The Alliance member messed up. The problem is with the policies, not with Atlantic Canadians

John Mykytyshyn has walked the plank. The erstwhile member of the Canadian Alliance’s national council has paid the penalty for indefensibly slamming Canadians in “the eastern provinces” as shiftless parasites. They “believe in handouts and ‘Give me a cheque for doing nothing,’ ” he said last Friday. “They don’t want to do what all of our ancestors did, and that was work for a living and go to where the jobs are.”

Imagine the surprise of party leader Stockwell Day, who was at that moment courting votes in Atlantic Canada. The objectionable slur did not reflect party policy, Mr. Day announced when news of his colleague’s remarks broke on Monday. Yesterday, Mr. Mykytyshyn resigned from the council. If Mr. Day is lucky, Eastern Canadians will leave it at that. If Mr. Day is very, very, very lucky.

But let us not be naive. Mr. Mykytyshyn’s offence was to characterize Atlantic Canadians as lazy sods addicted to handouts. If he had aimed instead at the federal policy of pouring heavy subsidies into the region with questionable results, he would have been reflecting the position of Mr. Day and the Alliance, and of many others within and outside Atlantic Canada. Within that frame, giving out “a cheque for doing nothing” is a fair way of characterizing Employment Insurance’s designation of much of Atlantic Canada as a special area where people employed in temporary jobs may claim 32 weeks of benefits after working only 12 weeks a year.

It is a matter of vigorous debate in Atlantic Canada whether regional income-support programs and federal subsidies are a step up to a self-supporting economy or are part of the problem. A recent project of the Halifax-based Atlantic Institute for Market Studies argued that the subsidies raise wage rates to a point that deters private investment, making it “more profitable for many businesses to pursue government contracts and subsidies than to strive to create marketable products.”

The federal Liberals and Conservatives have long indulged in pork-barrel politics in the region, pumping in funds under such rubrics as fostering innovation, creating opportunities and priming the pump. When, in the name of fighting the deficit, the Liberals tightened the overgenerous EI rules before the 1997 federal election, their share of seats in the region fell to 11 from 31 in 1993. They have now promised $700-million over five years ($400-million of it in new money) to fund research and underwrite projects in rural communities (read: Vote Liberal).

Proposing to wean the region off federal subsidies is a legitimate and, depending on the approach, commendable plank. To slip from that into wholesale slandering of Atlantic Canadians — writing them off as inveterate layabouts because many of them have accepted and grown accustomed to the money on offer — is to mistake the patient for the virus. Mr. Day must hope that, unlike Mr. Mykytyshyn, other Alliance members can tell the difference.