Why I believe in a liberal Canada

Posted on April 30, 2013 | Atlantic Business Magazine | 0 Comments

It was a hot-under-the-collar moment. A red-faced, knee-jerk, emotional response to what sounded (to me) very much like demographic bigotry. Or, at the very least, like an unjust assessment of an entire provincial population. Perhaps I was oversensitive.

The conversation began factually enough: It was pre-2013 and a CEO was explaining why he was in favour of the E.I. reforms that took effect this past January. Those reforms saw stricter eligibility criteria for regular “users” (as though seasonal workers are somehow addicted to being unemployed). Individuals now have to provide documented proof of their job search, be willing to travel significantly further in search of work (though employment counsellors have the power to prescribe acceptable transits), be forced into considerably lower-paying jobs, and be prepared to expect increasingly lower benefits as a result of their terminal dependence.

He believed that employment insurance hinders job growth because laid-off workers have the luxury of turning down lowerpaying jobs. That, he claimed, is one of the reasons for the ongoing labour shortage.

Referencing the Newfoundland and Labrador situation, the CEO noted that the size and scope of provincial unemployment is deplorable.

On that point, I agree. A provincial unemployment rate of 14 per cent (as of March 2013) is far too high for a supposedly prosperous region. The national average is 7.2 per cent. Granted, 14 per cent is significantly better than the 18 per cent of 1995, but it’s still clearly unacceptable. Something needed to be done.

His second point was that unemployment is worse in rural areas than it is in urban centres, and that this is also unacceptable.

Again, I couldn’t agree more. Statistics Canada figures for March 2013 show that unemployment in rural areas of the province is an astounding 26.4 per cent. Consider that in the context of a community with less than 1,000 residents. If 100 residents are too young to work, and another 300 are retired (a likely scenario for many rural communities), that leaves a potential labour pool of 600. Of those 600, 158 can expect to be without work, leaving 442 people—less than half the resident population—to bear the bulk of the tax-paying burden. Clearly, something needed to be done.

It was the CEO’s third, illogical, leap that set me off; his ‘why’ rural unemployment is so endemic. It was, he said, because too many Newfoundlanders and Labradorians didn’t want to work. He asserted that they had a “stamp” mentality of deliberately working a minimum number of weeks and living comfortably on employment insurance for the bulk of the year.

It’s been (thankfully), a long, long, long time since I’ve had to apply for E.I. benefits, but I well remember praying that I’d keep my minimum wage job long enough to qualify. It wasn’t that I was unwilling to work—I’ve had parttime jobs in one form or another since I was 10 years old. There was literally nothing else available. I graduated from university in May, 1992—two months before the cod moratorium that left over 40,000 seasonal and full-time workers without a job. I was grateful when I qualified for a biweekly cheque of $206.

I would have moved away, if I could. Moving is easier said than done when you don’t have any money.

It’s an equally disingenuous expectation for many of today’s unemployed rural workers. What skills can a 30-year career plant worker transfer to an urban area? What kind of wages can they reasonably expect? Where will they live? Even if they are fortunate enough to sell their home, it’s worth about 75 per cent less than a similar home in more prosperous jurisdictions. Who will take care of the aging parents left behind? Will the forced expulsion from E.I. push them into even greater dependence on social welfare?

Don’t mistake this for any form of party endorsement (I have no political affiliation), but I’ve always been proud of Canada’s liberality, felt honoured to be part of a country which has sought to protect its most vulnerable. It may not have always been successful, but at least those were our stated intentions.

In the instance of E.I. reform, however, I worry we are essentially criminalizing the victims of economic inequality. Something needed to be done—I don’t think it should have been this.

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