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Harper rejects Quebec’s demand for EI rule changes

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, left, and Quebec Premier Pauline Marois walk in to participate at an announcement Friday, February 1, 2013 in Lévis Que. Mr. Harper has categorically rejected Quebec’s demands for changes to tough new employment insurance rules that Premier Pauline Marois says will have “dramatic consequences” on seasonal workers in her province.

Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has categorically rejected Quebec's demands for changes to tough new employment insurance rules that Premier Pauline Marois says will have "dramatic consequences" on seasonal workers in her province.

Even before a bilateral meeting with Ms. Marois began on Friday, Mr. Harper said Ottawa has no intention of relaxing the rules, let alone surrendering jurisdiction over the program to Quebec as the PQ government is demanding.

"As you know all too well, employment insurance is clearly a federal jurisdiction according to the Canadian Constitution. Obviously, we have every intention of respecting the jurisdictions," Mr. Harper said before meeting with Ms. Marois.

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Last fall, the Harper government made major changes to the Employment Insurance Act that will force unemployed Canadians to look harder and further for available jobs. The new rules are expected to cut benefits to seasonal workers.

It is estimated that about 40 per cent of the country's seasonal workers live in Quebec. During the 40-minute working meeting with the Prime Minister, Ms. Marois said Mr. Harper assured her that unemployed seasonal workers will receive benefits if they cannot find another job within a one-hour commute from their home as required under the new rules. However, Ms. Marois said she is skeptical.

"I have reserved optimism and mitigated confidence. Mr. Harper told me he will not change the law nor will he change the rules. Yet it seems we share the same philosophy and perspective on this matter [of protecting the benefits of the unemployed]," Ms. Marois told reporters after the meeting. "The law as we see it represents a high risk. …We will be vigilant."

The Quebec Premier said there will be other meetings, and if need be, she will reiterate her demands for changes if too many Quebec workers lose their benefits.

Given Mr. Harper's unyielding response, Ms. Marois said she will pursue her so-called "sovereigntist governance" agenda later, which includes seeking more powers for Quebec in areas such as culture.

"We are working on a plan of sovereigntist governance," Ms. Marois said. "Once we determine the plan, we will present it and outline our demands and what we want to repatriate, what powers we want transferred. But this wasn't the object of today's meeting."

The two leaders agreed to set up a joint committee to oversee the construction of the new multibillion-dollar Champlain bridge in Montreal. In addition, Quebec and Ottawa have been working closely on the Canada-Europe free trade deal, which is expected to be signed in the coming months, and have agreed to extend that co-operation to the impending free-trade talks with Asian countries.

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While some expected sparks to fly between the recently elected separatist Premier and Mr. Harper, Ms. Marois emerged from the meeting quite satisfied.

"It was a successful meeting," she said. "It was a very good meeting."

Yet several contentious issues between the two governments remained unresolved, including the Harper government's decision to reform the Senate. Quebec on Friday denounced Ottawa's decision to ask the Supreme Court of Canada to rule on its Senate reform plan. The Quebec government accused Ottawa of "short-circuiting" its own case before the Quebec Court of Appeal that argues the Senate reform proposal is unconstitutional.

"The Quebec government has already referred certain matters regarding our legislation to the courts, and obviously, we are taking that into account," Mr. Harper said, adding that his government will make a detailed announcement on the matter "in the very near future."

Ms. Marois argued that Ottawa has no constitutional right to reform the Senate without the consent of all provinces.

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