06/05/2012 03:47 EDT | Updated 08/05/2012 05:12 EDT

Labour issues to dominate as Atlantic premiers meet in Prince Edward Island

FREDERICTON - Proposed changes to the federal Employment Insurance program are expected to dominate discussions as the four Atlantic premiers gather in Brudenell, Prince Edward Island for their annual meeting Wednesday.

"I want to find out what the other premiers are hearing," Premier Robert Ghiz said in an interview from Charlottetown.

"We need to find out exactly how this is going to affect our workers and I think it's important for us to make sure that we just remind the federal government that we are unique here in Atlantic Canada."

Among the proposed federal measures, repeat recipients of EI benefits would have to consider lower-paying jobs that could require a commute of up to an hour.

Ghiz says a one-size-fits-all EI program won't work in the Atlantic region, where agriculture and fishing account for a large share of the economy.

Last week, New Brunswick Premier David Alward appointed a committee of civil servants to advise him on the EI changes before he takes a position on the issue.

"I think it's really important that we understand what those potential implications are on our businesses, and very importantly, on our employees long-term," Alward said Tuesday in an interview from Moncton.

Meanwhile, Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter said it's important the premiers do more than simply criticize the EI changes.

That's why he wants the other provinces to endorse an Atlantic labour force initiative.

"I think it's fair for us to do both," he said.

Dexter said a co-ordinated approach is essential, given that several megaprojects are on the drawing board, including the federal shipbuilding project awarded to Halifax and the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project in Labrador.

"All of these are going to present challenges for the regional workforce," Dexter said in Halifax.

He said the regional workforce likely won't be large enough to meet employment demands and it will be important for the Atlantic provinces to ensure workers have the needed training.

Dexter said it's also essential for the Atlantic provinces to be on the same page because several federal labour force agreements are up for renewal soon.

He said he believes a regional plan would give Ottawa "a greater impetus" to invest further in skills training.

Alward said another key issue is immigration.

"We believe that Atlantic Canada, because of our demographics, has actually been penalized or negatively impacted by the way the immigration system works in Canada," he said.

"We have been able to build a common message to work with the federal government."

Alward is also hoping to update his colleagues on recent pension initiatives introduced in New Brunswick, while Ghiz will update the premiers on his work with Saskatchewan's Brad Wall to study health-care innovation.