LouAnne Gallant had to work a lot harder to make ends meet last year after her employment insurance ran out sooner than it had in previous years.
She and her husband had to survive from April to June with no income after the federal government ended a pilot program that extended employment insurance benefits by five weeks for some workers.
This was one of the controversial EI reforms introduced in 2013 by the Harper government.
Gallant lives in the tiny community of Miminegash, located close to the western-most tip of the Prince Edward Island.
In the summer, she and her husband work hard. She in a shop, he on fishing boats. But in the winter, when the tourists leave and the water freezes, there are not many options for earning a living in the rural fishing village.
That’s why they have had to draw EI in the winter.
Gallant has also supplemented her EI income with a part-time job. But more EI changes brought in last year saw half her part-time earnings clawed back by the federal government.
So, when her EI benefits ran out in April, the couple just had to make do with nothing.
“There’s no jobs in April. My work didn’t start until June, so you just survive,” she said.
“Five extra weeks of money helps you out a lot … and there’s some people I know whose unemployment is going to be running out in February and March. But there’s no jobs.”
This stark reality is being cited as a main culprit in a jump in out-migration from P.E.I.
In 2012-13, the province experienced a net loss of close to 1,100 residents to inter-provincial migration, according to data from Statistics Canada.
This is the largest loss of P.E.I. residents to other provinces in more than 30 years.
Rural communities across the Island are seeing an increasing number of people going to western Canada for work. Some are leaving P.E.I. altogether while others are seeing husbands and fathers “commuting” to Alberta — spending two weeks in the oil patch, one week at home.
A Families of Migrant Workers support group was recently formed in West Prince to help local women connect with others whose husbands, fathers, brothers and partners have to leave for extended periods to work out west.
On Tuesday, federal Employment Minister Jason Kenney issued a statement to The Guardian, taking issue with claims that more Islanders are leaving P.E.I. this year as a result of the EI changes.
He said this is “completely false.”
But Gallant says she knows people in her community and in neighbouring areas who have indeed left or who are commuting to Alberta, in part because of the changes.
“(The federal government) is making it harder each year. And some people just say, ‘What the heck,’ and just give up,” Gallant said.
The Guardian has been trying to find people to corroborate this — Islanders who will say they left the Island because of the EI reforms, so far unsuccessfully.
Malpeque MP Wayne Easter says they are too scared.
“The fear of people who utilize the EI system, you can cut it with a knife,” he said.
“They may not be doing anything wrong but their claim may be questioned, so it’s fear.”
Easter was highly critical of Kenney’s statement Tuesday, in which he said no one would have to work off-Island to be eligible for EI.
“It’s not about eligibility for EI, it’s that they’ve undermined the EI system in terms of its value for especially seasonal workers,” Easter said.
“Their motivation is to try to justify the unjustifiable.”
Innovation Minister Allen Roach said Wednesday he stands by his belief that the federal EI reforms have been a key contributor to the spike in Islanders who left the province, regardless of what Kenney asserts.
“We’re on the ground here in Prince Edward Island,” Roach said.
“The only change that took place that we know of that had any effect was the changes in EI. The total number of people working in P.E.I. is way up over last year, so if we have more people working in P.E.I., why do they have to go out West? The only thing that changed was the EI changes.”