Changes to the federal employment insurance plan have turned into a major irritant between Quebec and Ottawa and will be one of the main items on the agenda when Pauline Marois and Stephen Harper hold a private meeting near Quebec City on Friday.
Aside from a brief encounter last fall at the Francophonie Summit in Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Friday's encounter will be the first official meeting between the two leaders since the election of the Parti Québécois minority government last September. Ms. Marois has a long list of demands for the Prime Minister, not the least of which includes control over employment insurance.
Last fall, the Harper government adopted major changes to the Employment Insurance Act that will cut benefits to seasonal workers who fail to comply with the new rules. According to Quebec, the changes will have a devastating impact on several regions of the province.
"For sure, employment insurance will be discussed … It will be unavoidable … because of the impact it will have on Quebeckers and the economy of Quebec." said Alexandre Cloutier, the province's Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs. "We want to know the number of workers affected, the industries affected, the number of people that will be forced on welfare, the costs for Quebec. The more the changes come into effect, the more it seems Ottawa neglected to weigh the impact they would have on Quebec."
Mr. Cloutier met recently with Mr. Harper's Quebec lieutenant, Industry Minister Christian Paradis, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where he argued Quebec's case. The province represents about 40 per cent of the total number of seasonal workers in the country.
Many could lose EI benefits and be forced onto the provincial welfare rolls if they fail to find off-season lower-paying jobs, as required under the tougher rules.
Quebec is also seeking to gain full control over federal funding of municipal infrastructure programs, culture and federal venture-capital initiatives.
The meeting with Mr. Harper comes at a time when the Marois government is defining a strategy regarding its so-called "sovereigntist governance" agenda. "There is a plan being prepared on sovereigntist governance that includes respecting Quebec jurisdictions, seeking more powers, advancing Quebec demands," Mr. Cloutier said.
The PQ says that eliminating the province's deficit is part of its drive toward building support for sovereignty. The austerity measures instituted by the government have angered many groups in the public sector.
The PQ insists, though, that reaching a zero deficit in 2014, as planned, is necessary to achieve sovereignty.
"We want to build a country and it is important to show Quebeckers that we have the ability to take charge of our destiny. As sovereigntists, this is the example we must give to Quebeckers," said Treasury Board President Stéphane Bédard.
At a party meeting next weekend, the PQ will adopt a plan to promote sovereignty as it seeks to initiate a public debate on independence.