I gave the following 10-minute speech Thursday (May 31st) in the House of Commons.
My perspective on this motion is a Newfoundland and Labrador perspective.
And in that light, I begin.
First the fishery, now the fisherman — that will be the theme thoughout 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 aren’t even plans for a recovery.
The Conservatives voted against that bill (my bill), the Newfoundland and Labrador Fishery Rebuilding Act — last fall.
So 20 years after the biggest layoff in Canadian history, comparable to the Prairie Dustbowl of the 1930s — of course, I’m speaking of the shutdown of the northern cod fishery, the anniversary of which, Mr. Speaker, is coming up on July 2nd, mark it on your calendar — and there is no recovery, there is no recovery plan.
Mr. Speaker, first our fishery was abandoned, now our fisherman and mariners are being abandoned.
The latest blow are the proposed changes to Employment Insurance, changes that — as I said Wednesday during Question Period, Mr. Speaker — will empty what’s left of rural Newfoundland and Labrador, what we call the outports.
First the fish, now the fisherman.
Mr. Speaker, 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 per cent or losing their employment insurance benefits.
These EI changes amount to an attack on seasonal workers.
The Conservative government is telling frequent EI claimants that they will be required — after 6 weeks of collecting benefits — to take any work available within an hour commute, providing it pay at least 70 per cent of what they were making before they were laid off.
That’s two hours of commuting a day to a job that pays 70 per cent of what they made before.
Tell me that won’t hurt, Mr. Speaker.
Two hours of commuting for a job that pays 30 per cent less, and probably day-care expences.
And fuel expenses — there are no subways in Newfoundland and Labrador, Mr. Speaker, which may be news to the out-of-touch Conservative government.
So 30 per cent less pay with increased expenses.
In so many rural areas there is little other work besides seasonal industries like the fishery, forestry and tourism — there is little other work.
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.
But that gets back to my point about the fishery being destroyed under consecutive Liberal and Conservative governments.
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.
The Conservative changes punish frequent EI claimants, punishes 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 claimants.
Of 67,700 claimants in Newfoundland and Labrador, almost 54,000 could be classified as frequent.
Meaning nearly 80 per cent of my province’s EI claimants would fall into that frequent category.
Nationally, the average is 32 per cent.
In effect, Mr. Speaker, the changes to EI could have a disproportionately larger effect in my province than in others.
But then the same would hold true with changes to Old-Age Security and GIS in that more Newfoundlanders and Labradorians depend on their government pension as their main source of income.
Many seasonal industries don’t come with pension plans.
First the fishery, now the fishermen.
In so many areas of Atlantic Canada there is only seasonal work, it’s the nature of the industry (well, ever since the fishery was destroyed).
The changes to EI amount to a race to the bottom.
Take, for example, a seasonal worker in outport Newfoundland who finds a job that pays 70 per cent of what they made in the fish plant.
That would have to be at or near minimum wage.
Which a person, let alone a family, cannot survive on — on top of the added expenses I mentioned earlier.
Let me repeat, a race to the bottom, Mr. Speaker, more people will probably draw from provincial welfare just to be get by, placing a larger fiscal burden on the provinces.
So let’s summarize the Conservative action plan for Atlantic Canada, for outport Newfoundland and Labrador.
First, walk away from the fish, and pretend like the stocks never existed — no recovery plan, no rebuilding targets, same goes for the Conservative pretence of supporting the seal harvest.
Second, abandon the fishermen.
Examples of that would include the potential elimination of the owner operator/fleet separation policies, which would essentially kill the traditional inshore fishery …
Another example would be the steady deterioration of search and rescue, although the Conservatives are spreading a vicious rumour that the Italians are actually picking up the slack on marine medical calls.
The cuts to ACOA will mean regional development boards are basically on their way out.
As is any presence of the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans — continuous cuts to science and management.
First the fish, now the fishermen.
And where is the consultation, Mr. Speaker.
The Conservatives have a habit of pulling legislation out of the air and ramming it down the throats of Canadians.
Look at Old-Age Security and the raising of the age of eligibility to 67 from 65 — there was no talk of that during the last election.
There was no talk of these EI changes either.
In fact, there was no consultations with Canadians period.
Here’s a quote from Elizabeth Beale, president of the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council:
“These are important policy changes and we need a full policy discussion.”
Good luck with that, I say, not with this Conservative government.
Beale makes another great point:
“What is being missed in this discussion and missed in the national dialogue is the inference that Atlantic Canadians don't want to work.”
“You know, unemployment rates are high and therefore, they all want to stay home and twiddle their fingers. The reality is completely different,” Beale said.
Keep in mind that the Prime Minister has said Atlantic Canada has a culture of defeat.
The changes to EI will reduce the incomes of people in rural communities who are older and unable to take jobs elsewhere.
That’s the reality, Mr. Speaker.
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.
In Newfoundland and Labrador, so much of our rural areas are dependent on the fishery, what’s left of it, and tourism — both of which are seasonal.
These changes will hurt economically sensitive areas.
Let me quote Darrell Dexter, Premier of Nova Scotia:
“The people who they most seem to be targeting are actually people who are in seasonal jobs … that is not an abuse. That is part of rural culture of Canada. If they see that as a problem then they essentially see the culture of rural Canada as a problem.”
First the fishery, now the fishermen.
Mr. Speaker, it would seem to me that the time of this Conservative government would be better spent implementing a rebuilding plan for the Grand Banks of Newfoundland.
It would seem to me that the time of this Conservative government would be spent dropping plans to eliminate the owner operator/fleet separation policies.
It would seem to me that the time of this Conservative government would be better spent giving people hope.
Hope for the future.
Hope for our culture and heritage.
Hope, Mr. Speaker — not punishment.
On top of punishment.
On top of punishment.
The Prime Minister said years ago that Atlantic Canada has a culture of defeat, but it is the Conservatives who are defeatist towards us.
Defeatist, out of touch, and out of luck come the next election.
Thank you, Mr. Speaker.