Atlantic provinces can no longer rely on the rest of Canada

Atlantic Premiers are all riled up about changes to Employment Insurance, again. Seasonal, resource-based jobs cannot survive without EI supporting workers through the off-season. These industries, the Premiers contend, are vital to Canada, and, thus, it is worth it to have the federal government subsidizing them lest they wither and die.

Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Kathy Dunderdale gets to the heart of the matter:

Ms. Dunderdale noted that fishing is a $1-billion industry in her province. But fishery workers are seasonal – and given the changes, they will have to look for full-time work elsewhere.

“A lot of these people are living on $18,000 to $20,000 a year,” she says.

“But they are critical to the success of our seasonal industries. If these industries are going to succeed, then they will have to bring in temporary foreign workers … so where’s the balance there. Whose interest are we serving?”

These industries do not pay a living wage, and they will lose all their workers (and the province much of its population), if their employees leave the region for greener pastures. There’s no explanation as to why a billion-dollar industry can’t afford to pay a true market wage that will ensure that their business will survive. There’s no demand by politicians that the costs of these industries be born by the industry, itself. Instead, it’s just subsidy after subsidy after subsidy.

And that is the point. The Premiers can dress this up as trying to help the workers. Activists can claim that we are duty-bound to help out struggling citizens. Such may be the case, but that’s not what the old EI system did. It was an aid – a crutch – for industry. It was, by effect, collusion between government and industry. The Tories did the right thing by addressing this matter. If these industries can’t survive without government picking up half the payroll, then these industries shouldn’t survive. There are very few industry in which the government will, willy-nilly, become a co-employer of the entire workforce.

It is ludicrous that it is the federal government that is considered hard-hearted in this debate. The government has a robust EI system. They offer training subsidies and employment counselling. It is the industry members who are unwilling to construct a business model that doesn’t totally impoverish their workforce. It is corporations that are at the root of the hardship, not the feds.

The Premiers, of course, are not necessarily concerned with justice or economics. They have governments to run and elections to win. They must focus not only on keeping votes, but on keeping people in their provinces. An honest and fair EI system would likely disrupt the status quo and lead to even greater migration across Canada.

Many would think it a shame. There is great pride in East Coast communities. There is a great valuing of the people, the culture and the history. Economics and modernity threaten aspects of the community. It is quite sad that the populations in some towns and provinces may decrease, but sentimentality will only get us so far. Though it may be a shame, it is not an argument to make the rest of Canada bankroll your sense of community.

Jonathan McLeod

Jonathan McLeod is a writer living in Ottawa, Ontario. (That means Canada.) He spends too much time following local politics and writing about zoning issues. Follow him on Twitter.


  1. Interesting. This was the same charge levied at Walmart some cycles back (may have been last year), but in this context, it makes more sense.

    Anecdotally, I had never seen the Atlantic Canada tourist industry as hopping as I did during my last visit in 2011. And it was the first time in my lifetime that I can remember young people working at most of the staff positions.

    • You’re right, it is quite similar to the Walmart debate (though, obviously, in Canada every company has the bulk of the health insurance picked up by the government). I think one difference here is that it is just so engrained in Canada. This has been going on for a long time, and many just accept it.

  2. Amen. And for what it’s worth, I would ‘t mind seeing steep declines in the fisheries industry, for environmental reasons. As long as Canada could keep Europeans out of its fisheries, that is. But I suppose past the territorial limit all that would happen is less competition for Euro and US fishermen. Sigh.

    • Ah the Grand Banks. You can get angry or you can get sad or you can get angry and sad but none of it makes a jot of difference.

      I suppose for a libertarian it’d be especially depressing.

      • Is there anyone for whom it shouldn’t be depressing?

        • Not really, no.

          The state of word fisheries fills me with despair.

          I was just reading that China is something like 12.5 times over its quota for fishing (

          There is essentially no measure in which the biosphere is better off today than it was in our parents generation. And that pales in comparison to the ocean our grandparents enjoyed, and so on and so forth back through the years.

          I think about the fact that the world’s coastal poor depend upon the common resource of fish to survive and how we are systemically overfishing in a way that will starve them to death.

          I think about the fact that the last bluefin tuna will almost certainly be served in a sushi bar in Japan within my son’s lifetime.

          I think about a talk I had with a naturalist who told me about the baseline problem we face in conservation efforts, that everyone simply accepts what they are born into as normal, so that we do not even realize that the ocean is being stripped bare. I think about the fact that my kids will think of this as normal.

          So, again, no.

          • “There is essentially no measure in which the biosphere is better off today than it was in our parents generation.”

            Air quality in first world countries is a helluva lot better. Especially the elimination of atmospheric lead.

            In the US, forested land is a nudge higher now (in everywhere but the Pac Norwest) than it was in 1963

            On a micro level, the decline in adult smoking rate from 50+% to 20% and falling also makes a difference.

          • There are some bright spots in some first world nations, but every local increase in air quality has been offset by Chinese smog alone.

            I should clarify that I meant that things are worse on the macro scale; there are small victories, but the biosphere is less diverse, the oceans more polluted, and the air quality poorer than even 30 years ago.

  3. The conondrum of the Atlantic Provinces has been present from the very foundations of Canada. Arguably no region lost more from being confederated than they did (which is why they were pretty much frog marched into it).

    They have a beautiful culture (I’m biased, I grew up there) and beautiful music. But the industry is all bollixed up. It’s there, it’s viable, sortof… Nova Scotia seems to have it all, forestry, fishing, tourism, natural resources, but all of it just in a small weird adulterated amount that makes it complicated to build an industry around. Frankly the Maritimes never recovered from the commons tragedy of the fisheries collapse. Fisheries were their industry and nothing has come along since to replace it. If things keep going the way they are, though, the province seems in danger of turning into nothing more than a giant retirement region and a place Europeans go to acquire inexpensive coastal real estate. Depressing that.

    • It would be a great place to build sweatshops, except for Canada’s paternalistic health and safety regulations.

      • Actually it’d be a terrible place to build sweatshops. Even if you set aside all Canadian labor law the Maritimes are a developed world population. The workers would leave the province before they would work at sweatshop levels of labor intensity and low pay. You could try setting up clothes factories and certainly the workers would be more efficient and productive than third world countries but not efficient enough to compete with developing world wage levels.
        All of that of course is why clothes manufacturing is done either in capital intensive heavily automated plants (niche) or in labor intensive developing economies.

        Now what we could do is use governments to roll back free trade, impose first world labor standards on third world economies and raise tariff barriers against cheaply made clothes. That’d bring clothes manufacturing back into the US and Canada. Some people would get sort of mediocre middling careers out of it. Everyone would pay a TON more for clothing and the developing countries would slide back into their old patterns of starvation, war and misery. That could work out well for some kind of group of people in Canada, most likely a more urban dense population area I’d presume. Well at least until we got swept up in one of the wars that’d probably happen. It’d be an odd thing to do in the name of helping poor people in the developing world though, I thought we wanted to help them?

        • Oh and I left out unions, which is a huge oversight on my part, short of Canada criminal law being revoked to allow some kind of insane level of corporate violence (and likely not even then) the workers in the Maritimes would unionize and the clothes plants would end up moving back to China.

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