Mr. Speaker, I will be splitting my time with the hon. member for Hochelaga.
My perspective on this motion is a Newfoundland and Labrador perspective. In that light, I begin.
First it was the fishery, and now it is the fishermen. That will be a theme throughout my speech.
First the fishery was destroyed. Under consecutive federal Liberal and Conservative governments, groundfish stocks, such as cod and flounder, were practically wiped off the face of the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. There has been an embarrassing lack of recovery; in fact, there are no plans for a recovery. The Conservatives voted against that bill, my bill, the Newfoundland and Labrador rebuilding bill, last fall.
It has been 20 years since the biggest layoff in Canadian history, the shutdown of the northern cod fishery. It was comparable to the Prairie dust bowl of the 1930s, and the anniversary is coming up on July 2. Members should mark that on their calendars.
There has been no recovery and there is no recovery plan. First our fishery was abandoned, and now our fishermen and our mariners are being abandoned. They are being systematically abandoned. The latest blow comes from the proposed changes to employment insurance. These changes, as I said Wednesday during question period, will empty what is left of rural Newfoundland and Labrador, what we call the outports. First the fishery, now the fishermen.
Today's motion calls on the Conservative government to abandon plans to restrict access to employment insurance for Canadian workers who have followed the rules and who will now be forced to choose between taking a pay cut of up to 30% or losing their employment insurance benefits.
These changes amount to an attack on seasonal workers. The Conservative government is telling frequent EI claimants that they will be required, after six weeks of collecting benefits, to take any work available within a one-hour commute, providing it pays at least 70% of what they were making before they were laid off.
Tell me that will not hurt. It means two hours of commuting for a job that pays 30% less and that probably requires daycare expenses and fuel expenses. There are no subways in Newfoundland and Labrador. That may be news to the out-of-touch Conservative government. That is 30% less pay, with increased expenses.
In very many rural areas there is little other work besides seasonal industries like fishing, forestry and tourism. That is a reality. Most seasonal workers would be classified as frequent claimants. There was a point in time a few decades ago when the fishery employed fishermen and plant workers full time, year round, 52 weeks a year. That gets back to my point about the fishery being destroyed under consecutive Conservative and Liberal governments and the need for an inquiry.
Instead of changing EI rules, the Conservative government should come up with a rebuilding plan for fish stocks off Newfoundland and Labrador. That would get my people back to full-time work. How is that for a novel idea to get Canadians back to work?
The Conservative changes to EI punish frequent EI claimants. They punish seasonal workers. According to the St. John's Telegram, the daily newspaper in my riding, Newfoundland and Labrador is the province with the single highest number of frequent EI claimants. Of 67,700 claimants in Newfoundland and Labrador, almost 54,000 could be classified as frequent, meaning nearly 80% of my province's EI claimants would fall into the frequent category. Nationally, the average is 32%. That is a big spread. In effect, the changes to EI could have a disproportionately larger impact on my province than on other provinces.
That would hold true also with changes to old age security and GIS. More Newfoundlanders and Labradorians depend on their government pensions as their main source of income, because many seasonal industries do not come with pension plans. That is a reality of life too.
First it was the fishery; now it is the fishermen.
In so many areas of Atlantic Canada, there is only seasonal work. It is the nature of the industry—well, ever since the fishery was destroyed under the Liberal and Conservative watch, again.
The changes to EI amount to a race to the bottom. Let us take, for example, a seasonal worker in outport Newfoundland who finds a job that pays 70% of what he or she made in the fish plant. That would have to be near or at minimum wage, which a person, let alone a family, cannot be expected to survive on. On top of that, there are the added expenses I mentioned earlier: daycare, fuel, that sort of thing. I repeat: it is a race to the bottom. More people would probably draw from provincial welfare just to get by, placing a larger fiscal burden on the provinces.
I will summarize the Conservative plan for Atlantic Canada for outport Newfoundland and Labrador.
First, walk away from the fish and pretend that the stocks never existed, with no recovery plan and no rebuilding targets. The same goes for the Conservative pretense of supporting the seal harvest.
Second, abandon the fishermen. Examples of that would include the potential elimination of owner-operator fleet separation policies, which would essentially kill the traditional inshore fishery. Another example is the steady deterioration of search and rescue services, although the Conservatives are spreading a vicious rumour that the Italians are actually picking up the slack on marine medical calls. Another is the cuts to ACOA, which mean regional development boards are basically on their way out, as is any presence of the federal Department Fisheries and Oceans following continuous cuts to science and management.
First it was the fish, and now it is the fishermen. Where is the consultation? The Conservatives have a habit of pulling legislation out of the air and ramming it down the throats of Canadians. We see it as they raise the age of eligibility for old age security from 65 to 67. There was no talk of that during the last federal election. That has made people scared. There was no talk of these EI changes either. In fact, there was no consultation with Canadians, period.
Elizabeth Beale is the president of the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council. She states:
These are important policy changes and we need a full policy discussion.
Good luck with that, I say. It will not happen with this Conservative government.
Beale makes another great point. She says:
What's being missed in this discussion and missed in the national dialogue is the inference that Atlantic Canadians don't want to work.
Members will recognize that idea, the idea that unemployment rates are high and therefore Atlantic Canadians want to stay home and twiddle their fingers, but as Beale said,
The reality is completely different.
We need to keep in mind that the Prime Minister has said Atlantic Canada has “a culture of defeat”. That quote still rings in the ears of Atlantic Canadians.
The changes to EI would reduce the incomes of people in rural communities who are older and unable to take jobs elsewhere. That is a fact. That is the reality.
Kathy Dunderdale, Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador, has said:
There seems to be a real disconnect between what the federal government is trying to achieve and the reality of people's lives in rural parts of the country—particularly here in Newfoundland and Labrador.
In Newfoundland and Labrador, much of our rural areas are dependent on the fishery—what is left of it—and tourism. Both are seasonal, so these changes would hurt economically sensitive areas.
First it was the fishery, and now it is the fishermen.
It would seem to me that the time of the Conservative government would be better spent in implementing a rebuilding plan for the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. It would seem to me that the time of the Conservative government would be better spent in dropping plans to eliminate the owner-operator fleet separation policies. It would seem to me that the time of the Conservative government would be better spent giving people hope for the future, hope for our culture and heritage—hope, not punishment on top of punishment.
Years ago the Prime Minister said that Atlantic Canada has a culture of defeat, but it is the Conservatives who are defeatist toward us. They are defeatist, out of touch, and out of luck come the next election.