By Jim Sentance (commentary)
Since my last note on the subject of Employment Insurance regions, responses from a couple of writers prompt me to elaborate on a few issues. My apologies if I seem to be belaboring this a bit, but I think the point needs to be made.
First, Dan Aiken has noted that a couple of decades ago when the EI regions were being drawn up Kingston and Abbotsford were singled out as regions despite only being Census Agglomerations (CAs). This he believes undermines my argument, which was that singling out Charlottetown (a CA) as a stand-alone EI region is unusual treatment because otherwise only Census Metropolitan Areas (CMAs) are treated that way. Kingston and Abbotsford may have officially still been CAs in 1996 when the legislation was drawn up, but in fact both had by then exceeded the threshold population to become CMAs, a fact which would undoubtedly have been apparent to policy makers even if the census figures used to classify them as such officially hadn’t been released yet. And both most certainly are categorized as CMAs now and have been since the subsequent census in 2001. In any case, even if they were still CAs, to suggest as he does that this means incorporating Charlottetown into the surrounding regions, as is done with the dozens of other CAs, many bigger than Charlottetown, is unusual or not the norm, is I think more than a bit of a stretch.
Both he and Gail Shea, in her recent op-ed piece, also repeat the talking points that Charlottetown is the only provincial capital not singled out from the surrounding rural areas, and Prince Edward Island the only province with no urban/rural split. In terms of the purpose of dividing the country up into regions these are, as I have said before, red herrings. Also technically not entirely true as Fredericton, in addition to being lumped in with Moncton and Saint John, has attached to it several rural districts that fall in between and around these cities.
Prince Edward Island has been treated unusually in not having an urban/rural split attached to it for the simple reason that we do not meet the threshold for an urban area being large enough to be singled out and separated from the surrounding countryside. The fact that Charlottetown is a capital city is in itself completely irrelevant. The other provincial capitals are singled out because they are large cities (CMAs), not because they are capitals. In being treated as a whole, including a few modest-sized cities, Prince Edward Island has until now received completely normal and usual treatment for a piece of territory of similar size and makeup. Let me repeat that — our treatment at the moment is completely normal.
And no, Ms. Shea, rural Islanders have not been treated unfairly in comparison with rural Canadians elsewhere by being lumped in with Charlottetown. Rural Canadians elsewhere typically also find themselves lumped in with urban areas of comparable size to Charlottetown, which also typically have lower unemployment rates that the surrounding countryside. That may be an issue, but its one that would argue for a further micro-division of EI regions right across the country, not just ours.
Finally, let me quickly address that disparity between unemployment rates in Charlottetown versus the rest of the province.
I would suggest that this is in any case largely a statistical artifact created by a lump of very steady jobs in government, health and education which due to the qualifications required and their heavily unionized nature are unobtainable for many Islanders, whether they live in Charlottetown or not. While it reduces the calculated unemployment rate in the Charlottetown district, I don’t think that rate is in any way indicative of the relative employment prospects for those in the Charlottetown district on the outside of that sector. If that sector was large enough, or combined with enough private industry, more spinoff jobs would be available and the story might be different, but then that would imply Charlottetown was a much bigger city. Which it isn’t.
I think my point stands.
Jim Sentence is Associate Professor and Chair Department of Economics, University of Prince Edward Island