Make-work, by any other name

Russell Wangersky
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There's a long boardwalk that starts at Bradley's Cove, near Western Bay, that stretches out and up a hill in front of you like a curving caterpillar. It runs out towards the light at the point, where you can find the footprint of a much larger, now-completely-flattened lightstation, occasional flathead nails, broken crockery and foundation stones on a barren point of land dressed in blueberry bushes and the green fat blades of blue flag irises.

The walkway makes a mostly straight line, up high above the pasture, until, almost within sight of the light, it comes to a sudden and scraggly end. Decking gives way to bare stringers, then simply posts - it's not a work in progress, because there's not a single stick of wood left out there to continue the job. I asked someone in the community about the abrupt end - "Waiting for money from the government," they said. "It'll get finished in another year." So you move over onto a path, and eventually reach the point, with its jumble of sharp-edged and toothed rock, about as unwelcoming a spot of coastline to come ashore at as you can imagine.

I haven't been all the way out there since the blueberries were just starting to ripen last year: word is that hurricane Igor picked the whole boardwalk up like a child having a temper tantrum with model railway track, knocking it upside down and off to one side, away from its original location. More work for this year, I guess.

I thought of that boardwalk, and of a whole bunch of community ventures I've seen across the province, as the provincial government put out its annual release on the Community Enhancement Employment Program.

It's become an annual summer rite: this year, the release went out on June 21. Last year, it was June 23; in 2009, June 16; in 2008, June 20.

"The goal of the Community Enhancement Employment Program is to provide meaningful work to individuals in rural areas and to help them qualify for employment insurance benefits, while at the same time providing enhancements to their communities," Municipal Affairs Minister Kevin O'Brien is quoted as saying in the news release. "For example, last year 2,250 individuals participated in the program which funded 303 projects and included improvements to walking trails, municipal parks, heritage structures and tourism facilities, as well as properties owned and operated by municipal governments and voluntary organizations."

It's got another name, of course, although it's not as pleasant: make-work.

Here's another snippet from the release: "The CEEP provides funding to community-based organizations which sponsor and manage projects. Eligible sponsors include towns, Inuit community governments, regional municipalities, local service districts, community and economic development organizations and other not-for-profit organizations. Individuals can be employed for up to 420 hours in order to become eligible for employment insurance benefits."

It's $4.5 million, ostensibly to fund "community enhancement," but also, just as importantly, to keep residents from falling onto the provincial social assistance rolls by bumping them onto the federal government-overseen Employment Insurance instead.

It is a triumph of governmental pragmatism, but it's also a tragedy of wasted effort.

And while it may be necessary and the only form of work available, it's hard to watch, especially in a province fond of trumpeting itself as a "have" province. There's not much "have" in trying to eke out enough hours to make your way onto the barest minimum of EI.

This is about addressing a workforce with no work and no matter how valuable to the community the projects themselves may end up being - from fencing and painting to playgrounds and trails - it's really more about marking time until the necessary hours of work are totalled up than it is about anything else.

A social program baldly and barefacedly designed to give workers enough hours to bump them onto another social program, with everyone pretending EI is insurance, even when no one would sell you insurance if your house burned down every single year. It's like we're all just willing to cover our eyes.

Necessary, sure - I don't doubt it's necessary. But don't ever forget that this is a heartbreaking waste of people, too.

Russell Wangersky is the editorial page editor of The Telegram. He can be reached by email at

Organizations: Employment Insurance, The Telegram

Geographic location: Western Bay

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Recent comments

  • David
    June 29, 2011 - 17:22

    Oooops...I thought this was an article about Canada Post.

  • Belle
    June 29, 2011 - 15:31

    Did some of you people actually read the article? Mr. Wangersky points out that the social program is n-e-c-e-s-s-a-r-y. I don't interpret any of his comments as derogatory towards the people who have to use the program. He seems to be merely pointing out that it's too bad it's come to this.

  • Pass the buck
    June 29, 2011 - 06:48

    The wise policy makers in St. John's have always believed it's best to spend a few million getting people in rural Newfoundland on EI, where they become Ottawa's problem.

    June 28, 2011 - 19:57

    The Feds have been a major, major contributor,as to why the NLFD Fishery is in the slings. For this reason alone, I don't begrudge any District to take advantage of Programs, that will help the few remaining people there, to put food on their tables and enjoy their remaining days, to the fullest means possible. Life was never, ever easy, on the North Shore of Conception Bay, but the Cod Fishery was always there for the people to depend on , and bye inlarge they were a hardy and happy lot. The Cod Fishery is gone - forever, in my humble opinion and I tip my hat to the men and women who remain there and make a living as best they can. Some may call it "make work" but I call it "work deserved." The bit of UI these people get during the winter mths, hardly compensates, for the livelyhood that they and mainly their parents, were robbed of. Before anyone dare snub their nose at these people, shake your noggin and ask yourself - who's to blame???

    • NLExpat
      June 29, 2011 - 10:58

      What a crock of sh1t.

