EI benefits reinstated to protester

Marlene Geirsdorf received the good news one month after beginning her one-woman protest against changes

Steve Sharratt comment@theguardian.pe.ca
Published on February 12, 2013

MONTAGUE – Marlene Geirsdorf will get her benefits back and prays never again to join the ranks of the unemployed.

“It’s been the most difficult thing I’ve ever been through and I never want to do it again after I graduate my course,” she said Monday. “But I’m not giving up the protest to help others in the same boat.”

The 30-year-old became the poster girl against EI changes after she was denied her benefits in early January because she couldn’t take a job in Charlottetown because she doesn’t own a car or have access to public transit.

“I was elated to open the letter today,’’ she told The Guardian after leaving the Montague post office. “I was jumping up and down.”

Geirsdorf has been advised that her claim will be reinstated and she is now in the process of applying for the resident care worker program with Holland College in which she hopes to find full time work.

“Ever since this started it’s been like a bomb of everything going wrong….today is the first day I feel things are going to go right,’’ she said tearfully clutching the letter of reinstatement.

The official letter from Ottawa said the “commission has withdrawn its appeal to the Umpire” which prevented her from receiving benefits. It was signed by senior appeals officer Louise Laviolette from the EI appeals division.

But while it may be a personal victory, Geirsdorf said the work is not over and she will continue to protest outside Services Canada officers here to help others who have supported her but after too afraid to go public with their concerns. Since January, she has protested with homemade signs and a survival suit outside the federal agency offices here.

“I’m not the only one affected by the radical changes,’’ she said. “I’m just the one who stood out there and protested.”

Since she began her protest, she has been the object of praise and derision. People have offered her money (which she refused), people offered to buy her car (which she gratefully declined) and people have offered her support. Some would stuff twenty dollar bills into her gloves or bag when she wasn’t looking.

However, many have chided and ridiculed her suggesting the single mother with no phone, computer or car was a societal leach and should head to Alberta.

“One day I didn’t go out because it was too embarrassing and so many negative comments. People don’t know my whole story but show their ignorance with such harsh comments,’’ she said. “I have an eight year old son and have 50/50 custody so at this time there is no way… my son is my main goal.”

Some detractors said she shouldn’t have had a child, some said it was her own fault and some said she was an embarrassment to the country. Some newspaper columnists, like Globe and Mail writer Margaret Wente suggested she was taking full advantage of the system and that seasonal work should disappear if it can’t survive.

“Employment insurance is paid by the worker and the employer, not the taxpayer,’’ insists Lori MacKay, president of CUPE on P.E.I. who showed support. “This woman was fully entitled….this is a province where we can’t grow potatoes year round or land fish twelve months a year. That’s why there is such a thing as EI.”

When she received a standing ovation at a Souris EI meeting calling for change over a week ago, Geirsdorf was the guest speaker shaking with nerves and reading from handwritten pages she had composed the night before. The single mom said she would love to invite Prime Minister Stephen Harper, National Revenue Minister Gail Shea, Human Resources Minister Diane Finley and Wente to her modest lodgings for afternoon tea.

“Not one of them took the time to respond to my phone call,” she said.

EI protester Marlene Geirsdorf holds the letter she received Monday reinstating her benefit claim. The 30-year-old single mother has become face of rampant EI changes that have affected hundreds of Atlantic Canadian seasonal workers.

©Guardian photo by Steve Sharratt