Fishing for welfare

This week, two separate reports painted a depressing picture of Atlantic Canada’s economy. The first comes in the form of a Fraser Institute study that ranks the economic freedom of North American states and provinces. Newfoundland, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia all rank near the bottom — with P.E.I. dead last. We shouldn’t be surprised: The region’s economy is largely dependent on handouts and government-controlled boondoggles. According to the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, Canada’s wealthy provinces have forked over $180-billion to the Atlantic region since the 1950s.
The second document is a federal government report entitled Employment Insurance and the Fishery. The paper analyzes Ottawa’s $200-million Fisher’s Employment Insurance (FEI) program. A close reading of the study identifies several ways in which FEI has created a welfare trap for Maritime fishermen.

First, FEI eligibility requirements are so loose that they’ve turned fishing from an honourable way to make a living into a lazy man’s way to qualify for government assistance. A self-employed fisherman living in an area with high unemployment can qualify for FEI with as little as $2,500 in fishery-related earnings. In some cases, workers in the high-value crab fisheries are, according to the report, “qualifying for [FEI] benefits with as little as a day’s fishing effort, and collecting benefits for the rest of the season.”

Another problem with FEI is that it encourages fishermen to avoid training for non-fishery-related jobs. While recipients must accept “suitable employment in fishing” should the opportunity arise, FEI does not penalize them for turning down non-fishing-related job offers. In the case of younger fishermen, the report says, FEI eligibility is so relaxed that they can collect “thousands of dollars in benefits essentially by staying out of school, and not working for a good part of the year.” That’s just what we need to compete in the global economy, isn’t it? An army of poorly educated, underemployed fishermen plumbing a dwindling resource at public expense.

The original design of EI was to provide workers a means of supporting themselves while they were looking for real work — not a permanent labour-side subsidy for economically unsustainable industries. It is because of the FEI — and the alphabet soup of similar programs that funnel cash to Atlantic Canada — that the region is in the sad state it is. The path of greatest mercy would be to end such schemes, and let the region begin the painful, but entirely necessary, process of adapting to a competitive global economy.