  • Fintip
    June 28, 2011 - 12:44

    A warning issued by industry observers long before the start of Hibernia was that, contrary to government assurances of the day, the economic activity generated by a lucrative oil play would not float all boats. Not only are there areas of the province that have little if anything to show for this new found government wealth, but there are large classes of people - the retired as well as the low and fixed incomed - for whom the inflationary pressures of the oil industry are rapidly eroding their relative standard of living. As rents and property values escalate in the metro area, those not attached in some way to the oil industry are forced to trade down accommodations until they are displaced from the local market altogether and pushed into the outlying regions. The grab for money has been led by City Hall itself. Not satisfied with the revenue windfall from the existing tax on those rising property values, Mayor O'Keefe employed his own bizarre economic theory to defend an increase in the tax rate. 'We must dig deeper into the pockets of homeowners to meet the insatiable needs of the booming construction market'. If that were the case, we should all hope that the oil play collapses tomorrow lest, like Vancouverites, we are all soon forced to find a cheaper place to live. Government long ago pledged to adopt measures to counter the ugly side of oil but even as they spoke we knew it was a lie. Our performance in protecting those most vulnerable to the negative impacts of oil and other mega industries pales in comparison with some other jurisdictions such as Norway. What accentuated the disparity between the haves and have-nots in this province is that the rise of the St. John's centred oil industry coincided with the collapse of the rural based fishing industry. Responsibility for the latter catastrophe rests almost entirely of course with the federal government. Beyond buying off a handful of displaced fishermen, the Government of Canada has never been held accountable for the grossly negligent - some would say calculated - manner in which, in the span of a few decades, it presided over the destruction of an industry that had been the lifeblood of Newfoundland and Labrador for half a millennium. (If Mr. Crosbie Jr. is looking for a class action, what better than the industry in which it was left to his father to turn out the lights.) And while I am clearly in agreement that it is disheartening to witness the economic collapse of rural Newfoundland, what I find repugnant about this particular column is that it openly invites the better off among us to denigrate these people for their use of such make-work programs. Unlike Mr. Wangersky, I find absolutely nothing wrong with the notion - given the woeful inadequacy of federal efforts to alleviate the damage it has wrought on rural Newfoundland - that provincial make-work initiatives should have the effect of qualifying our most vulnerable citizens for federal employment benefits. But then, when it comes to assigning blame for everything wrong in this province, it has been Mr. Wangersky's mantra that all roads lead to the premier's office. For example, when it comes to supporting rural Newfoundland has anyone else noticed the Telegram’s failure to take a strong editorial stand on the federal decision to gut search & rescue services. And rather than condemn outright the federal government’s theft of Newfoundland shrimp quotas, today’s ‘Shrimp Lite’ editorial instead berates the provincial government for failing to retrieve them. With yet another victimization of the victim, we are left to wonder whether the Telegram, from the day it was acquired by Quebec interests, has retained any real institutional allegiance to the people who buy its papers.

  • Calvin
    June 28, 2011 - 11:06

    So HWGA, it all comes back to people who do not pull their own weight being entitled to social programs. You are sick of supporting poor Newfoundlanders with your hard earned tax dollars, is that it? Maybe we should cut MCP as well, no reason a single mother of 3 should be allowed to access free health care right? And as for social assistance, the few bad apples who work the program for free income are reason enough to eliminate the program so that the people who really need it have to beg for scraps? What would you like these individuals to do, and this goes for you too Wangersky? Not everyone is smart enough to go to college or univeristy and land jobs putting them in the top 20% for income in the province. I mean this as no disrespect to anyone who avails of these programs, but a chunk of the population is not educated or even intelligent enough to be an electrician, nurse, doctor or engineer. So the government opts to provide them with a means of earning enough hours to go on the low end pogue for the winter, so what? Better that than the dung they would receive on the social assistance. I know, everyone living below the poverty line in the province should move away so that they are not our problem. Terrible article, hurts me to see the Telegram printing this drivel.

    • Les B. Reasonable
      June 29, 2011 - 12:51

      Calvin, how dare you assume that some of these individuals are not "smart enough to go to college"... or "intelligent enough to be an electrician"... This situation was not created by inherent qualities or faults, but by the federal government. Apart from leaving their much-loved home province in order to find work, maybe they could apply to the hundreds of jobs available in their community? Oh yeah, I forgot, there's are no jobs.

    • Hobbs
      June 29, 2011 - 16:41

      Wow, I can't believe someone is comparing MCP to make work. Now that's what you call missing the point.

    • mary
      July 01, 2011 - 12:53

      I agree with Les B. Reasonable, you make quite the assumption about the intelligence of these people. There are many different jobs available, either here in NL or elsewhere. Because you aren't going to be in the top 20% does not mean you can't work, it does not justify not working. Personally, I don't understand why people stay where there are no jobs. I have moved many times to stay employed and have taken jobs that were not so high paying even though I have a degree. I did what I had to do to earn a living and that has meant moving around the province and out of the province.

  • HWGA
    June 28, 2011 - 07:53

    Let's just call it what it is, social assistance. I don't see any problem with someone who relies on 'make work' to access EI if it's a once in lifetime thing but too many people do this every year. They do it so often that they actual believe it's some kind of right to live off their fellow citizens. I've no time for people who take more than they contribute; people who don't want to pull their own weight. It's time to treat EI like an insurance program, what you put in will determine what you get back and the the more often you make a claim then the more you have to pay in.