06/13/2013 08:36 EDT | Updated 08/13/2013 05:12 EDT

N.S. fishermen say EI repayment crackdown unfair

Fishermen in a small Cape Breton community say the latest crackdown on Employment Insurance is casting a dark cloud over their community.

More than 180 people living in communities north of Cape Smokey — such as Bay St. Lawrence — were denied their insurance claims after a Service Canada investigation into claims between 2007 to 2010, said Mark Eyking, the Liberal MP for Sydney-Victoria.

That investigation found claimants were working for family members and not maintaining the required arm's-length relationship between employers and employees. Their claims were reinstated over the winter, while the investigation continued.

But Eyking said the claims have been rejected and the fishermen have been ordered to repay thousands of dollars.

Theresa Buchanan MacLellan, a lobster boat captain in Bay St. Lawrence, said every person working on boats in her community earns their living. She said government bureaucrats need to see that for themselves.

“I just came from a spot, I’d like to see one of them be in it, [27 kilometres off the coast] in rough seas. I lost the window out of my boat. We work hard for what we get,” she said.

Crystal MacKinnon, a single mother who works for the local fishery, said the government tells her she owes tens of thousands of dollars.

“I’m a single mother, I have two children and it’s a huge amount of money — especially for someone like me,” she said.

Kenneth MacKinnon, a lobster boat captain, said his wife and two other family members work for him. He said they have also been told they owe tens of thousands of dollars

“I don't know why they're picking on us, but they might have the right to look through the employment insurance, and check to see who's legit. Everybody, even in Ottawa, they'll find somebody that's doing something wrong, but I don't think they should be that hard on the fishermen. They don't realize what you gotta go through to make your dollar here,” he said.

Most have filed appeals of the demand of repayment while they wait for word on whether they’ll be allowed to claim EI in the future.

In a small, isolated community where nearly everyone works for the fishery — or is related to someone who does — people in the community said there is a lot riding on the outcome.