CORNER BROOK — The war of words between Liberal MP Gerry Byrne and the federal government over changes to the way people involved in the fishery have their Employment Insurance benefits calculated rages on.
Byrne, the Liberal Commons member for Humber-St. Barbe-Baie Verte, contends that the federal government had every intention of making drastic changes to the EI system as it pertains to people who have fishing income and that government only began backtracking after attention was drawn to the significant impact those changes would have on claimants.
The federal government, meanwhile, maintains the legislative changes proposed in last spring’s budget were actually an error that is now being corrected.
Last week, a spokesperson for the federal government criticized Byrne for voting against the omnibus bill that contains the amendment that will fix the controversial change and ensure that people can claim fishing income along with other income they may have earned outside the fishery. The federal government even went so far as to email The Western Star a screen grab showing Byrne voting against the bill in the House of Commons Dec. 6.
Asked earlier this week why he voted against the bill, Byrne said he was in possession of documentation that both showed the federal government intended the changes last spring and EI processing staff have already been directed to now begin reassessing EI claims to include fishing income.
Byrne said EI processors have contacted him and told him they feel like “pawns” in this debate because they had already been trained to process claims as per the initial changes that were included in last spring’s budget implementation bill and are now being told to change the way those benefits are to be calculated.
In a press release issued Thursday, Byrne called for an investigation into this whole matter, including the conduct of cabinet ministers, their staff and Service Canada departmental officials. He called their actions “a cover up” and a deliberate campaign to deny rightful benefits to Canadians involved in the fishery.
“As the employees told me, it’s hard to accept that this was an unintentional drafting error in the budget legislation when your bosses are handing you operational manuals immediately afterwards detailing the change and all of its repercussions,” Byrne said in his release. “It is also hard to fathom why that same government would employ a deliberate mis-information campaign about how the problem could be fixed.”
Nick Koolsbergen, director of communications for Employment and Social Development Minister Jason Kenny, said directions were given to EI staff last spring because the budget implementation bill had actually become the law at the time.
“Even though it wasn’t our intention for it to become law, it starts to get implemented,” explained Koolsbergen. “So, there are guidelines and other documents that Service Canada officials use to work under the new rules. It doesn’t change the fact that was never our intention and that’s where Gerry Byrne is very, very wrong on this.”
Koolsbergen said the same staff were directed last week to change the way they were processing EI claims involving fishing income because government was confident the new budget implementation bill containing the fix for the problem with the EI benefits calculation would soon become the law.
The latest budget implementation bill is now in the Royal Assent stage of the legislative process, the final symbolic stage before becoming law.
Koolsbergen noted Byrne had voted against the budget implementation bill at earlier stages of its debate too.
“He actually stood in the way,” said Koolsbergen. “So, it’s not surprising he is stuck with grasping at conspiracy theories to try to explain his vote. What he should have done was take off his tinfoil hat and help us pass this budget bill from the very start.”
Byrne was also concerned that, even if the legislation is amended, that there is not enough time for eligible claimants to have their claims reassessed and to receive their retroactive benefits in time for Christmas.
Koolsbergen, who could not say just how many claimants were affected by the changes, said governments plan is to get people their money in time for the holiday season. He said there has been a process in place to identify affected claimants since the problem was identified in October.
“We identified the problem and, just as we have made sure the fix came in as quickly as possible, we have directed Service Canada to make sure everything possible is being done to get people their money (before Christmas,” said Koolsbergen.
While he said it is not necessary for claimants to self-identify, the federal government is still encouraging anyone who thinks they may be affected by the changes to contact Service Canada.