Statement made on 10 March 2009 by Senator Mobina Jaffer
Hon. Mobina S.B. Jaffer:
Honourable senators, I formally take this opportunity to welcome my new colleagues from British Columbia, Senator Yonah Martin, Senator Richard Neufeld and Senator Nancy Greene Raine. Now that we have six senators from British Columbia, I believe that we have a strong representation in the house. We will work to have more representatives from our province one day, but that is a subject for another day. Welcome to the Senate. I look forward to working with you.
Today I rise to speak in reply to January's brief Speech from the Throne. Specifically, I will address the theme of acting to protect the vulnerable — those hardest hit by the global economic recession. My comments are somewhat of an extension of those made in November's Throne Speech on the issue of helping all Canadians to participate regardless of cultural background, gender, age, disability or official language. They are about the government's promise to break down barriers that prevent Canadians from reaching their full potential.
Honourable senators, for economic stimulus we need to create more jobs and more investment in municipal infrastructure such as roads, construction and transit. We also need to look after the social infrastructure. These elements are all equal parts of the equation and vital pieces of the puzzle.
As the recession spreads its tentacles through the economy, many Canadians are facing harsh new realities. Job security is gone, opportunities are scarce and competition for jobs is abundant. Many honourable senators have already spoken on this issue, so I will not elaborate. Many have also spoken about the municipal infrastructure, so I will not address that any further, either.
Never has it been more important for the government to adequately protect the most vulnerable and to address the barriers that prevent people from fully participating. Issues such as child care, pay equity, immigrant access to the workforce, and violence against women are all pieces of the puzzle. When we focus on the job loss numbers that we are beginning to see in Canada, social issues tend to be shelved.
The government must ask itself whether it is being responsive to those issues. Many pieces to the puzzle or the budget are missing. To have an effective stimulus, we need child care; pay equity; programs to assist immigrants, including accreditation; and programs to target families who may be prone to family violence. Although there is no single, definitive cause of family violence, there is an increased understanding that a person's vulnerability to abuse might be increased by a factor such as poverty.
Last year, the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund released a report card on child care in Canada that found that Canada ranks last in the comparison of child care services in 25 developed countries. Canada failed on 9 of the 10 measures aimed at ensuring that children get the best start in life, including providing subsidized child care for 25 per cent of children younger than 3 years, and spending 1 per cent of GDP on early childhood services.
Canada's poor showing represents a lost opportunity for economic growth at a time of economic uncertainty. Building a system of high-quality early childhood care and education creates jobs and allows parents to work and pay taxes. UNICEF Canada states that this is key to promoting economic stimulus and recovery. It also states that Canada must introduce measurable standards, guidelines and appropriate funding for child care and solutions by July 2009. Given that no new funding was dedicated to this endeavour in the budget, I would say that we will not come close to meeting this demand.
Government policy in Canada has failed to meet the needs of Canadians. Subsidized daycare enables low-income parents to return to work or enter training programs to upgrade their skills, both of which are in desperate need in our economy.
The government is not adequately helping parents find solutions to this dilemma. Ontario, for example, was in the media recently, and they said they lost 22,000 daycare spaces across the province. The Premier of Ontario believes he has to convince Ottawa to keep funding the daycare spaces.
Without a guarantee of $63 million from the federal or provincial government, municipalities will simply let go of the spaces with the turnover of children in September. Where is the new funding program for subsidized child care?
Canada needs a national network of early learning and child care centres. This means building more spaces and shouldering operating costs for this "social infrastructure," which is every bit as important in stimulating the economy as traditional methods involving construction.
It is not remarkable that Canada's birth rate remains well below the replacement level. If having a child in Canada equates to raising a family in poverty, then it is easy to understand why Canadians are opting out of parenthood.
Safe, affordable child care has always been an issue for Canadian parents. With the global downturn in the economy, it is something we as a country cannot ignore. Uncertain economic times mean two-income families. Long gone are the days in Canada when one parent was able to stay at home to provide child care. When we talk about economic stimulus, we must address the ability of parents to enter the workforce and afford this care.
The government says its Universal Child Care Plan provides families with the resources to help balance work and family as they see fit, regardless of where they live, whatever their circumstances or preferences. This is the ideal, but we have a long way to go before this is a reality.
Direct support to families through the Universal Child Care Benefit barely gives parents three free days of child care per month. Based on the situation in Ontario, I believe we can understand that transfers to the provinces and territories are obviously an issue.
If we want to remove barriers to participation, let us remove this huge obstacle for the working parent. Child care should be part of the economic stimulus package.
