployment rate reached an all-time high of 29.4% in May. August is a few days away. Students cannot afford to wait for more bungled programs that pay less than minimum wage. Let us find a way to ensure that students on the CESB receive $2,000 a month, the bare minimum given to every other struggling person in Canada.
I want to thank the government for creating the Canadian emergency response benefit and for working with the other parties to include more people in the CERB. It has been a lifesaver for thousands of people in my riding, as I am sure it has been for thousands in every riding across this country, but we still have people who have been left out.
Yesterday, I tabled a petition in the House calling on the government to allow people who voluntarily leave their employment due to COVID-19 health and safety concerns to access the CERB. Canadians have the right to refuse unsafe work. That is fundamental, but do they really have the ability to refuse unsafe work?
COVID-19 has changed our understanding of the workplace. In my province of Alberta we saw the devastating impacts of the virus, as workers have been forced to work in unsafe conditions. Hundreds of meat packers became sick with COVID-19 and three people died as a result.
Is this what Canada is about, forcing people to choose between their health, the health of their families and paying the bills? In March, the said that people who were uncomfortable with the safety of their workplaces could apply for CERB, but that is not the case. In May, the responded to my question on this matter saying that “no Canadian worker at any time should feel obliged to go to work in unsafe conditions”, but we know that that is not the case either. The Canada emergency response benefit should exist to help everyone.
Like so many Canadians, I am excited about the future of our country. We have an opportunity right now to restart. We have an opportunity to build back better, to create a Canada where all Canadians have support and the opportunities they need to thrive, a more equal Canada, a more just Canada that does not privilege corporate interests and big business, but instead protects workers and their families, that taxes the ultra-wealthy and does not allow our corporations to hide wealth in offshore accounts.
Let us build a Canada that finally respects our indigenous people and commits to UNDRIP and to true, meaningful reconciliation. Let us build a Canada that recognizes the racism that our racialized brothers and sisters face every day in this country and do what needs to be done to finally fix the systematic, institutionalized structural violence in our country. Let us build a Canada that takes climate change seriously—
Madam Chair, it is a pleasure to be here today to speak about our government's response during the COVID-19 pandemic and how we are working to support the reopening of the economy, including the steps we took right here this week to move forward with a redesigned Canada emergency wage subsidy.
Obviously, the COVID-19 pandemic is one of the greatest challenges we will face in our lifetime. This is an unprecedented crisis, and our government has been working tirelessly to protect jobs and stabilize the economy to ensure that our businesses can prepare for better days and to provide come certainty to the workers and families who depend on the jobs at those businesses in these extremely uncertain times.
Our government has put in place a rapid and substantial COVID-19 economic response plan that is supporting Canadians and Canadian businesses and working hard to leave no one behind. We did this to ensure that Canada is well positioned to recover as public health conditions allow. Since March, the government has been taking actions through the COVID-19 economic response plan to support Canadians and their families in this very difficult time. The economic response plan is providing broad-based support that is keeping our economy stable and protecting jobs.
Canada's COVID-19 economic response plan includes more than $230 billion in measures to protect the health and safety of Canadians and provide direct support to Canadian workers and businesses including liquidity support through tax and customs duty deferrals. This represents nearly 14% of Canada's GDP, making Canada's plan one of the most generous response plans in the world. The supports our government has put in place are making sure Canadians can pay their mortgages or rent, put food on the table and fill prescriptions. They help our workplaces remain in business during this time of incredible uncertainty.
Last week, the announced the safe restart agreement, supported by over $19 billion in federal investments, to help the provinces and territories restart the economy over the months ahead while making Canada more resilient to possible future waves of the virus. We have already made major funding announcements and will continue to do so in many areas, including health care, child care and municipal services.
A pillar of our government's support has been the Canada emergency wage subsidy. The Canada emergency wage subsidy provides qualified employers with a subsidy for remuneration paid to employees. The CEWS protects jobs by helping businesses keep employees on their payroll and encourages employers to rehire the workers who were previously laid off. To date, this program has supported nearly three million workers.
Bold and ambitious programs like the Canada emergency wage subsidy are one of the key reasons Canada has stayed strong through this crisis. Measures like this one have been crucial to preventing worse outcomes. Without this support, millions might have lost their jobs and businesses would have lost workers. The important connection between an employer and employee would have been severed, leaving our businesses in a worse-off position and slow to recover, and leaving Canadians with uncertainty about whether, as things improve, they would have jobs to go back to.
Throughout this crisis, our government has actively monitored the situation and remained ready to adjust programs to meet the evolving needs of this unprecedented crisis. That has included input from all 338 members of Parliament in the House.
