Third Reading of Bill C-316, An Act to amend the Employment Insurance Act (incarceration)

Honourable senators, I just have a two hour speech here. No, that is not the one.

Honourable senators, we have one more chance to say “no” to Bill C-316, An Act to amend the Employment Insurance Act (incarceration). Today, I must say for the record that this bill is fundamentally flawed and harmful to Canadians. At every turn, those like me who are concerned about Bill C 316 have raised more valid and stronger points than its sponsor, MP Dick Harris, and other supporters.

An Act to amend the Employment Insurance Act (incarceration) began with a story of a family from Mr. Harris’s riding in British Columbia. A woman – a wife and a mother of two young children – took a voluntary leave of absence from her job to upgrade her credentials. After earning her degree, she returned to work. Three months later, she learned she had cancer. She also learned that she was ineligible for Employment Insurance benefits; she had not worked enough hours of insurable employment during the qualifying period – the 52 weeks prior to her claim.

Mr. Harris tried to help this woman to determine if the EI Act might include provisions for a difficult situation like hers. He discovered that it does not. However, in the course of trying to help this woman, he did discover that the act does provide for extensions of both the qualifying and benefit periods for persons incarcerated for less than two years.

Honourable senators, I believe that all of us are susceptible to moments when emotions eclipse reasoned, informed thinking, and when we instantly associate one situation with another. Our reaction to the first is to displace onto the second, even though the two are completely unrelated. Usually, reason will eventually set in and we will seek out facts to help us acquire a more balanced, thorough perspective on the matter usually. Unfortunately, that is not always the case.

Rather than proposing amendments to the EI Act or developing new legislation that could bring meaningful aid to people hit by circumstances like the woman he set out to help, Mr. Harris has developed a bill that will certainly bring hardship to a vulnerable group of people as well as their dependents. I hate to say it, but in typical Conservative fashion, the solution to unfairness is to create new injustices.

One of the reasons this population is so vulnerable is the social stigma of having been incarcerated. The sponsors and supporters of this bill have certainly played on negative attitudes to achieve their objectives. According to their camp, the provisions in the EI Act are “a privilege” and deliver “preferential treatment.” They “favour some people at the expense of the majority.” They take away benefits from hard working, law abiding citizens. They “reward crime.”

All these statements are untrue. This is language that pits human beings against human beings, that polarizes debate and distracts us from the issues that really matter, but only if we let it.

The provisions related to persons who have been incarcerated take nothing away from anyone. According to the bill’s proponents, the intent of this bill is the pursuit of fairness. Those were the words we heard at committee by the member of Parliament; he kept using the word “fairness.” I hardly see anything fair here.

MP Rodger Cuzner in the House and Senator Eggleton here in the Senate have both underscored the absurdity of this bill. Bill C 316 is simply unfair unfair to people who will lose provisions created specifically in their interest and unfair to Canadians in general.

In 1959, the EI qualifying period for incarcerated persons was extended. The extension of the EI benefit period for this same group was introduced in 1971. There are three main arguments in favour of these extensions. First, a person who loses his or her job as a result of having to serve a term of incarceration has paid premiums and, on release, is entitled to receive the corresponding benefits. That makes sense. Second, not being entitled to receive benefits becomes an additional sentence, added onto the sentence of incarceration. Third, receiving benefits is more conducive to rehabilitation in the community.

In hearings on this bill by the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology, witnesses expanded on the significance of these provisions in the EI Act. It has been refreshing and enlightening to hear testimony based on fact, insight and expertise. Their contributions to the examination of this bill have enabled me and others to better appreciate just why the provisions were developed in the first place, and why they must absolutely remain.

What has moved me the most has been discussion about the correlation between poverty and crime in this country. It is clear that some groups are disproportionately affected by poverty. According to the Statistics Canada 2011 census, Aboriginal and immigrant families are two to three times more likely than the general population to experience poverty.

Looking at the group of people currently being held in our provincial jails and federal prisons, we also see groups disproportionately represented groups that tend to be of the lower socio economic status. These are, again, Aboriginal people and ethnic minorities, and people living with fetal alcohol syndrome, bipolar disorder and other mental health issues. Statistics Canada has found that although the Aboriginal population represents 3 per cent of Canadians, it accounts for 20 per cent of provincial and territorial inmates.

The Correctional Service of Canada projects that by the end of the decade, half of the women half in federal custody will be indigenous women. I will add that the majority of women in prisons are mothers, and the majority of these mothers are solely responsible for their children — they are single parents.

Sometimes poverty places people in what feels like impossible situations, where decisions can be difficult and compromising. According to the 2008 United Way report Crimes of Desperation: The truth about poverty related crime, most incarcerated women have committed non violent crimes, such as shoplifting, free riding on public transit or drug possession related to addictions.

Mr. Harris and others have placed excessive emphasis on the choice between respecting and breaking the law. In doing so, they betray their insensitivity or lack of insight about poverty and its influence on the incidence of crime.

Provincial facilities are horrible places. They are dangerous, violent and overcrowded. Who would choose to do anything that would lead to incarceration in such a place?

Assessing the reasons why women break the law, a 2003 report entitled Mothering, Crime, And Incarceration, describes the psychology behind some women’s criminal actions:

Faced with systemic barriers, women often justify criminal activity as an alternative to hunger and homelessness, for themselves and for their dependents.

