Feds Shortchange Alberta Once More

Those who argue that the Canadian federation exhibits plenty of fiscal and program biases against Prairie Canadians will likely see further evidence to that effect, with the most recent study published by the Halifax-based Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS).

The study, Re-thinking Student Job Subsidies, authored by David Murrell and Alan Chan, is subtitled The case for regional equity in the Canada Summer Jobs Program. The study analyses Statistics Canada data for Ottawa’s Summer Jobs Program between 2016 and 2018. This is the same program that recently became infamous when the federal government used it to push its moralistic values on abortion.

The original program was designed to encourage businesses and community organizations into hiring young people, full time students in high school or university, aged 15-30, so that they may acquire work experience during the summer months as they move toward joining the active workforce in the near future. The authors found that in this period between 2016 and 2018, essentially the first three years of the current government, the Prairie provinces received significantly less money per unemployed student than the national average.

While the dollar amounts with the summer student subsidies pale in comparison to the massively lopsided federal EI transfers and equalization payments, by and large they seem to reinforce the path of inequity much travelled by Prairie wealth, through Ottawa, and toward Quebec and Atlantic Canada. Atlantic students receive, the analysis reveals, robust job subsidies above the national average, while the three Prairie provinces and Ontario receive job support well below the average.

In addition, the province that receives the most per-unemployed student support is an Atlantic province, Newfoundland and Labrador; the province that receives the least per unemployed student is a Prairie province, Alberta. The magnitude of the disparity is a bit shocking: Alberta received five times (500 per cent) less than Newfoundland and Labrador, and three times (300 per cent) less than each of Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick. Even within the Atlantic region, the disparity between the Newfoundland and Labrador and the province that received the least (Nova Scotia), is noticeably large: a student in Newfoundland received twice (200 per cent) what a Nova Scotia student received.

The authors found that there does not seem to be a link between the local circumstances in the local economy, student unemployment, and the level of subsidies handed out.

Although local federal politicians are involved in the assessment of applicants by constituency, and there is a well-spelled out process with criteria that in theory seems to want to avert whimsical decisions, the outcomes that point in a different direction are the more puzzling when one considers that “Employment Canada has the final say as to which applicants receive money.”

The criteria, if followed, awards points for “community needs, regional economic priorities, relevance of work, salary levels, employer supervision, treatment of official-language minorities, and affirmative action.”

That the points are assigned (or weighed) according to local priorities as determined by local MPs should introduce a measure of equity, one would think. But something else seems to drive the question of allocating the disparate compensation.

The authors of the study are careful not to speculate as to the motivations that drive the significant disparities. But the anemic outcome for Alberta uncovered in the study may well be driven by the reality that Alberta’s economic priorities do not quite square, to put it in mild terms, with those of the current federal government when it comes to the crucial question of hydrocarbon energy and all that is related to it: from exploration to exploitation, from transformation to transportation.

The authors, however, are quite aware that to any neutral observer the data raises more questions and may become an added piece in the deepening of regional differences – differences often predicated through federal programs, which has an impact on perceptions and realities about national unity. Specifically, the authors mention the added disparities in EI benefits and equalization payments, both of which have largely benefitted the Maritime provinces (Newfoundland and Labrador does not currently receive equalization) in the East and substantively extract money from the three Western-most provinces.

While Ontario, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan also receive less than the national average per unemployed student under the Summer Jobs Program, Edmonton should take notice of the magnitude of the subsidy gap visited on Alberta’s young — and Alberta MPs, whose fingerprints are also on the applications of Alberta students, should be asking the hard questions of Employment Canada and the apparent abysmal outcomes for their constituents.

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