By Campbell Morrison

OTTAWA – Government is often criticized for dealing with problems one department at a time.

Unfortunately, the same can be said of its dealings with the ongoing fraud investigation into almost 2,000 fish plant workers in 10 plants in southeast New Brunswick.

In an alleged conspiracy with their employers, they are accused of manipulating their hours of work in order to inflate their winter EI benefits. When employers need workers for short periods during slower periods, the work is “banked” until enough is collected for a robust week, which is in turn used to calculate subsequent benefits.

The Department of Human Resources has launched its largest fraud investigation in New Brunswick history while a local committee engages Human Resources Minister Jane Stewart – through Dominic LeBlanc, the local Liberal MP for Beauséjour-Petitcodiac – in a discussion over what to do. Even the Fisheries Council of Canada, a national group of fish plant owners, has indicated that the scheme goes beyond southeast New Brunswick and deserves a comprehensive solution.

But where are the other players? Where is the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA)? Or its parent, Industry Canada? Where is the Department of Fisheries and Oceans? Are provincial authorities engaged?

Sadly, none of them are at the table. Instead, they are letting the federal Human Resources Department carry the ball on the fish-plant file, shirking their duty to get involved and contribute to a permanent resolution to the problem.

ACOA Minister Gerry Byrne says there is no role for his agency until the investigations are complete, even though they have been continuing for almost a year.

“ACOA does not have a role in the investigative capacity or in providing analysis to HRDC in relation to their work,” he said.

ACOA does have an “advocacy” role and does have input on changes to EI, but as yet has no opinion on any of the proposals being tossed around about how to fix the so-called “banking of hours” scheme that has developed in New Brunswick. To date, there is the suggestion that the manipulation be made legal; or that applicants may be allowed to look back over the previous 52 weeks at the point of making a claim instead of the current 26 weeks. There is also the idea of a pilot project for New Brunswick to test-run an experiment. But ACOA has no opinion on any of it.

The answer is not good enough for LeBlanc, who would like to see more people involved in finding a resolution.

“At the root we have to fix EI rules,” says LeBlanc. “It does not mean we don’t also add other government departments. Industry Canada should do more. There are dozens of examples.

“The whole government has a responsibility to prolong seasons, add new value, find new products, diversify the economy.”

LeBlanc added that ACOA is active in his riding, just not on the fish-plant file.

“To be honest, ACOA has done a lot of good stuff in my riding,” he said. “ACOA has put a lot of money into industrial parks, into infrastructure, into some value-added.” But, “they can always do more.”

Even Brian Lee Crowley, president of the conservative Halifax-based Atlantic Institute for Market Studies and no friend of EI, says HRDC should not be left alone to find a solution for the fish-plant workers.

“It is certainly legitimate to say that there are other things that other agencies can do to improve the employment prospects for people in the region,” Crowley said.

Last month, Crowley wrote an opinion piece that argued EI is counter-productive, a long-held AIMS position. In it, he suggests that EI effectively pays people for not working, which generally holds back the regional economy, especially at a time when the region is facing labour shortages.

Crowley added that the other economic agencies should actively participate in EI’s review so that whatever comes out the other end improves the economy.

“I certainly think that there are lots of agencies that are aware of the difficulties that EI has created for all of the things that the other agencies want to do in terms of job creation and economic development, but EI has become so politicized that everybody is scared to death to open their mouth,” he said.

It is too bad.