05/28/2012 03:12 EDT | Updated 07/28/2012 05:12 EDT

Yes Flaherty, There are "Bad Jobs" if You Didn't Go to Princeton

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's "no bad job" wisecrack is strangely ironic coming from someone who has spent a vast majority of his professional life, much like many of his cabinet colleagues, on the government payroll. There are plenty of "bad jobs," and millions of people go to them every day.

Instead of showing leadership on the big issues facing our nation, the Harper Government is again focused on the small, the incremental, the defensive measure to protect us against ourselves. This time it is changes to the Employment Insurance (EI) system, another tiny move that chips away at Canada's social safety net. This is a small change that reflects a small-mindedness, but its negative impact on the everyday lives of many Canadians will be huge.

Finance minister Jim Flaherty's observation that there are "no bad jobs" highlights the judgmental and intolerant arrogance typical of the Harper government's worldview. It is the negative, the defensive, and the fearful that drives their actions. It is never the hopeful, the optimistic, or the aspirational.

Flaherty's "no bad jobs" wisecrack is also strangely ironic coming from someone who has spent a vast majority of his professional life, much like many of his cabinet colleagues, on the government payroll. His boss, Stephen Harper, has spent most of his life on the public payroll, too. So, they can be forgiven for not understanding the facts of life in the real world.

Here's a useful fact for them: there are a great many bad jobs out there.

Try making ends meet if you live on British Columbia's Lower Mainland, for instance. Just ask someone working a minimum wage service job, or even if there are two of them working in the household in the same type of job. Never mind feeding a family and being nurturing parents. You just can't do it. Or how about working in a seasonal industry like tourism or the commercial fishery, where you're lucky to work 20 weeks of the year.

In a resource-based economy, where commodity prices fluctuate wildly, so do the number of jobs the sector employs. One example is the forest industry. If you're making a good salary in the paper plant in Powell River, but that operation has less than a third of its employees from a decade ago and is in bankruptcy protection, is it a "good job" when you live in constant fear that you can lose your job at a moment's notice?

There are plenty of "bad jobs," and millions of people go to them every day. For them, stress and anxiety is a constant and omnipresent way of life. On top of that, how about living with the added stress of living in a one-industry town where you were born and raised and the commodity cycle goes the wrong way?

The vast majority of Canadians who use the Employment Insurance (EI) program are not "cheats" or people who "take advantage" of the system. They use it because they need it. And if it were not there, many would suffer.

It is tough enough, and you feel bad enough, when you are unemployed and unable to provide for yourself and your family. But effectively being told by the government that you are a cheat, a slacker, and a loser? That is a callous, insensitive and appalling indignity. And it does nothing but deepen the sense of fear, isolation and despair that those falling on tough times feel.

Growing up in the 1970s in working class Pointe-aux-Trembles, then a suburb of Montreal, both my mother and father worked very hard to give my two brothers, my sister and I a good life. My father did what was necessary, including driving a cab for 10 years. He never complained, and neither did my mother. My mother did backbreaking work at the Canadian International Paper sack plant a few miles away.

The work was never steady and she took what she could get, including working the 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. night shift. Dad took work driving a truck on long hauls where he would be away from us for weeklong stretches. I went with him a few times. We would unload the truck together at night in minus 30-degree temperatures in Northern Quebec. The pressure on the family from taking these "good jobs" was immense. But my parents took them to feed the family, and did so without complaint.

When these "good jobs" ended -- which they often did -- my parents would go to the unemployment office (as they were called in those days) in Ville d'Anjou, to apply for assistance. Sometimes that help wasn't available because they didn't have enough "stamps" to prove they had worked the number of weeks required to be eligible for unemployment benefits.

My parents understood that they were lucky to be Canadians. They knew that in Canada, if you try hard and work hard and you are hit with a rough patch of bad luck, our society didn't look down on you; it was there to help until you got back on your feet. That was what the Unemployment Insurance program that for my family and many others was a lifeline that allowed us to recover in dignity.

Unemployment Insurance was part of the covenant government had with its people, as is our health care system, and old age pensions. Implicit in these programs was the idea that government, as the agent of society as a whole, has a responsibility to help those that need it when they need it. All of us may not be born into equal circumstances, but we all have a God-given right to equal opportunity. They are part of a broader social compact that makes us Canadians.

All of us want to be self-sufficient and none of us want to be dependent on government support. But I can tell you from personal experience, we are sure grateful when it's there if we need it.

Some people have a harder time than others through no fault of their own. We should focus on them, not the small minority that for whatever reason abuse the system.

When in opposition, Stephen Harper suggested that the residents of an entire region of the country, Atlantic Canada, were lazy and on the dole. He was wrong then, and he's wrong now.

There's a certain smug self-righteousness that permeates policymaking in the Harper regime. They all know better than we do. Employment minister Diane Finley says that Ottawa wants to help us find a job. That's great. So why, then, are those who need EI the most the ones penalized the hardest?

We are told, of course, that this is all about good and smart government. But if that were truly the case, a $10 billion gap for the F-35 aircraft would not be considered just another pesky "accounting issue" by the Minister of Defence?

This is a small-minded, petty, vindictive, and managerially incompetent group of people. But they manifest traits that are even more troubling than that. This is a governing ethos and worldview that is fundamentally and viscerally angry. It is a value system that is driven by retribution, not compassion and tolerance.

For this type of Conservative, giving fellow citizens the benefit of the doubt is a sign of weakness. The Harper gang frame themselves in the mythology of common-sense populism. The reality is diametrically opposed to that. They are economic and social elitists that have draped themselves in the flag of Tim Horton's to get and stay elected. Even their faux-populism is a charade. Their warped policies are a kick to the groin of working men and women struggling through an excruciating economic transition.

What Flaherty cannot and does not understand is that, unlike him, not all of us have the ability and opportunity to go to Princeton. Not all of us have spent our adult lives in taxpayer-financed jobs. Not all of us will have gold-plated, inflation-indexed pensions after a grand total of six years of service.

How discouraging it is that implicit in the mindset of the Harper Government is Oscar Wilde's observation that "Some people know the cost of everything but the value of nothing."