New myths and new myth makers

Below is my TJ column from earlier this week.  I have been really struggling to craft a coherent position on EI reform.  One the one hand, I was calling for a similar type of reform that is now in place.   But I had hoped the government would a) spend a lot of time up front engaging communities and listening to folks before developing the policy (you will recall I advocated for a Royal Commission on the future of EI); and b) that the reforms would start by targeting the low hanging fruit (i.e. the hundreds of truck drivers in New Brunswick that go on EI each year even though trucking firms are facing a big shortage of workers).

Whether we like it or not EI has become a full fledged income support program in dozens of NB communities.  This province has lower than average social assistance recipients (as a percentage of the adult population) and a much lower rate of folks undere the low income cutoff – compared to Canada as a whole.  When you do some correlations it looks clear to me that without EI as income support, thousands of more NBers would be at risk of going on social assistance or fall below the poverty line.  That EI is being used as a kind of income guarantee won’t make a lot of folks happy – but it seems this is the case.

So, not to be Hugh Segal on on this but my point is that if you pull the rug out from under a lot of these folks – and you push many to social assistance (paid by the provincial government) what have you accomplished?  Now, I have no data to suggest that will happen and nothing more than anecdotes.  Even my theory you could argue is on shaky ground.

My conceptual approach to EI reform would have been focused on low hanging fruit first (i.e. truckers, cracking down on outright fraud like the guy who works two fishing seasons – one as himself and one as his wife so they both get maximum EI, etc.), followed by a phase 2 where we do a deep analysis of which industries are being kept afloat by EI and which we could jettison (i.e. christmas tree wreath making?) and finally a serious national discussion about the role of seasonal industries and whether or not there should be an income support program at all for these industries.  You could argue the whole thing is a clusterschtook (to quote Dennis Miller) but it is hard to put the Genie back in the bottle on this kind of thing without genuinely hurting some of the most vulnerable in your society.

But, we don’t get much help from politicians.  Those in opposition see this as red meat – so don’t expect any thoughtful or intelligent policy thinking on that front but do expect them to first in line to speak at anti reform protests.

Those in government are keeping their cards close the vest.

So we rely on anecdotes dribbling out into the media.





We need new myths and new myth makers

For more than 20 years I have been reading articles and commentary in the national and western Canadian press about Atlantic Canada. While it is true that the business sections of the largest newspapers in Canada will run the occasional story about a successful Cod Father entrepreneur, nearly all of the punditry opine on what they see as the dark side of Canada’s four easternmost provinces.

It’s no wonder that polls have shown a negative view of Atlantic Canadians by those in Ontario and western Canada. In one case I am familiar with, a former New Brunswicker running for office in western Canada airbrushed his Maritime history out of his biography out of fear it would cost him votes.
In an upcoming book, John Ibbitson and Darrell Bricker take Atlantic Canada bashing to a new level as they introduce the concept of the “Atlantic Canadian Reality Distortion Field”. The laziness and sense of entitlement in Atlantic Canada leads us to a distorted reality where we see no problem with the rest of Canada shoveling piles of cash down here to keep us living it up on the dole.

What goes unsaid, of course, is that in the majority of Ontario’s urban centres – from Cornwall to Windsor – a higher percentage of workers collect Employment Insurance income than in either Halifax or Fredericton. In fact, Halifax, Fredericton, Moncton, Saint John and St. John’s all have EI usage rates similar to or lower than the national average.

Someone decided decades ago that seasonal workers could access Employment Insurance as a kind of income support program. As a public policy, that is no different than putting billions of dollars’ worth of subsidies in place for western Canadian farmers or billions of dollars for southern Ontario’s automobile manufacturing sector.

The problem is that many of Canada’s esteemed pundits love to take an issue such as seasonal employment and embed it as a sweeping cultural attribute. New Brunswick has seasonal industries ergo all New Brunswickers are lazy slackers with a belligerent sense of entitlement.
Putting aside the fact these Toronto pundits wouldn’t last an hour on a lobster fishing boat in January or cutting pulp wood, I am very uncomfortable with the Atlantic Canada narrative being shaped by these single-minded thinkers.

We should have a rigorous debate in the public square about seasonal industries and whether or not we should use the EI program as an income support mechanism. This is fair game no different than a conversation about agricultural subsidies or automobile manufacturing bailouts.
But the agricultural subsidy debate doesn’t lead pundits to talk about the “Saskatchewan subsidy disruption of the space-time continuum” or the “Ontario bailout intra-universe wormhole”.

