My region lived through the ice storm, which left a mark on our collective psyche. At the time, we saw people coming together, similar to what we are seeing now. People were helping each other. I remember my father went around with his generator to empty basements for people who lived on our street and whose pumps were no longer working because they had no electricity. Although I was too young to notice it, older people remind us about how when the lights came back on, people stopped coming together in the same way. Sadly, I worry that the same thing will happen once a vaccine is discovered. Right now, there is a huge push to buy local.
I would like to think that we will continue to see people supporting each other so wonderfully, but the government and Parliament will have to do some things to ensure that we are left with something from this crisis. It would be an insult to those who are suffering now and to those who lose their lives to COVID-19 if we do not learn something from this pandemic and take this opportunity to make improvements.
There are things that can be done now in some cases, but they could also have been done in the past, which would have made it a little easier to get through this crisis. I will give you three specific examples. There is the matter of seniors, which the Bloc Québécois raised on numerous occasions. Even before the crisis, even before we became aware of the risk of facing such a pandemic one day, the Bloc Québécois raised the question. When old age security was introduced, it covered the equivalent of 20% of the average industrial wage. Given the trend toward disinvestment in the ensuing years, it now covers the equivalent of 13% of the average wage. Seniors’ purchasing power has decreased significantly. We would like to be able to say that the $300 benefit is a good thing, but it should not be a one-time thing. Yes, it will help a little during the crisis, but seniors’ problems will not end with the pandemic.
Think about the cost of groceries in the fall, which could be extremely high, especially when it comes to fresh produce, in particular the fruits and vegetables grown by our own farmers. Something should have been done before the crisis, but we can still act now. We can increase seniors’ purchasing power and make sure that they continue to contribute to our economy, that they continue to buy from our local producers and that they continue to be economically active in society. Unfortunately, these are things that we may not be able to do if Parliament is limited to four question periods a week.
Health transfer payments are another point that we repeatedly raised before the crisis. For several years now, there has been a massive decrease in federal health transfer payments to the provinces and to Québec. In some cases, it could be argued that certain reforms introduced by the provinces were to blame. Even some of the people involved in these reforms acknowledge that the result was not perfect, that they could have done things differently and achieved a better outcome. Nevertheless, when you do not have the money, you are starting with a huge handicap. Federal disinvestment is the main cause of the current problems in the healthcare system. It was a problem before the crisis. It should have been dealt with before the crisis. What we are currently experiencing should at least make us admit that we do not want to see it happen again.
One thing that can be done right now is to ensure that companies that use tax havens do not get the wage subsidy. We did the math. The big banks save the equivalent of roughly $2.5 billion a year in taxes. Meanwhile, it would cost between $1.9 billion and $2 billion to restore the health transfers. By making sure that the real wrongdoers, those who legally but immorally use tax havens, pay their fair share of taxes, the health transfers could be restored.
No one wants this to happen, but we need to be ready in case another crisis arises. We need to make sure that we learn something from the current crisis.
Another subject I have really enjoyed talking about during the crisis is everything related to farmers, but more specifically, the issue of temporary foreign workers, who are the backbone of our production. These individuals are absolutely essential to our food security and food sovereignty, and they ensure our access to local, fresh products.
The problem of closed work permits has been around for a long time. Agricultural producers are complaining about the lack of flexibility of closed work permits. I will give a few examples from before the crisis.
First, consider a farmer who only needs someone part-time, maybe one day a week. It is not worth bringing someone in from Guatemala to work one day a week. However, closed work permits do not allow farms to exchange or share the work done by employees with other farms.
Moreover, the workload is not distributed in the same way from one farm to the next. For example, there is slightly less work on dairy farms at the end of the winter because it is not the beginning or end of the harvest. Conversely, the end of winter is a very busy period for maple producers, since that is when they begin planting. These producers are also prevented from sharing employees’ services to address the unequal workload. The problem existed before the crisis.
During the crisis, when there was a major shortage of temporary foreign workers, producers were unable to share workers at critical times. For example, apple producers needed to have their apple trees pruned at the beginning of the season. At the same time, and often on the neighbouring lot, maple producers, whose sugaring off season had been cancelled, had workers that they could not use and that they would have liked to share with the apple producers.
Another example is vegetable producers, who often have two harvests a year. As some workers harvest the vegetables, others behind them plant seeds for the second harvest. Most Canadian vegetable producers now have enough people for the first harvest, but not enough for the second planting. If all farms had agreed to make better use of the available workers, they could have had two harvests, which would have given them a better yield at the end of the year.
In the event of another crisis, it would be wise to consider new terms and conditions for closed permits. If farmers were allowed to share workers’ services, and if a hail storm destroyed my harvest but not my neighbour’s, my neighbour could save his harvest by using my workers. Closer to home, during the floods, the farm workers who had little to do at the time were unable to help lay sandbags to protect people’s homes.
This problem has been around for a long time and we could solve it. We continue to make proposals and recommending solutions, such as allowing workers with closed permits to work elsewhere for a certain number of days.
However, we cannot discuss all of these issues right now, because two parties decided to restrict our exchanges. Still, the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs was able to conduct a remarkable study on virtual parliament sessions.
I am disappointed that everyone recognizes that the COVID-19 pandemic is a huge problem, but then we tie our hands and prevent ourselves from finding solutions for now and for the future. In a sense, I think that not working right now to help people who are suffering and those who are dying from COVID-19 shows a basic lack of respect toward these people. It is unfortunate that the crisis is not bringing out the best in us.