NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair announced Wednesday he is beginning a cross-Canada rallying effort to protest against employment insurance cuts and the government's plan to send inspectors to the homes of some EI recipients.
Ratcheting up the rhetoric at a press conference held in the foyer of the House of Commons, Mulcair called the civil servants tasked to make house calls the "Harper Macoutes."
(The Boubou Macoutes was the nickname given to special inspectors who visited the homes and investigated suspected "welfare cheats" when Robert Bourassa was premier of Quebec in the 1990s. The term Macoutes comes from Tonton Macoutes, the personal police force of Haiti's former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier, whose members were known to torture, extort, burn and assassinate opponents.)
Mulcair called for the EI changes announced in last year's budget to be cancelled, saying they are an attack on seasonal workers whom he described as a Canadian reality in certain regions of the country. They are "the backbone of Canada," he said. "They define who we are. Yes, we have a lot of forestry, yes, we have a lot of fishing."
However, in a statement, Human Resources Minister Diane Finley said: "No one will lose their benefits if there are no jobs available in their communities. No one will have to take a job that puts them in a worse financial position than collecting EI alone. No one is being forced to move out of their community to find a job. No one is attacking seasonal workers or employers. "
"And seasonal workers will not be prevented from returning to their seasonal jobs when they start up again," she said.
Finley continued: ''The only people who lose if the Opposition stops us from rooting out employment insurance fraud are Canadians who follow the rules."
Mulcair accused the Conservative government of using cheap attack tricks against any opposition member who protests government tactics to deal with EI fraud.
"That's exactly the kind of game that was played by [Minister of Public Safety] Vic Toews when he was trying to send the government into your computer without a warning. He said you can stand with us or stand with the pedophiles," Mulcair said, referring to the government's attempt to introduce a bill that would allow police to access IP addresses without a warrant, a bill that has been since killed.
Nothing to live on
Mulcair warned about what he called a "black hole" that would be faced within weeks by "hundreds of thousands of Canadians and their families as they have nothing to live on."
In last year's budget, new rules were introduced that stipulate frequent users of EI, defined as people who've collected benefits for at least 60 weeks in the past five years, have to accept work that pays up to 30 per cent less than they earned in their previous jobs, and they must also be willing to commute up to 100 kilometres from their homes for a job.
Mulcair is demanding that those changes be rescinded and that the government "rebalance" the EI system to take into account regional differences in Canada.
At a separate press conference Wednesday, Sebastian Cumming, a restaurant owner from the Magdalen Islands, a part of Quebec, spoke of his reliance on seasonal workers for his business during the peak tourist season. He said they are now leaving the island because EI is no longer tiding them over during the off-season. He said that there have been cuts to EI in the past, but this time people don't understand how the new cuts work.
"In a place like where I'm from, the Magdalen Islands, you have fishing and you have tourism. there's nothing else. So if you don't have those two months with a decent pay you're just moving out. And the whole economy of the island is affected by that."
Cummings continued, "It's like they're considering everybody that lives in the far region and has seasonal work as a fraud, as a criminal. And that's not what we are. We worked hard to build what we have.And we're trying to get that season longer and longer and we're putting all our effort together."
'An affront to Confederation'
The issue of EI and seasonal workers dominated the first part of question period Wednesday. Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae said that the government, by attacking the regional EI system, was downloading responsibility onto the provinces.
"All you're doing is creating a greater demand for social assistance and a greater demand for welfare at the same time that the government is cutting its employment insurance," Rae said. "It's an affront to the nature of Confederation itself. All the government is doing is saving money on the backs of the provinces, and on the backs of working people."
Prime Minister Stephen Harper replied that the government is in fact making greater efforts to help the unemployed get jobs where jobs are available.
"We're making sure that there are not inappropriate payments from the fund, taken from workers who paid legitimately into that fund. We're making sure it goes to the workers and unemployed who legitimately need it," he said.
The government held a conference call with reporters Wednesday to answer questions about how Service Canada investigates EI fraud, and how it administers its controversial home visit program.
A spokesperson said that "personal visits," including house visits, have been occurring for decades, and that the visit is actually a "home delivery" of a letter informing the EI recipient that an interview is desired to answer questions about the person's ability to work, whether they were living elsewhere or even outside the country and whether they are self-employed or working somewhere else while collecting EI.
The house call means that the interview could take place on the spot, if the recipient was agreeable. As an example of what information could be gleaned from a home visit, the spokesperson said that the investigator might notice that a home business, like a daycare, was operating from the house, but that information may not have been declared on the EI recipient's bi-weekly "report card."
The home visits are chosen on an "entirely random" basis, the spokesperson said, and there are 1,200 going on across the country: 220 in Atlantic Canada, 197 in Quebec, 384 in Ontario and 374 in the West.
In a handout, Service Canada said that last year it "was able to address almost half a billion dollars in ineligible payments" in EI as well as in Canada Public Pension and Old Age Security payments. It added that last year, 2011-12, almost $330 million in fraudulent or incorrect EI payments were "unaddressed".
The Service Canada spokesperson denied that bonuses of "any kind" were given to investigators or managers if ineligible EI payments are recovered, but admitted that "managers of managers" can receive "at-risk pay" as a reward for success in the entire program.
The government has admitted it had to suspend home visits in Tracadie-Sheila in New Brunswick due to security fears about its employees.
Mulcair suggested Wednesday the home visits might be against the law because they target people who "are not suspected of doing anything wrong, who have not broken the rules, who have in fact played by the rules."