If we let Toronto pundits shape our brand, we will always be the lazy and entitled cousins. For Ibbitson and others, it is comforting to think no matter how bad it gets in Ontario it could be worse. We could always live in New Brunswick.

The real story of Atlantic Canada is about Fredericton and the fact that its information technology entrepreneurs are highly sought after by Silicon Valley. It’s about the largest New York law firms using software made in Moncton. It’s about a little forest products firm in Saint John competing and winning against the global industry’s behemoths.
It’s about small urban regions here competing and, in many cases, winning against their larger counterparts across Canada and the United States.

It’s about a region trying to figure out the role of natural resources and seasonal industries in its 21st Century economy.

It other words, the Atlantic Canada brand should be an aspirational one of hope and a gritty determination to build a stronger, knowledge-based economy despite the periodic beatdowns on the opinion pages of national newspapers.

Atlantic Canada needs new myths and new myth makers.

11 thoughts on “New myths and new myth makers

  1. Excellent column. As one commentor said, it should really be in the G&M. We are allowing others to shape our ‘brand’ and thus reaping the consequences. Parochialism is part of the problem; every month when the job numbers come out, the Daily Gleaner story talks about whether F’ton is doing ‘better’ than Moncton or SJ. Is that the proper comparison? Media have a role in creating the myths of which you are speaking; our media have let us down badly and we have let them get away with it.

  2. I was going to start with the same as Richard, unfortunately, there is little ‘you’ can do about the media. I’d also like to add that in some ways you are overreacting. There is of course many highbrows who read Ibbitson, but few who take him seriously. The reality is that most people KNOW people from the maritimes, employers in some cases RAVE about them now. Meanwhile, the attitude from media and pundits IN New Brunswick is usually far worse than it is elsewhere in Canada, where the region is simply ignored. In general, I’ve usually found that its only very specific types of people who foster stereotypical views of an entire region.

    If somebody asked me what I thought of Ontarians and their work ethic I would simply be puzzled. Some are hard working, some are not. Of westerners I would say the same. Asians we’re always told are super hard workers, but in my experience that holds no water at all, so generalizing really doesn’t accomplish much.

    Depending where out west that person you mention is living, he may want to rethink that as from what I’ve seen, MOST people now living in the west aren’t from there. But then, this IS Canada, so saying you are from ANYWHERE else than where you are running in is a huge mistake. Heck, if I were to return to NB and try running for office I probably wouldn’t stand a chance because of where I’ve spent the last twelve years (and other reasons).

    On the other issue, I’m not so sure that engaging communities in EI changes is of any value if you are simply going to do what you first intended anyway. It IS a big issue, and like you say, its doubtful we’ll see anything in the way of a national discussion. However, evidence is not all anecdotal. The provincial government did a study as soon as the federal changes were brought in which correspond exactly to what you say, and in case people have missed it, the inevitable has already happened and Alward is ponying up the dough to cover the federal shortfall with a new program. So they aren’t falling through the cracks (yet), but the costs have been downloaded onto the province.

    I’d also like to know where you get your figures about the trucking industry. How do you find information saying how many truckers are collecting EI? Trucking isn’t seasonal, so that really makes no sense. EI is pretty clear about being ineligible to collect if there are other jobs around. However, I regularly check the job listings for New Brunswick and really haven’t seen many trucking postings. I’ve heard about trucking shortages, but they may be elsewhere in Canada. I’ve also heard about IT and skilled labour shortages, but those don’t correspond to those on EI. In short, the problem is still that those getting seasonal EI simply don’t have access to jobs during their off season.

  3. > Someone decided decades ago that seasonal workers could access Employment Insurance as a kind of income support program. As a public policy, that is no different than putting billions of dollars’ worth of subsidies in place for western Canadian farmers or billions of dollars for southern Ontario’s automobile manufacturing sector.

    The significant difference, of course, is that EI is paid to individuals, while the subsidies to farmers and the manufacturing sector are paid (for the most part) to business.

    From a certain perspective, this makes it clear why the government and media are attacking EI payouts, while remaining silent about the other sorts of payouts.

  4. Re EI changes: An indicator showing the ‘Investment Gap’ caused by the EI cuts is needed,e.g.,if $100 million in EI cuts then make these cuts ‘policy neutral’ by investing $100 million in new economy projects to the province. For example, promote a ‘Get Off Oil’ policy by increasing the incentive to install geothermal heating systems. Selection of where to invest would be done by a new ‘Investment Gap’cabinet level committee.

  5. Technically John, there were no ‘cuts’ to EI, but simply a changing of the rules. I think there were only two paying ‘special programs’ which were cut,and they would have been cut all across the country. One was a ‘pilot program’ that had only been around a couple of years.

