An open letter to Michel Samson and Jason Kenney on access to income and employment

An open letter to

Michel Samson
Member of the Nova Scotia Legislative Assembly for Cape Breton-Richmond
Minister of Economic and Rural Development and Tourism

(response, from Kelly Regan, below)


Jason Kenney
Member of Parliament for Calgary Southeast
Minister of Employment and Social Development:


I am presently residing in Sherbrooke, part of Very Rural Nova Scotia. Of course, I don’t have to stay here, and I didn’t even have to come here. But it works very well for me, except for the tricky problem of income.

Sherbrooke Village recently posted an advertisement on the Service Canada Job Bank seeking an archival assistant. I would have applied for this position, even though it’s temporary – the work seems interesting, it would leverage my IT skills, I’d learn something, and it would be a pickup of both money and experience. And it’s local.

But the position requires people to have received EI in past 3 years, so I’m ineligible. It’s maddening; it just seems arbitrary and unfair. I’m no longer a student, so I don’t qualify for the student positions (with the Village or, for example, the Eastern Counties Regional Library) that come across my radar either. When I was a student, I thought jobs reserved for students were great things. Now the shoe’s on the other foot and it hurts like heck.

Skills development and training are directed preferentially at EI recipients. Why is having-had-a-job-and-lost-it-involuntarily-without-fault-of-your-own incumbency so salient? Where is the on-ramp for people trying to get into the job market™? Why are people crowing about the “hidden” job market believed? (Boy, if Nova Scotia has a thriving hidden job market, imagine what Alberta’s hidden job market must be like!) How do we know that we’re in fact not barking loud enough, as opposed to barking up a wrong tree in pursuit of the phantom job squirrel?

I understand that people who have jobs may well have families to support. Perhaps I look silly in crying, “Hey, single unincomed adult, I matter too!” Entrepreneurship has been flogged since time immemorial, by which I mean I saw ACOA commercials on TV in the late Mulroney years. Entrepreneurship might well be an engine for individual and economic growth. But we need money to make money. I believe we should seriously investigate instituting a minimum income system. Here are the words of Hugh Segal, a Senator representing Ontario:

“The real problem in our approach to poverty reduction is that it depends on the state and its employees assessing whether poorer fellow citizens are deserving of support. This is both deeply inefficient, fraught with bureaucratic excess and causes the wrong incentives to prevail. Young welfare mothers lose welfare benefits (for housing or their children) when they find work. And, in most Canadian provinces and American states, welfare pays far less than the poverty line itself.

“The answer, in terms of poverty reduction for working age people, is the same as it has been over decades for seniors — automatic top-ups for those who fall beneath the poverty line. When that happened for seniors in Ontario in the mid-1970s, their poverty rate fell from over thirty percent to under five percent — without the hiring of additional civil servants — largely because the tax system was the chosen delivery instrument. This Ontario plan migrated to all provinces and the federal government. It brought seniors back into the economic mainstream.

“There are different names for this approach. Milton Friedman called it a negative income tax, the Davis Conservative government called it the Guaranteed Annual Income Supplement. In today’s Canada, a refundable anti-poverty tax credit may be the right term.

“The wrong approach is to ignore the problem, letting the ideological conceit that a rising tide lifts all boats obscure the hard reality that many Canadians have no boat or access to anyone who has ever had a boat. Our prisons are disproportionately filled with younger people, First Nations people and representatives of the ten per cent of Canadians who live beneath the poverty line — as is the case with Afro-Americans in the United States. The cost of keeping every one of these human beings in prisons is between five hundred to a thousand per cent more than what an automatic top-up would cost. Knowing that poverty is the most reliable predictor of trouble with the law, early use of our health care facilities, lower life span, illiteracy, family violence and unemployment, all of which cost tens of billions of tax dollars at a time when tax dollars are hard to find, should spur innovation. Never mind the core inhumanity of not helping the people whom we need as productive, taxpaying, full participants in our economic mainstream. And for those on the far right who resent “paying people to do nothing” remember this: The vast majority of folks living beneath the poverty line are working, on occasion, in more than one job, just not earning enough to get by.”

– Hugh Segal, “Why Guaranteeing the Poor an Income Will Save Us All In the End”

Think of all the programs that could be obviated! No more rounding yourself down to receive assistance!

There is a ‘danger’ of sorts, that there will be people who would rather stay home and garden or something rather than keep working under poor conditions. We’d have to confront the reality that many people would rather lose a few thousand dollars than work a job that makes them miserable. It will force employers to maintain high standards, as they will not have such direct jackboot-to-jugular-vein access. Maybe we’d have to pay a little more for our coffee. Maybe we’ll make our own. We don’t need to be world leaders in menial service industry jobs.

We should also be funding institutions like our museums and libraries so that they can hire according to their needs, while supporting individuals so they can live, and make their own jobs. A system of supporting some individuals and attaching those strings to the institutions only serves the needs of a few, and not very elegantly.

