Senator Plett's Speech at the Third Reading of Bill C-12

Honourable senators, I hope Canadians heard Senator Mercer questioning their sanity as depending on who they voted for. I believe Canadians are always right when they vote, and they have always been right when they have elected a Conservative government, as well. Surely to goodness, I would expect that even our fine senators from Nova Scotia would agree that Canadians are right when they elect any government.

Now I’m going to talk about this bill.

Senator Cordy talked about the good intentions of the government. I’m sure we have all heard the proverb that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” In any event, there are good intentions here.

I’m wondering how short a bill needs to be before this government can get it right. This is a one-line bill, and they can’t number a bill properly. That’s really troubling to me that the fine citizens of Canada would elect a government that cannot tell the difference between 256 and 257.

With that, let me now make my non-partisan speech on this bill.

As I outlined in my second reading speech, our caucus does support this legislation. It is vitally important, because seniors who relied on pandemic relief programs should not be penalized for doing so. And yet, penalizing seniors is exactly what this government has done.

When the CERB program was announced in March 2020, seniors and senior advocacy organizations tried to get answers from the government: Would there be any negative impacts on their eligibility for other benefits, such as the Guaranteed Income Supplement, or GIS? If they accepted the COVID benefits, they were assured there would not be. This would prove, again, to be tragically false, colleagues; seniors who collected pandemic relief soon found out that those benefits would be counted against their ability to qualify for the GIS.

When the dust settled, 204,000 seniors had their benefits cut by a cumulative total of $742.4 million. That is almost a billion dollars, colleagues — three quarters of a billion dollars.

Extracting $742 million from any demographic in Canada is bound to have a negative impact, but removing it from the most vulnerable population — seniors living on subsistence incomes — is cruel.

Leila Sarangi, National Director of Campaign 2000, shared some of that organization’s stories with the committee:

I’ve heard stories of hardships from seniors across the country over these past eight months: a senior woman in the Northwest Territories evicted in late fall and living in her car when temperatures were sub-zero; immigrant seniors in Ontario being evicted in online tribunals in an unusually cold January, as pandemic rent moratoriums lift; a senior with $70.88 left after paying rent; a couple unable to afford medication on their combined monthly income of $1,300.

Ms. Sarangi went on:

Some have been going to their places of worship, families and friends to borrow money. Others have been taking out lines of credit or loans from predatory payday lenders and wrapping up interest charges. They are unable to meet their basic needs. They are going without food, without toilet paper, without medication, and seniors have shared with me very serious health complications that are worsening by the day. Fear, stress and anxiety are increasing and, in the worst‑case scenarios, we’ve heard of seniors taking their own lives.

Colleagues, the government knew that COVID benefits were going to cause a serious problem for many seniors as far back as May 2020, but they did nothing about it. Instead, they let seniors suffer for eight months.

Ms. Devorah Kobluk, Senior Policy Analyst at the Income Security Advocacy Centre, shared the following story:

Among those impacted was the 68-year-old senior in Ottawa who reached out to the legal clinic system. She worked as a self-employed dog walker prior to the pandemic. The pandemic caused her small business to completely collapse. She used CERB to supplement her lost income, pay for groceries, personal protective equipment and taxis to medical appointments. The avalanche of unintended consequences has been devastating. She was trying to survive on approximately $650 per month. Her rent increased because her “rent geared to income” was recalculated when she received CERB. She was at risk of homelessness, and we have heard of cases of eviction. She lost her Trillium Drug Program benefit that helped her pay for medication. We do not know if she will make it to the lump sum payment time in April.

Like other seniors in her position, with every passing month, it is becoming harder to pay for rent, rising food prices, transportation and medical supplies.

Colleagues, these are a small fraction of the 204,000 seniors who were impacted by this government’s incompetence. The stories are tragic. If nothing could have been done, perhaps we could have been a bit more understanding. The government was in the midst of dealing with a global pandemic that was straining resources on every side, but the truth is that the government had no fewer than three possible avenues by which it could have easily addressed this problem sooner.

