Employment Insurance Act Bill to Amend – Third Reading

Speeches

Bill C-316, An Act to amend the Employment Insurance Act (incarceration) Senator Jane Cordy June 25th, 2013

On the Order:

Resuming debate on the motion of the Honourable Senator Boisvenu, seconded by the Honourable Senator Braley, for the third reading of Bill C-316, An Act to amend the Employment Insurance Act (incarceration).

Hon. Jane Cordy: Honourable senators, I rise today to speak to Bill C-316, An Act to amend the Employment Insurance Act. Bill C-316 sets out to remove sections of the Employment Insurance Act to deny benefits to those who could not work because they were incarcerated. Currently, subsection 8(2) of the EI Act stipulates the criteria for which the EI qualifying period member may be extended. Subsection 8(2) states:

A qualifying period mentioned in paragraph (1)(a) is extended by the aggregate of any weeks during the qualifying period for which the person proves, in such manner as the Commission may direct, that throughout the week the person was not employed in insurable employment because the person was

(a) incapable of work because of a prescribed illness, injury, quarantine or pregnancy;

(b) confined in a jail, penitentiary or other similar institution;

(c) receiving assistance under employment benefits; or

(d) receiving payments under a provincial law...

This, by the way, was brought in by the Diefenbaker government.

Bill C-316 seeks to repeal part (b) of this section, "confined in a jail, penitentiary or other similar institution." We learned that the motivation behind this private member's bill was a case where a young mother decided to leave her job for a year to go back to school to upgrade her skills. After completing her schooling, she was back to work for only three months before she was diagnosed with cancer and was forced to leave her job once again to start treatment. She did not qualify for EI benefits as she was only back to work for 12 weeks.

The sponsor of the bill was approached to help with her case for EI benefits. As a result of the case and careful study of the EI Act, the sponsor perceived that unfairness existed within the system — that being the clause which allowed a person who was convicted of a crime, served a sentence of less than two years and qualified to receive EI benefits, to apply for an extension of benefits to cover the time they were incarcerated.

It should be noted that only those who have paid into the EI system and meet the criteria can collect EI benefits. Employment Insurance benefits cannot be collected by any person who is incarcerated. During this time, benefit payments are suspended. No one collects benefits while in jail.

I also want to make clear that the EI system is not a government handout. Employment Insurance is an insurance program that both employees and employers pay into as a security policy in case an employee loses his or her job involuntarily.

Perhaps this system is unfair. No system is perfect. However, I think the unfairness lies in the fact that the working mom was unable to qualify for benefits when she became ill and needed help the most, not that the EI system allows those eligible Canadians who served their time to extend their qualifying period so they can continue to receive EI benefits upon their release.

The Employment Insurance system as it currently stands provides for minor support to help those reintegrate successfully back into society. This is no small task for many, as they are mainly marginalized within their communities. Finding an apartment and finding work becomes that much more difficult. These hurdles contribute significantly toward recidivism, and this bill throws one more hurdle at them. The goal in these cases should be to reduce recidivism rates as much as possible. This leads to less crime, fewer victims and a more productive society. This bill is regressive and simply bad governance.

The sponsor of the bill argues that any Canadian who serves their time and completes their sentence should rely on charity for assistance. When I asked witnesses at the committee about the sponsor's comment that these Canadians should turn to charity for assistance, both the John Howard Society and the Elizabeth Fry Society, two community charities, essentially said this is an unrealistic expectation.

Catherine Latimer, Executive Director, John Howard Society of Canada, said:

As for the capacity of the John Howard Society, I think this is very interesting. It is a charity. We do what we can, but our resources are certainly limited. We cannot, though we would love to, compensate for a lot of the tough-on- crime measures that are having a detrimental and harsh effect on people across the country. Our phones are constantly ringing. The demand for assistance is increasing. I wish we could answer all of the requests for assistance, but we cannot.

Kim Pate, Executive Director, Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, said:

I wish we could meet the demand. We are probably not meeting hardly any of the demand that is out there right now. We are doing the best we can. We have thousands and thousands of volunteers, community members who contribute of their time to try and assist and who donate resources, but unfortunately the demand is increasing astronomically.

Honourable senators, Bill C-316 is designed to do nothing more than punish and further marginalize those in society at a time when they require our help.

Justin Piché, Member, Policy Review Committee, Canadian Criminal Justice Association testified before the committee. He said:

Employment Insurance in Canada is a contribution- based scheme, thus it stands to reason that should someone contribute to this fund they should have to derive a benefit from it when the need arises. Once individuals have been sentenced we do not agree that additional punishment in the form of limiting their ability to collect Employment Insurance after they have served a custodial sentence ought to be pursued....