Honourable senators, another piece that is missing in the budget puzzle is pay equity. In January, U.S. President Barack Obama chose pay equity legislation as his first initiative to sign into law in his presidency. He noted that it was an issue that affects not only women but their entire families. He said:
. . . making our economy work means making sure it works for everybody, that there are no second-class citizens in our workplaces, and that it's not just unfair and illegal — it's bad for business — to pay somebody less because of their gender, or their age, or their race, or their ethnicity, religion or disability.
It is unfortunate that the Canadian government's current position on this matter is not as committed. We appear to be moving in an opposite direction from our U.S. counterpart.
The December fiscal update proposed to "modernize the pay equity regime." In January, the government narrowed their objective and said legislation would affect just public sector workers. It stated:
It will ensure that the employer and bargaining agents are jointly responsible and accountable for negotiating salaries that are fair and equitable to all employees.
Now the onus of obtaining fair and equitable wages will be falling on unions, and I am really puzzled as to how we can do that. How will we expect a union to represent its membership? Are we asking unions to sometimes represent men and sometimes represent women? Are we making unions more divisive?
Many have said this is an impossible task, and I agree that we are making unions divisive.
After killing the Liberal national child care plan, 13 out of 16 Status of Women Canada offices, the Court Challenges Program, the National Association of Women and the Law, and the word "equality" from the Status of Women Canada mandate, concern over this measure should not come as a surprise. It appears that the current government is narrowing options open to women. Half the population of our country is being left out.
In 2004, the federal Liberal government of the day put together a pay equity task force. On the general issue of gender wage gap, it found that it had existed for decades in Canada and across most industrialized countries. In Canada, it found that it appears to be deeply rooted in the economy. Women continue to earn less than their male counterparts regardless of age, education, experience, labour market attachment or occupation.
Honourable senators, let us consider what this legislation does. It forever removes the ability of women working in the public sector to use the Canadian Human Rights Act to file pay equity complaints. Unionized public sector employees must now rely on the collective bargaining process to resolve these matters. Questions abound as to whether or not collective bargaining is the best method of dealing with this matter.
In 2004, the Liberal government task force said:
The legal regime governing collective bargaining has developed in a particular context, and has given rise to a distinctive pattern of relationships. . . . this pattern does not provide the optimal basis for achieving pay equity.
It further states:
To simply replicate the bargaining unit as the basic constituency for considering issues of pay equity carries with it the risk of replicating as well the occupational segregation and obliviousness to the gendered nature of work which is at the heart of the problem of wage discrimination.
Non-unionized women in the public sector must rely on their employers now to determine periodically whether compensation matters exist in the workplace.
Honourable senators, this is not an acceptable situation and we should not accept it.
These are the same employers who have failed to embrace and implement employment equity in the public sector, so perhaps this is not the best practice. This is a point worth reflection as we contemplate a response to this situation.
Another issue of concern in the bill is that an arbitrator would have to take market forces into account when determining whether wage rates for men and women are fair. These are the same market forces that permitted systemic wage discrimination against Canadian women.
Pay equity was designed to specifically correct a failure in the market that allowed this discrimination. Now, what will this concept mean to pay equity?
Pay equity has wide-ranging social and economic consequences for all women, their families and children. When we speak about economic stimulus, addressing this issue is an imperative part of solving the puzzle.
I am hopeful that a thoughtful and comprehensive study of this issue will occur before we pass this legislation. Honourable senators, we owe this much to all Canadian women.
On the issue of immigration and recession, another piece of the budget puzzle is missing to address the special needs of immigrants. Programming targeted at credential recognition and other initiatives that help ease their transition to the Canadian workforce are essential.
Back in November last year, I addressed the needs of skilled immigrants to have their credentials recognized. The negative costs to our labour market, economy and skilled immigrants are substantial. The federal government, as the agent in charge of immigration, has a responsibility to facilitate a solution to this serious issue.
We need to get the provinces together on this issue. Just as we have round tables on health and the economy, we need to proceed in this fashion on immigrant accreditation.
In November, I also highlighted the need for more cooperation between Citizenship and Immigration and Human Resources and Skills Development Canada. Citizenship and Immigration must consider labour market issues facing skilled immigrants, and the HRSDC must look at programming that would offer loans or skills training for accreditation.
Perhaps we need to look at relaxing regulation and certification. The Alberta government is looking at ways to reduce the red tape in a way that ensures the safety of people but continues to build the workforce.
We need to know if programming like the new Foreign Credentials Referral Office is helping skilled immigrants. Should this office have an expanded role or should this program funding be spent elsewhere?
