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Why fixing what's really wrong with EI won't be easy

Human Resources Minister Diane Finley speaks to the media about changes to Employment Insurance late last month.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Ottawa is taking direct aim at seasonal workers in rural Canada with its vow to change the employment insurance regime.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty says Ottawa will no longer tolerate Canadians sitting around collecting pogey when there's work to do.

"The only bad job is not having a job," Mr. Flaherty said last week, recalling how he drove a taxi and refereed hockey to get through law school.

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Fixing what's really wrong with EI won't be easy.

Reform runs smack into an essential flaw in Canada's Parliamentary system. The 308-seat House of Commons is caught in a time warp, reflecting a Canada that no longer exists.

Every year the country becomes more urban, suburban and ethnically diverse.

The distribution of MPs, on the other hand, represents another Canada. Beneath the Peace Tower, MPs speak for a Canada that's whiter, older, more rural and skewed to the smaller provinces, such as Saskatchewan and Newfoundland and Labrador.

It's not just about democratic unfairness. It's about unfair policy.

The EI regime – and Ottawa's historic reluctance to change it – is an unfortunate byproduct of this flawed electoral map.

EI is a national insurance plan in name only. All workers pay into the system at the same rate, regardless of where they live. But the benefits fluctuate greatly. Seasonal workers in rural areas, where unemployment is often higher, typically get more generous benefits, without having to work nearly as long.

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The system treats new Canadians, young people and part-time workers, who are heavily concentrated in Canada's largest cities, a lot less generously. They may get little or no EI when they're out of work.

EI isn't an isolated example. Canada's electoral map influences a vast array of federal policies and programs.

"A lot of the discussion around EI, infrastructure and public transit often represents an older Canada, and the debate hasn't changed in 30 years," lamented Matthew Mendelsohn, director of the Mowat Centre at the University of Toronto.

Think of the highly protected dairy and poultry industry, which benefits 15,000 farmers, but makes 30 million consumers pay more for milk and cheese.

Then there's the way Ottawa spreads around business subsidies and infrastructure cash. Ottawa may get more political mileage putting $50,000 into a hockey rink in Watrous, Sask., than spending hundreds of millions on mass transit in Toronto.

It also extends to tax policy. Just before last year's election, the Conservatives introduced a $3,000 a year tax credit for roughly 85,000 volunteer firefighters, virtually all of whom live in rural communities. Forget about a tax break if you work at a Toronto homeless shelter or a Vancouver food bank.

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It's a basic pillar of democracy that every citizen's vote is equal. But widely varying riding sizes mean voter equality is farther from reality in Canada than in most other industrialized countries, according to a recent Mowat Institute report.

Every Canadian voter gets one MP, but the ratio of voters to that MP varies a lot. The roughly 140,000 voters in the fast-growing and ethnically diverse Toronto-area riding of Brampton get one. The 19,000 people of Labrador also get one.

For decades now, voters in and around the largest cities have been losing clout as seat distribution falls behind population growth.

Canadians will get a rare chance in the coming months to help redraw the electoral map. Last year's Bill C-20 added 30 new House seats to reflect population growth over the past decade – 15 to Ontario, six each to Alberta and B.C., and 3 for Quebec.

In the next month or so, the Electoral Boundaries Commission is due to release a proposed new riding map, based as near as possible to representation by population within each province, and then begin months of public consultation. After initial revisions, MPs will get a crack at altering the map further when a parliamentary committee reviews the changes, likely this fall.

Cities and visible minorities stand to be better represented after the revisions. But Mr. Mendelsohn pointed out that if the past is any guide rural communities and smaller provinces will lobby hard to maintain their historic advantages. And he said significant inequities are likely to persist.

But change is clearly coming. The Conservatives picked up dozens of new suburban seats in last year's election.

The shifting electoral map gives Ottawa even more reason to challenge old school orthodoxy, such as EI and supply management.

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About the Author
National Business Correspondent

Barrie McKenna is correspondent and columnist in The Globe and Mail's Ottawa bureau. From 1997 until 2010, he covered Washington from The Globe's bureau in the U.S. capital. During his U.S. posting, he traveled widely, filing stories from more than 30 states. Mr. McKenna has also been a frequent visitor to Japan and South Korea on reporting assignments. More

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