A new panel created by the Quebec government to challenge federal employment insurance reforms is being criticized for promoting a sovereigntist agenda.
The province’s intergovernmental affairs minister unveiled his so-called "sovereignty governance" plan on Wednesday and it includes a roving panel that will look at reversing Ottawa’s controversial reforms to employment insurance.
The committee includes some well-known sovereigntists, such as the former Bloc Québécois leader, Gilles Duceppe.
Former PQ minister Rita Dionne-Marsolais will co-chair the panel with Duceppe. Also sitting on the committee are Michel Bédard, former chief actuary of the federal EI program, and Yvon Boudreau, a former deputy minister who was responsible for Emploi-Québec.
The panel has been given a $1.5-million budget to travel around the province, carrying out public consultations on the impact of the EI changes. The committee is expected to produce a report based on its findings.
Alexandre Cloutier, intergovernmental affairs minister, said the intention is not to raise tensions, but to defend Quebec's workers.
"We need new recommendations on employment insurance, to have a better one, that respects Quebec's economy," he said.
'They're trying to set fires all over Quebec' says CAQ
Quebec's government and opposition parties have agreed that EI changes will take a heavy toll on many of the province's seasonal workers.
But some critics suggest the new panel is not the best approach for fighting the reforms.
In brief: EI changes
Among the changes to EI, which took effect in January, were the definitions of "suitable employment" and "a reasonable job search."
Under the new regulations, several factors such as type of work, wages, commuting time, working conditions, hours of work, and personal circumstances, will be considered when defining "suitalbe employment."
Repeat claimants may be required to accept jobs that are available off-season rather than wait for their old jobs to resume —even if the new jobs pay up to 30 per cent less than their normal wages and are up to an hour's commute away, as long as the pay is above what they would have received from EI.
Coalition Avenir Québec labour critic, Sylvain Lévesque, says the PQ should try to collaborate with other provinces affected by the EI reforms.
"They're trying to divide us," Lévesque said.
"They're trying to set fires all over Quebec, instead of working with all the strength we could have by working with other provinces in Canada."
Quebec’s Liberal party also expressed doubts about the panel’s true intentions.
"[It's another] excuse for touring regions of Quebec and promoting sovereignty, at the taxpayers' expense," said Laurent Lessard, the Liberal economic development critic.
But Cloutier said the focus will be centred on federal policy changes.
"I'd be very surprised, with all due respect, that they discuss sovereignty, when the question being asked is to measure the impact of the employment insurance reform," he said.
Cloutier also confirmed a new cabinet directive that directs Quebec ministers use French primarily when dealing with their federal counterparts.
However, he denied that measure is an all-out ban on the use of English when dealing with Ottawa, as some reports have suggested.
"It's not language restrictions, I just want to be clear on that. The minister may speak in English if they feel they need to," Cloutier said.