Canada has had some recent success, and I commend the government for that, with programming that prepares immigrants for the job market while in the source country. This limited programming has been successful, and I look forward to it being expanded.
Honourable senators, the downturn in the economy will be felt most by the most vulnerable in our society. We create vulnerability for newcomers to Canada by not providing proper assistance with accreditation and resettlement.
The federal budget predicts that the unemployment rate will be 7.5 per cent over the course of the coming year, meaning that around 1.4 million Canadians will be looking for work every month. Typically, rigid job markets are hostile to newcomers. Typically, newcomers are woman re-entering the job force after raising children, young people starting a career, and immigrants.
With the high record of immigration levels during this recession, assisting the immigrant community must be part of the economic stimulus puzzle.
In 2009, Canada will welcome between 240,000 to 265,000 new permanent residents, a 15-year high. Their welcome during this recession will not be a warm one. These people will be some of the first in Canada to hit the wall of the rigid labour market. They will compete against many established Canadians and permanent residents for low-paying and temporary jobs. With no Canadian job experience and an inability to qualify for Employment Insurance benefits, life in Canada will be difficult for these newcomers.
Honourable senators, if we are committed to bringing immigrants to our country, then we must do more to help them. Canada must learn from its past mistakes. The recession of 1990-92 was made worse by the government of the day when it maintained high immigration levels without paying sufficient attention to how the job market would respond.
Waiting for these newcomers to our country was joblessness, lower pay and higher poverty rates. Virtually all the increase in poverty during the recession of the early 1990s was accounted for by those newly arrived to our country.
In the face of this situation, in the budget we have $50 million dedicated to foreign credential recognition.
The Hon. the Speaker pro tempore: I regret to advise the honourable senator that her 15 minutes has expired. Is she asking for more time?
Hon. Gerald J Comeau (Deputy Leader of the Government): We will agree to five more minutes.
Senator Jaffer: We have been told that $50 million will go directly to the provincial bureaucracies.
Honourable senators, let me share with you my recent experience with my French teacher. She has a degree from Lausanne, Switzerland. She is one of the best teachers that I have found. She came to our country a number of years ago, when she was told that she would be accepted by our school board. When she arrived, the Vancouver school board asked her to go back to university for two years because her degree was from Lausanne, Switzerland and not from a European Union country. She could not afford to go back to school, as she had limited circumstances. She was from Romania.
She has been working for three years as a temporary French teacher. She recently acquired a job in a private school in North Vancouver. She earns $17 an hour because she is not qualified in B.C. She has had to call her mother to come from Romania to look after her child because she cannot afford child care. Her husband is a civil engineer, but because he is not qualified in B.C., he also earns $17 an hour.
Honourable senators, I do not believe that we should welcome professionals to our country and treat them in this manner.
When we discuss economic stimulus and helping the vulnerable overcome obstacles to participate in Canadian society, we must address how the programming of Human Resources and Skills Development Canada and Employment Insurance must respond to the needs of these people. Canadian society has a basic responsibility to ensure that newcomers have a similar chance at succeeding in life as Canadian citizens.
Over the last quarter century, low-income rates among recent immigrants increased from 24 per cent in 1980 to 34 per cent today. Canada loses 40 per cent of its professional male immigrants within ten years. This statistic speaks to the fact that we are failing to integrate the record numbers of immigrants we accept every year. Our country cannot afford what this failure is doing to our economy, our international reputation and the lives of countless newcomers.
In the aftermath of International Women's Day, it is an especially relevant time to speak about how recessions and economic hardship relate to violence against women and within families. When the government is not responsive to programming that assists and removes barriers for vulnerable factions of our society, it creates undue strain on families. Emotions are high and finances are low. People are isolated. Research tells us that poverty and unemployment are among the key factors of domestic violence.
Honourable senators, I do not have the time to address the statistics, but I know that all honourable senators are well aware of them. One victim is too many. Programming coping with this issue spans across 15 government departments. We have to ask: Are we doing enough? Is the programming properly funded?
We need to look at supporting the family in the best ways possible during this recession. In times of economic crisis, we must reach out and offer specific programming targeting these issues, as they are more likely to occur.
Honourable senators, if we are serious in our attempts to end the recession and have all Canadians fully participate in this economic recovery, then we have to look at these issues. There is a grave economic and social fall-out, and as we progress in this unprecedented era of world economic downturn, let us not forget that social infrastructure requires funding and attention as well.
Solutions to these problems need to be part of the economic stimulus. When we leave these factors out of the equation or they are not part of the solution, then we let down all Canadians.