Below is my TJ column from earlier this week. I have been really struggling to craft a coherent position on EI reform. One the one hand, I was calling for a similar type of reform that is now in place. But I had hoped the government would a) spend a lot of time up front engaging communities and listening to folks before developing the policy (you will recall I advocated for a Royal Commission on the future of EI); and b) that the reforms would start by targeting the low hanging fruit (i.e. the hundreds of truck drivers in New Brunswick that go on EI each year even though trucking firms are facing a big shortage of workers).
Whether we like it or not EI has become a full fledged income support program in dozens of NB communities. This province has lower than average social assistance recipients (as a percentage of the adult population) and a much lower rate of folks undere the low income cutoff – compared to Canada as a whole. When you do some correlations it looks clear to me that without EI as income support, thousands of more NBers would be at risk of going on social assistance or fall below the poverty line. That EI is being used as a kind of income guarantee won’t make a lot of folks happy – but it seems this is the case.
So, not to be Hugh Segal on on this but my point is that if you pull the rug out from under a lot of these folks – and you push many to social assistance (paid by the provincial government) what have you accomplished? Now, I have no data to suggest that will happen and nothing more than anecdotes. Even my theory you could argue is on shaky ground.
My conceptual approach to EI reform would have been focused on low hanging fruit first (i.e. truckers, cracking down on outright fraud like the guy who works two fishing seasons – one as himself and one as his wife so they both get maximum EI, etc.), followed by a phase 2 where we do a deep analysis of which industries are being kept afloat by EI and which we could jettison (i.e. christmas tree wreath making?) and finally a serious national discussion about the role of seasonal industries and whether or not there should be an income support program at all for these industries. You could argue the whole thing is a clusterschtook (to quote Dennis Miller) but it is hard to put the Genie back in the bottle on this kind of thing without genuinely hurting some of the most vulnerable in your society.
But, we don’t get much help from politicians. Those in opposition see this as red meat – so don’t expect any thoughtful or intelligent policy thinking on that front but do expect them to first in line to speak at anti reform protests.
Those in government are keeping their cards close the vest.
So we rely on anecdotes dribbling out into the media.
We need new myths and new myth makers
For more than 20 years I have been reading articles and commentary in the national and western Canadian press about Atlantic Canada. While it is true that the business sections of the largest newspapers in Canada will run the occasional story about a successful Cod Father entrepreneur, nearly all of the punditry opine on what they see as the dark side of Canada’s four easternmost provinces.
It’s no wonder that polls have shown a negative view of Atlantic Canadians by those in Ontario and western Canada. In one case I am familiar with, a former New Brunswicker running for office in western Canada airbrushed his Maritime history out of his biography out of fear it would cost him votes.
In an upcoming book, John Ibbitson and Darrell Bricker take Atlantic Canada bashing to a new level as they introduce the concept of the “Atlantic Canadian Reality Distortion Field”. The laziness and sense of entitlement in Atlantic Canada leads us to a distorted reality where we see no problem with the rest of Canada shoveling piles of cash down here to keep us living it up on the dole.
What goes unsaid, of course, is that in the majority of Ontario’s urban centres – from Cornwall to Windsor – a higher percentage of workers collect Employment Insurance income than in either Halifax or Fredericton. In fact, Halifax, Fredericton, Moncton, Saint John and St. John’s all have EI usage rates similar to or lower than the national average.
Someone decided decades ago that seasonal workers could access Employment Insurance as a kind of income support program. As a public policy, that is no different than putting billions of dollars’ worth of subsidies in place for western Canadian farmers or billions of dollars for southern Ontario’s automobile manufacturing sector.
The problem is that many of Canada’s esteemed pundits love to take an issue such as seasonal employment and embed it as a sweeping cultural attribute. New Brunswick has seasonal industries ergo all New Brunswickers are lazy slackers with a belligerent sense of entitlement.
Putting aside the fact these Toronto pundits wouldn’t last an hour on a lobster fishing boat in January or cutting pulp wood, I am very uncomfortable with the Atlantic Canada narrative being shaped by these single-minded thinkers.
We should have a rigorous debate in the public square about seasonal industries and whether or not we should use the EI program as an income support mechanism. This is fair game no different than a conversation about agricultural subsidies or automobile manufacturing bailouts.
But the agricultural subsidy debate doesn’t lead pundits to talk about the “Saskatchewan subsidy disruption of the space-time continuum” or the “Ontario bailout intra-universe wormhole”.
If we let Toronto pundits shape our brand, we will always be the lazy and entitled cousins. For Ibbitson and others, it is comforting to think no matter how bad it gets in Ontario it could be worse. We could always live in New Brunswick.
The real story of Atlantic Canada is about Fredericton and the fact that its information technology entrepreneurs are highly sought after by Silicon Valley. It’s about the largest New York law firms using software made in Moncton. It’s about a little forest products firm in Saint John competing and winning against the global industry’s behemoths.
It’s about small urban regions here competing and, in many cases, winning against their larger counterparts across Canada and the United States.
It’s about a region trying to figure out the role of natural resources and seasonal industries in its 21st Century economy.
It other words, the Atlantic Canada brand should be an aspirational one of hope and a gritty determination to build a stronger, knowledge-based economy despite the periodic beatdowns on the opinion pages of national newspapers.
Atlantic Canada needs new myths and new myth makers.