This legislative initiative has been touted as a measure to support the rights of victims of crime, but it is unclear how removing benefits or services from the criminalized improves the situation of victims.

He went on to say:

Should this legislation pass, there is a risk that additional victims will be created by extending the punishment of criminalized people to families. Every household has bills and expenses to pay. In cases where a former prisoner has a household, the loss of income that would result, where applicable, from the elimination of their ability to access Employment Insurance benefits upon their release from prison could result in financial hardship for the loved ones they are rejoining.

We heard time and time again about fairness and preferential treatment from the sponsor of the bill, but what truly would have been fair would be to lobby the government to instigate changes to the EI system to be more inclusive, rather than punishment.

To take away a support structure for one class of Canadians because another class is denied access is petty and damaging to communities.

Addressing the sponsor's perception of preferential treatment, Ms. Latimer of the John Howard Society said: I do not think anyone who has experienced a period in pretrial detention or in the provincial custody facilities would consider that to be preferential treatment.... They are overcrowded; they are dangerous; they are violent. They are not places people want to be.

When questioned at committee regarding the amount of research that went into forming this piece of legislation, we learned that in fact no research had been done. The bill was conceived without any careful thought. Many questions were left unanswered at the committee.

The sponsor of the bill was unable to give us research about the bill other than he had talked to some people in his area. He could not tell us the types of crimes committed by those in jail for less than two years. I believe that if we are going to make changes to our laws, then these changes should be based on research and data.

As Justin Piché of the Canadian Criminal Justice Association testified:

... the bill before the Senate should be abandoned. If the legislation is passed without adequately considering the collateral consequences, it is possible that more victimization and harm to families will be the result. Legislators should not pass laws where research exploring the potential impact of proposed measures has not taken place.

We learned from witnesses from the United Way, the John Howard Society and the Elizabeth Fry Society that in fact this bill will have a negative effect on the most desperate in society: First Nations people, women and the poor.

We have all heard the saying, "Do the crime, do the time." I think we all certainly believe that if you commit a crime, you should be incarcerated or penalized. However, should someone who is put in prison because they are poor or unable to pay a fine be penalized on top of that?

We heard testimony at committee from the John Howard Society that 40 per cent of the people in prisons in Nova Scotia who were there for less than two years were there because they were unable to pay a fine, because they were poor.

Should we be penalizing the poor twice — once because they are jailed or penalized criminally, and then again, removing a support structure to which they have paid into?

I say again, Employment Insurance is not a government handout; it is an insurance plan for those who have lost their job. No one collects Employment Insurance while they are in jail.

What this bill does is remove the criteria to allow the EI benefit qualifying period to be extended. The law as it stands allows the eligibility period to be extended for those who are in jail for up to two years less a day. This bill will disproportionately affect the poor. Should we be penalizing the poor? They are the ones most affected. They are the ones who are unable to pay the fines. They are the ones unable to post bail. They are the ones who are imprisoned for not having money. They are being penalized twice.

The Minister of Labour in the Diefenbaker government understood this when he enacted this provision. At the time, Minister Michael Starr said:

Ordinarily a person who had spent up to two years in a penitentiary, would lose the benefit of unemployment insurance contributions, which would impose a further punishment in addition to those levied by the court. This disability is now removed and it will help a great deal in the rehabilitation of those who have been unfortunate enough to have punishment imposed upon them by the courts.

I do not think times have changed that much.

Honourable senators, during the committee's study of Bill C- 316, many concerns about the detrimental effect this bill would have on society's most vulnerable have been raised. Representatives of the Native Women's Association, the Canadian Criminal Justice Association, the John Howard Society of Canada, the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies and the United Way of Calgary have all testified against this bill.

There was much discussion about the victims of crime, and there is no question that the government should be doing more to assist those directly affected by crime. Many people have gone through horrendous things. When I questioned Heidi Illingworth, Executive Director of the Canadian Centre for Victims of Crime, regarding Bill C-316 and how it fits into the government's strategy to provide assistance to victims of crime, she said:

I guess specifically this bill is not about victims...

Aside from the sponsor of the bill, there was little testimony in support of it and absolutely no data, and it appears there was little research conducted prior to drafting this piece of legislation.

Honourable senators, I do not support a bill that heaps more hurdles onto Canada's most vulnerable and does nothing more than punish Canadians a second time.