OTTAWA - The Harper Conservatives are signalling they are preparing to get tough with unemployed Canadians who refuse jobs they consider below them or too far away.
Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said Monday new rule changes to define "suitable employment" and "reasonable" efforts at finding work have yet to come down, but as far as he's concerned people should be prepared to take pretty well any available job.
"There is no bad job, the only bad job is not having a job," he told reporters. "I drove a taxi, I refereed hockey. You do what you have to do to make a living."
Opposition critics leaped on the minister, accusing him of "insulting" Canadians who through no fault of their own find themselves out of work.
The economy has created 750,000 jobs since the recession, but the unemployment rate, last measured at 7.3 per cent, remains more than a full point higher than before the 2008-09 economic downturn. That means because of population growth, there are more unemployed Canadians today than four years ago, and more who have simply given up and left the labour force.
However, some business groups have complained they are experiencing labour shortages in some parts of the country, particularly Alberta and Saskatchewan, where the jobless rate is about two percentage points below the national average.
Flaherty agreed with that assessment and added that in future years, the issue will be one of worker shortages, not unemployment.
The economy's challenge in the future will be finding ways to encourage more handicapped Canadians, seniors, aboriginal people and the young to work, he said.
"We are going to have significant labour shortages in this country," he said.
"That means we are going to have to encourage more persons with disabilities to work, more seniors to work, more aboriginal people to work, including young people. We need to get rid of disincentives in the employment insurance system to people joining the work force."
The minister's statement came in a news conference in which he pressed the case for early passage of a massive omnibus bill the opposition has labelled a "Trojan horse" because it bundles together a wide array of issues, from environmental reviews to EI, immigration, old age pensions and public service cutbacks.
Flaherty made clear that the definition of what constitutes "suitable employment" under the Employment Insurance Act will be decided by Human Resources Minister Diane Finley.
But NDP critic Peggy Nash said Canadians should be concerned about what appears to be a hard line taken from the finance minister.
"If you are a computer software developer, will you be working at Tim Hortons? If you are an unemployed teacher or nurse, will you be working in the agricultural sector picking fruit?," she asked.
"(That) is a colossal waste of skills ... talent and training."
Nash pointed out that EI is not a government funded program, but an insurance policy paid for by employers and workers.
Liberal critic Marc Garneau, a former astronaut, called Flaherty's comments "insulting," and a threat to cut off Canadians currently collecting employment benefits if they won't accept work in "another sector (or) another town."
Along with changes to EI, the budget bill also proposes a change to the temporary foreign worker program to single out jobs that Canadians could fill.