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Bill C-17 isn't just affecting disabled people, Atlantic Canadian plant workers left in limbo too

To prepare for the 2020 season, in the time of a global pandemic, fish processing companies throughout Atlantic Canada bought protective clothing and equipment for workers, and installed plexiglass on the assembly lines. At the Ocean Choice International plant in Triton, workers have been busy processing crab to start the season. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO
Worker earn their pay at the Ocean Choice International plant in Triton, NL. - Contributed

The defeat of Bill C-17 in the House of Commons last week not only affected disabled Canadians hoping for COVID-19 aid, it stalled federal plans to help fish plant workers and employees in other seasonal industries like tourism.

The bill, introduced during an emergency sitting of the House on June 10, proposed amendments to the Employment Insurance Act that would have allowed fish plant workers to qualify for benefits based on work during the 2019 season.

But the bill also included penalties for Canadians who defraud the Canadian Emergency Benefit Fund (CERB), which drew flak from the federal New Democrats. Conservatives had other objections.

Fisheries and Oceans Minister Bernadette Jordan, in testimony that same day to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans, confirmed the scuttling of C-17 killed plans to make EI changes to aid seasonal workers.

“It is unfortunate …  because many seasonal workers will be caught up in this,” Jordan told the committee.

Meanwhile, Jordan indicated the fish harvester benefit and the fish harvester grant, which were part of a fishing industry aid package rolled out in May, are still going ahead.

Those programs did not depend on the passage of Bill C-17, she said.

They were part of an aid package that also included the Seafood Industry Stabilization program which is meant to aid processing companies with costs associated with increased health and safety measures, product storage capacity and other issues caused by COVID-19.

Recently one processor told SaltWire his company had spent about $1 million on COVID-related health and safety changes.

The benefits and grants program for fishers is not quite finalized, said the minister. She said her department is working with the Department of Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) on implementing the benefits program.

“With regards to the EI changes those are actually being worked on right now,” she said. “They will be coming as soon as we have them available. We recognize that people need to know these things so that’s why we're working as hard as we can to get it done as quickly as we can.” 

Bear in mind, she told the committee, these are brand new programs that have to be built.

“So it's going to take a little bit of time. But … we have been working extremely hard (with ESDC) to get it out the door as quickly as possible."

To date, processing companies have not received any money from the Seafood Stabilization Program announced as part of the industry aid package in May.

In fact, there is not even an application form available from the Government of Canada to allow them to start the process of applying for funding.

Minister Jordan told the standing committee, “The Seafood Stabilization Program is about to be rolled out probably within the next few days to a couple of weeks.”

She gave no information about what Plan B might look like for seasonal workers, including those in fish plants..

According to other media reports, Bill-17 may not be entirely dead.

CTV News in Ottawa reported the proposed legislation could go forward with the backing of one other party, but it would have to go through the regular legislative timeline, which could take weeks.

The next sitting of the House of Commons is June 17.

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