The winter of 1989-1990 is shaping up as a cruel one for Michael LeBlanc. Like many of his neighbors in the Cape Breton community of Sydney Mines, N.S., the 37-year-old LeBlanc has been unable to find a permanent job. Instead, he works part time as an unskilled laborer in the steel industry, trying to accumulate enough work each year to be eligible for unemployment insurance benefits. Since May, when his last UI claim expired, LeBlanc has worked a total of nine weeks—one short of the minimum number of weeks of employment normally required to draw UI benefits in Cape Breton. But on Jan. 6, the eligibility requirement rose to 14 weeks—a level that LeBlanc said is beyond his reach. “I checked around, but it looks like it will be May or June before there are any more jobs available,” said LeBlanc, who is married with two children. “Before, when you needed 10 weeks of work to collect UI, at least I had a chance. But I guess the politicians up in Ottawa just do not care about people like me.”
In fact, LeBlanc is one of thousands of Canadians who are caught in the cross fire of the latest parliamentary feud between the House of Commons and the Senate.
At the centre of the controversy is bill C-21, introduced by the Conservative government last June as part of a sweeping overhaul of the $13-billion-a-year unemployment insurance system. The bill, which would cut the amount paid out in benefits by $1.3 billion, was passed by the Commons in November but has since been held up by the Liberal majority in the Senate. But at the same time as the Tories brought forward their new UI rules, they did not extend the Jan. 6 expiry date for old regulations, which lowered the national 14-week eligibility requirement in selected areas of high unemployment in order to make it easier for residents to qualify for UI benefits. Bill C-21 would also allow claimants in high-unemployment areas relaxed eligi-
bility for benefits, but those adjustments will not go into effect unless the legislation becomes law. As a result, since Jan. 6, Canadians in every region, regardless of the jobless rate, must now work at least 14 weeks before claiming benefits.
In Ottawa last week, Conservatives and Liberals accused one another of hurting jobless people in economically depressed parts of the country. Employment Minister Barbara McDougall, for one, said that the new legislation would help Canadians in poorer regions by channelling more money into job-training programs in an effort to break the cycle of unemployment. “I certainly hope the senators come to their senses soon, because their actions are harming a lot of people,” McDougall told Maclean’s. She added that, by delaying the UI bill, the Liberal majority in the Senate was abusing its power. “The Senate is supposed to be a chamber of sober second thought, not a place for partisan obstructiveness.”
But Liberal Senator Jacques Hébert defended his colleagues’ actions. Declared ^ Hébert, chairman of a cornai mittee studying the bill: z “Barbara McDougall can say Q what she wants, but it is our
job to look at bills carefully and to propose amendments where necessary.”
According to Hébert, McDougall could have spared jobless workers in poorer regions by approving a bill that would have temporarily extended the old UI eligibility rules. “But the truth is that she wanted those people to suffer so that they would put pressure on us to pass her bill,” Hébert said. “If that is not cynical, I do not know what is.”
Government officials said last week that it was still too early to estimate how many people will be affected by the political standoff. But a policy adviser to McDougall, Richard Perkins, said that a total of 18,630 Canadians, who had fewer than 14 weeks of insurable earnings, had qualified for UI benefits in areas with lowered requirements during the first three months of 1989. According to Perkins, a similar number of people would likely suffer if the current battle between the Commons and the Senate lasts that long.
However, the delay benefits people who lose their jobs in more prosperous regions. The Liberal senators have criticized provisions of the bill that would increase the qualifying period for benefits from the current 14 weeks to as many as 20 weeks in some areas, including most of southern Ontario.
The controversy over bill o C-21 is the most recent of S several clashes between the two chambers since the Conservatives came to power in 1984. In 1985, Liberal senators delayed a government borrowing bill on obscure technical grounds, a tactic that even some Liberal MPS called distasteful. Later, the Liberals used their majority in the Red Chamber to stall passage of drug patent legislation, a bill to reduce the number of refugee claimants granted asylum in Canada, and the legislation implementing the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement.
Neither the government nor the opposition was willing to speculate about how long the UI confrontation will continue. The Senate will likely approve an amended version of the bill later this month, after which the legislation will return to the Commons. But McDougall said last week that she will not accept any major changes to the bill.
As a result, the Commons may decide simply to restore the bill to its original form—and refer it back to the Senate. “I am not going to give in to this kind of blackmail,” McDougall said. “I do not want to second-guess what will happen, but the delay could continue for a long time.” If it does, an increasing number of jobless Canadians will find themselves having to pay the price of a deadlocked Parliament.
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