Proceedings of the Standing Senate Committee on
Social Affairs, Science and Technology

Issue 8 - Appendix 1

Notes for a Presentation to the
Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology

Concerning Bill C-12 on Employment Insurance

By Mathilda Blanchard, Union Representative

Syndicat Acadien des travailleurs affiliés et des pêches
[Acadian union of affiliated and fishery workers]

Founding Member
Comité des 12 pour la justice sociale au Nouveau-Brunswick
[Committee of 12 for social justice in New Brunswick]

Comité de la formation en pêches [fishery training committee]
École des pêches [fishery school]
Caraquet, New Brunswick

June 11, 1995

The Acadian Peninsula and its Activities, All Seasonal

The Acadian peninsula has many industries, all of which depend on natural resources.

There is farming, with its blueberries, vast fields of strawberries, greenhouses, the production of potatoes and other vegetables, and oats, wheat, hay and other crops. This land that we have cultivated for nearly 300 years is the country's most fertile, and the climate that effects nature's mysterious cycle is the world's best. Fruit crops, including apples, plums, cherries and several other species, are also grown in our region. Farms that industrialization had eliminated are slowly but surely coming back into production; increasingly, milk, eggs, meat and other products are produced in our region.

The fisheries harvest fish and crustaceans, which abound in the waters surrounding the Acadian peninsula in greater numbers than anywhere else; taken from the world's saltiest waters, these products have unequalled flavour. The peat bogs, another form of marine environment, produce a first-quality peat moss.

A vast forest covers the centre of the peninsula where many of Canada's finest tree species grow, producing wood for construction, heating, and pulp and paper. The Christmas tree and wreath industry, based on our lovely fir trees, the kings of the forest, is increasingly prosperous. We are told that the quality and colour of our fir trees are superior to those of trees grown elsewhere.

Our region is a veritable paradise on earth that God has made available to everyone for their survival. God also created a climate for this blessed land ensuring that for about six months out of every year all of nature, which has given so much during the summer season, disappears under a thick layer of white snow. The earth is frozen, some trees lose their leaves, and those that keep their needles bend under the weight of their covering of snow. The waters that surround us, as well as the inland rivers, lakes and bays, become masses of solid ice, slow to melt even when spring comes. All of nature rests and gathers its strength again.

People, too, withdraw into their homes in order to rest and gather their strength again for the next season of work. Although we did not mention people in mentioning our industries, it goes without saying that it is the workers who make the wheels of industry turn. Each of the industries we mentioned forms the basis for others and, as is the case elsewhere, the economy of our region depends entirely on them.

The labour force on the Acadian peninsula is versatile and unique. Nowhere else is such a mosaic to be found. That may be the reason the seasonal workers in our region are so poorly understood -- to the point where some schizophrenic parliamentarians consider that they spend their summers "sitting on the shore".

The working season begins in late April or early May with catches of lobster, crab, herring, alewife and other species.

This time of year is also seeding season. Then, in late June and early July, comes the strawberry harvest. Strawberry time is like lilac time; everyone seems happy. And then comes haying. All this work becomes a pleasure, a sort of vacation in the form of trips to the fields.

The lumberjacks are already at work in the bush and the woodlots. They enjoy being be back in natural surroundings, despite the heat and insect bites.

This is the time when activity is at its peak. A real sort of frenzy comes over everyone. There is constant busyness until the end of July, followed by a period of calm until mid-August, when the dance begins again. This is the time for herring and herring roe. In the fields the blueberries have ripened, and potato and vegetable picking begins. And already, with the first full moon in September, it is harvest time. The first frosts in October are the time to cut evergreen branches for Christmas wreaths; and along the logging roads in the bush appear bales of Christmas trees, all for export to our neighbours in the United States. Then, in December, all this activity comes to a sudden halt. The work stops. The paycheques stop. People will have to wait until spring for their next pay. Most workers have earned about $3,000, sometimes less, during approximately seven months, accumulating between 12 and 20 weeks of work.

Throughout this season, the workers range from one industry to another and one job to another, depending on demand. They go from one place to another, working four weeks here and five weeks there; that is the nature of their work. They make return trips of between 50 and 124 miles a day. The travel from one end of the peninsula to another. They change jobs, from harvesting lobsters, to picking blueberries, to cutting branches for Christmas wreaths, and so on. They are qualified for dozens of different jobs.

These, then, are the men and women who are called seasonal workers. I trust you have understood why that is what we call them. I also trust that you will relay that information to the parliamentarians who are unaware of it and have passed Bill C-12 in a cavalier manner with no concern for the wellbeing of unemployed workers.

I also want you to know, and to let those parliamentarians know, that during the winter of 1996, in the small community of Paquetville on the Acadian peninsula, 40 jobs were advertised. There were 700 applications received. Last week, in Bathurst, the Caribou mine announced 200 jobs. There were 2,000 applications received. In Edmunston, in the Madawaska area, the Premier of New Brunswick cut the ribbon to open a communications centre offering 40 jobs. Two years ago, he had promised that this centre would provide 400 jobs. We must face facts. The industrial era is coming to an end. Jobs are going to be increasingly scarce. That means that we have to find a reasonable way to distribute the money people need to survive. A guaranteed income would cost much less than all these various pensions and payments. Unemployment insurance has nothing to do with the federal deficit. The government does not contribute one cent to unemployment insurance; on the contrary, it dips into the unemployment insurance fund for political purposes to promote its own ends.

I spoke to you about the wealth of natural resources on the Acadian peninsula, comparing our region to a paradise on earth. Still, our region has the country's highest unemployment rate; if all citizens able to work are included, the real rate is 30 per cent or even higher. We have the highest hospitalization rate, and the suicide rate is high as well. In certain municipalities, we also have the highest rate of millionaires per capita in the country.

It is strange that our federal and provincial governments take turns taking their problems out on the most disadvantaged people, reducing social assistance and cutting unemployment insurance.

The presidents of the big banks and large corporations are the ones who advise the federal government on issues of social assistance and unemployment insurance. These rich, complacent people pay themselves annual salaries in the millions of dollars. In an excessively capitalist society, the rich, who have the power to Govern, get richer and richer.

Canada's six largest banks made $5 billion in profits in 1995; this year they are preparing to make $6 billion more.

Bill C-12 was thought up and drawn up by lawyers, judges and officials who, every year, skim one-third off the unemployment insurance fund by bothering unemployed persons for no reason with decisions by unemployment insurance arbitration court officials, appeals to Revenue Canada, umpires, and sometimes even the Tax Court of Canada, finally notifying the poor unemployed persons that they were not eligible for unemployment insurance benefits and have to pay back all the money they received over several years. Some unemployed persons even borrow money to pay lawyers to defend them. The law is made to mislead people. The parties concerned interpret it to suit themselves. Unemployed persons receive in benefits less than half of all the money paid in on their behalf. Most of that money goes to administer the system.

So it is on behalf of all the seasonal workers, with whom I have worked for more than 30 years and whom I represent here this evening, that I am speaking to your Committee.

The reason I am asking for amendments to Bill C-12, instead of outright withdrawal because the bill is unacceptable in its present form, is that I know that the bill has been passed by Parliament and it will therefore become law on July 1, 1996, no matter what we say or do.

Since you asked for a one-page summary, the amendments I shall ask you to make to Bill C-12 are set out in that summary.

Mathilda Blanchard, Union representative
Syndicat Acadien des travailleurs affiliés et des pêches
120 guest, boulevard Saint-Pierre
Caraquet, New Brunswick
E1W 1B6

Telephone: (506) 727-4802

Honourable Senators of the Committee:

Since Bill C-21 will become law on July 1, 1996 and since we can hold it back no longer, we ask you to make the following amendments at least.

Workers who are entering the labour force for the first time or who have been absent for some time should be able to qualify with 420 hours of work, like other workers, rather than 900 hours. No one can work that many hours in one year.

The "plus two" divisor should be eliminated. If a worker applies for unemployment insurance with 12 weeks of work, the amount earned will be divided by 14 weeks, 14 weeks worked will be divided by 16, 16 weeks by 18, and so forth, which will have the effect of further reducing the amounts of applicants' benefits. Benefits are low enough already.

We trust that the amendments made by the Standing Committee of the House of Commons will be maintained. Bill C-12 is so ambiguous that it is very hard to understand what Parliament means. Even the officials we consulted are not unanimous in their interpretations.

The presentation accompanying this summary explains why workers in our region are seasonal. It points out that there are no jobs. It states that Bill C-12 is a document that will allow the government to give money from the unemployment insurance fund to businesses, to create jobs and train their employees.

Since the reform of the unemployment insurance system, there has been much talk of so-called fraud. In most cases, there is no fraud. The law is interpreted in different ways, depending on who is doing the interpreting.

I say that, when the citizens of a country have to commit what is called fraud -- if indeed there is fraud -- in order to survive in spite of everything, the reason is that the system in which they live has done a lamentably poor job of carrying out its primary responsibility, which is to ensure the wellbeing of every one of its citizens, and that those who pass the laws governing this country have done a deplorably poor job of carrying out their duties.

For over 40 years I have worked, with others, to find a more humane system and a more appropriate way of sharing our wealth. In the 1960s with Louis Robichaud and his Byrn Commission, and later with the late lamented Richard Hatfield and his social reform that was a continuation of the Byrn Commission's recommendations, we had managed to set up a system that went some way toward eliminating poverty and destitution. Since the early 1990s, the whole social welfare system has been crumbling.

Louis Robichaud, Norbert Thériault and the other leaders of the 1960s lost power. The best Premier in all of Canada, Richard Hatfield, was assassinated by the most offensive kind of slander. Today we have Jean-Maurice Simard who is still standing up and trying, against all odds, to counter the battle being waged by the rich and complacent against those who cannot defend themselves. The violent events we are witnessing now are only the beginning of the end of an excessively capitalist system.


Mathilda Blanchard