Madam Speaker, it is always an honour to join the debate here in this House. It has been a great privilege to represent my constituents, first in 2011 as the member of Parliament for Okanagan-Coquihalla and since 2015, when the riding was redistributed, as the member of Parliament for Central Okanagan—Similkameen—Nicola.
I mention that because in the first Parliament of which I was a member, we spent the better part of our time in a majority government opposing opposition day motions. Such is the norm of majority governments. In the last Parliament, I experienced an opposition day motion on the other side of that scenario; in fact, I was privileged to submit my own opposition day motion.
If I may take a moment, it was an eminently reasonable motion, calling on the Liberal government to expedite the Comeau case in the Supreme Court. Members may recall that Mr. Comeau was ticketed by his home province of New Brunswick for purchasing alcohol in nearby Quebec. His efforts to economize by shopping for the best prices is a situation that I am sure more and more Canadians can relate to, and they would question why the state was cracking down on someone who had purchased products lawfully, as Mr. Comeau had done.
As many have overlooked, the Liberal government had actually joined in the fight against the Comeau case in the eventual Supreme Court proceedings. It did not truly support internal free trade among all Canadians.
However, that is not the point of my sharing this memory. The point is that my motion, an eminently reasonable one, to expedite the Comeau case ended up in a vote, as opposition motions do, and that vote was one of the rare times, at least in the previous Parliament, when the NDP, the Greens and, as I recall, the Bloc Québécois all voted in support of my motion.
The Liberal majority government, to my surprise and of course disappointment, voted against it. Privately, after that vote, I had several Liberal MPs confide in me that they were whipped to vote that way and had no idea why the all-powerful inner circle and PMO had whipped them to vote against it.
I share this story today because we all know that in this minority Parliament, we collectively have the power to vote in favour of an opposition day motion an see it pass. To date, opposition parties have a pretty solid record of seeing opposition day motions getting passed.
To go on to this motion, once again I feel the need to share some personal comments. It does not happen often in this place, but there is the odd time when I very much want to support a motion but at the same time have strongly considered voting the motion down.
Why the dilemma? It is because I believe we are all here to help build a better Canada. However, at times we may have some disagreement on the best ways to do that. At times we may even agree on an idea or a program but have disagreement on the details of how that idea, project or program should be written into legislation. This is one of those times.
I have to say I will be splitting my time with the member of Parliament for Calgary Midnapore. I did not want to forget him in this important debate.
I absolutely agree that employment insurance sickness benefits are an important program. I also agree that extending the term in which these benefits are available is something that should be seriously looked at. The term has not changed since 1971, so as the minister said earlier, I believe this should go to the HUMA committee. I believe this should be looked at, because I have some issues concerning the motion and how the magic number of 50 weeks was literally drawn out of a hat.
Why 50 weeks? Why not 52? Why not 43? Why not 54? Why not 26? Some adherents of Douglas Adams, not to be confused with Tommy Douglas, would say the answer is obviously 42.
Can anyone explain the logic and science of 50 weeks? Every week of added eligibility adds costs that both current and future workers and their employers have to carry. The member who spoke before me was the Minister of Employment, and she actually talked about more benefits that the government is looking to pass. We need to recognize that ultimately those costs would mean employers will pay more, which makes them less competitive, and employees would net less take-home pay in an era of ever-rising costs and taxes, which could create hardship and fiscal pressures.
What if very few people accessed this program? What type of serious illness would qualify or not qualify for this extension? These are all unanswered questions, but they are important ones.
When most of us in our personal lives sign a cheque, we want to know exactly how much it is for and what that cheque will actually buy. In many respects, I feel like this motion asks us all collectively to sign a blank cheque for a worthy and well-intended cause, but with a random number of 50 weeks just because someone liked the sound of 50 weeks, or roughly 11 and a half months. Again, when I asked the leader of the Bloc Québécois, he said that it was to match with what the program currently offers. Depending on one's local situation, how the labour markets are, it could be anywhere between 15 and 45 weeks. The number 50 seems to be in defiance of that. The minister had said that the Canadian Cancer Society had made a different recommendation, and that is where they are landing on this. We do need to investigate this further.
What could be done instead of 11 and a half months or 50 weeks? In the last Parliament, HUMA, the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities, studied the issue and recommended an extended time period. Unfortunately, the extended time period was not defined by the committee. Perhaps further study with relevant experts could help guide us all to having more information with more data and more evidence so we can collectively make a more informed decision.
Again, the minister said there is a potpourri of different additions she is planning to the EI system. Those need to be studied. I believe the more collectively we can study those, the better we can get a sense of what the costs are going to be. One impact added on may be incremental costs, but when one starts adding multiple different impacts, those complicated formulae do take more time to assess and do take more costs to deal with. It also must be pointed out that the Parliamentary Budget Office estimated this EI sickness benefit extension of 50 weeks would cost over $1 billion immediately and would continue to rise every year.
I know there are those who would dismiss an extra $1 billion annually in payroll costs, but in British Columbia today, we now have B.C.-based forestry companies shutting down their lumber mills in order to invest and open new mills in the United States. While there are many reasons why this occurs, one of the reasons is that the cost of doing business in Canada is no longer competitive for their business models. It makes more sense for them to operate outside of Canada.
When that happens we lose thousands of well-paying jobs like we have seen in British Columbia. It also means we have thousands of workers now unemployed, collecting EI and no longer contributing to it. That is why competitiveness should never be overlooked in a motion such as this one that ultimately proposes to create new costs that decrease our competitiveness. For those small businesses that cannot afford to expand into jurisdictions outside of Canada, let us not forget they are competing against other small businesses in jurisdictions outside of Canada that do not have to swallow these costs and pass them along.
We also need to bear in mind that such a change to medical employment insurance does not cover the employers themselves. I was recently contacted by an entrepreneur in my riding who complained that the government restricted her use of what is called a health savings account because her business was too small. I am sure there are many people in this place who have seen how agencies like CRA continue to assess and audit and audit and assess small businesses and make all sorts of demands, regardless of the health of the business or the entrepreneur.
In my home province of British Columbia, small businesses account for 98% of our total business. Oftentimes these are sole proprietors, partnerships and small corporations that often have to stop work when the entrepreneur does. We should be mindful that while there are some able to self-fund or purchase short-term disability, more often than not it is not practical for their enterprise. Entrepreneurs might welcome this change, some who want to see their employees supported when they receive a serious diagnosis, but when time after time these entrepreneurs and their family members are frequently told to give up more time, energy and cash, they might wonder where they factor in.
Ultimately, these are some of the serious concerns I have heard with this motion. EI premiums are paid for by workers and their employers. We should always be mindful that this is money that they have paid. When it comes to a time when people are facing potentially their greatest life challenge, the EI fund that they have paid into, working for their entire lives, should be there for them in their time of need. We are not talking about government money. We are talking about money that has been put aside by employers and their employees for them. That is money off the backs of workers and employers.
A serious medical illness is stressful enough. One does not need the added pressure of trying to pay the bills at the end of the month and coming up short.
One final point I am saddened to share is that in some cases these serious illnesses may well become fatal. We all saw how quickly Canadians lost beloved journalist Christie Blatchford recently. If we can help individuals facing a fatal disease die with more dignity, we should not lose sight of the importance of that.