Atlantic Canada's premiers are asking Ottawa to suspend its changes to employment insurance, saying there should be further study of the federal program's new rules because they adversely affect the region's seasonal-based economy.
The premiers, who finished the second day of meetings today in Hunts Point, N.S., say the changes were made despite a lack of consultation and without regard for the effects on Atlantic Canada's seasonal-based economy.
Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter says the EI changes serve to deepen regional disparity at a time when provinces are working to co-operate on a range of economic issues.
"Unfortunately, the federal government has taken an off-ramp from cooperation and is creating hardship," Dexter told a news conference.
He said the changes are hurting businesses and workers in Atlantic Canada.
"The dismantling of the EI system meant that so many of the people who could at one point in time, have a sustainable livelihood in their communities, no longer can. They have had to leave. They leave because their jobs here are seasonal and they don't come back. That erosion has actually given rise to the need for temporary foreign workers," said Dexter.
Premier Robert Ghiz of Prince Edward Island says while he realized EI changes have to be made, it shouldn't be done without researching it first.
"If you want to come to P.E.I., and go to our beaches, watch Anne of Green Gables, and eat our oysters, and eat our potatoes, and go fishing — well guess what? We need people in those areas to work in seasonal industries and they depend on the employment insurance program," said Ghiz.
Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Kathy Dunderdale said fears that the changes would penalize workers have come to fruition.
"What we predicted would happen has happened and requires some kind of reversal or intervention," the Progressive Conservative premier said.
Under some of the new rules, those who frequently claim EI need to prove they're actively seeking work. Workers must also accept a job within 100 kilometres of their home as long as they are qualified and the pay is at least 70 per cent of their previous salary.
The call to suspend the changes was championed by fellow Tory Premier David Alward of New Brunswick, who asked his Atlantic counterparts for support in the days leading up to their meeting.
Alward said while individual objections by the Atlantic provinces haven't persuaded the federal government to budge from its position, he is optimistic that it's not too late for Ottawa to reverse their stance.
"I'm not in anyway naive enough to think it will be easy," said Alward. "But ... it is that important to the future of our region, our employees and our industries, especially our seasonal industries."
Federal Human Resources Minister Diane Finley reiterated her past position that the changes will better connect Canadians with available jobs in their area.
"We know that every individual has unique circumstances and we will always take those into account," Finley said in an email.
"All requirements and changes are reasonable, common sense efforts to help Canadians get back to work faster."
The federal government estimates the changes will save $12.5 million this year and $33 million next year.
The premiers said their provinces will study the effects of the changes and present their initial findings to the annual meeting of all of Canada's premiers in July. They say they plan to have the final results of their study complete by mid-fall.
The Atlantic premiers also called on Ottawa to share all relevant EI data.