Employment insurance, or EI as most call it, is a crucial component of Canada’s social safety net. The EI program is funded by Canadian workers and their employers, not by government. That is why EI should operate like any other insurance plan, and provide temporary financial assistance to Canadians who find themselves without work through no fault of their own. One thing the EI fund should not be is a political slush fund operated by the Harper government for political gain.
It is no secret that our primary industries in P.E.I. remain farming, fishing and tourism. This means our economy is largely dependent on seasonal work, and is likely continue to be so. Yet, seasonal workers and their families have been under attack by successive Liberal and Conservative governments in Ottawa for the past 20 years or more.
During his tenure as finance minister and later as a short-lived and scandal-plagued PM, Paul Martin raided the EI fund, to the tune of $40 billion, in his efforts to slay the deficit. It now seems Mr. Harper has no less shame raiding the same insurance fund for the same political purpose. This amounts to nothing more than a hidden tax on employers and workers. This from a party that states that lower taxes are their goal.
In 2014 the EI program posted an estimated $3.4 billion surplus. Similar surpluses are forecast for 2015 and 2016 while contributions are to remain conveniently frozen. By 2017 Mr. Harper plans to take more than $17 billion excess dollars from the EI fund. That misappropriated money should be left for its intended purpose. To support unemployed workers and their families in their time of need.
Most islanders know Stephen Harper and the Chrétien-Martin government before him used the EI fund as a slush fund, but Stephen Harper has directly punished the unemployed in our region with his mean-spirited and damaging policies. It was Stephen Harper who introduced the 50 cents on the dollar EI claw back. It was Stephen Harper who implemented the deeply unfair rural-urban EI boundary divide in P.E.I., and it was Stephen Harper who made hardship and jobs out west mandatory for many Island families, especially rural Islanders.
Meanwhile, the Harper Government neglects the EI system to the point that only 38 per cent of jobless Canadians even qualify for benefits. Not only is this a problem for workers and their families who are struggling to get by every day, it also excludes them from any job and training opportunities that may have been available under the program were they able to qualify for EI in the first place.
Here’s what needs to happen. Eliminate the two week waiting period, build a wall around the insurance fund to prevent any future government from misappropriation of the fund, and reverse the unfair measures that have been imposed.
Dr. Herb Dickieson is a family physician practising in Prince County, former member of the legislature, and the NDP candidate in Egmont