The Conservative government is giving its clearest signal yet that a hard line is coming on employment insurance, with Finance Minister Jim Flaherty saying to expect tougher rules on the type of work Canadians must consider while job-hunting on EI.
"There'll be a broader definition and people will have to engage more in the work force," said Mr. Flaherty, who then pointed to his own résumé from his student days at Toronto's Osgoode Hall Law School. "I was brought up in a certain way. There is no bad job. The only bad job is not having a job.
"So I drove a taxi. You know, I refereed hockey. You do what you have to do to make a living."
The government has yet to release details about its plans for reforming EI, a policy area that federal leaders often shy away from in light of the political sensitivities around its highly regional nature.
Immigration Minister Jason Kenney was the first to say the government planned to tackle EI, asking why fish plants in Prince Edward Island were bringing in temporary foreign workers in areas of high local unemployment.
But the budget-implementation bill, C-38, as currently worded removes existing definitions of work that EI recipients can turn down as "not suitable," either because it is not in their field, pays less or does not offer good working conditions.
Mr. Flaherty made his comments in advance of a House of Commons vote to send C-38 to committee.
When pressed on what the new definition will say, Mr. Flaherty told reporters to ask the minister responsible. Yet Human Resources Minister Diane Finley has yet to give details, saying they will be announced over the coming "weeks and months."
Her office has said sections of the Employment Insurance Act on suitable employment are being moved out of that legislation via the budget bill and will return in a new form later through regulation. That means the broader definition Mr. Flaherty mentions can be approved by cabinet alone without parliamentary approval once the budget bill becomes law.
University of Ottawa economics professor David Gray, who has written extensively on EI policy for the C.D. Howe Institute, said it appears the government plans to target parts of the country where the generosity of EI creates disincentives to take available jobs. Dr. Gray suspects this will have a particular impact on seasonal workers who routinely turn to the program year after year.
Canada's EI program currently divides the country into 58 "economic regions" where compensation is more generous depending on high local unemployment. The most generous regions offer up to 45 weeks of EI. They can be found in the four Atlantic provinces, primarily rural Quebec, Windsor and northern Ontario, northern Manitoba, northern Saskatchewan, northern B.C. and the three territories.
Dr. Gray said EI adds to the labour-market problems in these areas. "Unemployment insurance is easy to get and lasts a long time," he said. "Because of that, the labour market has thoroughly internalized that and has adjusted so that many of the jobs that are available are very much tailored around the unemployment insurance system."
He expressed hope the new rules will encourage Canadians to move in order to find work, yet the government has said previously that any changes are aimed at linking unemployed workers with nearby jobs.
Mr. Flaherty said the changes are needed in light of Canada's labour shortages.
"We need more people, properly trained for the jobs that are available," he said. "That means we're going to have to encourage more persons with disabilities to work, more seniors to work, more aboriginal people to work – including young people – and to give them the support that they need."
NDP MP Peggy Nash said forcing well-trained workers into low-skilled jobs risks exacerbating Canada's skills shortage.
"It is a colossal waste of skills if we have people who are trained as computer engineers or teachers or nurses or electricians who are working in retail, Tim Hortons or picking fruit in the agricultural sector because it means they may not be available when a job in their field comes open," she said.
Dr. Gray dismissed the NDP's arguments, noting that skilled workers are more likely to move rather than abandon their careers by accepting a low-paying job.
"That just doesn't make any sense at all," he said. "If you take an engineer and make them work at Tim Hortons, that engineer will likely move to another part of the country, to go someplace where his or her skills are better remunerated."