    There is no word yet on what the rule tightening will do, it may be that there will be none. My own conspiracy theory is that the feds simply WANT people to move west to where the jobs are. Its pretty much what New Brunswick itself would like, urbanizing workers has been a priority for some time. Combined with the new ‘interviews’ and given the way the Minister talks about those on EI, perhaps they don’t think there is ENOUGH of a stigma, and want to really push people into work-even if it means moving.

  6. One of the big problems in having a debate over an issue such as EI is that people tend to get emotional very easily; the debate can deteriorate quite quickly and fall into the bashing that you describe. I also think that many of the partisan people who are leading the debate can simply and effectively rely on appeals to emotion that enrage people with opposing views and are accepted wholeheartedly by those with the same views. In my experience a majority of the debate that hits the news is very lazy and unproductive.

    I think in many cases it is much easier to sell emotion than rational thinking, so we are left with a bunch of speaking points that are a proxy for debate.

    If you’re interested, I did my own blog on the topic (, because I tried to see the rational arguments behind each side’s position, but it is often hidden behind emotionally charged statements such as ‘Seasonal workers are lazy’, or ‘Harper is attacking Atlantic Canada’.

  7. Craig, hate to say it but its blogs like yours that are the problem much more than the media. The media has pretty much called it as it is. In your blog, for those who haven’t read it, you go on and on about how seasonal EI should simply be done away with. Even the federal government is not talking about that, it simply made some changes to EI and people are fighting it.

    From my point of view, one of the problems (besides the fact that when it comes to public policy all debate is pretty much meaningless because a majority government can do whatever it wants) with the blog discussions is that individuals go even further right than government. As for ‘discussion’, NO ONE outside of blogs is talking about doing away with seasonal EI. It gets ’emotional’ because people have extreme views, and that is one of them, a perfect example of what I said-that bloggers and pundits IN the maritimes are usually more strident than outside. In Ontario, the ‘rage’ about EI came when the economic crisis hit hard and fast and a lot of people found out they couldn’t collect EI. The government made quick changes and now its virtually never mentioned.

  8. Just to update that because the Irving ran an editorial on it-‘their view’ is that Alward is making a mistake in using precious NB tax dollars to ‘prop up’ the EI for people whose EI won’t last until work season. They point out, and I think quite rightly, that the province is crazy to be mandating that these people take ‘training courses’ which are courses within the department and include things like ‘critical thinking’ and other courses which pretty much everybody will recognize as a waste of time for a new economy-particularly for people in rural areas where no jobs exist anyway.

    They say they’d be better off offering credits for university level courses or GED training. I find myself in total agreement with that. It is very ‘unemotional’, and at their most strident they seem to be objecting to the idea of tax dollars being used to fund idiotic courses. They don’t say that these people don’t deserve EI or that they should be cut off, which is far less than a lot of bloggers are saying. So I don’t think media can be blamed when the topic becomes ’emotional’ or unreasonable.

  9. If we had jobs we could try to migrate people from seasonal work to other types of work. It doesn’t matter how hard a job is physically, that doesn’t give people the right to free money every year. Plus a lot of the lobster fishermen do quite well, they even demand prices for their product and oppose US processing competition! I wish I could do that.

    We need jobs and a thriving economy and perhaps this issue will diminish in importance. If you haven’t noticed when governments get into huge debts we start looking at programs that are wasteful. Plus if you have any sense of pride you won’t be happy about getting $1 billion in EI payments not to mention transfer payments. And dads leaving their families to work in other provinces. So we need to ignore the nat gas naysayers and move on with it fast. Even Newfoundland is going full steam ahead with oil and gas.

  10. Sorry to add more, but new information….if you heard maritime noon today it was about a restaurant in PEI where the woman who owned it said they went out of business because of EI. It’s always dangerous to take one persons word, especially in the restaurant business, but she says they had 25 workers and 23 of them left once they qualified for EI. So obviously there MAY be something to that and its worth looking into. The regulations clearly state that you can’t qualify for EI if you quit a job, but she says that that rule was simply not enforced. I would agree that that is a problem, and if its true, and IF its more widespread, would go a long way to explaining a lot of animosity on the part of the public.

    The remedy for that, of course, is simply to enforce the rules that are there. This woman could be unbearable to work for, she could simply be lying or exagerating, we don’t know. It’s also interesting that maybe she didn’t know the rules, but you would think that an employer would simply call the EI office and ask why the rules weren’t being enforced. Regarding the new changes though, they really don’t focus on this problem. I just thought this was such a glaring example of the other side of the equation that I should send it in.

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