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Bill C-13: Fairness for Military Families Act

Honourable senators, I am proud today to rise to speak to Bill C-13, this government's legislation to support military families.

Permit me to begin with a history of how this bill came about for those of you who do not know. The member of Parliament for Nepean-Carleton was canvassing one afternoon late last year when he knocked on the door of a Canadian Forces member named Lieutenant-Colonel James Duquette. Mr. Duquette proceeded to recount a negative experience he had had with his Employment Insurance parental benefits. Mr. Duquette's son was born by emergency caesarean section four days before he was being deployed to the Golan Heights.

He spent the first two nights of his son's life sleeping in a chair by his wife's hospital bedside. The third night was spent at home together as a family. The next morning, Lieutenant-Colonel Duquette deployed.

The only thing that got him through his deployment was knowing he would get to spend time with his son upon his return — or so he thought. When Mr. Duquette returned, he was shocked to learn that his eligibility period to collect parental benefits had expired.

Mr. Duquette had paid EI premiums and had to leave his family to honourably serve his country, but the current EI system did not have any provisions for people like him.

Recognizing immediately that the current system was unfair to Canadian Forces members like Mr. Duquette, the member of Parliament brought this issue to the attention of the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development. The result is this legislation, Bill C-13, the fairness for military families act.

Honourable senators, I would like to thank the MP for Nepean-Carleton for immediately acting on a constituent's concerns, and I would like to thank the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development for taking decisive action in a timely manner to correct this problem.

As a nation, we value freedom, not just for ourselves but for people around the world. Canadians understand that upholding our national values comes at a price. That price is often paid most directly by the members of our military and their families. There is no question that Canadians support our troops and appreciate their sacrifices. You can see the evidence on countless bumper stickers and lapel pins and you can see it in the crowds that gather when one of Canada's sons or daughters has made the ultimate sacrifice, and is returned to a mourning nation.

Canadians hold their military members in great esteem and want them to be treated fairly. In the Speech from the Throne this government made a commitment to stand up for those who defend our country by striving to create an even better future for our families and communities. These men and women accept many risks. They accept the disruption that their profession inflicts upon their personal and family lives. Our government wants to ensure that members of the Canadian Forces have the opportunity to bond with their children by taking advantage of Employment Insurance parental benefits.

Honourable senators, given the unique demands of military life we recommend a change to the rules to improve access of military personnel to EI parental benefits. Members of the Canadian Forces pay EI premiums just like other Canadians. We want to ensure that when they are obliged to deploy because of an imperative military requirement, they can still access EI parental benefits when they come home.

The Employment Insurance program provides parental benefits to individuals caring for a newborn or a newly adopted child. These parental benefits play an important role in supporting parents during the first year of a child's life. The benefits provide income replacement to support a parent who stays home during his or her child's first year, while at the same time facilitating the parent's eventual return to the labour market. The benefits allow the parent to bond with his or her child. They help to provide a foundation for the family by enabling parents to balance the demands of work and family more effectively.

Canadian Forces members, including reservists, are eligible for benefits under the Employment Insurance Act as long as they meet the eligibility criteria. Their eligibility for benefits is the same as for any worker in Canada. What do these benefits include?

Provided they meet the eligibility requirement criteria, Canadians Forces personnel are entitled to regular benefits if they lose their job voluntarily as well as maternity, parental, sickness and compassionate care benefits. The existing EI Act entitles parents to 35 weeks of parental benefits. One parent can take all 35 weeks or the parents can divide the weeks.

Under the current rules, parental benefits may be paid during the 52 weeks following the week of the birth of one or more children or the adoption of a child or children. The window for parental benefits can be extended when a child has to spend an extended period of time in hospital. This measure was designed to make the EI system fairer and give claimants some flexibility when they face circumstances beyond their control.

Members of the military can also find themselves in situations that are beyond their control. Canadian Forces members who are deployed overseas are unable to access EI parental benefits during their assignment. Since these assignments typically last from nine to 16 months, deployed parents can miss crucial time with their children.

Those circumstances must be taken into account by the Employment Insurance Act. This government believes that if they are ordered to return to duty while on parental leave, or if their parental leave is deferred as a result of an imperative military requirement, they should not lose the benefits. That is what this bill before us is meant to address.

It amends the Employment Insurance Act to extend the EI parent eligibility window by the number of weeks that a Canadian Forces member's parental leave is deferred or interrupted because of an imperative military requirement. In plain language, this bill means that a Canadian Forces member who is ordered to return to duty while on parental leave, or whose parental leave is deferred a result of an imperative military requirement, will no longer risk losing out on the weeks to which he or she is entitled.

The amendment that was passed by unanimous consent in the House of Commons ensures the bill applies not only to Canadian Forces members who start a parental benefits claim after the bill receives Royal Assent but also applies to Canadian Forces members who could benefit right now.

Colleagues, this legislation will be welcome news for members of the Canadian Forces. It will apply not only to those serving abroad but to all forces members who must delay or cut their leave short for imperative military requirements. It will ensure Canadian Forces members have the same opportunity to bond with their children and establish a foundation for their children's growth, development and learning as other Canadians who are eligible for EI.

It will help to keep our military families strong. When Lieutenant-Colonel James Duquette appeared before the standing committee in the other place with his wife Anne, he stated the following:

. . . this affects . . . young families across the forces . . . the benefits that would bring to the families as a whole, you can't put a value on that.

His wife added:

Whether it's the mother or the father who is overseas, to give them the chance to bond with their child when they come home would be incredible.

Further on she stated:

This change . . . will help many military families today and in the future . . . Please support our troops and the families that await them at home.

Honourable senators, Canadians are proud of the members of the Canadian Forces. The bill before us will make a real difference in the lives of military families. I urge all honourable senators to join me in supporting this bill.