The federal government may be trying to dispel fear about job cuts to Veterans Affairs Canada in Charlottetown, but its recent statements are only fuelling cynicism and feeding apprehensions.
It's time for Minister Steve Blaney to toss away the talking points and have a candid conversation with Islanders.
For months, Veterans Affairs Canada employees have been bracing themselves for the details of job cuts in their department, and last week, union spokeswoman Debi Buell confirmed that 55 employees in P.E.I. learned that their jobs were being cut. She also said these likely wouldn't be the last, with the department still planning to cut about 800 more across the country.
Immediately VAC media relations adviser Janice Summerby disputed those numbers. "Not a single job was lost today in P.E.I.," she said in response to the union's announcement. According to Summerby, while 233 letters were sent to officials across the country, only 22 positions in P.E.I. have been affected. An estimated 135 staff on the Island are eligible to retire, she said, and it's expected that the vast majority of those positions will be addressed through "attrition, alternation and good human resources management."
This statement from the media adviser didn't satisfy union, city or provincial officials, and it was no more convincing when Minister Blaney repeated it using almost the same language: that only 22 jobs on the Island would be reduced, that no staffers would be laid off, and that the reduction would be handled through normal attrition "alternation and good human resources management."
Let's cut through the fog here. It appears government is determined to reduce the workforce by a certain number of positions, and that it's counting on its head or regional offices to simply handle it. By government's math, apparently, no jobs or services should be sacrificed.
If Island municipal and provincial leaders are getting frustrated with statements from Ottawa that simply don't square with their information it's understandable. Based on their research, they're convinced that P.E.I. is bearing a greater burden of overall federal job cuts than they should, and that cuts to VAC, as part of those cuts, can't help but have a negative impact. According to the ad hoc task force representing the capital city, the province and two federal unions, and which was commissioned to research the impact of federal job cuts in the province, 10-12 per cent of federal employees on the Island could lose their jobs, costing the economy between $50 million and $60 million a year. The bottom line is, we're taking a proportionately bigger hit than we should. As Cecil Villard, one of the chairpersons of the ad hoc committee, put it: "Nationally we know that the government of Canada is cutting 4.8 per cent of its workforce. To cut upwards of 12 per cent of the federal workforce on the Island is simply unfair."
The federal government has an obligation to correct this inequity. It should also do a better job of communicating with Islanders. The minister needs to have a frank conversation with the province about what the true impact of job reductions will be. As it is now, there's a huge chasm between the view of the federal government and that of Island political and union leaders. That doesn't serve Islanders' interests. They deserve better. And we suggest that Revenue Minister Gail Shea, P.E.I's representative at the cabinet table, should point that out to Mr. Blaney.