Ulysse Doiron, 51, grew up in a family of 14 on the outskirts of Tracadie, on northeastern New Brunswick’s Acadian Peninsula. The future seemed assured: he and his seven brothers learned from their father how to wield a power saw in the seemingly infinite forests nearby. In their youth, they could not envisage the arrival of huge mechanical tree harvesters that would drastically decrease the need for woodcutters. “We used to go into the woods in the spring when there was snow on the ground, and we would finish up when there was snow on the ground in the fall,” Doiron recalled last week. “Now, the flowers are there when we start cutting, and they’re still in bloom when we finish.” Until recently, Doiron could always count on Canada’s unemployment insurance system—one of the world’s most generous—as part of his way of life, bridging the gap as his woodcutting season slowly fell from about 30 weeks in the mid-1970s to just 16 weeks last year. But no longer.
This year—as in 1995—Doiron’s benefits will run out in April, two months before his chain saw will roar again in June. That is the result of Ottawa’s UI reforms, introduced two years ago, which reduced the maximum number of weeks of benefits for seasonal workers. Those changes also raised the minimum number of work weeks needed to qualify for benefits from 10 to 12 in areas with high jobless rates—such as northeastern New Brunswick, where, depending on the season, unemployment can run as high as 20 per cent. The reforms were a preamble to a larger reworking of the UI system, which
will further restrict access to benefits, introduced in December by then-Human Resources Minister Lloyd Axworthy.
The result has been increasing frustration in areas heavily dependent on seasonal work. And recently, that anger has spilled onto the streets: last week, demonstrations against UI reform took place in towns across Atlantic Canada, including Corner Brook, Nfld., and New Richmond on Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula. The largest was in Tracadie itself. As many as 2,500 protesters from across New Brunswick marched on the constituency office of Axworthy’s successor, New Brunswick MP Doug Young, in a demonstration that quickly turned unruly.
Demonstrators gathered at the Tracadie branch of the National Bank—a symbolic gesture aimed at bank chairman André Berard, who last April declared that seasonal workers must move to where the jobs are. Then they marched to Young’s office. After listening to speeches delivered from a flatbed truck, some 500 of the protesters piled up dozens of tires and started a huge fire at a highway intersection near the Tracadie mall. The heat from the blaze melted nearby traffic lights, while police in cruisers were left to divert traffic and watch from a distance until the crowd thinned later in the night. Witnesses reported some bottle throwing but no injuries, and there were no arrests.
Doiron admits that he does not fully understand the impending UI overhaul. But as president of the local labor council, he has emerged as a leader in the growing series of protests—including those of last week— against the proposed changes. “They should take that UI reform and throw it away,” he says, “If they pass that, it will mean the second deportation of Acadians from here.” Last December’s proposed changes not only further reduced benefits and coverage periods for all UI claimants, but they also included a provision lessening payments by a maximum of nine per cent for those who use the insurance system frequently—a particular concern for seasonal workers. And as it stands, the proposed overhaul contains a contentious continuous work provision, which would dramatically reduce benefits for seasonal employees who work for only a few weeks at a time. If a spell of hot weather, for example, shut down woodcutters like Doiron for two weeks, that workless period would be averaged into a calculation of their insurable earnings.
Now under scrutiny by a standing parliamentary committee, Axworthy’s proposed UI reform package died on the order paper with the last Parliament and must be reintroduced into the House of Commons by Young. The new human resources minister has said that he wants to revisit parts of the planned overhaul—especially the continuous work provision. But speaking to reporters after last week’s demonstrations, Young lashed out at the participants, saying that the protests in his home province were hindering his ability to make changes to the package. “It is really going to be a hard sell for me,” the minister declared. “I am being accused in the national press by some of backtracking, of caving in to the Atlantic provinces.”
For the moment, though, Young’s words appear to be falling on deaf ears. Urged on by the Canadian Labour Congress, and often organized by local labor councils, coalitions against UI reform continue to form throughout Atlantic Canada—at a time when the erosion of other social programs such as welfare are also increasing the fears of seasonal workers. “What I’m reading between the lines,” said Terry Rhindress, local vice-president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees in Amherst, N.S., “is that in three or four years, there is going to be no UI. Nobody wants to lose it, so we’re going to fight these changes.” At issue is nothing less than what, in different times, was a way of life.
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