The Quebec government is calling on other provinces to support its demand for immediate changes to employment insurance measures that sparked widespread protest against Ottawa last spring. The call to arms is a response to a provincial task force that concluded the new EI rules had contributed to the impoverishment of the unemployed, especially women and seasonal workers.
“We are asking the federal government to change direction and acknowledge the report tabled this afternoon,” said Minister of Canadian Intergovernmental Affairs Alexandre Cloutier on Wednesday. “We want them to correct this situation. They have everything they need now. They didn’t even have studies to know the impact it [the reform] would have on the economy. Now they do.”
While reiterating the Parti Québécois’ demand for giving Quebec full powers over the employment insurance program, Labour Minister Agnès Maltais said the priority right now was to persuade Ottawa to review its changes.
“It doesn’t matter whether we are sovereignist or not. It’s a matter of taking care of the people of Quebec. That’s it!” Ms. Maltais said.
The EI changes hit Quebec’s outlying regions particularly hard with an estimated 40 per cent of Canada’s seasonal workers living in the province. The task force called for the removal of different categories of unemployed and the elimination of the criteria that required workers to accept jobs up to an hour’s drive from their residence or lose benefits.
The Atlantic provinces also blamed Ottawa for failing to weigh the consequences of the changes on their seasonal workers. The four Atlantic provinces set up a joint task force, which worked with its Quebec counterpart and is expected to support several of Quebec’s demands.
In releasing its report on Wednesday, the National Commission Examining Employment Insurance, co-chaired by former Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe and former Parti Québécois minister Rita Dionne-Marsolais also called for the creation of an “autonomous” employment insurance fund managed at arm’s length from Ottawa by an independent body.
The objective of an autonomous fund would be to stop the federal government from dipping into it to pay other bills. The report estimated that between 1994 and 2008, Ottawa withdrew $57-billion from the fund to cover expenditures unrelated to unemployment. The task force also called for the creation of a $15-billion stabilization fund as an insurance against a sudden increase in unemployment.
“This is less than the $57-billion taken by Ottawa in the past. Don’t forget that the money belongs to the businesses and workers who contribute money into the fund,” Ms. Dionne-Marsolais said.
Another key recommendation calls for the negotiation of an administrative agreement between Quebec and Ottawa that would give control of the day-to-day management of the employment insurance program to the province. The report concluded that it would be impossible to adopt a constitutional amendment giving Quebec full powers over employment insurance. It proposes instead an administrative agreement that would recognize Ottawa’s authority to set the general guidelines but give Quebec the right to enforce them to meet its specific employment and job training needs.
“It would be in everyone’s interest to be closer to the needs of the employers and employees and respond to job needs, which are different from one region to another,” Mr. Duceppe said.