BRUDENELL, P.E.I. - Discontent with proposed changes to employment insurance in Atlantic Canada grew Wednesday as the region's premiers stood together in calling on Prime Minister Stephen Harper to provide more information on the measures.
The premiers say they don't have enough information on the proposed rules and how they could impact the economies in their provinces, so they're writing Stephen Harper a letter seeking clarity.
Premier Robert Ghiz of Prince Edward Island said they need a guarantee that the four Atlantic provinces won't be disproportionately affected if the changes are implemented.
"We're going to stand united in looking for more dialogue," Ghiz said Wednesday after the premiers concluded their annual meeting in Brudenell, P.E.I.
"We want the federal government to realize how important Atlantic Canada is to the overall economy."
New Brunswick Premier David Alward was more vocal Wednesday in his opposition to the changes than he has been in the past, saying Ottawa must be more upfront on its EI changes after not consulting with the premiers.
"We are calling on the federal government to fill those gaps and to provide the necessary information so that we do know and understand what those impacts are," Alward said.
He said federal politicians should remember that Atlantic Canada's seasonal industries are an integral part of the entire country's economy.
"The last time I checked, people in Ottawa liked to eat lobster and they like McCain's french fries as well," he quipped.
One of the federal government's proposed measures would require regular recipients of the EI program to consider lower paying jobs in unrelated occupations that could require a commute of up to an hour.
The premiers say such changes don't take into account the reality of working in seasonal industries in their region, such as farming, fishing and tourism.
"It's not like we're going to have an IT company set up next to a fish plant that only operates for eight months a year, so people will work four months in a fish plant and move over to an IT company for the eight months," Ghiz said. "That's not going to happen."
Ghiz said he's concerned that if people are encouraged to leave for other jobs, they may not return.
Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Kathy Dunderdale said the federal government doesn't seem to understand that programs need to be tailored to various parts of the country.
"Treating everybody the same doesn't work, because that doesn't mean that you're treating everybody fairly," she said.
"I think there's a real disconnect between Ottawa and the reality of people's lives."
The premiers also agreed to conduct an inventory of skilled labour in the region to see what jobs and training will be required for more than 350 major projects in the region in the near future. They estimate that those projects, which are at various stages of development, are valued at $71 billion.
Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter said seasonal industries, training and EI are all linked.
"So if this is going to change, then we need to know how that is going to change," Dexter said.
In an email, a spokeswoman for Human Resources Minister Diane Finley said the federal government is open to hearing feedback on the proposed changes.
"As we face unprecedented labour and skills shortages, it is important that we ensure that the EI program is working most effectively for Canada and Canadians," Alyson Queen said.
"That includes better connecting Canadians with available opportunities in their local area and clarifying their responsibilities while collecting employment insurance."
The federal New Democrats said the Conservative government should heed the concerns of the Atlantic premiers.
"Atlantic Canada is being attacked," NDP fisheries critic Robert Chisholm said in a statement.
"These changes to EI will be devastating for seasonal industries and the workers that support them."
Reactions To EI Changes
A selection of quotes on the newly announced changes to the employment insurance program.<br><br> <em><strong>With files from CP and CBC.</strong></em><br><br> (CP/Alamy)
"New EI changes are like 'E-Harmony' for job seekers and employers: matching Cdns looking for work with available jobs, data, support." - Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose, on Twitter. (CP)
What we heard today is the minister scapegoating unemployed Canadians . . . that they are not trying hard enough to find work." - NDP Finance Critic Peggy Nash. (CP)
"While we're glad to see that the Conservatives have backed away from earlier draconian proposals floated by their most senior ministers, including the minister of Finance, we're concerned that the announced changes will force many Canadians to take low-skilled, low-paying jobs, jeopardize the economic security of communities that are reliant on seasonal industries, and that the appeals process will now be handled by a handful of political appointees based in Ottawa instead of by regional experts that are familiar with local circumstances." - Rodger Cuzner, Liberal Human Resources critic. (CP)
"The main beneficiaries of the current employment insurance rules are not the workers that Conservative rhetoric seeks to demonize, suggesting that something is wrong with 'repeat users', but rather the employers in forestry, fisheries and tourism industries." - Green Party Leader Elizabeth May. (CP)
"We certainly need more information than we have. People having to search for work and having to go within an hour's radius of where they live and so on, on the face of it, that doesn't sound all that onerous or difficult. But that depends on what you work at. In a province where we don't have public transportation, for example, if you're working for a minimum wage job and you have to travel 40 miles away, which is within the hour radius, to work at another $10-an-hour job, is that sensible? Is that prudent?" - Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Kathy Dunderdale, scrumming with reporters at the provincial legislature in St. John's. (CP)
"I'm disappointed that the federal government failed to consult with the provinces and territories on an issue that will impact workers and their families across the country... Under the new rules, some EI recipients that are eligible now will become less eligible in the future. The changes will also make it difficult for some employers to stay in business, including operators in the farming industry. It is already a challenge to keep rural communities strong. Economic changes are forcing people to leave their homes and communities to find work, and in many cases, once they leave, they're gone for good." - Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter, in a statement provided to CBC News. (CP)
"When it comes to the EI system in Canada, a one-size-fits-all does not work... On P.E.I., we are very fortunate that our three largest industries are fisheries, agriculture and tourism: all three industries that are seasonal in nature. We are different than downtown Toronto and we are different than downtown Calgary. We know the federal government is looking at making changes that would be a hindrance to our industries that rely on workers coming back year after year that have expertise in these areas, that they need to come back and help to get their products to market." - Prince Edward Island Premier Robert Ghiz, speaking in the legislative assembly in Charlottetown. (CP)
Gregory Thomas, Canadian Taxpayers Federation
"The new EI rules strike a blow for hard-working Canadian taxpayers, against habitual pogey collectors who have been enjoying part-time work with other people's money for far too long... If you've been collecting pogey more than one year in the past five, maybe it's time to get some training, find a different line of work, or move to where the jobs are... Let's remember, these so-called benefits are nothing more than other people's EI tax money - over $20 billion dollars - forcibly taken from them... Every Canadian should be entitled to keep the money they work for, not have government tax it away and give it out in an attempt to buy votes." - Gregory Thomas, Canadian Taxpayers Federation, from a press release. (Handout)
Ken Georgetti, Canadian Labour Congress
"What she should do as a responsible cabinet minister is take these changes out of that budget bill and start to talk to the people who know the system better than she... Instead she comes up with more fatuous suggestions about situations that really don't exist out there... This is ridiculous economic policy. It's short-term thinking and it's political football with the people that are the most vulnerable in our society. People who are unemployed don't want to be unemployed. This government would have you believe that they're sitting there and surfing off the shores of Nova Scotia or skiing in the mountains of British Columbia... it's not true." - Ken Georgetti, Canadian Labour Congress, speaking on CBC News Network. (Handout)
Catherine Swift, Canadian Federation of Independent Business
"We believe the changes to defining suitable employment, based on how frequently EI is claimed, will help to remove disincentives to work and hopefully make it easier for small firms to find the people they need... Under the current system, 22 per cent of small business owners said they had difficulty hiring as potential workers would rather stay on EI benefits and another 16 per cent said they had been asked by an employee to lay them off to allow them to collect benefits... Employers agree that EI should be there for those who lose a job through no fault of their own, but do not accept that the system should be used as some form of paid vacation or ongoing lifestyle for those who choose not to work." - Catherine Swift, Canadian Federation of Independent Business, quoted in a news release. (Handout