In support of this objective, yesterday the House voted in favour of Bill , which would see a redesign of the Canada emergency wage subsidy. The redesign takes into account the valuable perspective gained through our government's recent consultations with business leaders and labour representatives on how this program can best serve the needs of employers and employees as the economy restarts. Bill would extend the program beyond our originally announced extension of August 29, extending it to November 21, 2020, with the intent of providing further support into December.
The bill would also make the wage subsidy more accessible by making the base subsidy available to all eligible employers that are experiencing a decline in revenues, no matter how much. As I heard from a number of businesses in my riding, we had to make things more flexible, especially as they are beginning to open up and some are starting to make revenue again. By removing the 30% revenue decline threshold, we will also be able to support businesses that have been receiving the subsidy as they are returning to growth.
Our government recognizes that this virus is still with us and that economic recovery will be a gradual process. We want to make sure that no employer feels the need to choose between getting the support that they need and returning to growth.
With the bill, we are also proposing to introduce a top-up subsidy for the most adversely affected employers. This would help make the Canada emergency wage subsidy more responsive, with those who have had the largest decline getting more support and those who are recovering having gradual decreases as business picks up.
By reducing disincentives to create jobs and increasing revenues over the summer and into the fall, the redesign of the Canada emergency wage subsidy will support a strong restart for Canadians and employers.
I would now like to speak about other measures that we have put in place to provide support to Canadians during this unprecedented pandemic.
The Canada emergency response benefit has been a crucial lifeline for millions of Canadian families. More than eight million Canadians have applied for this support. It has made sure that in the face of a historic emergency, Canadians have had the money for essentials. In my constituency, some Canadians were not able to buy healthy, nutritious food for their children because they had lost all sources of income. The fact that we were able to make this more flexible as we went along, so that people making less than $1,000 who could not make ends meet were able to get the benefit, is a testament to the hard work of the members of the House.
We have also put in place a number of other measures to help families during this challenging time. Families received a special Canada child benefit top-up payment of $300 per child in May. I want to take a moment to remind families that beginning July 20, which is this week, we are increasing the CCB once again, as we do every year. We have also supported 12 million low- and modest-income families with a special payment through the goods and services tax credit. The average additional benefit was close to $400 for single individuals and close to $600 for couples, which helped a number of families in the initial stages to deal with the extra costs they had because of this pandemic.
The COVID-19 crisis has left many homeowners in Canada without a job or with reduced hours wondering how they are going to pay their mortgage. Homeowners facing financial stress have been eligible for a mortgage payment deferral of up to six months to relieve their financial burden. In addition, with the bill, we are proposing to support an estimated 1.7 million Canadians with disabilities, through a one-time, tax-free payment of $600 to assist with the additional expenses that they are facing in this pandemic. I want to thank all members for working so hard to make sure this will happen.
The government continues to assess the impact of COVID-19. As we have said since the start of this crisis, we stand ready to take additional actions if necessary.
This week, this House has taken measures to ensure that Canadians receive timely help, thereby ensuring that our economy opens up again in a safe and effective manner.
Together we will get through this. Together, by working with provinces, municipalities and across all parties, we will be able to help Canadians get through the crisis. As the crisis eventually and gradually dissipates, we will be in a better position to rebound and build a stronger country.
Madam Chair, I want to take the opportunity to speak to the importance of something that has been lacking in the government's response to COVID, and that is transparency and accountability, which we just saw in the House of Commons a few seconds ago.
I will also be addressing how critical it is that Parliament be sitting to oversee the response to this pandemic. We have seen this week that we can, on all sides of the chamber, agree to sit for the first time in years, maybe even in history, in the summer and that we can have a great discussion on the disability bill, Bill , that we talked about in this place on Monday and Tuesday.
Parliament granted special spending powers to the government so that it could provide emergency support to Canadian workers and many businesses in a fashion that was quick and responsive. I remember the day in the chamber, Friday, March 13, when we rose. We did not know when we would be back and then all of a sudden, three days later, the told everyone to go home. That was Monday, March 16.
Opposition parties have worked with the government to come to an agreement that is crucially important, particularly considering how difficult it was at the time to hold regular, proper sittings in the House of Commons. What Parliament did not consent to was a process to avoid transparency and accountability at every turn. The government has done everything it can to avoid some of the questions from opposition members.
Jobs were lost in the millions in this country. Businesses were shutting down, the economy was shrinking at an unprecedented rate, which we had never seen since the Second World War, and the projected deficit has ballooned to nearly $350 billion.
