New Brunswick

Federal minister promoting budget challenged over EI reforms

Two federal cabinet ministers were in New Brunswick on Friday to help sell the Harper government's new budget, but not everyone was buying.

Bernard Valcourt gets into heated exchange, accuses protesters of being NDP agitators

Two federal cabinet ministers were in New Brunswick on Friday to help sell the Harper government's new budget, but not everyone was buying.

Bernard Valcourt, the MP for Madawaska-Restigouche and minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, was promoting the budget to the Moncton Chamber of Commerce, but was challenged afterward by a small group of people over recent Employment Insurance reforms.

Valcourt got into a pointed exchange in French with one of them, 18-year-old student Guillaume Deschênes Thériault, who raised concerns about the changes, which require repeat claimants to accept jobs that could pay 30 per cent less than their normal wages and be located an hour's commute away.

The minister accused Deschênes Thériault of being an NDP agitator who infiltrated the meeting.

Valcourt contends the federal budget will help create fill-time jobs in the province and that seasonal workers won't lose their EI benefits.

"What does he know about this," he said later to reporters who asked about his heated exchange with Deschênes Thériault.

"There are certain people who will listen to facts. Others, you know, they say, 'My mind is made up, don't disturb me with the facts.' This is what you are witnessing, it will not change," Valcourt said.

"I think that the majority of the people understand the reasonableness, the majority of the people know what the real facts are, they live it every day, they work they work hard, they pay taxes and they just want to move ahead."

Deschênes Thériault said he was there only as a concerned citizen and described the minister as arrogant.

EI overshadows job training

In Fredericton, MP and federal Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield, invited the media to a staged family conversation about the budget with Roland and Gina Moreno and their two daughters.

It was an opportunity to highlight the government's emphasis on training young people for jobs the economy needs, but things went awkwardly off-script at the start as Ashfield sampled baked goods and chatted with eldest daughter Grace Moreno, a local high school student leader.

"Grace, you're a great cook,"  Ashfield said. "You're going to make a wonderful wife for somebody."

Moreno smiled politely, but her silence, and Deschênes Thériault's criticisms highlight problems federal Conservatives are having connecting with New Brunswickers.

The party's facing significant criticism over changes being made to Employment Insurance, including from many inside their own party.

Shorter benefit periods and stricter requirements to look for work while receiving EI has triggered protests in several communities with large seasonal workforces.

Last week, New Brunswick Premier David Alward announced the province would use federal-provincial training money to help EI recipients who are running out of benefits and called on Ottawa to change course.

"We continue to raise our significant concerns with the EI reforms to the federal government," said Alward.

But that has had little effect and in Thursday's budget federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty announced a complete overhaul of how skills training is to be funded, in part to stop provinces like New Brunswick from spending training money on income support.

"We're trying to get to the point where training means jobs, not just training," said Flaherty.

But so far, turning the conversation in New Brunswick away from EI restrictions and toward improved skills training has been a difficult task, as both Valcourt and Ashfield experienced Friday.