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Fisherman Lloyd Robicheau next to his boat , Kyle Douglas, (L) at Fisherman's Reserve, Nova Scotia, May 18 , 2012.

PAUL DARROW/GLOBE AND MAIL

The debate over proposed changes to the $22-billion employment insurance system – which could force people to move to where the jobs are and penalize repeat claimants – has created a stir across the country, but nowhere more so than out east.

In Atlantic Canada, where nearly half of EI claimants have seasonal jobs in the fishery, construction, tourism and agriculture, EI is less an insurance program than an income maintenance plan. And it represents a major chunk of the region's economic pie: EI contributed about $2.8-billion to the Atlantic provincial economies in 2009 alone.

The last time a government attempted to overhaul the system, it paid a big price: 20 Liberal MPs from the four Atlantic provinces were thrown out of office in the 1997 election, largely on the back of Jean Chrétien's cuts for chronic claimants.

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But if Conservative ministers are worried about their re-election prospects, they're not saying so publicly. "I can't discuss cabinet confidence," says Defence Minister Peter MacKay, whose Central Nova riding has one of the highest unemployment rates in the province. Instead, he provided a detailed list of the more than $405-million in investments the government has made to his riding since 2006, arguing these have helped create jobs.

Although the government has yet to reveal its strategy, many of the workers who would be affected are concerned about the apparent direction. "If the Conservatives follow the route they are talking about and if they don't make something clear soon, it's going to really hurt them in the next election," warns Lloyd Robicheau, 52, who fishes for lobster and herring from Nova Scotia's Three Fathom Harbour.

Mr. Robicheau has fished for 29 years, and for the past six years he's also owned and operated a blueberry farm. But from late November to April, he draws unemployment insurance.

"If they think Ontario doesn't have seasonal workers, they better think again," he says. "If they never had the Maritimes, the West wouldn't be able to function, because half of the workers out there are from here. That's a fact."

The concern for Mr. Robicheau and others is that the Tory revamp would mostly be an attack on seasonal workers, who tend to live in rural areas, be older and have fewer employable skills.

"There is simply more at stake for Atlantic Canada," says Elizabeth Beale, economist and president of the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council (APEC). "We've got a bigger stake and share of our economy in non-urban areas and that's where employment insurance matters."

Dalhousie University economics professor Lars Osberg believes the proposed changes are all about optics – being tough on Maritimers is good for the Conservatives' Western base. In Alberta, for example, only 9.2 per cent of claimants are seasonal workers – the second lowest in the country. Nunavut reports 6.1 per cent.

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"We're such a small fraction of the national population that it doesn't make a difference if they are tough on us," he says, arguing that all of rural Nova Scotia, PEI and New Brunswick "fits into a small corner of Scarborough."

"I'm convinced that the Conservatives are hiding a very, very deeply held view that people should relocate to where jobs are and people who are frequent claimants of EI are somehow deserving of punishment," says Dominic LeBlanc, the Liberal MP for Beausejour, a riding in eastern New Brunswick.

Mr. Leblanc's suspicions were aroused earlier this week in Question Period, when Minister of State for Finance Ted Menzies, in answering questions about the government's proposed changes, noted there are 45,000 unemployed Nova Scotians and that 15,000 jobs will be created over the next 30 years because of the recent $25-billion shipbuilding contract.

"What the government confirmed," charges Mr. LeBlanc, " ... is that somebody who is unemployed in Yarmouth or Glace Bay will be expected to take an apartment in Halifax and move to Halifax because they're lucky enough there to have a different economic situation."

For lobster fisherman Mr. Robicheau that's "laughable." "What skills do I [have] Most of the people in my harbour, it's the same thing, they're getting older now. I can't see a lot of those fellows going into town and working for the Irving shipyard."

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