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Minister of Human Resources Diane Finley speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons in Ottawa on Feb. 16, 2012.

Sean Kilpatrick/Sean Kilpatrick / The Canadian Press

The Canadian government has a leadership role to play in encouraging Canadians to be adaptive to fast-changing economic conditions, to recognize that they will have multiple jobs or careers in a lifetime, and that they need to be agile, ready to be trained and retrained and mobile. The employment-insurance changes announced on Thursday by Human Resources Minister Diane Finley are modest steps in that direction.

But while the government has the principles right, it could have contributed more powerfully to that national debate if it had held it in Parliament. The principles – of a stronger push toward vacant jobs for frequent users of employment insurance; of Canadians having first crack at jobs now done by temporary foreign workers – could have been hashed out, fought over with the opposition parties and given a wider and more convincing demonstration.

Instead, the government's budget bill this spring contained a brief reference to existing legislation that gave unemployed individuals the right to turn down jobs outside their field or below their previous pay; that right was to be taken away, and the Human Resources Minister was to be given the power to establish criteria to determine what constitutes suitable employment. Those criteria will be published and a public consultation will be held – but they will not be subject to a parliamentary debate or vote.

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As Ms. Finley set them out, those criteria would treat unemployed workers according to how frequently and how long they have drawn benefits over the previous five years. Frequent users would face more pressure than in the past to take any job, and to accept jobs at 70 per cent of their previous pay. It will become much harder for unemployed workers to be idly waiting for vanished opportunities to return. (There is no sense that workers would have to take any job, despite the comments from Finance Minister Jim Flaherty 10 days ago that "there is no bad job" and that he had worked as a taxi driver and hockey referee.)

Canada has a glaring mismatch between the number of jobs going begging, especially in Western Canada, and the numbers of people without work. Some of that problem lies in a skills mismatch, or shortage; some of it in regional patterns of unemployment; and some of it in disincentives built into employment insurance. The country has a big stake in making sure it has enough workers for available jobs.

It is hard to square the increasing numbers of temporary foreign workers brought in for rural and urban jobs – 190,769 last year, up from 163,543 in 2007 – with the growth in unemployment over that same period. Canada shouldn't force engineers and doctors – or finance ministers – to pick strawberries, but it should make sure the long-term or frequently unemployed are given information about available jobs and a first chance at them. It is not too much to expect Canadians to commute to an available job or for that matter, to switch cities, provinces and careers.

Ultimately, whether embodied in regulations or legislation, the employment-insurance changes deliver a message that the sun is setting on the old job world, and that more adaptability needs to be shown in the new one.

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