Why did it take the government until this month, July, nearly four months, to give us any information at all on the state of the economy and its budget? If we follow the pattern of behaviour of the government, it is easy to know that it was avoiding Parliament and its functions as an institution of accountability. I remember the day the stood and told everyone we had a deficit of $343 billion. It was unheard of. People were phoning my office in Saskatoon—Grasswood. They were stunned. That number was jolting. We now have a debt of over $1 trillion in this country. That is unaffordable for the 37 million Canadians who live in it.
I am not saying the significant levels of spending were not necessary. I do not think anyone in this chamber would say that. However, there is no good reason that the government could not be providing significantly more detail to Parliament about where the money is being allocated and what the money is for. In fact, I would argue that is the bare minimum expected of the Liberal government.
What is greatly concerning to me is that we have seen what happens when the thinks he has free rein to spend money wherever and however he wants, and he gives it to his friends. We have seen that with the WE scandal. We just talked about it in the House. It is exactly the reason that the government needs to be making itself available in the House of Commons proper.
When the thought he could allocate funding wherever he wished, he awarded a sole-sourced contract worth over $900 million to an organization with no real experience at all in managing that kind of massive program. Why was that? We do not know. The Prime Minister has been dodging or ignoring some of the questions from the opposition for over a week now.
Let us review what we do know about this. First, the 's wife is actively involved in WE. Second, the Prime Minister's mother and brother have received a combined total of close to $300,000 in speaking fees from the organization. I have asked twice in the House, Monday and Tuesday, about the Prime Minister's mother receiving fees on July 2, 2017, for an event that was funded by the Government of Canada through the heritage department, $1.18 million to the WE organization.
Third, the has two immediate family members involved in WE.
We learned in the past hour that the wrote a cheque for $41,000 for illegal travel benefits from the WE organization following two family trips he took in 2017. He repaid the money today, just as he was set to testify at the finance committee. He took the trip in 2017, and today, months later in July 2020, he finally fessed up and wrote that cheque for $41,000. I think Canadians want a new finance minister. That is what Canadians are talking about today, when $41,000 later, he confessed to the WE Charity.
Fourth, neither the nor the recused themselves from the cabinet discussion about granting WE the $912-million contract. Fifth and last, it is a sole-sourced contract without any competitive process whatsoever.
It is said that if it looks like and quacks like a duck, then it is a duck, and we saw that today from the at the finance committee here in the House of Commons. On top of that, the and the cabinet have had a long history of this kind of behaviour. Since the current government came to power in October 2015, it has been scandal after scandal after scandal. This is not the first time the Prime Minister, the finance minister or other members of the cabinet have been under investigation for violations of the Conflict of Interest Act.
The 2017 investigation found that the took a vacation to a millionaire's island with a registered lobbyist and found that he violated four provisions of the Conflict of Interest Act. That finding made him the first Prime Minister in the history of this country, in over 150 years, to have been found to violate the Conflict of Interest Act. He was the first ever in 150-plus years.
There was also the scandal in 2017 surrounding the 's private company that owns a villa in France, which he somehow forgot about. Two years later he did not report that to the Ethics Commissioner. Of course, there was also the clam scam scandal involving the President of the Privy Council, and there are many, many more.
Then of course, who could forget about SNC Lavalin? That was the big scandal in the House of Commons when the improperly pressured the former attorney general into advancing the interests of a private company rather than the public interests. That scandal led to numerous resignations across the government. Some very good cabinet people left the Liberal government and were forced to sit on this side with opposition members.
By my count, there are five different cases where the or a member of his cabinet was found guilty of breaking at least one clause in our ethics law. We found out today we have another one with the admitting that the WE Charity did take $41,000 in benefits, writing that cheque out today.
The former ethics commissioner Mary Dawson told CBC last week that she thinks it would be difficult for her successor not to find that the contravened section 21. She said that the Prime Minister has a blind spot when it comes to ethics. I would add that the does as well.
How can Parliament, let alone Canadians from coast to coast, continue to trust that the will be acting in the country's best interests and handling the unprecedented powers given to him? What does the government do when this issue is raised at committee? We saw that the Prime Minister ignores calls to appear and Liberal MPs filibuster at committee so they can cover up their leader's tracks.
These are some of the questions that Parliament needs answers for. Unfortunately, we only had two days here on Monday and Tuesday to open Parliament. We had a lot of questions. Some of the answers came this afternoon at the finance committee with that stunning revelation by the of Canada.
Madam Chair, I have been reminded again and again of the kindness and creativity of people across this country these past four months, especially in our own civil service.
That historic weekend in mid-March when the pandemic took hold in Canada began a domino effect of businesses closing to the public, employees losing work and people flocking to government relief programs, fearing whether or not they would be able to pay their rent.
