The fight against the changes to Employment Insurance (EI) intensified recently in eastern Quebec and the Maritimes, with demonstrations taking place in several regions including Saguenay/Lac-Saint-Jean, Haute-Côte-Nord, Charlevoix and Gaspésie. In areas where many jobs are seasonal, people are already feeling the impact of the EI changes. Many people are facing what they call the “black hole” —the period during which employment insurance benefits are exhausted while they continue to wait to be recalled to their regular but seasonal jobs. The challenge now is to show that these changes will affect all workers across the whole country, and to mobilize accordingly.
Monday, February 11 was a day in like no other in Tracadie-Sheila, New Brunswick —a municipality of approximately 5,000 inhabitants in the heart of the Acadian Peninsula. At 6am, some 300 people, mostly seasonal workers who are currently unemployed, blocked the streets of the downtown district and the bridge that provides access to Main Street. They were determined to show that with the EI changes, it would no longer be “business as usual” in Acadia. Their numbers rose rapidly to over a thousand in the late morning.
Businesses located downtown remained deserted. Demonstrators began erecting barricades using tires and pieces of wood found in the area. Around 11:15 am, the RCMP unsuccessfully tried to stop the siege, which continued until mid-afternoon despite intense cold. For many, it became clear that “quiet demonstrations” are insufficient and there is a need to shake things much more seriously if we ever want the Harper government to retreat.
The action of February 11 brought a lot of debate among the struggling workers and unemployed. The Action Committee in Defense of EI that was set up last summer by people working in fish plants was somewhat shaken by what appeared to some as a “violent” action. It is normal and healthy that a debate takes place on the kind of action we need if we want to force the Harper governement to retreat. At the same time, we must recognize that the people’s anger is real. Such anger is based both on the despair that currently affects thousands of people facing the “black hole,” and on the perfectly lucid perception that the challenges at stake are enormous and the Harper government will not back down easily.
Let us be clear: the anger of the unemployed and the working masses is not only legitimate, but without it there won’t be such thing as a people’s movement against the EI changes.
We’ve written it a few times already, but here we repeat it again: the changes to Employment Insurance are central to the austerity measures being put forward by the Canadian bourgeoisie who are aiming to load the burden of the crisis onto the backs of the working class. It certainly targets precarious workers —including seasonal workers— but in the end, it is the wage conditions and working conditions of all workers that are targeted by this reform.
The strategy of the big bourgeoisie and the Harper government is clearly to divide people between “Working Westerners” and “Lazy Easterners;” they want workers less likely to become unemployed to turn their anger against precarious workers. They even want those they consider as “good unemployed” to dissociate themselves from the others —the so-called “bad guys,” as Minister Diane Finley likes to say.
The challenge for us proletarians is to understand that contrary to what the enemy is saying, changes in EI concern us all. We need to build on what our brothers and sisters are doing in Acadia and eastern Quebec: we should expand and increase the number of militant mass actions and ensure that there will no longer be “business as usual” anywhere for the big capitalists who expect that the changes in EI will exert downward pressure on our wages.
So all together, let’s fight to win! —that is, to force the Harper government to swallow its rotten project. Let’s take part en masse in all the actions that are spreading right now in Quebec and the Maritime provinces. Let’s force the trade unions elsewhere in Canada to join the movement. We should shake the cage of the ruling class strong enough to force it to backtrack!