SOURIS — Big red Valentine cards for federal politicians and standing ovations for a single mom fighting the system dominated the first public meeting hosted by the P.E.I. Coalition for Fair EI here Tuesday night.
The Valentine cards being signed by almost 150 people crammed into the St. Mary’s Hall are aimed straight for the heart of Conservative federal politicians accused of “bleeding out” coastal and rural communities with harsh new regulations against seasonal workers.
“These changes to EI are saying don’t invest in P.E.I. or in any business in Atlantic Canada,’’ said businessman Alan MacPhee, who operates the local mall. “The federal government says it is pro-business, but this EI policy discourages and penalizes business investment and is putting people on the street . . . and this is inconsistent with Canadian values.”
Valentine cards calling for change were distributed through the crowd for signing and will be sent to Human Resources Minister Diane Finley and Prime Minister Stephen Harper. National Revenue Minister and Egmont MP Gail Shea will get the largest token of love asking her “To Have a Heart.”
Those attending the first of two public meetings — the next is in Alberton — say the importance of seasonal workers to the Atlantic economy is being thrown out the window by the federal government.
In a radio interview last week, Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente suggested seasonal industries should fall by the wayside if they can’t survive.
“You can’t throw anyone in a lobster boat and say go to work or tell someone to climb into a tractor and get a potato crop,’’ said Innovation Minister Allen Roach, suggesting most Canadians are out of touch with the realities of farming and fishing these days when computers, software and GPS systems dominate the tractor and bridge dashboards.
Veteran farmer Alvin Keenan of Rollo Bay said the skills of his seasonal workers are second to none and his major potato operation couldn’t function without them.
“When the same worker comes back year after year,’’ he stumbled with emotion. “It’s the confidence in the people who work with you that helps me as a farm manager.”
A single mom who works contract positions as a youth worker is facing even tougher times with the changes.
“I am working harder, away from home longer, and making less money . . . and now I have a vehicle that won’t last,’’ she told the meeting.
Olive Crane, stepping down as Opposition provincial leader, condemned the changes and said she is a Progressive Conservative and not a Reformist Conservative.
She said there are 109,000 people working on the Island and 70,000 make less than $35,000 a year. Half of those make less than $20,000.
“All senators, MPs and MLAs should be working to support our people,’’ she said. “Our communities and families are bleeding.”
Cardigan MP Lawrence MacAulay, by letter, took issue with a statement from Finley’s parliamentary secretary, Dr. Kellie Leitch, who told The Guardian seasonal workers in her Ontario riding are “delighted” with the EI changes. MacAulay wrote the average wage in the Simcoe/Grey riding is $98,000.
The standing ovation was reserved for single mom Marlene Giersdorf, who has become the national face of EI changes and has been protesting against losing her benefits in front of the Services Canada building in Montague.
“I did not ask for this happen . . . I’m angry and frustrated and tired of banging my head against a brick wall,’’ she said. “I am entitled to the same respect and treatment of any other Canadian citizen.”