About 300 people blocked a downtown street in Moncton, N.B., today to protest strict new employment insurance rules, slated to take effect on Sunday.
The large group of primarily seasonal workers gathered outside the office of Moncton-Riverview-Dieppe Progressive Conservative MP Robert Goguen, chanting and waving placards bearing messages such as: "Scrap the EI changes Harper," and "Worst PM in Canada Harper."
Some of the protesters set their signs on fire as frustrations heated up.
Michel Richard, spokesperson for the Southeast Committee Against the Changes to EI, said the aim of the rally was to send a message to federal Human Resources Minister Diane Finley that the reforms will have a major impact on the economy in New Brunswick, as well as other provinces.
"There is the same concern in Nova Scotia, there is the same concern in P.E.I., there is the same concern in isolated regions, rural regions in Ottawa and probably in Vancouver for God's sake," said Richard, who represents 900 fishermen with the Maritime Fishermen's Union.
"What Ottawa seems to disregard is that rural communities are almost devoid of year-long employment industries," he said.
The EI reforms, announced in May, include requiring repeat claimants to accept jobs that could pay 30 per cent less than their normal wages and be located an hour's commute away.
'There's no work'
Protester Janice Petitpas, who works at a trailer park canteen in the southeastern village of Cap-Pelé during the tourist season, said she relies on EI during the off-season.
But under the new rules, she will be forced to find a job during the off-season, rather than wait for her old job to resume.
"My life's going to change," she said. "I'm a single mother, I live in an apartment all by myself, I work when the season is to work and after that, well, I have to go on EI.
'No matter what happens this week, I don't think [the protesters] should stop. I mean, there's an election that's going to come again in two, three years.' —Liberal Leader Brian Gallant
"I'm looking for work, there's no work," Petitpas said.
Linda Melanson, who has worked in lobster factories for 38 years, agrees.
She said the only jobs available in her area are seasonal fish plant jobs.
"We are not abusing the system. We are living in New Brunswick," said Melanson. "Not everybody has seasonal work. But where we're working, it's seasonal. That's not what we want, that's what it is.
"I really don't know how we're going to survive. I don't know. I don't sleep at night thinking about it. Because if they do what they say they're going to do, they're going to cut whatever wages we've got."
Léonard Goguen, who runs a forestry business between May and December, says the changes could be devastating to his his company, L.E.G. Sylviculture.
"If I lose those guys, my business is over because like I said, it takes me a year to train a guy, a new guy. And those guys that I've got are really good professional workers."
MP Robert Goguen was not in his office during the demonstration. A spokesperson said the office is closed until Monday and all questions about EI are being referred to Finley.
Calls to the federal minister were not returned on Friday.
Protest organizers have sent a letter to Finley, requesting a meeting as soon as possible to discuss the reforms.
In the meantime, protests will continue in Inkerman and Miramichi, they said.
Bad for New Brunswick
Provincial Liberal Leader Brian Gallant said the changes should be halted.
"There's no doubt that we're at the 11th hour," he said. "No matter what happens this week, I don't think [the protesters] should stop. I mean, there's an election that's going to come again in two, three years. There's a provincial election and a federal election that are coming up. This can be an issue if they keep it alive."
NDP Leader Dominic Cardy said his party will work with anyone to roll back the EI changes.
"EI is an insurance program; you pay it when you work, you get it when you don't. It is unfair to change the rules after people have paid in their money," he said.
David Alward's PC government and Opposition Liberals have both said the reforms are bad for New Brunswick.
New Brunswick, which has a lot of seasonal industries, is traditionally one of the most heavily dependent provinces on the EI program. In the past year, there was an average of 35,019 EI clients each month, with the number reaching as high as 45,830.
Demonstrations have been held across the province since the reforms were announced.
The EI reforms could cut benefits to roughly 465 New Brunswickers during peak periods and reduce the amount of EI benefits flowing into the province by $7 million annually, according to briefing notes prepared for Alward.
The reforms could cause problems for many seasonal employers and spur on a further exodus from rural New Brunswick, according to the June 28 document, which was obtained by CBC News through the Right to Information Act.
Forcing workers into alternative employment during off-seasons could create an unstable business environment if workers are unavailable to seasonal enterprises on resumption of production, the briefing note said.
The New Brunswick Liberals have sent a letter to the prime minister asking the federal government to provide "greater flexibility recognizing the unique nature of regions where seasonal industries play a significant role in a provincial economy and the lack of full-time employment opportunities."