Skip to main content

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper responds to a question during a town hall style interview in VancouverAdrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

One of five new Conservative senators recently penned a detailed criticism of Ottawa's Employment Insurance reforms, warning they will drive down wages.

Writing in Le Devoir in June, economist Diane Bellemare argued against the Conservative government's plans in a column entitled Employment Insurance reform: the incoherence of the federal government.

The EI reforms – which were buried inside the Conservative government's omnibus budget bill and are expected to be released in detailed form through regulations this fall – are causing considerable political debate in Quebec and Atlantic Canada, which have more frequent users of EI.

Friday's appointment of Ms. Bellemare is particularly noteworthy, given that Parti Québécois premier-designate Pauline Marois has put the Conservatives on notice that she will ask them to transfer jurisdiction of EI to Quebec.

In a brief interview with Radio-Canada on Friday, Ms. Bellemare acknowledged that she brings "baggage" to the Senate, but that serving in public office will be a privilege.

She suggested that further changes could be made to EI that all sides would accept.

"There are discussions to have," she said. "We can have reforms that benefit everyone. That's my specialty. … It's always possible to have mutually advantageous solutions."

The four other Senate appointments announced on Friday are Tobias Enverga, a Toronto project manager with the Bank of Montreal who is a leader in the city's Filipino community; Thanh Hai Ngo, a citizenship judge, former teacher and former president of the Vietnamese Community Association of Ottawa; Thomas Johnson McInnis, a lawyer who held cabinet posts in the Nova Scotia government between 1978 and 1993; and Paul McIntyre, a Charlo, N.B., lawyer who, according to the Prime Minister's news release, writes poetry in his spare time.

Ms. Bellemare is no stranger to politics, having served as a candidate and economic policy adviser for the now-defunct Action Démocratique du Québec.

It's not clear yet if the Conservatives plan to give Ms. Bellemare a prominent role as the party updates its Quebec strategy. She has been a regular economics commentator on Quebec television, but does not appear to have close ties to the federal Conservatives.

The EI changes would create three categories of users based on frequency of use. People who have received benefits several times before will be expected to take any available work after six weeks, even at a pay cut of up to 30 per cent from their previous job.

Ms. Bellemare questioned in June whether Ottawa was trying to cut EI expenses to help erase the federal deficit.

"These reforms will also increase the downward pressure on wages and won't encourage companies to invest in technology," she wrote in French.

The ADQ never formed government during its nearly two decades on the Quebec scene. Its popularity peaked in the 2007 election, before the party dwindled and merged in January with the new Coalition Avenir Québec. The CAQ finished third in this week's provincial election, but will hold the balance of power because the first-place PQ failed to win a majority.

The Prime Minister's Office said none of the five new Senators were available for interviews. In a statement, the PMO said all have pledged to support legislation to limit the term lengths of senators and encourage the provinces and territories to elect Senate nominees.

Tim Uppal, the federal minister of state for democratic reform, said he's encouraged that some provinces – including New Brunswick and British Columbia – are looking at following Alberta's lead in electing Senate nominees.

The NDP – which is the official opposition in the House of Commons but has no representation in the Senate and wants the chamber abolished – said the appointments go against Mr. Harper's promises that he would not appoint unelected senators.

The NDP also noted that the Prime Minister will be able to appoint 14 more senators before the next election.

The 105-seat Senate now has 62 Conservatives, 40 Liberals, one Progressive Conservative and two independents.