Nova Scotia

300 Cape Bretoners gather to discuss EI changes

More than 300 people attended a public meeting in Sydney Thursday night on changes to Employment Insurance.

EI recipients fearful changes could hurt them and force people off the island

More than 300 people gather in Sydney to discuss changes to the Employment Insurance program at a meeting organized by the Nova Scotia Federation of Labour. (Wendy Martin/CBC)

More than 300 people attended a public meeting in Sydney Thursday night on changes to Employment Insurance.

The Nova Scotia Federation of Labour, which organized the meeting, said the changes will have a big impact in areas of high unemployment, such as Cape Breton.

The federation fears the changes will force more people to leave the island for work.

"They're making the person that draws EI feel like a criminal," said Dean Tupper a vice president with the federation.

He said the new rules will force many seasonal workers to take lower paying jobs, or travel long distances to work to avoid having their claims cut off entirely.

"They're basically saying that if you draw EI every year, there's something wrong with you, you must be stealing from the system," said Tupper.

In the audience there were fishermen, government workers and substitute teachers.

They all said they rely on EI to get them through the downtimes throughout the year.

Adrian Burke is a fisherman who attended the meeting.

He's worried about what will happen after this fishing season.

"[It's] going to affect me because that pulls me through the winter, that, and I might lose the crew I got. I give him 12 or 14 weeks worth of work, he's got to leave because he ain't got no money coming in, because they won't give him no unemployment, he's got to go look for a job," said Burke. "He's not going to quit that job and come back with me for 12 weeks, and then have to go through it all again another year. There's going to be a lot of us in the same boat."

Teaching assistant Juanita MacKeigan collects EI every summer.

She said if people in Cape Breton lose their benefits they'll have no choice but to leave

"There's going to be family breakups, there's going to be single parent households because either the father will be out west or the mother will be out west or whole families are going to have to go," said MacKeigan.

Others said that if they lose their benefits they will end up on welfare.

There has been very little public outcry in Cape Breton over the changes to EI.

The labour federation is hoping to change that — urging people at the meeting to write letters, hold rallies, even take over politicians offices to try to get the new rules reversed.