Employment Insurance Act (Bill C-316)

Elizabeth May, seconded by Jean-François Fortin, moved:

Motion No. 1
That Bill C-316 be amended by deleting Clause 1.

Motion No. 2
That Bill C-316 be amended by deleting Clause 2.

Motion No. 3
That Bill C-316 be amended by deleting Clause 3.

Motion No. 4
That Bill C-316 be amended by deleting Clause 4.

Motion No. 5
That Bill C-316 be amended by deleting Clause 5.

She said: Mr. Speaker, I want to thank my hon. friend from Haute-Gaspésie—La Mitis—Matane—Matapédia for seconding these amendments.

Bill C-316, a bill put forward by the hon. member for Cariboo—Prince George, I believe has a lot of people confused about the nature of employment insurance for people who have been incarcerated. There has been a lot of media coverage of this and I will just summarize it before I explain why I have put forward these amendments.

The media coverage and the comments from Conservative members of Parliament have tended to be of the nature that average Canadians are shocked to find that people who have been incarcerated get better employment insurance than law-abiding Canadians. If that were true, I would be shocked and I would also support any efforts to take away preferential treatment for people who have been incarcerated.

However, when we look at the act, that is not the case. I have before me the Employment Insurance Act, particularly subsections 8(2) and 8(6). What these subsections do is to establish when people are entitled to their employment benefits. They have to have, of course, an adequate number of weeks of work. They have to show that they are unemployed and, at that point, because they and their employer have paid into the system, they are entitled to collect benefits. However, they are not entitled to sit back and wait, not work for a while, and then go for their benefits later. Instead, they have to apply immediately. 

Now, there is an exception to this qualifying period, and it can be extended. According to subsection 8(2) of the Employment Insurance Act:

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—

—relating to danger to an unborn child, et cetera.

Therefore, let us just be clear on what the current state of the law is.

People in jail do not get to collect employment insurance benefits. They are, by definition, not searching for work, not capable of work. They are in jail. When they leave prison, do they get better benefits than anyone else? No, they do not. This piece of legislation only says that for the people who are entitled to their employment insurance benefits because they have worked and are unemployed, if the period of time in which they could normally have applied for employment insurance was interrupted by illness, pregnancy, and a number of other conditions, including if they happened to be in jail, their qualifying period will be extended.

Most of us hope that we will never be in jail; we are all law-abiding citizens here. However, let us imagine the kinds of situations in which we would now deprive people of the employment insurance benefits to which they are entitled.

Believe me, as I stand here speaking against Bill C-316 and calling for the amendments that we have put forward, which would, to be clear, eliminate the entire bill, I am aware that my position could easily be mischaracterized as though I wanted people who have gone to jail to get preferential treatment, as though I am not siding with law-abiding Canadians against people in jail.

However, let us look at the public policy question here. If someone is incarcerated for more than two years, this act would not help that person. The employment insurance regulations or the current status quo would not extend benefits for so long that someone who has gone to jail for a serious offence could get out of jail and then apply for employment insurance. That would not work.

By definition, the extension of their qualifying period, not an extension of cheques or any additional money, would only apply if they had been incarcerated for a year or less. That applies to certain types of offences.

Under the new omnibus crime bill, that would potentially apply to someone who had grown six marijuana plants, or, to use a real-life example from this chamber, to someone who had refused a breathalyzer test, for example, and might be sent to jail for a year or less.

Let us then imagine the public policy implications of what is essentially punishing this person again. In this light, I would like to read into the record some of the testimony given in committee by a representative of the John Howard Society to explain why it opposes these measures.

Let me commend the committee for the amendment that clarified that the first version of the bill would have applied to someone who was awaiting trial and then found innocent. We now have an amendment, which certainly improves the situation, that says people will only be deprived of employment insurance opportunities, in other words their entitlements, if they have been in jail because they were found guilty of something.

Let me read into the record what Catherine Latimer, executive director of the John Howard Society, said at committee. She stated:

—Bill C-316 would disentitle people to the benefits of an insurance scheme to which they and their employers had contributed. It would create unfairness for claimants…For those convicted and sentenced in a criminal court, it would amount to an additional ex post facto penalty to a criminal sentence that is dubious in law and could lead to a disproportionate penalty.

She continued:

It would also undermine public safety by jeopardizing employment prospects and denying insurance payments to a vulnerable group as they seek to successfully reintegrate into the community. For these reasons, the John Howard Society of Canada urges you to oppose Bill C-316.

The Elizabeth Fry Society did as well, pointing out that there were a disproportionate number of marginalized people in jail, particularly low-income women, first nations, et cetera.

I would like us to step back and reconsider. It may be fun to pretend that our current employment insurance scheme gives a disproportionate benefit to criminals. It does not. It might be fun to let people think that people in jail collect employment insurance cheques. They do not. All I am saying is that if people go to prison, they have, in the words that we are so used to hearing, paid their debt to society. Now we are going to say no, that they have not quite finished paying their debt to society and we are going to pull the legs out from under them. If they were entitled to employment insurance benefits to help them get back on their feet, to help them find work, to be meaningful members of our society, we will kick them while they are down and say that they will not get employment insurance even if they or their employers have paid into it.

There are some crimes that one might describe as victimless crimes, particularly crimes that would apply to this legislation, where people were in jail for one year or less. The trend of the current flood of legislation in the House that seeks to punish people who have made mistakes, that says they can never pay their debt to society, or get back on their feet or be given a chance is worrying. The employment insurance scheme is for people who have been incarcerated for a year or under, maybe for shoplifting, which is not commendable. Driving under the influence and refusing a breathalyzer is not commendable, but we have to give people a chance.

When they have paid their debt to society and get out of prison, they are entitled under the current statute to, at that point, put in their claims. They will not get any more money than others who find themselves unemployed. They simply have the opportunity to have their qualifying period extended. If people were entitled to employment insurance when they went to jail, they are entitled to employment insurance when they get out. They can get back on their feet, hopefully find jobs and swear off whatever it was they did wrong in their lives. Goodness knows, a lot of good people can make mistakes and end up in jail. We ought to give them a helping hand and not pass additional punitive legislation that takes away their right to employment insurance.

With that, I would ask all members of the House to give serious consideration to the amendments we have tabled today.