EI changes will hit the North hard

What is it about the current flavour of Conservative ideology running rampant through the halls of power in Ottawa that makes blaming the victim the policy of first resort?

Canada has always been a country of Going Down the Road. Like Peter and Joey, the hapless maritime duo whose desperate tale of economic pilgrimage to the promised land of Toronto was chronicled in the influential 1970 Canadian movie of that name, generations of Canadians (and literally hordes of immigrants from abroad) have traveled the breadth of this country looking for work and a better life.

Changes being planned for the employment insurance system by the current Conservative government will soon force those in seasonal and cyclical industries to travel further and further afield to find work, but unlike our Peter and Joey, this generation will be forced into going down the road even if the work at the end of the rainbow is lower paying than what they had before and well outside their familiar career paths.

The Peters and Joeys were familiar figures on the streets of Toronto, Calgary and Edmonton all through the late decades of the 18th century and most of those of the 20th century, even up to the present day-although their names might well have been Francois, Gatien, Marko or Fedir.

But what is different about this latest economic migration is that it will be artificial and unnecessary. The plan to depopulate rural and Northern communities, a new youth out-migration, or brain drain if you like, is being conjured up by the Conservative government with little or no basis in fact, figure or statistic. It is just a gut feeling that plays well to the focus groups of right leaning voters.

Simply put, the government is seeking to fix the current fiscal imbalance in the books, one they themselves largely created due to ill-advised tinkering with the tax system, on the backs of the unemployed and underemployed people in depressed regions of the country.

It did not escape notice that during those heady far off days of balanced Liberal budgets under the cruel steady hand of Paul Martin and Jean Chretien the EI system was a reliable cash cow––contributing billions to the federal coffers even as payroll deductions and employer contributions far outstripped liabilities. Now, when those dollars must be returned to the fold to help stave off financial tragedy for those laid off in a financial debacle not of their making, a new crew of bean counters are rubbing their hands in the government counting houses, tinkering with benefits so as to rob Peter to pay Joey.

Instead of stepping up to the plate and investing in innovative training and formulating trades recruiting plans to meet the manifold existing shortfalls of skilled labour in every market—programs that would allow people to stay close to hearth, kith and kin as they rebuild their lives and develop local economies—the current regime falls back on an ideology that says the victim is to blame for their own misfortune. Go west young man/woman, says our finance minister, go west, for there is no future for you in the North, on the rez, on the farm or in the forest—if you don’t pack up your belongings on the family jalopy and head on down the road like dusty coated Oakies, then prepare to taste the grapes of federal wrath.

The Harper government did not have the integrity to campaign on changes to the EI system, nor is it demonstrating the transparency and accountability on which it did campaign. Instead the Harper government is hiding behind an odious and opaque methodology of governance that would make the very worst of its predecessors blush in shame.

The federal government should step out of the shadows and allow the Canadian people to see what further changes they have planned for the social safety net of this country—break the EI provisions out of the omnibus bill and let there be open and free debate on how those changes will impact the country. Stop blaming the victim.