03/18/2012 05:00 EDT | Updated 05/17/2012 05:12 EDT

B.C. Unemployed: Plan From Government To Ship Welfare Recipients North Raises Concerns

VANCOUVER - Fraser Stuart laughed out loud when he heard the British Columbia government wants to train welfare recipients and then fly them north to fill badly needed jobs.

Stuart, who lives in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside and is currently receiving social assistance, doesn't want to work in the north, but he wants a job and he's more than willing to take the training to get.

The 59-year-old worked for eight years in a homeless shelter in Montreal, and he wants to do the same in B.C. But he's been unable to pry the $1,600 for certification course from the provincial government, and his $610 monthly welfare cheque doesn't come close to covering it.

"Welfare won't pay for the course, so I can't work," said Stuart, sighing.

"If I take a student loan it would be clawed back 100 per cent. I wouldn't be eligible for welfare, because now I'm a student. They also expect me earn enough money to pay for it, but I'm not allowed to earn any money on welfare."

Cabinet ministers in B.C.'s Liberal government spent last week floating an idea to train welfare recipients and fly them to northern B.C., where a labour shortage has left employers desperate for workers to fill jobs.

But Stuart said such a program won't help him.

He said he can't do the physical labour that will likely await anyone who ends up in the northern oil and gas industry, and he wouldn't need to be on welfare if only he could find training in Vancouver.

"It's totally frustrating."

The problems Stuart is facing reflect some of the early concerns that have been raised about the proposal, which the province admits is still in its infancy, without any of the details thought through.

Critics have suggested the program won't work because it fails to address the underlying issues that leave some people on welfare, such as addiction, mental-health issues or physical ailments, and northern mayors have warned they don't have the housing or social services to accommodate them.

In Fort Nelson, where natural gas is king and the vacancy rate is zero, Mayor Bill Streeper said he would need money and infrastructure before his community would be ready to welcome workers under such a plan.

Streeper said he welcomes the idea, but he doesn't want to rush into anything without making sure workers have a home and other services. He also appeared worried it could bring drug users into his community, insisting anyone taking part in such a program should be subjected to drug testing.

Still, Streeper said he's optimistic such a program could eventually work. He said with a bit of training, someone could be making $18 an hour, and after five years and some training, they could be making $100,000 a year.

"In the oilfield, and with the lack of people, within 10 years everybody would be paying more money back in income tax than what the cost was for the program."

Finance Minister Kevin Falcon said he's excited about the idea, which would target the roughly 60,000 people on income assistance the government has determined are employable.

"This is something I've always very strongly believed in and it's now something that I think we can roll out," said Falcon .

The finance minister insisted such a program could break even, with the costs associated with travel and training offset by the savings of taking someone off income assistance.

And he suggested concerns over housing could be easily addressed, as well.

"If there's money required, for example in accommodations, we could build modular construction accommodations that provide temporary accommodation to workers while they're being trained," he said.

"We can always make those dollars available."

Dawson Creek Mayor Mike Bernier said he appreciates the government's intentions, but he, too, worries about housing and social services.

"Affordable housing and even local unemployed are things that need to be considered," he wrote in an email.

Lori Ackerman, Fort St. John's mayor, said she has similar concerns. She's asked for community input on the idea.

Jean Swanson of Raise the Rates, a group that advocates for higher welfare rates, said it's wrong to assume everybody who is on welfare would be a burden on local social programs.

She said the sentiment is "buying into a stereotype that everybody on welfare is on drugs."

Swanson said many people who lose their jobs immediately join the welfare ranks because they are aren't covered by an increasingly restrictive employment insurance program.

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