Atlantic Canada ready to lay democracy on Harper government

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The Atlantic premiers did two big things at their meeting last weekend. They basically called the Harper government incompetent, having constructed labour market policies on the basis of "anecdotes" and no evidence.

And for the first time in more than a generation -- apart from Newfoundland's mercurial former premier, Danny Williams -- someone from these parts has said "boo" to the federal government.

With luck, this will be the much-needed spark for these provinces to get their act together, not only on Employment Insurance but on the full reality -- bureaucracy, energy, fisheries, economics, environment and more -- before we become non-entities in the face of a Stephen Harper-driven mindset intent on marginalizing the region, not to mention as the result of our own inertia in the face of it.

The premiers asked for a halt to the EI changes until they can study the facts. They also want Ottawa to provide EI data so they can do that. Fat chance! For the Harper government, committed to destroying data (gun registry, the census, miles of official library archives, etc.), this would amount to "committing sociology" and searching for "root causes." To deliver such data would be admitting that there are problems with Tory manhood.

But the need for Atlantic Canada to get its act together goes beyond the Harper government, which is a lost cause at any rate. It is too ideologically hidebound to change. Its no-evidence rampage will continue until the next election when it will likely be replaced, I'm guessing, by a Liberal minority. But no matter who's in there, the need remains to take our future in hand.

In so doing, there's not just the politics. There's a deeper dimension to the piece. Premier Darrell Dexter, at the Hunt's Point gathering, complained of the "disconnect in the understanding that Central Canada has of the Atlantic region." But it's worse than that. We've had Central Canada's disconnect since Confederation. Then it was joined by the moralizing superciliousness of the Alberta political class, led by Stephen Harper, for whom oil is virtue, and if the lesser breeds don't have it, it's their own fault.

Others used to be talked about in those terms. The West itself, before oil. And Quebec. But you can't run down Quebec anymore because it bites back. It's time to start biting back here, too. This notion of EI, in which the entire region is belittled as a place where we all whittle on the wharf while on pogey paid for by proper burghers uppalong, needs some fixing.

Assuming the premiers don't get their data and their study, here are a few points. EI covers a minuscule part of the Canadian economy -- some five per cent, and only part of it in Atlantic Canada. The conundrum that bedevils the snickering Harperites on the TV talk shows -- having to import agricultural pickers while people are on EI -- is easily enough explained.

Most able-bodied youngsters without a job in rural Atlantic Canada are in Alberta. The people on EI are mostly grandmothers in fish plants and older people generally -- the kind of people the Harper government loves to kick in the butt. If we have to cut them back (and, I agree, it's been too generous in some circumstances), would it be too much to do it with dignity -- and facts?

But here's the kicker. We'll probably wipe the Harperites out of Atlantic Canada next election like we wiped out the Chretien Liberals in 1997. The word ever since in the big media, repeated by commentators even here, is that we were sulking because of cuts in EI.

Yet EI was a decisive factor only on the north shore of New Brunswick, Cape Breton and stretches of the Newfoundland coast, not in Halifax, Moncton, St. John's and elsewhere.

The real problem was that the Chrétien/Martin Liberals promised the moon, then abruptly launched into the famous "Paul Martin cuts." They lied, and we were quite rightly offended.

Alas, Martin had a booming U.S. economy on his side and he became a hero of international finance. Harper has Paul Martin envy -- if you can cut enough from the provinces and the old folks, you can brag about your prowess before the billionaires at Davos, Switzerland. Let's lay some democracy on him.

Ralph Surette is a veteran freelance journalist living in Yarmouth County. This article was first published in the Chronicle Herald.

Photo: Wade Schriner/flickr

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