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The Globe and Mail

Atlantic premiers say EI changes an attack on seasonal workers

Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter talks with reporters in Sussex, N.B. on May 15, 2011.


The Harper government's new Employment Insurance regime is an attack on seasonal workers and, by extension, rural Canada, charge Atlantic premiers and senior politicians.

The Atlantic labour force has a higher proportion of seasonal workers than other provinces, given the large rural population and seasonal industries including the fishery, tourism, forestry and agriculture.

For Nova Scotia's NDP Premier Darrell Dexter, the government's new measures indicate that Stephen Harper believes there is widespread abuse in the system as a result of seasonal workers.

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"The people who they most seem to be targeting are actually people who are in seasonal jobs. Like, that is not an abuse. That is part of rural culture of Canada," Mr. Dexter said. "If they see that as a problem then they essentially see the culture of rural Canada as a problem."

Mr. Dexter said there are 20,000 people who are working in seasonal industries – agriculture, the fisheries and forestry. In addition, EI transfers provide income into Atlantic Canada, which circulates in the region and affects the economy in a "very tangible way."

In fact, EI benefits totaled $2.8-billion in Atlantic Canada, according to 2009 Statistics Canada figures.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, Advance Education and Skills Minister Joan Burke is concerned about how the changes will affect her province's traditional seasonal industries, such as the fishery, and also its rural population.

She said she is not clear either about the change that would see workers commute an hour for work. An hour's commute along a highway in Newfoundland is a lot different than someone hopping on public transit in Ontario with a bus pass, she noted.

Earlier this week, Premier Kathy Dunderdale was anxious about what the federal government would propose, especially the idea that seasonal workers could lose benefits if they didn't travel for work.

Ms. Burke, who spoke to Human Resources Minister Diane Finley, said the "dialogue" between Newfoundland and the federal government will be continuing.

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In Saskatchewan and Alberta, where acute labour shortages are threatening to slow the booming economies, governments welcomed the news, though they cautioned they hoped for more reforms to help shift labour west.

They're also split on what effect the changes will have. Saskatchewan is optimistic the changes could help address labour shortages, while Alberta doesn't expect a major difference.

"These changes are I think a positive move in the right direction and we're generally very supportive of what we see happening, but I think one wants to be cautious in terms of overemphasizing the impact with respect to our labour market challenges," Alberta International and Intergovernmental Relations Minister Cal Dallas told The Globe, noting Albertans had "expressed some general concerns" that the existing EI framework did little to address labour shortages in booming regions. Alberta expects a shortfall of more than 100,000 workers over the next decade.

"I think what we see from Ottawa is a solid first step," Rob Norris, Saskatchewan's Minister of Advanced Education, Employment and Immigration, said in an interview. The province currently has 11,000 open jobs, he said. "I think we're going to see some enhanced labour mobility, and certainly from Saskatchewan's perspective, that's going to help."

In Quebec, the government expressed concerns that vulnerable workers could be negatively impacted.

"It is vital for the population to have access to a social security net that is adapted to their reality, that is to say an employment insurance plan that is flexible and the ensures an income to workers who unfortunately lose their jobs," said Julie Boulet, Minister of Employment and Social Solidarity.

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The new measures will create three classes of EI claimants – frequent users of EI will be penalized while those who use the system occasionally will be given more flexibility to look for jobs in their fields.

In addition, the controversial issue of what constitutes "suitable employment" is defined as a job that is within a one-hour commute from a recipient's community. The commute could be even more than an hour, however, where commuting is the norm.

Premiers in Atlantic Canada see this as another issue of affordability among already disadvantaged workers.

"Here's the thing: We don't have a Go Train," said Prince Edward Island's Premier Robert Ghiz about Ontario's regional transit system. "If the federal government wants to spend $100-million on a Go Train, then some of these things may work."

Until then, Premier Ghiz said, the Harper government "needs to realize that not every province and every jurisdiction is the same."

New Brunswick Liberal MP Dominic LeBlanc, who represents a rural riding in the province, said that "at the end of the day you are punishing people who are on the very low end of the economic ladder."

There are 750,000 people in New Brunswick, of which 350,000 are in the labour force. In an average year, over 100,000 of them – or one-third of the workforce – is at some point on EI.

Asking these people to fill up their vehicles with gas and commute into the city is much different than asking an unemployed worker in Toronto or Oakville to jump on public transit and go to work.

The closest subway to his riding is in Boston.

Aly Vitunski, a spokeswoman for Ontario Finance Minister Dwight Duncan, said he had not seen details of the proposed changes. "The little bit we do know shows that it doesn't give us the type of reform that Ontario workers need and deserve," she said.

With reports from Josh Wingrove in Edmonton, Rhéal Séguin in Quebec City and Karen Howlett in Toronto

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