Why Atlantic Canada doesn't work
Written by Link Byfield   
Monday, 29 May 2006

In Souris, an hour east of Charlottetown, PEI, a seafood plant can't find workers.

In fact the Ocean Choice plant was so desperate to keep up to the incoming catch it has brought in 19 Russians and 20 Ukrainians.

Meanwhile, almost 11% of PEI residents are officially unemployed -- defined by Employment Insurance as actively seeking and available for work.

But not for processing lobster at $9.40 an hour.

Now why can Ocean Choice find willing workers half-way round the world, but not in Prince Edward Island?

It would be nice to think this is an isolated incident, but it isn't.

According to maritimers like Brian Crowley of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, it's been going on for decades.

Jobs go begging while maritimers sit home on welfare.

The scam has become part of the culture. Your local MP lands a federal patronage "job creation" grant -- usually nothing too demanding -- and people get hired just long enough to qualify for Employment Insurance.

There are communities where 90% of the population live like this.

 I'm sure these are charming, quaint places where nobody's caught up in the rat race.

But Crowley and others have documented for years how seriously this has injured the Atlantic economy. Why would anyone invest in a new business if the local workers only hang around long enough to qualify for EI?

Before Ottawa blessed the Atlantic with special "seasonal" EI benefits in the 1970s, the region had almost caught up to Canadian averages in employment and private job-creating investment, and was quickly catching up in education and wage levels.

Now, after 35 years of federal "help," it's miles behind.

But maritimers won't tolerate EI cutbacks. When the Liberals tried in 1993, they were clobbered in the next election, dropping from 31 seats to 11.

Come to think of it, we've heard nothing from the federal Conservatives either.

Since Stephen Harper was pilloried for mentioning Atlantic Canada's "culture of defeat" he's kept silent about it.

I quit paying EI as soon as I could, but my sons are stuck with it. They work long hours surveying oil wells and forming concrete, and they have to pay extra just so some east-coast slacker can stay home and whine about "rich Albertans."

Come on out, Jack, and here's a hammer. You can be "rich" too.

There's only one solution that's good for all concerned. Let each province set its own premiums and benefits at whatever levels it can afford.

I doubt the fish plant in Souris wouldn't be flying in workers from Russia.

We'd no longer see Atlantic politicians caging federal make-work grants to qualify people to do nothing.

The nicest thing Canada could do for the Atlantic region -- along with Quebec and Manitoba -- is to provincialize EI, and terminate federal Equalization.

Why on earth should Canadians in other regions feel responsible for their hospitals and schools?

We keep hearing how "regional sharing" was always a "fundamental Canadian value."

Rubbish. It didn't start until 1957 -- almost a century after Confederation. Before that everyone paid their own bills and stood on their own feet.

Canada was not intended to be a social union. Confederation was an economic union, with social responsibility left to the provinces.

We should restore that original vision. National social entitlements just breed cynicism and irresponsibility.

- Link Byfield

Link Byfield is chairman of the Edmonton-based Citizens Centre for Freedom and Democracy, and an Alberta senator-elect.
"Just Between Us" is a feature service of the Citizens Centre for Freedom and Democracy. The purpose of the Citizens Centre is to enhance freedom and democracy by enabling ordinary citizens to become active and effective on important issues outside the normal processes of party politics.