Thank you, Madam Speaker. I want to thank the leader of the Bloc Québécois for sharing his time with me. Before going any further, I too would like to offer my condolences to the people of Nova Scotia.
As the Bloc Québécois critic for seniors, I want to say what a privilege it is to be here in the House today. We are meeting in exceptional and dramatic circumstances. The COVID-19 pandemic is overwhelming Quebec and wreaking havoc in retirement homes and long-term care centres, known as CHSLDs in Quebec. We have learned that 99% of the deceased in Quebec were over 60 years old and half of them had been living in CHSLDs.
This disease is particularly devastating among people whose health is already fragile, but this situation is exposing a problem that has been plaguing us for some time now, namely how precarious the living conditions of our seniors are. Many seniors have died alone, and sometimes their loved ones are not even notified.
Children and grandchildren, for whom those relationships are so important, go to see their dad, their mom, their grandpa or grandma through the window in their place of residence. All they can do is shout “I love you” and “take care of yourself” from beneath their balconies, if they are lucky.
There are horror stories, and even though it may be difficult, we cannot make generalizations and blame staff who are exhausted and overwhelmed by the situation. From the bottom of my heart, I want to commend and thank all of the health care and support staff who are helping our seniors in spite of the suffering and fear, which the people they care for also feel. If there have indeed been cases of neglect, then the guilty parties should be made an example of.
The prosperous society that will enable us to get through this crisis was built by seniors, many of whom will likely not make it through themselves. It would be shameful for us to abandon them, as parliamentarians and legislators, but also as citizens and human beings.
Improving the living conditions for our seniors should have been a priority long before this crisis. I have been fighting for improvements for a long time. Before my election I was a project manager, promoting awareness of elder abuse and bullying. I worked with people who provided home care and the community organizations that provide services to seniors. Nevertheless, I have heard my share of horror stories.
As our leader has already been saying for a few days now, the Bloc Québécois has always fought for seniors' rights. When I was a political aide from 2007 to 2011, which is quite some time ago now, the Bloc Québécois already had a reputation for standing up for seniors. Recently, we made several proposals. Had they been implemented in time, things likely would have been a lot different. We spoke about them during the election, in fact.
When I first arrived in the House, I had the opportunity to ask the Minister of Seniors a question about increasing the old age pension starting at age 65 rather than at age 75 to avoid creating two classes of seniors. She even told me that that was a good question. Anticipating and preventing rather than reacting once the harm has been done is an essential approach for a government. That is why seniors should not be divided into two classes.
The government should have called on that strength of the Bloc Québécois, but the situation is now too urgent to talk about what the government should have done. We need to take action immediately. In order to ensure that the health of our seniors is never compromised for financial reasons, we suggest that the old age pension be increased by $110 a month and that the guaranteed income supplement, the GIS, be enhanced. As the Bloc Québécois leader so clearly pointed out, that is just a drop in the bucket compared to all of the investments being made. It would cost $1 billion. However, it is still difficult to understand why the government would want to limit that increase to seniors aged 75 and over. As I have said time and time again, seniors need that help as of the age of 65.
Seniors are going into debt. Their debt load has nearly doubled in the past 20 years. The percentage of seniors with substantial debts has risen from 27% to 42%. Many seniors have to continue working to make ends meet. The percentage of seniors reporting that they have worked nearly doubled between 1995 and 2015. That increase is largely the result of seasonal work or part-time work.
In 2015, one in five Canadians aged 65 or older, so nearly 1.1 million seniors, reported having worked at some point that year. That is the highest proportion recorded since the 1981 census. Employment income was the main source of income for 43.8% of seniors who worked in 2015, which is an increase compared to 40.4% recorded in 2005 and 38.8% recorded in 1995. Many factors can contribute to financial distress among seniors, including grief, separation, illness, inadequate private pension plans and the increased cost of living. More than 200,000 seniors are living in poverty in Canada and every month they wonder whether they will have to choose between paying the rent, buying groceries or getting their medication. This should never happen.
The Bloc Québécois's proposals would enable seniors to maintain some degree of buying power and continue to drive the economy, an economy that those generations helped build. These are stabilizing measures because we need to see seniors not as a liability, but as a driving force.
There was a lot of concern when they were left out of the Canada emergency response benefit, the CERB. Still, we commend the government for showing humility and modifying the criteria to help them by excluding old age benefits from their income and enabling people working part-time to access the emergency benefit.
I should also mention the gap between seniors living in urban centres and those living in rural areas. The latter are more likely to keep working. Thanks to public pension plans, the poverty rate for those over 65 is 6.7% compared to 14% for people aged 55 to 64.
This crisis also shows that deeming the Internet an essential service could have helped seniors feel less isolated, especially these days. For some seniors, a video call was the only way to say goodbye to their loved ones. Health care needs to be enhanced yet again and then we will keep talking about the Canada health transfer. The government needs to enhance the employment insurance benefit period for caregivers and provide a tax credit for setting up intergenerational homes. We will have other opportunities to share new ideas to improve the situation for our seniors. The importance of these measures seems clear today and shows that the Bloc was right.
As for pension funds, our seniors' financial situation is compounded by the drop in value of pension plans. Entire life savings have dwindled in a month. Let us hope that this situation is temporary and that the value of retirement investments will go back up. We suggest suspending the withdrawal requirement from pension plans that are currently posting a negative rate of return. Increasing the guaranteed income supplement will help seniors until the economy recovers.
There is another proposal that we were working on before the crisis and that we are still working on now that is proving to be very relevant today, and that is the designation of private pension plans as preferred creditors in the event of bankruptcy. Since the beginning of this Parliament, the Bloc Québécois has always been constructive and collaborative and we hope to continue in that vein. Our seniors need solutions that address their problems. It is our duty to propose solutions and the Bloc Québécois is prepared to do so immediately.
In closing, I have heard, from FADOQ in particular, that our party does not treat seniors as though they were already dead, but rather as living, breathing human beings who are able to contribute to society. It is said that seniors are knowledge keepers. We should also remember that they are not just part of the past; after the crisis they will be part of the future, and we are going to need them.