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Bill C-44: The Helping Families in Need Act

Mr. Speaker,

It is an honour to rise to speak to the Helping Families in Need Act, and to help guide this bill through this honourable chamber. This bill represents our government’s latest initiative to help Canadian workers and their families.  This is achieved by way of three major amendments: the creation of a new EI special benefit for parents of sick and injured children, enhanced access to sickness benefits for parents and Canada Labour Code job protection that aligns with the new and existing EI benefits.

 This bill fulfills our 2011 election promise to provide income support to Canadian families of workers when they need it most.

 We can all sympathize with a mother or father who is stricken with illness while caring for their baby.

And most of us can only imagine what it is like to be the parent of a child who is critically ill, or to cope with incredible anguish and grief over a son or daughter who is murdered or goes missing.

 Our hearts go out to all of these parents.

 As a mother myself, I know that no matter what job we do or title we hold, when tragedy strikes, our first and only priority is always to take care of our family. Nothing else is as important.

 That’s why our government makes the well-being of families a priority.

 The first aspect of the Helping Families in Need Act aims to improve the accessibility of Employment Insurance sickness benefits to parents.

Currently, to qualify for employment insurance sickness benefits, an individual must be available for work. A parent receiving parental benefits cannot work while receiving those benefits. So if a parent falls ill while receiving parental benefits, he is not eligible for sickness benefits.

Under the new rules, should parents fall ill, they are able to put their parental benefit on hold and claim up to 15 weeks of EI sickness benefits. Once the sickness has passed or the benefit expires, they are able to resume their parental benefit.

Let me provide a concrete example. Alice is a single mother. She has given birth to a beautiful and healthy baby boy. She takes her 15 weeks of maternal benefits followed by her 35 weeks of parental benefits.

During the 33rd week of her parental claim, Alice comes down with meningitis, a very severe illness, and requires several weeks to recover. 

Our current rules say that since she is currently collecting parental benefits and thus is not available to work, Alice does not qualify for sickness benefits.

We think this is unfair and that is why we are changing the rules so people like Alice will be eligible for EI sickness benefits. With the proposed changes, Alice could pause her parental benefits, claim her sickness benefits for up to 15 weeks, and subsequently resume her remaining two weeks of parental benefits.

I will now turn to a terrible situation that no parent should ever have to face: a child becomes critically ill or is seriously injured.

For many Canadian families, this is one of the most difficult circumstances they will ever have to face. Our government is taking action to help make life just a little bit easier during such a challenging time.  

In the second part of Bill C-44, with the introduction of a new EI special benefit, we are stepping up to support the families of children with critical illnesses or injuries, to ensure that parents in these situations do not suffer undue financial hardship at such a time.

This new employment insurance benefit provides temporary income support for up to 35 weeks for eligible parents, who can share the benefit. This is in addition to the six weeks of compassionate care benefit that parents may also be eligible for should a critical illness appear likely to result in the death of their child.

Someone that could have benefitted from the changes is Sharon Ruth. Sharon’s daughter Colleen was six years old when she was diagnosed with cancer. The disease did not threaten Colleen’s life in the immediate future so the Ruth family did not even qualify for the compassionate care benefit.  The Ruths did not get the help they so desperately needed.

With the new EI special benefit Bill C-44 is creating, families like the Ruths will now be able to apply for 35 weeks of income support. This measure will help parents to support their children and be with them full-time while they are seriously ill or injured.

Fortunately, Colleen won her fight and is living cancer free as a young woman, but her family certainly could have used the support we are proposing in this bill.

Colleen’s mother Sharon spoke passionately about the need to quickly pass this legislation so that other families won’t have to struggle as they did in order to support their critically ill child.

Children with life-threatening medical conditions need more than just round-the-clock medical care to get better. They need the love, comfort and support of their parents.

This new benefit will help to reduce some of the financial pressure that parents experience when they take time away from work to care for their families.

The third provision of this bill relates to another horror that parents in Canada face; the death or disappearance of their child as a result of a probable criminal act.

The amendments build on an announcement made by Prime Minister Harper in April of 2012, when he instituted a new grant to provide the parents of children gone missing or murdered as a result of a ‘probable’ Criminal Code offense, with 35 weeks of income support during their time of need.

We chose to implement this income support by way of a grant, instead of through the conventional EI system. This was done to ensure that the small population of individuals this program is targeted to help will receive expedient support when they need it most.

I know that many of us in this chamber are aware of the hard work our colleague Senator Boisvenu has done on this file and of the very personal nature of this subject matter to him. I believe that he is in a much better position than I am to explain how it feels to go through such a tragedy.

I would simply note that we were intentional in our wording when we say a ‘probable’ criminal code offense. This will prevent potential confusion that would result from having to determine whether an actual criminal code offense took place.

Families that are coping with incredible stress and grief over the illness or loss of a child shouldn’t be burdened with worrying about the security of their jobs while they care or mourn for their child.

The third provision of the bill also benefits parents by amending the Canada Labour Code to protect jobs for people working in federally-regulated industries.

The Canada Labour Code covers about 128,000 workplaces and over a million Canadians across the country working in transportation, communications, banking, and Crown corporations.

 The Helping Families in Need Act amends part III of the Labour Code to protect the jobs of these workers during an unpaid leave if they find themselves in certain situations.

Specifically, the jobs of parents of a critically ill child will be protected for up to 37 weeks. As for events resulting from probable criminal offences, the parents of a missing child can count on 52 weeks of job protection, while the parents of murdered children will have their jobs protected for up to 104 weeks.

These job protection measures are similar but separate from the EI benefits mentioned earlier. Both systems are designed to work in harmony with and to complement one another.

Honourable senators, with these measures, our government is fulfilling its promises. We are determined to improve the quality of life for the families of workers in Canada.

As Dan Demers of the Canadian Cancer Society has said:

These programs will strengthen Canadian families and provide them the flexibility and the security they need to help keep their lives as normal as possible through a very, very difficult time.”

These measures are yet more evidence that our government is helping Canadian parents balance their work and family responsibilities.

Honourable senators, I strongly recommend that you support this bill.

Thank you.