Modernization spin glosses over cuts

On Friday, August 19th, only minutes before Atlantic region Employment Insurance processing centres were due to close for the weekend, federal government employees received an e-mail with devastating news. 

At 4:29 PM, someone in Ottawa hit “Send”, making it official that EI processing centres in four Newfoundland and Labrador communities (Gander, Grand Falls, Corner Brook, Goose Bay), one in Montague, Prince Edward Island, one in Sydney, Nova Scotia, and a call centre in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, will be phased out by 2014, eliminating up to 167 jobs. (Gander, Sydney, and Montague will become ‘service centres’ with skeleton staff. Nationally, the number of processing centres is being reduced from 120 to 22, with a loss of six hundred jobs.) With little more information than that, our members left work and went home to tell their families that their lives were about to change.

It is not surprising that the Conservatives are cutting more services. The government’s declared mission is to ‘modernize’ the way services to the public are delivered, by finding what they consider inefficiencies and eliminating them. Treasury Board president Tony Clement told government managers in June that they must look at operations in their departments and ask, “Should we still be doing this?” That process has resulted in some outrageous service cuts and troubling signs of just what this government thinks it should, and should not be doing.

They don’t believe they should still be providing twelve positions at the Marine Rescue Sub-Centre in St. John’s. The modern way to provide service to mariners in distress off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador is to route emergency calls to Halifax, Nova Scotia or Trenton, Ontario and hope for the best. Our union and the people of Atlantic Canada have made it clear we think this is a serious mistake and a breach of their duty to serve.

The latest event, the loss of Employment Insurance processing centres, is being spun as ‘modernization’ by the speech writers for Diane Finley, the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development, but they will have a hard time flogging that in rural Canada. The news from a week ago follows the announcement, in January this year, of the planned closure of Service Canada outreach sites in dozens of rural locations by May 2012. These smaller centres were sprinkled all over remote parts of the Atlantic region. The government website cheerily recommends you may “click, call or visit” but soon you will only be able to click or call. In Newfoundland and Labrador, the “visit” will be limited to the main office in St. John’s or the sparsely staffed Gander Service Centre. Gander is about seven hundred kilometers from St. Anthony and a lot farther from Nain or Labrador City. It may not be modern to sit across a desk from someone who is helping you with your employment insurance forms, but it is service.

Such modernizing takes no account of the ‘digital divide’, the barrier between those who have and use technology and those who don’t. Government is well aware that broadband access is limited in rural parts of the country. You may have the smartest phone on earth but if you are out of cell phone or broadband range, you have nothing. People who can’t go for a coffee without tweeting about it may find this hard to believe, but low income families and individuals can’t afford computers and the monthly cost of the internet. The way this government plans to provide service to rural Canadians is distant, disengaged, and finally, disrespectful.

The Conservative government is glossing over what they are really doing. When cornered, they speak soothingly about how many cuts will result from vacant positions, or how staff will be transferred within the department, or how they are relying primarily on attrition to achieve their target. Like this isn’t going to hurt at all. Our union estimates that if term and casual positions are included, the total of jobs lost would more than double. Some casual workers have been on the job for as much as five years. We believe the government should be forthcoming about exactly how many people are losing their jobs due to their effort to increase efficiency.

The face of the federal government in rural Canada is vanishing. A drive through most small towns in the Atlantic provinces might reveal a sign at the government wharf and if not a post office, then a rank of mailboxes. Eighty or a hundred jobs are insignificant to the entire federal government, but those jobs in Glace Bay keep people living there, buying groceries, furniture, cars, and paying taxes. Our members say they are tired of hearing platitudes about valuing the rural way of life, especially when it seems as if the federal government is resettling to urban Canada.

Jeannie Baldwin
Regional Executive Vice-President
Public Service Alliance of Canada