Federal fisheries minister OK with Islanders leaving P.E.I.

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Gail Shea denies changes to EI the reason they’re going

Commentary by Andy Walker

Out-migration has been a fact of life in Canada’s smallest province for decades.

During the Great Depression, the New England States was the favourite destination. Then it was Toronto and the industrial heartland of Ontario. More recently, of course, it has been the oil economy in Alberta.

In a have-not province with a largely seasonal economy, it is easy to see why the grass often looks greener in other parts of the country. Personally, I like the explanation I once heard Alan Buchanan offer. A former provincial Liberal cabinet minister who has found a second career as a performer and storyteller, he explains things this way: “It is like we all know when we are born the Island is only so big and some of us are going to have to leave.”

It is getting close to the point where every Islander knows somebody who has gone to Alberta to work. Some have moved west permanently while others are doing what has commonly become known as the “Alberta shuffle” — travelling back and forth every couple of weeks.

It has to be pointed out this is by no means a situation unique to P.E.I. — every province except Alberta and Saskatchewan experienced out-migration this year.

That’s why the latest data on interprovincial migration didn’t exactly come as a shocker. P.E.I. lost almost 1,100 residents this year. In a jurisdiction where the all-time population high was just over 150,000, it was the highest out-migration in more than three decades.

The big news was the way federal Fisheries and Oceans Minister Gail Shea reacted to the news. A veteran politician (she was a provincial cabinet minister before moving to the federal scene in 2007), Shea is the Island’s representative in federal cabinet and the only one of the Island’s four MPs to sit on the government side of the Commons.

Everybody from labour leaders to fishermen, not to mention politicians of various political stripes, laid the blame for the exodus at the feet of changes introduced last year to Employment Insurance that tighten the rules for seasonal workers.

Not surprisingly, Shea discounted the EI changes as the reason. That doesn’t exactly make her unique — in fact it is a requirement of a cabinet minister’s job to defend government policy. What has many people outraged was her suggestion it was actually a good thing that Islanders were moving.

“Have we interviewed the thousand people who left this year as to why they left, or are we just speculating that the issue is EI?” the minister said in a television interview. “I say the issue was opportunity for them to make a better life for their family and that’s exactly what they’re doing. People want to work and make money and I don’t see anything wrong with it.”

The sad fact is the minister is right. There is little doubt those moving away did so for economic reasons. While the minister stopped short of suggesting she is happy about the depopulation of the province she represents at the cabinet table, the interview makes it clear she sees nothing wrong with it.

The Island legislature does however. It unanimously passed a motion calling for Ottawa to reverse the changes, even though there is little chance of that happening.

Instead of celebrating the fact people are forced to move away to better their lot, however, Shea, as the province’s cabinet minister, should be spending every waking moment trying to help improve the Island’s economic situation.

The fact is the Island economy has a strong seasonal component. What is necessary is to build on that base to develop other industries and there have been some successes — the most obvious being aerospace.

People will always move within the country, or outside the country for that matter. People will make those choices based on their own reasons. No Island politician should ever say anything that even remotely gives the impression they are OK with the province’s depopulation.

Those comments could come back to haunt the cabinet minister when she heads to the polls in 2015 seeking a third mandate. Whether it will end up being a factor in that campaign is yet to be seen. However, it would seem too good an opportunity for her eventual political opponents to pass up.

 

A life-long resident of Prince Edward Island, Troy Media Syndicated Columnist Andy Walker has been a writer and commentator for more than 30 years. www.troymedia.com

Organizations: Employment Insurance

Geographic location: Prince Edward Island, Alberta, Canada Toronto Ontario Saskatchewan Ottawa Troy

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