[BRUDENELL, PE] — Discontent with proposed changes to employment insurance in Atlantic Canada grew Wednesday as the region's premiers stood together in calling on Prime Minister Stephen Harper to provide more information on the measures.
The premiers say they don't have enough information on the proposed rules and how they could impact the economies in their provinces, so they're writing Stephen Harper a letter seeking clarity.
Premier Robert Ghiz of Prince Edward Island said they need a guarantee that the four Atlantic provinces won't be disproportionately affected if the changes are implemented.
"We're going to stand united in looking for more dialogue," Ghiz said Wednesday after the premiers concluded their annual meeting in Brudenell, P.E.I. "We want the federal government to realize how important Atlantic Canada is to the overall economy."
New Brunswick Premier David Alward was more vocal Wednesday in his opposition to the changes than he has been in the past, saying Ottawa must be more upfront on its EI changes after not consulting with the premiers.
"We are calling on the federal government to fill those gaps and to provide the necessary information so that we do know and understand what those impacts are," Alward said.
He said federal politicians should remember that Atlantic Canada's seasonal industries are an integral part of the entire country's economy.
"The last time I checked, people in Ottawa liked to eat lobster and they like McCain's french fries as well," he quipped.
One of the federal government's proposed measures would require regular recipients of the EI program to consider lower paying jobs in unrelated occupations that could require a commute of up to an hour.
The premiers say such changes don't take into account the reality of working in seasonal industries in their region, such as farming, fishing and tourism.
"It's not like we're going to have an IT company set up next to a fish plant that only operates for eight months a year, so people will work four months in a fish plant and move over to an IT company for the eight months," Ghiz said. "That's not going to happen."
Ghiz said he's concerned that if people are encouraged to leave for other jobs, they may not return.
Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Kathy Dunderdale said the federal government doesn't seem to understand that programs need to be tailored to various parts of the country.
"Treating everybody the same doesn't work, because that doesn't mean that you're treating everybody fairly," she said. "I think there's a real disconnect between Ottawa and the reality of people's lives."
The premiers also agreed to conduct an inventory of skilled labour in the region to see what jobs and training will be required for more than 350 major projects in the region in the near future. They estimate that those projects, which are at various stages of development, are valued at $71 billion.
Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter said seasonal industries, training and EI are all linked.
"So if this is going to change, then we need to know how that is going to change," Dexter said.
In an email, a spokeswoman for Human Resources Minister Diane Finley said the federal government is open to hearing feedback on the proposed changes.
"As we face unprecedented labour and skills shortages, it is important that we ensure that the EI program is working most effectively for Canada and Canadians," Alyson Queen said. "That includes better connecting Canadians with available opportunities in their local area and clarifying their responsibilities while collecting employment insurance."
The federal New Democrats said the Conservative government should heed the concerns of the Atlantic premiers.
"Atlantic Canada is being attacked," NDP fisheries critic Robert Chisholm said in a statement. "These changes to EI will be devastating for seasonal industries and the workers that support them."