The huge number of applications submitted that have been processed by Service Canada and Canada Revenue Agency staff is incredible. More than six million applications were submitted by mid-April, just two weeks after Canadians started submitting their applications again.
More unsung heroes of this pandemic are the people employed at Global Affairs Canada and the CBSA, who began an incredible effort of repatriating Canadians from across the globe. During the first weeks of the pandemic, these civil servants moved mountains to schedule flights, to confirm travel eligibility, to work with consulates and foreign governments to get Canadian citizens and permanent residents back on Canadian soil. Their efforts were incredible. The minister responsible played a significant leadership role in guiding these efforts, and I wish to thank him as well.
Who can overlook the incredible work of the people involved in Canada's public health infrastructure? Dr. Tam and all of the other provincial health officers' daily updates and leadership and the support of the entire Public Health Agency and the public health departments across each province and territory, which pooled data, tracked cases and implemented protocols, have saved countless lives.
All of these efforts are to be commended, but the staff that dedicated their time to these emergency measures had to step away from their regular workloads, and ongoing cases at IRCC, Service Canada, CRA, Veterans Affairs, etc., have been stuck and languishing for months. What do people do when their federal systems are shutting down? They come to their MPs.
My team and I have been handling an incredible number of these case files and the people whose lives are on hold while their files stagnate in a backlog. Even as our government slowly works to address these files that are piling up on desks across departments, the traditional supporting documentation that people need to track down is not always available, and they cannot possibly complete the requests being made of them. We need these systems to empower workers to find alternative pathways for Canadians. This system collapse is having second- and third-order impacts on individuals and families across the country.
Let me tell members about a few of my constituents.
There is a gentleman in my riding who has been working in Canada for several years now and is applying for his permanent residency. He has submitted all of his documentation, but has been asked to submit one last piece of information: an FBI security check. It is not possible for him to get this document right now, as the FBI is not conducting these checks at this time. Relying on other countries to provide documentation is highly complex, given how hard it is to get documentation within our government. Will he need to leave Canada because we insisted on a document he could not get? How long will we leave this man and his loved ones in limbo? We need flexibility in the immigration system, and case workers who are empowered to identify alternative paths to residency and citizenship, or we risk losing our neighbours who have come to call Canada their home.
In another case, there is a couple in my riding who rely on their GIS cheques each month like so many other Canadians. They both submitted paper versions of their taxes at the same time in February. One of them had their taxes reviewed. One of them had their tax file lost. As a result, they have been denied their GIS payment until they can resubmit their taxes. They are being told that it must be done via e-file, but they have not been able to make that happen. We need flexibility within the CRA and employees in that department to be empowered to work with people and, in this case, to either track down the paper file or to work with this couple to facilitate the refiling of their taxes so they can receive their GIS payments.
In yet another case, there is a mother in my riding who lost her child tax benefit just before the pandemic shut down offices in March, because the father of her children claimed that he had custody when he did not. The CRA has placed the burden of proof on her shoulders to regain the benefit, which she needs to raise these children. One of the supporting documents required was a letter from a health care provider substantiating her claims. For months, doctors, dentists and other health professionals have not been providing these services. Getting these supporting documents has been incredibly difficult.
We need to implement flexible systems that enable federal employees to work more closely with people in these uncertain times.
I know that many of my colleagues in the House worked day and night in the first months of the pandemic to get support to constituents in crisis, and continue to do so. That workload has now shifted to support constituents in their backlogged cases. While my constituent assistants and I are continuing to advocate on behalf of the individual cases that come through my door, we need to fix this at a macro level.
I want to raise this today to articulate a question to my colleagues in government. What comes next? Can we initiate a major hiring push, just as Veterans Affairs Canada announced last month to handle its backlog?
So many Canadians remain underemployed and unemployed. This seems the perfect opportunity to get more hands on deck to start working across government departments.
Can we empower case workers with more flexibility and tools at their disposal to massage case files through the system, recognizing that the standard burden of documentation is not realistic now, and may not be for months to come?
I am but one opposition member of the House, and a rookie member, at that. I do not pretend to have all of the solutions, but I know that the solutions are out there, and I believe they lie in our civil service. The brilliant and compassionate minds that have worked tirelessly through March and April to get support into the hands of Canadians need to be equipped and empowered to put their brilliance to work to address these issues.
Communities across the country are changing. The government must adapt its services and embrace new technology.
There is so much about this virus that we cannot control, but we can control how we respond to it.
I wish to end on a positive note, a “thank you” to our civil service and a pledge to do all I can with my colleagues in the House to ensure that they have the tools and the respect they need to help Canadians in this time and in the future ahead.