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.
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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