By Andy Walker
A veteran P.E.I. MP is sounding alarm bells about the possibility Canadian negotiators may give up the right of fishermen to draw employment insurance to reach a deal at the World Trade Organization talks now going on in Geneva.
Lawrence MacAulay, who represents the eastern riding of Cardigan, said a number of countries consider the benefits an unfair subsidy to Canadian fishermen. The former Liberal cabinet minister is worried the Stephen Harper government may agree to deny fishermen benefits should that prove to be a deal-breaker.
If that happened, MacAulay said that would be a "disaster" to an industry that is already struggling. The veteran MP said lobster catches have been low, particularly on the south shore and fishermen need the off-season help in order to survive.
Fisheries and Oceans Minister Loyola Hearn has indicated the current WTO text is "unacceptable to Canada." Hearn said a deal is a long way off despite some media reports, which suggested the paperwork would be done by April. "Before the WTO could even consider concluding negotiations, they would need to hold a ministerial-level meeting and reach a final settlement on all aspects of the talks, including industrial products, agriculture, and services," the minister indicated. "No such meeting has been scheduled at this point and many issues are still outstanding. "
MacAulay is also worried other benefits like small craft harbour maintenance, capital gains tax exemptions and gas tax exemptions could also end up on the table. He questioned whether the industry on P.E.I., or anywhere else in the country, could survive that type of blow.
The MP’s fears are shared by the Island’s fishing industry. Ed Frenette, the managing director of the P.E.I. Fishermen’s Association, said the move in the federal budget to place employment insurance under an arm’s length Crown corporation could be one step in the process.
Frenette said the Island industry needs employment insurance and other benefits to survive. He said the federal government must work long and hard to get the issue off the table at the talks. However, he said that won’t be easy since the United States and a number of other countries are in favour of reducing the subsidies. "We need immediate action," he said.
He suspected about half of island fishermen would be out of business without EI as a safety net. He said input costs such as licence fees, fuel and bait are continually rising. However, prices for many species remain low, especially when compared to Europe.
Frenette said many of his members are concerned because the Conservative party questioned employment insurance payments to fish harvesters when they were in opposition. Given that history, he said many wonder just how strongly the federal Tories will defend their interests. "Our question is simple: Does the Harper government plan on taking employment insurance away from Canadian fishers as well as subsidies to Small Craft Harbours and other sorts of DFO programs that support the fishery infrastructure?" Frenette said.
Belfast-Murray River MLA Charlie McGeoghegan, who was a lobster fisherman in Pinette before he entered politics, also doubts whether Island fishers can survive without the safety net. He said he intends to bring the issue up when the P.E.I. legislature reconvenes in early April and is hoping to get the support of all MLA’s in sending a strong message to Ottawa that the program must be protected.
Concern expressed about EI benefits being eliminated
By Andy Walker
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