In the winter here, we’re effectively paying people to be idle, or go through the motions of looking for work, instead of simply paying people to work. (I’d be all for getting back to nature, but there isn’t a lot of gardening to do in the winter.) When the museum closes, pogey begins. It’s the same bucket of money we’re talking about – that of Canadians. There are people who love their jobs who the museum would love to employ year-round.

Perhaps we could even eliminate the EI system. Pragmatically, there would be difficulties and complications, like what would happen with people losing upper-income jobs. But this sounds like a problem that would suit solutions from the private insurance industry.

If there are ethical industries operating in Canada whose staffing needs are being unmet, we should train ourselves to meet them. With some dismay, I note that those in several IT disciplines will be among those to be eligible for “express entry” to Canada beginning in 2015. As an unemployed IT graduate, I find this puzzling. In 2013, I graduated from Nova Scotia Community College, concentrating in programming, and attaining a 98.23% weighted average. I won the Governor General’s Academic Medal for having the highest academic standing at my campus. But I’ve yet to work in the field – there are fewer job openings than competitors, at least in this region.

And all these managers! Why so many managers? Are we going out of our way to make the employee – manager transition, for those who have the necessary talents to manage, impossible? These sound like good jobs we should be grooming ourselves for, not making ourselves compete with the rest of the world. And we should prioritize training our own people if and when they really do fall short.

In an ideal world there’d be more mobility and less fussing about borders. But we need to look after ourselves first. The people who design airline safety information cards know this: “Attach your own oxygen mask before assisting others.” We should know it, too.

While I have your attention, I think the use of personality tests to screen candidates should be illegal. I recently received such a test from the recruiters at Efficiency Nova Scotia. I believe such tests are privacy-eroding and they are not founded on a testable theoretical framework. At best, people’s beliefs are judged to see whether or not they’d be a “good fit”, but if you’re an employer you’re not going to get anything like perfect self-reporting: there is the fact that you hold power over the respondents, which may inhibit perfect honesty, and there is also the problem that what people think an acceptable level of, say, “earnest” is in order to check a box will vary.

Individuals will give high accuracy ratings to descriptions of their personality that supposedly are tailored specifically for them, but are in fact vague and general enough to apply to a wide range of people. This is called the Forer effect.

And how are the ‘real’ tests, often commercial products like Predictive Index®, (seeming to show how psychology is more of a business than a science anyway) monitored for accuracy and effectiveness? Should companies trust the test vendor to do this? Why should we have to trust the companies’ trusting of the test vendor?

I should be careful what I wish for – if it were illegal, I’d run the risk of working for a company that would have given such a test if they could have. So maybe I should take it as a fair warning, “HERE BE DRAGONS.” But I still need an income.

And then there’s the evil of drug testing. But that’s another letter.

Thank you,
– William Matheson
Sherbrooke, NS

* * *

Further viewing:

2012 Agenda panel on poverty and minimum income with Senator Hugh Segal, National Post columnist Andrew Coyne, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives economist Armine Yalnizyan, and Conference Board of Canada economist Glen Hodgson:

In response to Armine Yalnizyan’s despair, yes, the numbers do seem intimidating: To guarantee a minimum income of $10,000 to 3,000,000 people who have nothing costs $30,000,000,000. Yes, ten thousand dollars to three million people is thirty billion. So it’s going to need some significant massaging of the current tax and social systems. Current federal revenues and expenses are 276.3 billion and 279.2 billion respectively.

But you also have to consider savings elsewhere (health, law enforcement) and, I think, be willing to raise taxes on high incomes to do it, just so that we’ll all be freer and safer and consequently happier.

* * *

Kelly Regan responds:

Kelly Regan, MLA for Bedford-Birch Cove and the Minister of Labour and Advanced Education, responded, dated July 31st:

Dear Mr. Matheson:

Thank you for your July 18, 2014 letter to Minister Michel Samson in which you reference eligibility for temporary employment opportunities and inquire about options for entering the labour market. Minister Samson has forwarded your letter to me for response, as the Minister responsible for employment programming.1

I would encourage you to visit your local Careers Nova Scotia Centre, which can provide assistance with your job search and your transition into the labour market. A list of the Career Nova Scotia Centres can be found at:

In addition, staff at the Careers Nova Scotia Centre can provide you with information about programs that maybe [sic] helpful to you. You might inquire about our START program2, which encourages employers to hire unemployed Nova Scotians. You can also find further information about START at our website:

I wish you all the best in your future.

Honourable Kelly Regan

* * *

This is, for me, a useful response; I didn’t know about the START program, and so when I next visit the representative of the Guysborough County CBDC I’ll ask her about it specifically and see if there’s a there there.

Not a word about the minimum income stuff, though. :-)

  1. I suppose I ought to have known this – you know, the “labour” part. 


Leave a Reply