As a panel struck by the Atlantic premiers held hearings on P.E.I., the war of words heated up between Ottawa and the provinces.
There is no question the changes are having a dramatic impact not only on P.E.I., but throughout the region, and the panel is taking yet another chance to make sure voters know who is to blame. The hearings heard from businesses and community groups who detailed the impact of the changes. There were stories of families being separated as one partner moves West. Seasonal businesses detailed the problems they are having attracting employees who traditionally returned every summer as many head to Alberta or Saskatchewan.
Souris Mayor David MacDonald captured headlines when he accused Ottawa of killing his community with changes to employment insurance. The provincial government is blaming the changes for the net out-migration of 1,100 people to other provinces last year. That was the largest margin in over three decades.
Federal Employment Minister Jason Kenney is now fighting back. In an email to The Guardian, the minister wrote: “Not one single person in P.E.I. has been, or will be, required to search for work off-Island to be eligible for EI.”
There is no doubt that is technically true. However, the story goes a little deeper. For example, one of the changes was the end of a pilot project that offered workers in areas of high unemployment five extra weeks.
Those weeks often gave recipients income until their seasonal jobs kicked in. Now they must cope with five weeks with no income – not only this year but every year. So, they decide to move West.
Did anybody in Mr. Kenney’s office tell them they had to move to Alberta? The answer is no. Did they move because of the employment insurance changes? Most definitely.
There is no question there have been people who have been abusing the system and they should be dealt with. However, there seems to be a deeply troubling assumption at the heart of Ottawa’s action – the premise that seasonal industries have no economic value and the goal of governments should be to faze them out in favour of year-around jobs.
This assumption is simply false. On P.E.I., industries like agriculture, fisheries and tourism collectively add billions of dollars to the economy. If they were to disappear, the reality is P.E.I. would be in even more economic trouble than it is now.
Instead, these industries should be viewed by governments as a base to build on.
Do these industries receive government help? Of course they do. However, don’t forget the automobile industry in Ontario has been bailed out several times. On the last occasion, the federal and Ontario governments purchased shares in some of the car companies.
Unfortunately, this year will likely be more of the same when it comes to out migration. There will almost certainly be more finger pointing by both levels of government, but whether there will be any progress in tackling the problem remains to be seen.