10/25/2012 08:20 EDT | Updated 12/25/2012 05:12 EST

EI program for high unemployment areas axed

The Canadian government has quietly not renewed an employment insurance pilot program designed to benefit people across the country who live in regions with high unemployment.

The Extended Employment Insurance Benefits Pilot Project provided an extra five weeks of benefits to people living in 21 designated regions across the country. The program was introduced in 2004 and last renewed in 2010. The 2010 renewal expired Sept. 15.

The end of the program came to public attention Wednesday in a briefing by P.E.I. Innovation Minister Allen Roach about EI changes and their impact on the provincial economy. The province's initial concern was changes made to clawback of earnings while receiving EI. Roach said there was no notification from Ottawa that the extended benefits pilot was ending.

"The federal government implemented it but they never said a word," said Roach.

"They were mum on it as far as the public is concerned."

New claims established after Sept. 15 are entitled to five fewer weeks of benefits. For example, those EI recipients with 12 weeks of work will qualify for only 23 weeks as compared to 28 under the EI pilot program.

Alyson Queen, a spokeswoman for Human Resources Minister Diane Finley, said the pilot project was never a permanent fix.

"Canada has emerged well from the global recession," said Queen.

"Those temporary supports, which were always intended to be temporary, are less necessary."

'Devastating' impact

P.E.I. politicians say the effects will be devastating to many of the province's seasonal workers.

"This will be a devastating blow to a lot of people that depend on unemployment insurance to get them through the winter," said Charlottetown MLA Richard Brown, who is also chairing this year's Y's Men's food drive.

"In the past, I used to start getting calls about April or May about getting back on to get their weeks for the next year's unemployment insurance," said Brown.

"This time, I'll start getting calls in January and February, and there is just no work at that point in time."

Bill Kays of the P.E.I. Coalition for Poverty Eradication Strategy is also upset with the decision.

"It seems every step the government takes, every announcement, it's another slap at the poor people," said Kays.

"Where are they going to get the other five weeks of money to survive the rest of the year? So unemployment is going to throw them onto the welfare rolls. Where else are they going to get money?"

Stephen Myers is a member of the province's standing committee on rural development.

"If it's going to be five weeks sooner, it's going to put them early in February for many of them and there is not a lot of opportunities out there," said Myers.

"Especially in rural P.E.I."

The province hasn't done any studies on the overall impact to the economy, but over 27,000 Islanders draw EI every year. The government estimates the loss of the pilot project will affect about 40 per cent of those claimants.