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Support for Former Nortel Employees

 

Welcome, minister. We all remember the days when Nortel was a flagship enterprise of this country around the world, but in 2009 they filed for bankruptcy protection. When they did that, nearly 400 Nortel employees who were on long-term disability, some of them with cancer or heart failure, lost not only their jobs but their medical benefits as well, benefits that they had paid into and the company had been paying into. But when they filed for bankruptcy protection, they ceased to pay into it. Oh, they made sure bonuses were given to their executives. They made sure all the other provisions in the Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act, which you have the responsibility for, minister, were met, but they were way down the list and they certainly didn’t get looked after.

In the spring of 2011, I tried presenting a bill in this chamber to that effect, with the help of my colleague in the other chamber, Liberal MP Mark Eyking, and with the support of your caucus, but it died on the Order Paper. We attempted to rectify it, but it died on the Order Paper when the election was called.

Now in 2012, the previous government did provide some protection for employee long-term disability plans going forward, but it did nothing for people that were already in the system trying to get a piece of the money they so rightly deserved.

It’s been eight years since that bankruptcy filing, and these individuals, I can tell you, are in dire straits. They did not ask to get sick or to be injured, and they now face an uncertain future where they will be forced to choose between medical expenses. All of their disability allowances, whatever they get, are eaten up by medical expenses. They have to decide between that, shelter and food, while the executives and the other stakeholders have been looked after under the act.

What does this government intend to do to help these disabled former Nortel employees?

Hon. Navdeep Singh Bains, P.C., M.P., Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development: Thank you very much again. I’d like to thank the honourable senator for his question. I know you’ve raised this issue with me and others in the past. I want to applaud the efforts of my colleague Mark Eyking on this issue. I wasn’t in opposition. I was at home with my two lovely girls, getting ready to knock on doors, but Mark Eyking put a lot of effort into this initiative. It is about how we treat, in an equitable and fair fashion, our employees and pensioners.

Nortel, of course, is such an important example in Canadian history. Obviously, we talked moments ago about creating successful global companies, and it is disappointing to see the demise of Nortel, but also how employees were treated during this process.

The point from the CCAA perspective is always finding that balance of how to create investment opportunities in Canada and how to position ourselves globally vis-à-vis the CCAA and what other jurisdictions are doing. That’s something we have to keep in mind because we are fighting for investment opportunities in Canada.

At the same time, we have to find that balance of how to treat our employees and pensioners in an equitable manner. That’s something I look forward to working on with you and my colleagues in the other chamber to address in a meaningful way, and anything we can do to help the pensioners is important.

A few days ago, there was a court ruling with respect to this issue, so we’re following that closely and seeing what benefits would be received by the pensioners. If there are issues there, we would be more than willing to work with them. I know my department officials have been engaged with the former employees from Nortel as well, and we take this issue very seriously.

Senator Eggleton: I thank you for that. I think we need to bear in mind that what we’re trying to do is not to get government to pay money out. They’re going to have to rely upon government support if they can’t get Nortel, but they want Nortel to pay. They want the bankruptcy fund, and they want the money that’s left. Instead of going to their executives, they want Nortel to live up to its obligations. There is still that possibility.

I take it what you’re saying is that you’re still focused on doing something to help these former Nortel employees in the system who are in dire straits, and you are focused and feel it is the right thing to do, and they should in fact get support.

Mr. Bains: Again, I thank you for your passion on this issue and your ability to communicate the concerns and the frustrations I’ve heard from the pensioners as well. That’s why we’re engaged with them, to determine what we can do to assist them. As you mention, as a government we have programs in place to deal with that. There are also obligations that Nortel has, so we’re trying to determine the best path forward.