Friday, September 15, 2000
Halifax Daily News

Lazy Edmontonians

By Peter Fenwick

Which city has the lowest unemployment rate, Halifax, or Edmonton?

As difficult as it may be to believe, Halifax has the lower rate. For the last three months the unemployment rate in Halifax has been 5.8%, Edmonton 6.2%.

In the capital city of freewheeling enterprising Alberta, seasonal workers can qualify for pogey a week faster than they can in Halifax, and can draw benefits a week longer. If we follow the logic of our now deposed Alliance strategist the only explanation is that those northern Albertans have lost their work ethic and are lazy.

But he was not the only one to misread Atlantic Canada. Most Canadians don’t realize that Atlantic Canada is undergoing a huge economic change. Many rural areas of the provinces are depopulating rapidly, the cities are growing, and something akin to a normal economy is starting to take hold in the region.

Fact is, most of Atlantic Canada is booming.

Halifax has an unemployment rate of 5.8%, St. John’s 9.4%, Fredericton-Moncton -Saint John 8.1% and western Nova Scotia 9.2%. All these urban and not so urban parts of Atlantic Canada are within three per cent of the national unemployment rate. In these areas where well over half of all Atlantic Canadians live, people work for a living just as hard as any westerners do.

In Halifax help wanted signs are everywhere. In the Annapolis Valley farmers cannot get seasonal harvest workers. Cranes and buildings are sprouting up everywhere.

But Halifax doesn’t only beat Edmonton when it comes to low levels of unemployment. It has a lower unemployment rate than Kingston, London, Sudbury and North Bay. Heck it even has a lower rate than Vancouver, Saskatoon, Victoria and Montreal.

True there are desperately depressed areas in Atlantic Canada. Most of Newfoundland, Cape Breton and the Restigouche region of New Brunswick are wrestling with unemployment rates over 15% while PEI has a 12.4% unemployment rate. But those rates are not unique to Atlantic Canada. In the Gaspe, in north-west Quebec, in northern Manitoba and in northern British Columbia the unemployment rates are all above PEI’s. And in the Northwest Territories, Nunavut and the Yukon they don’t even count the unemployed any more. They just say it is 25% and leave it at that.

No, the economic divide in Canada is not the State of Main. The divide is between the urban areas of Canada and many of the rural and northern regions. Those rural and northern economies have lagged, partly because their main industries, logging and mining have undergone an amazing transformation that has seen productivity rise while employment tumbled, and partly because of bad government policies that just made things worse. Other industries, like fishing, could modernize, but are being prevented by antiquated regulations and protectionist politicians.

Instead of accepting the changes and moving on to new opportunities, a succession of governments underpinned dying industries with gobs of taxpayer’s money. It happened in Sydney, it happened with CN in Moncton, it is happening in the fishery, and it almost happened in forestry when the safer and more efficient woods harvesters were greeted with protests and pickets. It is also happening in the northern native ghettos where a patronizing federal government has flooded any local initiative in taxpayers dollars.

Fortunately some governments, like the Nova Scotia Hamm government, have thrown in the towel and have accepted that dying industries cannot be propped up forever. In Newfoundland the provincial government did the same and finally sold its money-losing Marystown shipyard. But those closures only came after billions of dollars were tossed down obsolete mines, inefficient shipyards and antiquated steel mills. The legacy of programs like this is the high debt levels of provincial governments and the higher taxes needed to support that debt.

But governments still try to shore up the un-shorable. In Newfoundland the fishery is kept the preserve of small boat fishermen who fish short periods of time and draw employment insurance the rest of the year. Successive governments refuse to allow for the sale of quotas and licenses, the best way to rationalize the fishery. Despite some rationalization there are still over 130 fish plants in Newfoundland, few of which operate full time.

The result of these government measures has been huge unemployment problems in rural areas of Atlantic Canada. In the north the same problems, compounded by guilt over past transgressions, is creating the same kind of dependency.

High levels of unemployment and of dependency are not unique to Atlantic Canada, they are a structural problem in Canada as a whole. To overcome the problem will require significant changes to the EI system and to the way we prop up our failing industries.

In the meantime Albertans who pride themselves on their rugged individualism should remember that workers in Edmonton get a sweeter deal from unemployment insurance than hard working Haligonians.

Now who’s the lazy one.