Scheer is sounding more and more like Harper

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Andrew Scheer is leaving, so he won’t have to answer in the next election to the claim that he considers Canadian workers lazy.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on May 11, 2020.

OTTAWA—Andrew Scheer is sounding more and more like Stephen Harper.

Who could forget former prime minister Harper’s claim that Atlantic Canadians were suffering from “a culture of defeat”?

Harper claimed his comments were misrepresented and what he was trying to say was that Atlantic Canadians were subject to Ottawa’s culture of defeat, “I’ve never ever suggested that the people of this region are responsible for the region’s have-not status.

“There is a policy culture of defeat at the federal level and that’s what we want to change,” he told a business group during a pre-election tour.

But Atlantic Canadians did not forget those comments, and for the last few elections, the party has been struggling to overcome that backlash.

During the Justin Trudeau sweep of 2015, Liberals managed to pick up all the seats in Atlantic Canada, including some that had never voted Liberal in the history of the country.

If the Conservatives have any hope of forming government, they need to attract voters in the region.

They also need to reach out to ordinary people. Andrew Scheer’s comment last week that the federal government’s programs were derailing provincial efforts to get people back to work will not help.

For most Canadians, federal benefits have been a lifeline in a worldwide crisis that has no precedent.

It is not as if Canadians quit their jobs of their own accord, and there certainly is no new job waiting for them to fill.

In most instances, when there is a reluctance to return to work, it is based on unsafe working conditions.

Canadian farmers have petitioned the government to approve temporary worker applications because the back-breaking work involved in planting and harvesting is not compensated commensurate to the workload.

A minimum wage farming job is attractive to a Mexican migrant who makes one-tenth of that in his home country. It is not attractive to a Canadian who can usually work at a much less physically demanding job for more money.

The same holds true for workers in meat factories. The person who died at the Cargill plant near High River, Alta., was a 67-year-old Vietnamese boat person. Her family came to Canada as refugees, and with little English, her work options were limited.

According to her husband, she enjoyed the work at Cargill, where she and more than 900 other employees contracted the COVID virus while on the assembly line.

More than half the plant employees were infected, forcing a plant closure which is choking off the country’s beef supply. That single factory is responsible for 40 per cent of Western Canada’s beef production.

Governments moved in quickly to investigate and secure the food supply, as even the Golden Arches were claiming they had to source their 100 per cent Canadian beef elsewhere.

Given the precarious situation of the Alberta economy, it is obvious that an indefinite shuttering would not work.

However, how would most Canadians react if they were asked to return to work within two weeks to a factory that had seen 949 employees infected with the COVID virus?

As a workplace, Cargill is a magnet for immigrant, unskilled labourers who don’t need to speak English or French to work on an assembly line.

It is also a place where union/management disputes and difficult working conditions make it a less than attractive proposition for many Canadian workers.

So, when Scheer says Canadians don’t want to go back to work because they are receiving federal government benefits that are too generous, he is simply feeding a stereotype that has no basis in fact and is politically untenable.

Scheer is leaving, so he won’t have to answer in the next election to the claim that he considers Canadian workers lazy.

That explanation will be left to his successor, whomever that might be. But the anti-worker stigma that he and his predecessor have inflicted on the party the party will be very hard to shake.

And when it comes to election time, workers make up a very important part of the population.

The so-called 905-belt soccer moms whose votes can swing an election are often working at low-paying jobs in the transportation industry, at the Toronto International Airport and in other low-paid hotel employment where fluency and literacy in English is not required.

They are also the ones who are employed as personal service workers, in the jobs that we all now recognize as life-saving and life-threatening.

These are the people who really need to work. And right now, they need help, not insults.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.