I arrived back in Ottawa last Sunday to begin debate on the Throne Speech and the government’s new bill to provide supports for Canadians affected by the COVID crisis.
While the Throne Speech usually dominates debate at the start of a parliamentary session, it was the new legislation that was top of mind for the NDP caucus. Sunday happened to be the day that CERB benefits to out-of-work Canadians ran out, leaving millions unsure about their ability to pay rent or put food on the table.
Why was this critical decision left to the last minute?
We were actually set to debate this a month ago, but the Liberals prorogued Parliament, eliminating any chance to get this done on time and, not coincidentally, also eliminating any chance for committees to continue studying unethical behaviour in the WE scandal.
The NDP was primarily concerned about two aspects of the new bill.
One was the proposal from the Liberals that benefits to CERB recipients would drop from $2,000 per month to $1,600. No reason was given for this illogical move.
If $2,000 was considered the lowest amount that would provide a livable wage for those who lost their jobs back in March, why would that suddenly go down to $1,600 when millions of those jobs have not returned?
The second concern was a provision for paid sick leave.
The NDP has been fighting for this for the past six months. Many Canadian workers don’t have any paid sick leave benefits.
If they don’t go to work, they don’t get paid.
That doesn’t make sense in normal times, but in pandemic times it is a recipe for disaster.
If a worker wakes up sick, they have to balance the risk of missing out on pay with the risk of infecting their co-workers. If they actually have COVID, these infections could easily shut down their entire workplace—a grocery store, restaurant or a care home, for instance.
The original Liberal proposal on paid sick leave in Bill C-2 would have required workers to have a positive COVID test to be allowed to qualify. That would not have helped workers make that critical decision to stay home when symptoms first appeared.
The Liberals eventually agreed with the NDP. The new Bill C-4 that replaced C-2 kept both the $2,000 per month benefits for workers who have lost jobs due to COVID and a broader set of qualifications for paid sick leave benefits that will keep Canadians healthier and keep businesses open.
To get the legislation passed on time so that people who had lost their CERB benefits on Sunday wouldn’t lose critical paycheques, the NDP agreed to fast track C-4 through the House of Commons on Tuesday.
The Conservatives decided to use their political powers to delay the proceedings to complain about the lack of time to debate such an important piece of legislation.
While I totally agree that full debate is always desirable, the government’s delay in bringing the legislation gave us no option but to proceed quickly. The Conservatives could have chosen to be active participants in negotiations around drafting the bill but did not.
In the end, the bells rang at 2 a.m. on Wednesday morning and the bill was passed.
I’m proud that the NDP used our time and energy to ensure that the bill was significantly improved and passed on time.
I agree with the Conservatives that the job of an opposition party is to oppose, we must also propose constructive changes to legislation, changes that will make the lives of all Canadians better.
That’s what the NDP has been focused throughout the pandemic.
Richard Cannings is the MP for South Okanagan-West Kootenay