OTTAWA - The federal minister who will likely be the first to face any separatist pressure from Quebec's new government is already brushing aside notions of reconfiguring employment insurance.
Human Resources Minister Diane Finley oversees the multi-billion-dollar fund which has long been in the Parti Quebecois crosshairs.
In an interview Wednesday morning, Finley shunned any suggestions of changing the way EI is managed, pointing instead to the ways Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government has made the program more flexible to respond to provincial demands.
"Employment insurance has been federal jurisdiction since 1940," Finley said by phone from Halifax where she unveiled an expansion of her national youth employment strategy. "It's national programs to help all regions of the country. We've made it more flexible so that it does respond more directly to changes in local market conditions."
"But our focus is quite frankly on helping people get back to work, as evidenced by today's announcement, so that they don't need EI. I'm quite happy to work with Marois's government on common goals."
Her officials pointed out that Finley has not, however, said a flat No to anything from Quebec.
"We haven't heard from Quebec, but we expect we would hear from provincial officials, like we always do, if they have something they'd like discuss," Finley said in an email to follow up the interview.
During the provincial election campaign, PQ Leader Pauline Marois signalled several times that she would be demanding more power from Ottawa for social programs, culture and foreign development.
Finley's comments add some detail to a statement issued Tuesday night from Prime Minister Harper, in which he vows to shun constitutional battles in favour of a more practical focus on jobs and the economy while appealing to Quebec to find common ground with Ottawa.
Harper and Marois spoke by phone Wednesday morning and Harper again stressed finding areas to work together — not just for the benefit of Quebec but for all provinces.
"The prime minister added that in the interest of both Quebec and Canada, he plans to join forces with the Quebec government to implement measures aimed at growing the Quebec economy, with each remaining within its respective jurisdictional boundaries," Harper spokesman Andrew MacDougall said in an emailed statement.
Handing power over EI to the provinces would require a constitutional change.
But many federal cabinet ministers, especially Finley, have long advocated giving the provinces more flexibility in how they handle social programs, arguing that they are closer to their jurisdictions and make better practical decisions than a federal government at bird's-eye level.
From the point of view of the Harper government, the federal role is to enable the private sector and provincial governments to make those choices.
"Our focus is on growing the economy and making sure....that employers have the skills and labour that they need to succeed in the global market," Finley added. "That's the emphasis. That's in the best interest of each and every province. We're willing to work with anyone who is working towards that goal."
The minister said she and her government will focus squarely on getting people back to work and strengthening the job market — an approach that she says should appeal to anyone concerned about the fragile global economy.
As a case in point, Finley pointed to the new programming for youth employment that she announced this morning in Halifax.
The last federal budget set aside $50 million to top up the $300-million annual budget of the national youth employment strategy. Finley announced Wednesday how that money would be spent.
She is setting up two programs — one that aims to connect and equip young people with jobs in high-demand areas while another targets youth in fragile situations to help them overcome barriers to finding jobs.
"A critical element of the youth employment strategy is to help young people who haven't been able to find work develop the skills to find a job, to get the practical work experience, to help them break the no-experience cycle and then land them eventually in a job, a career, where there is high demand," she said.