Dexter raises alarm over EI plan

Premier Darrell Dexter says the federal government should tread lightly when it comes to changing Employment Insurance rules.

A bill making its way through Parliament gives the federal cabinet the power to define what constitutes suitable employment and a reasonable effort to find work — key criteria for being eligible for EI.

The issue is particularly sensitive in parts of Canada where unemployment is high.

"Employment Insurance is one of those electric rails in Atlantic Canada that you want to be very, very careful about," Dexter said Tuesday.

Currently, people who have paid into the EI system and become unemployed can collect benefits for a length of time that varies depending on the region where they live. They must also look for a new job, and start work if something suitable becomes available.

Earlier this week, federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said the overhaul would force more people to look for work.

Dexter said he's not sure what's behind the changes. But if the plan is to lower benefits or to exclude more people from receiving EI, he said, many families will be hurt.

"The question is do the changes that are being proposed particularly in a high unemployment area, are they being made solely for the purposes of disenfranchising or are they an honest attempt to try to inspire people to take jobs that are available?"

Dexter said EI is not the security blanket it used to be.

"The benefits have been severely restricted and reduced and in fact they do not now meet the needs of many people who find themselves unemployed."

Dexter said Jean Chretien's Liberals learned a hard lesson when that government overhauled the EI system in the 1990s.

In the 1997 federal election, the Liberals lost all 11 seats they held in Nova Scotia. They kept only seven of the 25 seats in the Maritime provinces.

"People in the area have a long memory on those things," Dexter said.