Thousands rally against federal government's EI reform

Thousands of protesters across the province of Quebec, in Ottawa and in Tracadie, N.B., took part in demonstrations denouncing the government's employment insurance reform Saturday.

The government's changes to the EI program compel laid-off seasonal workers to go farther afield to look for work and to accept jobs that pay as little as 70 per cent of their previous hourly wage — providing that is not below the province's minimum wage rate.

Ottawa changed admission criteria for EI programs last January. People looking for work will be urged to accept work located within a 100-kilometre radius from their home.

In Montreal, the construction arm of the Quebec Federation of Labour (FTQ-Construction) organized the protest. Organizers said the aim of the protests is to tell the Harper government that the modifications to EI programs will have a negative impact on many Canadian families.

"We must get together and be heard as a united front against this government," said the construction union's executive director Yves Ouellet.

The head of the QFL, Michel Arsenault, said the new rules are sowing insecurity among seasonal workers, robbing students of jobs and encouraging people to lie about their work history.

Arsenault is also incensed by the government's decision to send government bureaucrats to people's homes to check out their unemployment stories.

He said it's like "living under a dictatorship," and he says the EI changes have targeted provinces that do not traditionally vote for the federal Conservatives.

"Sustaining a family, start a career, giving your time and money … it's not with measures like this one that we will be able to shape a new generation in Quebec," he said.

In Quebec City, provincial Labour Minister Agnès Maltais took part in the protest and demanded Ottawa rescind its changes to the program.

She is expected to meet with federal Human Resources Minister Diane Finley on Feb. 27.

The FTQ-Construction representative in Quebec City, Jean Gauthier, said the new rules will hurt the capital city.

The majority of people who took part in similar protests in Saguenay were workers involved in the province's forestry industry.

Most of them said they are determined to fight against the reform, particularly because of the rules forcing them to accept jobs far away from home.

In Hull, across the river from Ottawa, about 200 protesters left the Robert Guertin arena around 10 a.m. ET to make their way to Parliament Hill before meeting up at the CBC/Radio-Canada building.

The organizers said they want to draw attention to the budget cuts imposed by the federal government, including those to the public broadcaster.

About 50 federal government employees were given the task of paying impromptu visits to EI recipients.

In total, about 1,200 randomly-selected recipients will be meeting with government officials between January and the end of March.

New Democrat MP Yvon Godin, who is actively opposing the Harper government's reform, compared the meetings to bullying.

In an interview with Radio-Canada on Saturday, Minister of Veterans' Affairs Steven Blaney said Canadians are misinformed about the federal government's amendments to the program.

"The reform takes work conditions, schedule and commute into account," he said. "We even take into account babysitting fees and the costs affiliated to commuting."

He added that people living in Quebec would have priority over jobs offered in the province above foreign workers.

Blaney blamed opposition parties in Ottawa for trying to take away opportunities for workers to have access to additional revenues.