EDMONTON - If Prime Minister Paul Martin doesn't want to see a "patchwork quilt" of maternity benefits in Canada - generous in places like Quebec and sub-standard in places like Alberta - then he needs to wake up and appeal a controversial court decision before it's too late, says the Alberta Federation of Labour.
In a letter sent to the Prime Minister today, AFL president Les Steel urged the federal government to appeal a January 27 decision by the Quebec Court of Appeal that said maternity benefits are a social program and therefore fall under provincial jurisdiction. The federal government has only until February 26 to file its appeal.
"If your government doesn't appeal the Quebec decision it will open a dangerous door," wrote Steel in his letter to Martin. "Once provinces like Alberta begin asserting their new 'rights' over EI, we fear that maternity and paternity benefits as we now know them will be history."
Steel told Martin he has absolutely no confidence that the Alberta government would maintain the current level of benefits for new parents if jurisdiction for maternity programs was handed over to the provinces.
"In Quebec, given its progressive history on social policy, it may well be true that workers will get better benefits under a provincially administered plan," wrote Steel. "But the same cannot be said for other provinces. Do you really think that the Alberta government would have instituted maternity benefits even half as generous as those available under the existing EI plan if the program had fallen under provincial jurisdiction? Do you honestly think they would defend existing benefits with the same zeal as the federal government? From where we sit, the answer to both of these questions is clearly no."
If Martin doesn't want to go down in history as the Prime Minister who 'looked the other way' while Canada's system of maternity benefits was dismantled, Steel says he should act quickly to appeal the Quebec court decision.
"The clock (is) ticking," wrote Steel. "Please act now. Please appeal the decision & This is (the federal government's) chance to do the right thing. It's your chance to stand up for a program that means so much to so many Canadian workers and their families. Please don't squander this opportunity."
For more information call:
Les Steel, AFL President @ 780-483-3021(wk) 780-499-4195 (cell)
Gil McGowan, AFL Communication @ 780-483-3021 (wk) 780-910-1137 (cell)
Attachment - Text of Letter
February 25, 2004
Sent by Fax: (613) 992-4291
The Right Honourable Paul Martin
Government of Canada
House of Commons
Room 313-S, Centre Block
Dear Prime Minister:
As I write this letter, there are only two days remaining before your government can no longer appeal the controversial decision on Employment Insurance and parental benefits that was handed down last month by the Quebec Court of Appeal. With the clock ticking, I am writing on behalf of thousands of unionized workers in Alberta with an urgent plea. Please act now! Please appeal the decision!
If the federal government misses this opportunity to defend the Employment Insurance program, we are convinced that the consequences for working people across the country will be dire. In particular, we are worried that the benefits currently available for new parents - so recently introduced - will be eroded or, in places like Alberta, eliminated entirely. And by standing idly on the sidelines, your government will be largely to blame.
Of course, we've heard the arguments and reassurances put forward by the government of Quebec. They say that maternity and parental benefits are essentially a social program or, at the very least, akin to a commercial insurance plan - both of which would fall under provincial jurisdiction. The Quebec government has also promised that if it took over the plan, the benefits would be more generous than the under the existing program.
But, here in Alberta we have two major objections. First, we don't buy the argument that any portion of EI should be seen as a social program - and we think it is obvious that EI is not anything like a commercial insurance plan. From our perspective, the purpose of EI is clear: the program is designed to temporarily replace the income of workers faced with interruptions in their employment. That includes any interruption in employment, whether it is the result of lay-off, illness or pregnancy.
Page 2 -- The Right Honourable Paul Martin
That's not to say that the existing maternity program is without flaws. For example, we feel strongly that the plan needs to be expanded to cover contract workers and the self-employed. We also think the number of weeks of work required for eligibility needs to be dropped. But, those are questions of fine tuning. What the Quebec government wants would be like throwing the baby out with the bath water. In our opinion, this whole case is nothing more than a thinly veiled power-grab by the Quebec government - and the federal government should not allow it.
The second - and probably more important reason - why we in the Alberta labour movement want you to appeal the court decision has to do with the impact we fear it will have on the access Alberta workers have to maternity and parental benefits. In Quebec, given its progressive history on social policy, it may well be true that workers will get better benefits under a provincially administered plan. But the same cannot be said for other provinces. Do you really think that the Alberta government would have instituted maternity benefits even half as generous as those available under the existing EI plan if the program had fallen under provincial jurisdiction? Do you honestly think they would defend existing benefits with the same zeal as the federal government? From where we sit, the answer to both of these questions is clearly "no."
That's the root of our concern: if your government doesn't appeal the Quebec decision it will open a dangerous door. Once provinces like Alberta begin asserting their new "rights" over EI, we fear that maternity and paternity benefits as we now know them will be history. The question for you and members of your government is this: do you want to see a patchwork quilt of policies in Canada, where some Canadian workers have access to generous parental benefits, and many other do not? And do you want to go down in history as the government that looked the other way as this kind of patchwork was created?
This is your chance to do the right thing. It's your chance to stand up for a program that means so much to so many Canadian workers and their families. Please don't squander this opportunity.
ALBERTA FEDERATION OF LABOUR