Liberal questions criteria for EI centre in MacKay's riding

Liberal MP Gerry Byrne is questioning the criteria behind a decision to protect EI centres in Peter MacKay and Gerald Keddy's Nova Scotia ridings.

Government jobs protected in two Tory-held ridings, minister and MP deny trying to influence cuts

Defence Minister Peter MacKay makes his way from the foyer of the House of Commons following question period last June. A Liberal MP is questioning the criteria behind a decision to close some government service centres that process EI claims. The centres in MacKay's riding and another Tory-held Nova Scotia riding will not close. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

A Liberal MP wants to know why the federal government opted to keep open two small employment insurance processing centres in Nova Scotia ridings held by Conservatives amid a national downsizing plan that's expected to cut 600 jobs.

Gerry Byrne, who represents Humber-St. Barbe-Baie Verte in western Newfoundland, obtained an internal memo sent to EI centre employees that says processing in Atlantic Canada will be consolidated in Moncton, N.B., St. John's, N.L., Halifax and the Nova Scotia towns of New Glasgow and Bridgewater.

The memo, a copy of which was provided to The Canadian Press, says 600 positions will be cut through attrition and reassignment.

The New Glasgow office is in the riding of Defence Minister Peter MacKay, while the Bridgewater seat is held by Tory MP Gerald Keddy, Byrne noted.

"What was it about Bridgewater and New Glasgow that made them be considered as cost-effective centres?" Byrne asked.

"Can I get those criteria so I can determine if those criteria are being applied fairly?"

MacKay had nothing to do with deciding which locations would be closed, spokesman Jay Paxton insisted Thursday.

"I'll just tell you Minister MacKay was not a part of Service Canada's review of the locations under the EI modernization program," Paxton said.

Keddy also denied having anything to do with the Service Canada review.

"These sites, I would assume, were picked because of their location," Keddy said in an interview. "They're also larger sites. ... Bridgewater is the hub of the South Shore."

Alyson Queen, a spokeswoman for Human Resources Minister Diane Finley, said the cuts are taking place across Canada and are the result of a review that took national and regional concerns into consideration.

"Many factors were considered in choosing each of the sites, including existing labour force and skill availability, bilingual capability, cost of real estate, among others," Queen said in an email.

She did not say specifically why the centres in New Glasgow and Bridgewater would remain open.

The NDP said the cuts will prove particularly harmful to workers in remote and rural areas because it will mean fewer staff available to assist them at local claims processing centres.

"Many Canadians don't have Internet access or the computer skills needed to complete these forms online," Claude Patry, the party's EI critic, said in a statement.

"Losing your job is stressful enough as it is. It is often better for these workers to have direct contact with a real person, not a machine."

Byrne said he favours keeping smaller centres open and would like to find ways for other small towns to keep their processing centres operational.

Some Conservative ridings are also losing their processing centres, Byrne added, predicting tough questions for MacKay during their next caucus meeting.

Previous reports have indicated downsizing in Atlantic Canada would occur in a number of towns and cities, including Sydney, N.S., Montague, P.E.I., Happy Valley-Goose Bay, N.L., and Corner Brook, N.L. -- the latter located in Byrne's riding.

Service Canada is in the midst of streamlining EI, consolidating 120 sites into 22 centres across Canada over the next three years.