EDITORIAL – Make EI a universal program, not regional

Commentary by Mac Olsen

All Canadians, especially Albertans, should take Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to task over his recent remarks about how Employment Insurance is distributed across the country.
During his tour of Alberta in late March, the Prime Minister touted the changes his government is making to EI. This includes providing more money to a dozen regions across the country which are suffering higher unemployment rates compared to others.
According to a report in the Globe and Mail on March 23, Employment Insurance benefits will be temporarily extended by five to 20 weeks for a dozen regions devastated by the commodities slump, including most of Alberta, parts of Saskatchewan and Newfoundland and Labrador.
The Globe and Mail report also says, for the 12 regions, unemployment benefits will be extended by five weeks – from 45 to a maximum of 50 weeks. For those who have contributed significantly to EI and have not extensively tapped benefits, maximum benefits will be raised from 50 weeks to 70 weeks.
However, Edmonton and some parts of Saskatchewan have been excluded. The Prime Minister also said in an interview on Canwest Global, Edmonton in late March that Edmontonians should feel fortunate their unemployment rate isn’t as high other regions.
I don’t speak for Edmontonians or the other regions excluded from the new EI benefits arrangements. But I am offended that the Prime Minister would even make such a callous remark about the state of Edmonton’s unemployment situation. I think he owes a public apology to all regions of the country that have been excluded from the new EI funding arrangements. Anyone – and any region of the country – suffering from the indignity of being laid off temporarily or permanently should not have to go groveling for a government program (money) that is rightfully theirs to begin with.
I still remember the one time in the summer of 1997 in Victoria, B.C. that I really needed EI. I was looking for employment in my chosen field of office administration and I put in my claim. But the bureaucrat that handled my claim turned it down.
It’s not that I planned to live on EI – or social assistance – and not look for employment. But I felt that I had a right to access some of the money that I was forced to pay into that federal program.
Years later, I learned of someone who moved from Vancouver to another community in B.C., and they were allowed to make a claim because that community had a higher unemployment rate than Victoria. So I think I have the right to resent and condemn the regionalization of EI.
The program was called Unemployment Insurance until late 1985. But it has strayed from what it was originally intended to be – a support net for all who need it. This program is not just the preserve of the political party in power and bureaucracy to dish out money for their political convenience.
To the Prime Minister, I say, make EI into a universal program and eliminate regionalization. Everyone who pays into it should be allowed to claim what is rightfully his or hers – when they absolutely have no other choice.

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