First, they could have tabled this bill a year ago. One year ago in February 2021, CERB benefits had been rolling out for almost a year. Although the GIS benefits had not been reduced, the government had known for 10 months that the impact was coming. They had 10 months to work on it, but they did not bother to draft the single-clause bill that is before us today and now needs to be reworked. Instead, they chose to do nothing, colleagues — zero.

The second thing they could have done, as explained to the Social Affairs Committee by one of the witnesses, would have been to simply continue using the 2019 year as the base year for income when determining eligibility for GIS. This would have avoided the problem of including CERB benefits in the calculation of income for seniors who were already eligible for GIS payments.

But even if all of that failed for whatever reason, the government still could have acted to minimize the impacts on seniors.

Let me explain. Two months from now, in April, the government will be sending $742 million to seniors who had GIS clawed back from them. It will cover all of their GIS losses from July 2021 to June 2022.

This payment is being made under section 7 of the Department of Employment and Social Development Act, which authorizes the minister to make one-time grants without even needing to bring the issue before Parliament.

There is no need for legislation, no need for a vote, no need for a debate, no need to wait for some future Canada Revenue Agency income-tax return cycle and no need for an amendment to this bill.

You may recall the government used this same statutory authority to make two other COVID benefit payments. The first was a one-time payment to seniors in May 2020. Another payment was made in August 2021. These payments were simply announced, and the cheques sent out shortly thereafter.

The inconvenient truth is that the government could have used this same statutory authority to make one or more payments to seniors at any time over the last year just like they are doing now. This option was available to the government all along, but they decided not to use it, even though it would have alleviated significant hardship for seniors.

Miss Laura Tamblyn Watts, CEO of the seniors’ organization CanAge, told the Social Affairs Committee, in response to a question from Senator Poirier, that they were aware the government had this option and pressed them to use it. The government flatly refused.

Ms. Kobluk from the Income Security Advocacy Centre said the following about their experience after contacting the government:

Minister Khera responded with a short, I would say, form letter inviting us to meet with one of her staff officials. We replied and never had a meeting. Minister Qualtrough never replied. Minister Freeland never replied.

Instead of responding and dealing with a desperate situation, the government allowed 204,000 seniors to have their Guaranteed Income Supplement, or GIS, cut back or eliminated altogether over the last eight months.

Seniors’ organizations were flooded with calls, emails and letters from seniors desperately pleading for help. Diana Cable, Director of Policy and Research at CanAge, shared some excerpts from emails she had received from seniors who were struggling because of the government’s failure.

Allow me to read just a few examples:

I am a 70-year-old self-employed senior who has asked all the right questions to CRA and accountants . . . . I was never ever told GIS would be taken if I took CRB to cover my lost employment, which cost me dearly. . . .

I have many friends who are over 70 and have been evicted and are sleeping in their cars because of this screw-up. Winter with no shelter is a death sentence for tens of thousands who have been cut off through no fault of their own. This is very scary and truly insane. How is this possible in Canada?

I had my monthly income drop below the cost of my rent. . . .

Another of the emails reads:

I’m nearing crisis mode here. Going to have to succumb to selling my car, selling furniture, selling personal effects just to make it. . . .

Colleagues, this is nothing short of shameful. Even as we stand here today, this legislation changes nothing for seniors until July of this year when their GIS benefits will be restored. Furthermore, the government is going to force seniors to wait another two months before repaying them the income they have lost. The money will be welcome, but the damage has been done.

What of those who lost their homes because they couldn’t afford the rent? Or those who sold their car because they needed cash to buy groceries? Or those who lost their health because they couldn’t afford their medication? What of those who lost their lives because the stress was simply too much?

The GIS benefits can be repaid, but the cost of an incompetent government is difficult to calculate and can never be repaid. This is a price that Canadians have been paying for far too long.

Senator Mercer, thank you for supporting us.

Colleagues, as I said last week, our caucus supports this bill, but we reject this government’s incompetent, cavalier approach to enacting public policy and the impact that this has had on our most vulnerable Canadians.

Colleagues, let’s pass this bill today before the government can make another mess of things — today, colleagues. Thank you.

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