Anger On The Waterfront

Atlantic Canadians fight for a way of life

MERLE MacISAAC March 11 1996

Anger On The Waterfront

Atlantic Canadians fight for a way of life

MERLE MacISAAC March 11 1996

Anger On The Waterfront

Atlantic Canadians fight for a way of life

The fishing community of

Caraquet, N.B. (population 4,600), defies the easy stereotypes about hard bitten fishing ports in

Atlantic Canada. Nestled on the Acadian Peninsula in the northeastern corner of the province across from Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula, many of the homes strung along the shoreline are grander than the images usually broadcast on television newscasts about the devastating effect of depleted fish stocks. A diverse fishery on the peninsula has proven more resilient than the cod-dependent industry off the shores of Newfoundland. Crab, shrimp and lobster harvesters have all enjoyed good—even excellent—years recently.

But the prosperity is far from universal. The offshore draggers, whose vessels sit stranded in the snow and ice at the Caraquet wharf, have been idled by a moratorium on the fishing of cod and ocean perçh—species that provide most of the jobs in fish plants. “We used to operate 10 or 11 months a year; now we go from April to October,” says Valmond Chiasson, part-owner of two local fish plants. ‘We had two shifts and 800 workers at our peak. Now, we have about 300.” The squeeze on available seasonal work, combined with more stringent rules for qualifying

for unemployment insurance, explains the intense disenchantment in places like Caraquet. In a region where past government policies supported seasonal work as a way of life, the politicians appear to be backing out just when the going gets tough. “We’re seeing a lot of anxiety from workers,” says Gilles Landry, general director of Caraquet’s local credit union. “They’ve made longterm investments based on things being a certain way. Now, they wonder if they can make their loan payments.”

Most of the anger in Caraquet and communities like it across Atlantic Canada is directed at Ottawa’s unemployment insurance changes, which were first introduced two years ago but went into effect last month. Those changes reduced the maximum benefits for seasonal workers and raised the number of work weeks needed to qualify for benefits in areas of high unemployment. Recently, demonstrations against UI changes have been staged throughout the region—including one last month in Tracadie, 30 km south of Caraquet, where 2,500 people marched on the constituency office of federal Human Resources Minister Doug Young.

But UI change is not the only irritant for residents who are increasingly concerned that there is no future for their children in Atlantic Canada.

Recent changes to federal fisheries policies dramatically raised the cost of some fishing licences and made it harder for many fishermen to pass

on licences to their sons and daughters—moves that sparked a separate round of protests and a rash of occupations of federal fisheries offices. Those changes are taking place against a backdrop of government cuts to services that have come to be viewed as a rural birthright, from post offices to hospital beds and schools. “We don’t have the same resources as in a city,” says Caraquet Mayor Roberta Dugas. “Government cutbacks can quickly destabilize rural communities.”

Still, the talk of the moment in Caraquet is about UI reform, and no wonder: in 1993, according to the most recent data available from Statistics Canada, more than $10 million in UI benefits was funneled directly to town residents, and two-thirds of all income-earning families had at least one member drawing unemployment insurance. Depending on the season, unemployment in the area can run as high as 20 per cent. “Why don’t they take the f—ing money from the rich people?” asked Gerald Hall, 36, his face flushed with anger, as he sipped coffee with a couple of friends at the local Tim Hortons restaurant last week. “Why do they always go after the poor?” One of his buddies explained almost apologetically that Hall, an

unemployed construction worker, normally does not use profanity.

Another friend, Marcel Dugas, sounded more resigned than angry. Dugas, a 38-year-old construction worker, had a job for much of 1995 in both New Brunswick and Quebec. But under the new UI rules, he fails to qualify for benefits because he voluntarily left his job in Quebec when, according to Dugas, the company did not provide him with the amount of work and pay that he had been led to believe it would. Dugas now relies on welfare

and lives in an apartment without a phone. “It brings my pride down and makes me lazy,” he said, though he added that he has resolved to change things. “I don’t want to be part of UI anymore. I want to go away. I may go to China, if there’s work there.”

There is little confidence among Dugas and his friends about recent promises made by the region’s powerful MP. Young, who took over the human resources department from Lloyd Axworthy in Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s late January cabinet shuffle, says he wants to revisit the issue of UI reform and to address the concerns of seasonal workers. “I’ll believe the changes when I see them,” said Hall. In a region where jobs seem to grow more scarce every day, such skepticism is becoming almost second nature.

MERLE MacISAAC