© Guardian photo by Brian McInnis
Charlottetown Mayor Clifford Lee looks over some paperwork during a monthly meeting of council.
Recent changes to unemployment insurance in P.E.I. are unfair and a way for Fisheries Minister Gail Shea to help her own constituents, says Charlottetown Mayor Clifford Lee.
In an interview with The Guardian, Lee said if Shea had found a way to give more weeks of EI to people in rural areas without taking away from people in other parts of the province he probably would have been more accepting of the change.
"With the recent bunch of changes that they did before this one, she ran back to Ottawa trying to find a way to make life better for her constituents," he said.
On Thursday, Shea announced changes that will see P.E.I. split into one region around Charlottetown and one region in the rest of the province, which will determine the number of hours needed to collect EI and how long recipients will be able to collect benefits.
Lee said his main concern was that the change makes it more difficult for people who live the Charlottetown are zone to apply for EI.
"Quite frankly I think it's unfair," he said.
What the federal government is doing is taking money from one family's pockets to give it to another and pitted one part of the province against another, Lee said.
"To me that's fundamentally wrong."
In making the announcement Thursday, Shea said the current system treats all of P.E.I. as one region without considering that the unemployment rate is higher in rural areas.
The argument is that rural Islanders are at a disadvantage because the unemployment rate in the Charlottetown area brings the overall all rate for the province down, which impacts claims for rural Islanders.
But Lee said P.E.I. is a small province with only about 140,000 people.
"That argument, quite frankly, doesn't wash. It makes absolutely no sense whatsoever," he said.
Although he said he wasn't arguing for changes for people in Summerside like in Charlottetown, Lee wondered why it didn't happen even though the unemployment rate there would be lower than in some rural areas.
"What I'm suggesting is that it's very clear what's happening. Minister Shea is looking after the people in Egmont and is throwing everybody else under the bus and to me that's wrong," he said.
Lee wasn't the only one critical of the changes with the P.E.I. Coalition for Fair EI saying it doesn't do enough to address what the group called harmful changes made to the system in 2012.
In a news release, Lori MacKay, a spokeswoman for the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) and part of the coalition, said there is a strong case for having different zones for EI administration, but not in a small place like P.E.I. where people's work patterns travel across the boundaries the government is establishing with the regions.
"People in P.E.I. are looking for the same jobs regardless of what side of a boundary line they live on," she said.
In a statement from Sophie Doucette, who is a spokeswoman for Shea, she said the change means Charlottetown will be treated like every other capital city and people will receive EI benefits determine by the unemployment rate in their region.
"This is bringing fairness to the system," she said.
Doucette said it's disappointing that critics have quickly lost their concern for P.E.I.'s seasonal industries that they thought were important several weeks ago.
"People in rural PEI are currently disadvantaged with higher requirements to access EI benefits compared to those living in other rural areas of the country. Our Government recognizes that employment opportunities are far fewer in rural areas and is taking action to correct this inequity"