They cover four provinces and three political parties, but Canada’s Atlantic premiers are united in their concerns over the “void” of information from Ottawa over changes to Employment Insurance.
The premiers say they want assurances that seasonal workers won’t get caught up in the new rules.
Emerging from a face-to-face meeting in Brudenell, PEI on Wednesday, they announced a plan of their own called the “Atlantic work force partnership.” The four provinces are promising to work together on skills training and matching workers with regional labour shortages, particularly for large-scale projects.
The four premiers also say they will write to Prime Minister Stephen Harper to ask for more details on Ottawa’s plans.
“Right now, it’s unfortunate that that information has not been provided, because when there’s a void, there’s legitimately a lot of concerns,” said New Brunswick Premier David Alward, a Progressive Conservative.
Mr. Alward was a federal public servant from 1982 until 1996, including a stint at the Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, which manages EI. He said that experience leaves him doubtful the new rules will be flexible, as federal ministers and MPs have promised.
Later in an interview, Mr. Alward said the provinces need to know exactly how seasonal industries, which play a big role in the Atlantic economy, will be affected.
“Ultimately, we believe that our seasonal workers add great value to our economy,” he said. “People in Ottawa love to eat our lobster, they love to eat McCain French fries, our mussels and oysters are world class, they love to visit Anne of Green Gables or the rocks. So they need to know and understand what the implication is.”
Changes to EI were included in the April 26 federal budget bill, C-38, without a previous announcement. It wasn’t until May 24 that Human Resources Minister Diane Finley gave details, saying Ottawa will create three new tiers of EI recipients. A new category for “frequent” EI users will offer six weeks of benefits in which to find a job in a “similar occupation” before the recipient is expected to accept any work that offers at least 70 per cent of previous pay or risk being cut off from EI.
Ms. Finley was asked by the NDP in the House of Commons on Wednesday to respond to the Atlantic premiers.
“I’m open to hearing their concerns and taking them into consideration,” Ms. Finley replied. The minister’s office later added that EI is a federal program that will remain “fair and flexible.”
The four premiers – including Liberal PEI Premier Robert Ghiz, Nova Scotia’s NDP Premier Darrell Dexter and Progressive Conservative Premier Kathy Dunderdale of Newfoundland and Labrador – said there should be special rules for Atlantic Canada so that seasonal industries such as fishing do not lose trained workers because they have been forced to take new jobs in the off-season from which they might not return.
Mr. Dexter expressed concern that recent discussion of EI appears to be based on stereotypes of Atlantic Canada.
“There was a bit of a consensus [on Wednesday] that there seemed to be almost a political statement that is being made somehow to the Conservative base who have a wrong but nonetheless firmly held view about employment insurance and about seasonal workers ... and Atlantic Canada,” Mr. Dexter said in an interview.
Mr. Ghiz suggested the EI changes could be a ballot box question in the region during the next federal election.
“I can’t change what the federal government is doing,” he said. “We’re lucky we live in a democracy. If people want to make change, they’ll be able to make change when the time comes around.”