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Elizabeth Beale, president of the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council, says the inference is Atlantic Canadians don't want to work, which simply isn't true. (Courtesy of the Association of Atlantic Universities)

The federal government should have consulted Canadians about its planned changes to employment insurance, according to an economic think tank.

"These are important policy changes and we need a full policy discussion," said Elizabeth Beale, president of the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council.

Under the reforms, frequent EI claimants would be forced to accept jobs up to an hour away from home and at 70 per cent of their previous wage.

"What is being missed in this discussion and missed in the national dialogue is the inference that Atlantic Canadians don't want to work," said Beale.

"You know, unemployment rates are high and therefore, they all want to stay home and twiddle their fingers. The reality is completely different," she said.

Beale said Atlantic Canadians are the most mobile group within the country in terms of being willing to go and work elsewhere when opportunities become available.

She cites the example of northern New Brunswick’s Restigouche County, which has lost about 40 per cent of its residents between the ages of 25 and 44 in the past decade.

Rural areas hardest hit

The changes are going to hurt rural areas the most and a large share of the working-age population has already left those communities, said Beale.

She said she believes the reforms will intensify the population shift.

"We have to recognize that this is going to have an impact not only on individuals and on individuals who are perhaps the least equipped to protect themselves against the kind of economic changes that are underway, it's also going to have an impact on communities, and on businesses."

The reforms will reduce the incomes of people in rural communities who are older and unable to take jobs elsewhere, said Beale.

They will also increase costs for the many natural resources-based businesses in the region that use seasonal workers, she said.

"There should have been a policy discussion first, to talk about ways to mitigate the impacts, particularly when you know there are other things coming through that are also having a significant impact on rural parts of Canada," said Beale.

It's time for a national discussion about the future of rural Canada because it appears there's no longer any commitment to its economic development, she said.

The New Brunswick government has not taken a stance on the reforms, but Premier David Alward announced Tuesday a committee has been struck to look at how the changes will affect workers in the province.

New Brunswick has a large number of seasonal workers in industries such as the fisheries, farming and forestry.

The Opposition has accused the premier of failing to stand up for the province's seasonal labour force. Interim Liberal Leader Victor Boudreau has said Alward should be speaking out against the change.