03/14/2012 03:53 EDT | Updated 05/14/2012 05:12 EDT

British Columbia Welfare Recipients May Be Sent North After Retraining

VANCOUVER - British Columbia's governing Liberals are floating a controversial idea to put welfare recipients to work: train them and ship them north.

Liberal cabinet ministers are openly musing about the possibility of offering people on social assistance the opportunity to receive training and then relocate to areas of the province facing a labour shortage, such as northern B.C. and the Interior.

The province's finance and environment ministers described it as a no-brainer that would put people to work and help employers, while critics suggested it would ignore the underlying reasons people find themselves needing assistance in the first place.

"Because you can get people off of welfare, which is costing government money, and put them into a job," Falcon told reporters in Victoria on Wednesday.

Falcon suggested such a program could even finance itself.

His cabinet colleague, Environment Minister Terry Lake, called it common-sense.

"So often we hear of young, employable people who can't find jobs in certain parts of the province, whereas we know that in other parts of the province, the northwest, the northeast in particular, there are opportunities," he said at an unrelated event in Vancouver.

Lake stressed that no one would be forced into such a program.

Neither minister could say how many people might jump at the opportunity. In fact, Lake said the plan was in the "feedback" stage, admitting the idea was a merely trial balloon.

"Sometimes in government when you get sort of common-sense ideas, there are all kind of reasons why they can't happen. Hopefully this is one that can happen."

When he introduced his budget last month, Falcon said the province was considering providing training, accommodation and transportation for unemployed workers, but he didn't elaborate.

Lori Ackerman, the mayor of the northern community of Fort St. John, said she has reservations about the idea, because her community is already coping with a housing shortage and strained social programs.

"The workers that we need are going to have to be able to manage in a winter community," she said in an interview.

Ackerman said she's already heard about the idea directly from the provincial government, and she's been inviting input from her community.

"We don't know what they're issues are, we don't know why they're on welfare," she said.

"If they're on welfare because they held a good job and that particular industry has shut down, and they're able to hold their own, then by all means."

Carole James, the Opposition New Democrats' social development critic, said such a program wouldn't address the underlying problems that lead some people into social assistance, such as addiction and mental illness

"Giving them a ticket to move up north is not going to solve the poverty struggles and the education struggles that those individuals are facing," she said.

James said the government has already missed opportunities to help low-income British Columbians by cutting funding for training in recent years.

A report from the left-leaning Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives released in 2010 examined two B.C. government training programs for welfare recipients and concluded neither program "provided a pathway out of poverty."

The report, written by University of British Columbia professor Shauna Butterwick, focused on people who had multiple barriers to employment, such as addiction, mental and physical health problems or physical disabilities.

Butterwick, whose report did not specifically address relocating social assistance recipients, said provincial training programs in B.C. have been used to reduce the welfare caseload and increase the supply of low-wage workers, rather than to address their underlying issues.

"An employment focus must be balanced with meeting client needs, which is the welfare system's primary function," the report said.

"It is clear from our study that the main interests of government is cost-saving, not providing social programs for those in need."

She made nine recommendations in the report, including improving access to longer-term education and training.