SUMMERSIDE — Close to 200 Islanders, many waiving placards and chanting “Stephen Harper has got to go”, converged on National Revenue Minister Gail Shea’s Summerside constituency office Saturday afternoon to rally against changes to employment insurance.
They travelled from all corners of the province, many boarding one of the two buses organized to help get concerned Islanders to the rally. Also attending was federal Liberal Party interim leader Bob Rae, whoflew in for the event, representatives from the various unions in the province and those from labour fishing farming and tourism organizations, all who said changes to EI would be a hardship for Islanders and negatively impact this province’s seasonal economy.
“So this is what democracy looks like,” said Lori MacKay, president of the CUPE P.E.I., to cheers from the crowd. “In some way or another Islanders we know, our families, friends and neighbours are going to be affected by the EI changes. That’s why it’s important we stand here today and have our voices heard against these changes.”
The rally was among similar rallies taking place across Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Quebec on Saturday.
“Joining in with our sister provinces will only make our message stronger and get our voices heard,” said MacKay. “Scrap the changes. That’s what we are asking our federal government to do.”
Shea, the only Island Conservative MP, had earlier announced that she would not be in the province for the rally.
But a picture of the Egmont MP was pasted on her office door, a picture that was later defaced by one of those attending the rally.
Shea took harsh criticism for allegedly not speaking up for Islanders when it comes to her government’s changes to EI.
“I know that my voice is not getting heard by Gail Shea,” said the union president, who called the changes “detrimental” to Islanders. “I tried to meet with her to talk about what the changes are going to mean to Islanders, the same Islanders that elected her. And there has been no answer. Shame.”
Several Liberal MLAs, along with former Liberal MP Shawn Murphy and Charlottetown MP Sean Casey stood in the crowd as speaker after speaker detailed how the changes would hurt Islanders and the Island economy.
Those attending Saturday’s rally were asked to sign a petition, which will be forwarded to Diane Finely, federal minister of Human Resources and Skills Development, the ministry behind the changes, and were given postcards to mail to the minister.
“So this is what democracy looks like,.” - Lori MacKay, president of CUPE P.E.I.
In August, Finley announced changes to a pilot program that allowed Canadians to work part-time while drawing EI. The new system replaced one that clawed back claims once a recipient’s part-time wages was more than 40 per cent of their EI benefits or $75, whichever ended up being the greater amount.
The new pilot program reduced the clawback on new earnings to 50 per cent. With that program, the clawback kicked in with the first dollar earned versus the 40 per cent under the previous program.
More recent changes to the EI program decrease the weeks of eligibility from 28 weeks down to 23 for those with minimum hours to qualify.
“I challenge her to come back and meet with the people that are here today,” said MacKay. “I can stand here today and tell you very little has been explained to us at this point and what has been explained by the Harper government has not been very accurate. We are still waiting for answers since the first announcement in the spring.”