ALBERTON — Alberton-Roseville MLA Pat Murphy would like to see Human Resources and Skills Development Canada Minister Diane Finley come to P.E.I. and spend a week in a fish plant or fishing oysters for a week.
That way, he said, “it might give her a whole new perspective on things.”
Provincial politicians of all political stripes attended a public meeting in Alberton Thursday night to decry federal changes to the Employment Insurance system, changes they say are taking money away from seasonal workers, tearing apart rural communities, forcing workers to move west and affecting seasonal employers’ ability to keep their skilled workers.
But the meeting, organized by the P.E.I. Coalition for Fair EI, was more about seasonal workers than politics. About 120 people turned out to voice their opposition to changes they say are reducing their EI cheques and widening the gaps between the arrival of their last EI cheque and when their seasonal jobs resume.
Louann Gallant from Miminegash said her claim will run out in April, eight weeks before her job starts up again.
Pointing out seasonal workers pay into the Employment Insurance system when they are working, Gallant said: “I think we all have to fight and we have to take a stand and fight for what’s ours, what we paid into. It’s not the government’s. It’s ours.”
Gallant said there would have been even a larger crowd at the meeting but some people were afraid to attend and express their views, afraid they would be penalized.
That concern was also raised by Malpeque MP Wayne Easter. He pointed out some people have the right to request to go back onto the old claim, but they are expressing concerns they will be targeted.
“That’s something I haven’t seen before, much of, in the 19 years I’ve been a member of Parliament, that actual palpable fear that’s there, of people who are afraid to speak out for their rights. That shouldn’t be happening in Canada.”
Easter condemned the federal Conservative stand that the changes allow people on EI to keep more of their part-time earnings. He said in most cases just the opposite is happening.
"I think we all have to fight and we have to take a stand and fight for what’s ours, what we paid into. It’s not the government’s. It’s ours." - Louann Gallant
“They’re worse off on the new system,” he said.
The EI system, Easter said, has made it possible to have a highly trained and highly skilled seasonal workforce that is there for the seasonal industry when the season opens up again.
“What’s wrong with that?” he asked, going on to tell of a neighbour who now fears he will lose his seasonal workers because they will lose half of their day’s pay during the wintertime to work out west.
“These people were always there for him, and the system worked.”
Summerside businessman Robert Gallant said he lost three part-time workers for the same reason.
“I didn’t want to lose them, but I didn’t need them all the time,” he said.
Gallant said local economies, the hockey arenas and the churches all lose when people are forced west.
“Revenues are going to get worse,” he predicted.
“It’s worth the fight folks; we’re all in this together,” Easter advised the crowd.
“We need our seasonal employees to be available when we need them,” said an HR manager for a local fish plant.
She suggested the seasonal workforce is being punished by the changes.
“If there is abuse, deal with that, but don’t assume that everyone is an abuser,” she insisted, adding, “but that seems to be what’s going on.”
Donna Lewis, a crop scout, said she works with a lot of growers durng the farming season.
“I value the growers, I value my job, I value the industry and I think if I can’t return every year to my job I don’t know what’s going to happen."
The seasonal nature of Prince Edward Island’s economy was raised repeatedly during the 95-minute forum.
“It’s not our fault that we don’t plant potatoes and we don’t fish lobsters in the wintertime,” Evangeline-Miscouche MLA Sonny Gallant stressed.
Lori McKay, an organizer for the forums held in Souris and Alberton, said the coalition is getting calls requesting more forums.