Canada's employment insurance system is a vestige of Old Canada, antiquated debates about national unity and outdated understandings of the labour market. Modern Canada needs a system consistent with new regional realities and the new world of work. Modern Canada needs a system that promotes a shared sense of citizenship.
Canada once featured poor provinces and rich provinces. But this, too, has changed. The regional divisions of the past have been muted by economic transformation. Formerly thriving manufacturing areas are experiencing structural transitions; others are experiencing resource-based booms.
Many groups of workers are poorly served by the current system, including the self-employed, part-timers, those who hold multiple jobs, contract workers, immigrants and younger workers. Those who fall outside of the EI umbrella are just as poorly served by the system in Halifax and St. John's as they are in Kingston and Saskatoon.
Unemployment for lower skilled workers, along with labour shortages for some highly skilled positions, are economic and social concerns. And these twin challenges exist in every region of Canada.
It's been difficult to have a principled discussion about EI in this country without descending into national unity debates. But times have changed. We have national challenges that require national solutions. At the core of the Mowat Centre EI Task Force's recommendations, released this week, is a belief that a new national framework is required, one more transparent, client-centred and equitable.
It's certainly the case that workers in different areas and different sectors use the EI system in different ways. In some places, for example, EI is relied on to a greater degree than in others as a form of ongoing annual income support. These facts should be accommodated as a process of reform unfolds.
But the task force's bottom-line recommendation is to create a nationally standardized EI system supplemented by new benefits for those who are currently outside the EI umbrella and others not well-served by the current system. If adopted, this will be beneficial to workers and businesses in Halifax and Calgary.
We have an opportunity to build a strengthened national program, one that's a source of national unity rather than regional division. The federal government is capable of designing such a program.
Ottawa has had notable successes in building income security programs that are national in scope and based on equal treatment, including those that support the elderly (CPP/QPP, Old Age Security, Guaranteed Income Supplement) and those that support children (National Child Benefit). More recently, the Working Income Tax Benefit helps low-income workers stay in the labour market.
Debates continue over the appropriate level of benefits delivered by these programs, but few challenge the legitimacy or importance of these programs. This is because these federal initiatives treat Canadians equally according to a set of easily understood criteria.
It's possible to rebuild EI so it works in all regions. Old conceptions of region are shifting, replaced by a new sense of pan-Canadian identity and shared citizenship. We need EI to reflect these new realities.
So what makes us think reform is achievable?
It's clear that the ground is shifting under conventional EI reform debates, even if many of us don't know it yet. A program that encourages seasonal work and distributes funds from businesses and low-income workers in and around cities to support benefits they themselves can't access is not sustainable. Most of us understand this. The federal government has an opportunity to do something about this.
The time is right to revisit debates about assistance for the unemployed and move forward with transformative changes to a foundational piece of our social safety net. There'll be challenges in the short term in moving to such a system, but, once implemented, it'll be an enormous source of unity and shared common purpose: to build a social program that works for workers and businesses in all regions of the country.
Matthew Mendelsohn is director of the Mowat Centre.