Letter to Federal Human Resources Minister Regarding Employment Insurance Program

Tuesday, April 27 1999


The Honourable Pierre S. Pettigrew
Minister of Human Resources Development
Confederation Building, Room 507
House of Commons
Ottawa, ON K1A 0A6

Dear Mr. Pettigrew:

As Chair of the Episcopal Commission for Social Affairs of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, I wish to express the deep concern of my fellow pastors who witness first hand the difficulties and human suffering flowing from the implementation of the Employment Insurance Program.

I also plead for changes to the program so that it takes into account the needs of communities in various regions of the country particularly in Eastern Quebec and the Atlantic Provinces, which continue to be subject to high unemployment.

Many of the conclusions and findings of the 1998 Report on the Control and Evaluation of the Employment Insurance Program recently made public confirm the fears and apprehension raised by groups and individuals in the course of the reform to social programs initiated by your predecessor, the Honourable Lloyd Axworthy. At that time, the Social Affairs Commission had expressed its concerns in a pastoral letter: Will the poor have the most to fear from social security reforms?

As this report affirms, “the new legislative measures have profoundly restructured the regime.” Its transformation has excluded a large number of people from the program. In effect, the narrowing of eligibility criteria has penalized young people just entering the job market, those whose employment is unstable, part-time workers, the self-employed and women re-entering the labour force after raising children. Each of these groups is required to accumulate more hours of work before receiving benefits. As one commentator has pointed out, “It is not normal that a program established to respond to the needs of the new economy should exclude those who are its primary victims.” These failings, especially those that discriminate against women returning to the work force, must be rectified without delay.

In many regions, the beneficial effects of economic growth and the new economy have yet to be felt. Clearly, job creation remains inadequate. Much to our dismay, the recent federal budget devoted very little to job creation (with the exception of the youth employment initiative). We were also struck by the absence of policies and financial resources for regional development, an objective that seems to have disappeared from the government’s list of priorities.

With waning job creation and persistent high unemployment, the new Employment Insurance Program has assisted some seasonal employees, but has increased problems in regions where many workers are simply not able to accumulate the hours necessary to qualify for benefits. Faced with reduced opportunities, many of the unemployed have little alternative but to leave their communities. Such departures result in lost fiscal revenue and a weakened community thus depriving the region of the resources necessary to maintain a viable social and economic infrastructure.

We are aware that community development programs exist. However, the sense of discouragement and despair which many of our pastors can attest to, prompts us to ask you to re-examine the Employment Insurance Program as soon as possible.

In our opinion the program must pay more attention to regional realities. We ask you, in close consultation with representatives of the unemployed and with provincial and local authorities, to develop and implement concrete changes that better respond to the needs of those who have been adversely affected.

Sincerely yours,

+ Most Reverend François Thibodeau, CJM
Chairman, Episcopal Commission for Social Affairs
Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops