Bovyer responds to Mills’ article entitled Attitudes toward change
May 29, 2015
In Don Mills’ guest opinion, entitled Attitudes towards change, he invites Islanders to start a conversation about the best economic model for the province moving forward. In his piece, Mills argues that the “economic future for the Island will not change without addressing the structural problems to the economy in the province.”
In regard to challenges, Mills points to population distribution and the Island’s rural communities. He believes it is unreasonable for our rural population to continue to expect access to essential public services and economic opportunity, without having to travel to either Summerside or Charlottetown. He argues that the distribution of our population, which is more rural based than in other areas of Canada, is the reason for our reliance on seasonal work and on government programs like Employment Insurance (EI). However, Mills doesn’t mention that the population in PEI’s most rural areas, Kings and West Prince, has been declining since 1991, while the Island’s more central areas of East Prince and Queens, have conversely, been gaining population. Further, there is no mention in Mills’ article about how important the seasonal industry in PEI is to our workers and economy. Fishing, farming and tourism are to a great extent, rural based industries, and they account for more than $800 million dollars worth of economic input per year in PEI. So beyond population distribution and trending, which Mills seems to be off base on, I think he would agree that the primary reason for our involvement in seasonal industries is economic.
In his piece, Mills argues that we need to embrace an “urban centered economic strategy,” which posits that many rural Islanders should either move to Charlottetown or Summerside, or make the commute. For this to happen, Islanders must be open to changing, what he believes, are their attitudes and expectations toward traveling to work, and traveling to access essential public services. His polling data indicates that Islanders are not in favour of having to travel more than 60 km for work, or for accessing health care. However, this data can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Mills believes it indicates that Islanders are in need of an attitude adjustment. However, one could also reasonably argue that it is only natural for most people to want to be close to their place of work, and to public services that they rely on. These are simply obvious preferences that most of us would express, and they don’t necessarily support the conclusion that we need to change.
In having this discussion, I think we should be careful to avoid the idea that we can cast Islanders, and more specifically, rural Islanders, into one mold. This is neither fair nor accurate. E.g., how many of us know a fellow Islander who is working in Alberta to support his or her family in PEI? Are these the Islanders that Mills believes are reluctant to commute more than 60 km to work in order to look after their families? And what about the many Islanders who travel to Moncton or Halifax for health care services which aren’t available in PEI. Are these the Islanders that Mills is talking about, the ones that hold unrealistic expectations about accessing public services?
The same might be said about our attitudes towards EI. Mills’ research points out that most Islanders are not supportive of the changes made to the program by the federal government. Again, should we be surprised by this and are we in need of an attitude adjustment? Workers contribute to the EI program and are entitled to benefits when they lose their employment. The federal government has simply made it more difficult for workers to access their own insurance program, and in the meantime have balanced the federal budget, at least in part, by inappropriately redirecting surplus EI funds into the general revenue stream.
Mills asks Islanders if they are ready to change their expectations; and he asks our politicians if they are ready to address, what he calls, an unsustainable economic model. I think these questions are premature and part of a hasty conclusion on Mills’ part. Perhaps we should back up a little, and first establish if there really is a need for Islanders to change their expectations, and in what sense, and then openly discuss the best way forward in terms of an economic model for PEI.