Mr. Harris is a Member of Parliament for Cariboo—Prince George , a part of this country where many First Nations people live. When he appeared before the committee as a witness for this bill, Senator Dyck raised the point that experiences such as those endured by Aboriginal women in residential schools have created a cycle of abuse. She said, “. . . these women, not because they want to go out and be criminals, end up in the prison system.” In light of the adverse effect this bill will have on Aboriginal women in prison, she asked Mr. Harris if he had ever sought the opinions of an Aboriginal woman in his riding. He said that he had not.

Along with Senator Eggleton, Senator Dyck also helped to expose another serious oversight in Mr. Harris’ approach to developing this bill. It seems he never took the steps to understand just what types of crimes people incarcerated for less than two years commit. Promoting the bill, he depended on the effect of creating the impression that these people are socially threatening. He referred to an assault and suggested that they were culpable of carrying out crimes that we should not allow to happen. In fact, 75 per cent of people in custody are there for three months or less hardly a sentence for anything more than a minor crime.

The United Way, the John Howard Society and the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies are among the organizations in sync with the rationale for including in the Employment Insurance Act provisions specifically for people who have been incarcerated. In their view, denying benefits to these people is an additional punishment after they have served their sentence. It amounts to piling a civil penalty on top of a criminal conviction. In his speech at second reading, Mr. Rodger Cuzner, Cape Breton—Canso told members in the other place:

. . . when these people are released, the single best thing that could happen is for them to come out as better and more understanding people, with a willingness and desire to be better citizens.

Supporting them by helping them find work or providing them with income support as they look for work is critical. Withdrawing their eligibility for a source of income like EI will most certainly create a worsened financial stress and worries that they will be unable to support themselves or their families.

In March, Senator Eggleton described clearly for us just how necessary supports like EI benefits can be for people trying to rehabilitate their lives. He said:

. . . if these people come out of prison, the chances of them reoffending are much greater if they do not have all the supports available to them now to get a job. In fact, statistics show that 11 to 13 per cent of those who come out of incarceration are less likely to reoffend if they have either a job or a bridge to a job.

A 2007 Public Safety Canada study documents the challenges people often face after being released from custody. They have lost their job and the means to maintain a home. To re establish themselves, they have to pay for larger one off costs, like rent deposits and other essentials. Building on this scenario, the representative from the Canadian Criminal Justice Association said to our Senate committee:

By eliminating the ability of individuals currently eligible to obtain Employment Insurance upon their release from prison, it arguably undermines public safety goals by taking way funds they may need to obtain food and shelter should they not be able to initially secure employment upon their release.

Where can these people turn if they cannot make it – if they simply cannot meet their own basic needs or the needs of their families? It is quite likely that they will have to turn to social assistance programs and the responsibility will fall to the provinces and territories. This is yet another issue that those pushing for this bill have failed to consider. As a result, we lack a clear idea, even an estimate, of what the social and economic impact of this bill could be.

When presented with details about the real life impact of this bill on people’s lives, Mr. Harris remained inflexible in his stance, saying that perhaps they should not have committed the crime in the first place. As for alternate supports, he suggested programs like Elizabeth Fry and John Howard societies. With representatives from both organizations present, we asked them about the likelihood of this. Both said they wished they could help, but they lacked adequate resources to meet the demand.

There is a striking contrast between a sentiment like this, the desire to do more to help people integrate positively within our society, and the sentiments expressed in Bill C 316. I, we, identify with the first. It is in keeping with my beliefs about human potential and about this country. At every turn, those of us who oppose this bill have exposed one flaw after another. We have exposed one flaw after another. There is no beneficial purpose in this bill.

I keep thinking of the young woman and the opportunity that Mr. Harris had to propose amendments that we would all agree upon so that this young woman would have received EI benefits. That is all that had to be done. You do not punish others because of inefficiency in an act. You just do not do that. This bill will only deliver an added punishment to persons who have been incarcerated. That the bill has made it this far in the legislative process is truly discouraging and worrisome.

There has been no research conducted on its impact on anyone, from contributors to the EI program to Canadians at large. The research findings we have consistently show that this bill is a very bad idea.

The United Way of Calgary representative who participated in our committee hearings made a statement that will stay with me. Ms. Pate said:

That sentiment of losing hope is being expressed in a country where we have prided ourselves — and where we demonstrate to our children, every day I hope — that you can make mistakes and you can come back from making those mistakes and pay back to the community.

Honourable senators, I urge you to resist being drawn in by calculated justifications for this bill. Disagreeing with them does not make anyone less honest or hard working. Reflecting on them, though, is doing our job. We are so fortunate to live in a country where people are invited to share with decision makers like us their insights and expertise on subjects. We are fortunate to live in a democratic nation where even at the final stage of a bill’s passage, we are free to act. We are individually free to act on our own. We have been in the Senate for some time, some of us for almost 10 years, which I can hardly believe. This private member’s bill is an opportunity for each of us, and I am talking to my Conservative colleagues across the aisle, to think about the arguments made and the testimony delivered by Mr. Harris and by the United Way, the Elizabeth Fry Society and the rest who have to take care of this business.

We can stand up as individuals, not as parties. I know there are bills where we all must stand on one side or the other, but this is a unique opportunity to defend the most vulnerable in our land – the people who in desperation shoplift or take a bit of money, but they did not want to do it. She is an Aboriginal woman, she is alone, she has three children, she has paid into EI for three to four years, but she gets caught because she is desperate and needs to do it. Therefore, she gets three to five months, whatever. Surely to goodness we, as a society, have an opportunity with this bill – I urge my colleagues on the other side to really rethink this one – to come back and say “Okay, maybe I will vote as an individual.” There is an opportunity on this bill.

I oppose this bill, honourable senators. This is our chance to prevent it from becoming law.