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Tom McIntosh, ed., Federalism, Democracy, and Labour Market Policy in Canada.

Tom McIntosh, ed., Federalism, Democracy, and Labour Market Policy in Canada (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press 2000).

THE 1990S WERE ARGUABLY the most significant period of change in Canadian labour market policy since the end of the World War II. Federalism, Democracy and Labour Market Policy in Canada represents an important initial evaluation of the scale and the significance of this change. As Tom McIntosh makes clear in his opening chapter, restructuring Canadian labour market policy is inherently complicated by the fact that it involves the disentangling of federal and provincial jurisdiction of the programs of unemployment benefit, income support, social assistance, training, and education. Indeed in training alone, in the early 1990s over 300 separate training programs were offered by different levels of government. However complicated, during the 1990s the major features of these changes included a move away by federal and provincial governments from passive income support towards more active labour market measures and a drastically reduced federal Employment Insurance (EI) program which occurred as provincial governments cut social assistance programs and redefined their eligibility criteria. Simultaneously, the 1990s witnessed a significant re-scaling of labour market governance as the federal government sought to offload many of its responsibilities to the provinces through a series of labour market development agreements (LMDA).

Federalism, Democracy and Labour Market Policy in Canada begins with chapters by McIntosh and Haddow that review the book's central arguments while detailing the broad political and institutional context of labour market policy in Canada. McIntosh argues that moves towards greater decentralization in labour market policy are not inherently neo-liberal, but rather must be seen as a redefining within federalism of how policy frameworks are developed and implemented among governments. Haddow argues that while employment issues are clearly important to Canadians, labour market policy has not registered significantly politically. Furthermore, despite some attempts in the 1990s to develop greater stakeholder representation and democratic input into labour market policy through the creation of labour force development boards federally and provincially, their nearly universal failure means that policy development remains the principal preserve of the political and bureaucratic executives of government with only business having significant influence on policy.

McIntosh and Boychuck provide a valuable review of the impacts of the disentangling of income support in Canada. Cuts in El by the federal government occurred at the same time social assistance was restructured by the provinces. The recipients were increasingly composed of the long-term unemployed. Furthermore, as they stress, the redefining of EI and social assistance has combined with trends in the labour market towards part-time and contingent employment and more dual-income households and led to an increasing proportion of the workforce being left without coverage by both EI and social-assistance systems. But while the authors explain how governance of income support has been disentangled in both policy framework and implementation terms, they present little information about the impacts of these changes on the increasing percentage of workers not covered by either EI or provincial social assistance.

Klassen's chapter examines another feature of this disentanglement--the series of Labour Market Development Agreements (LMDAs) which occurred as the federal government sought to transfer its responsibilities for active labour market policies such as information provision, job training, and subsidized or created employment. These agreements coincided with a marked decentralization within Human Resources Development Canada (HRDC) which cut the number of local offices while giving greater discretion to local officials and contracting out services to the private sector and non-profit groups. HRDC also moved from block funding to community colleges for El recipients to direct grants and loans to individuals on EI to purchase training. The process, however, has been very uneven. Different provinces have come to different agreements with the federal government ranging from full transfer of responsibilities in the cases of Quebec, Alberta, and New Brunswick to co-management and strategic partnerships in British Columbia and Nova Scotia. However, no agreement has yet been negotiated with Ontario since there continue to be significant disagreements between the province and Ottawa over the amount of funds to be transferred. Furthermore, as Klassen emphasizes, while LMDAs have been justified on the basis of increased accountability, efficiency, and effectiveness, there are risks that such moves may not accomplish these goals. Thus the promise of cost savings and increased sensitivity to local labour market needs may prove hollow, with equity compromised by "creaming" as training is focused on the most trainable, and equality and labour mobility among different provinces and regions declines. Relatedly, while LMDAs may reduce federal-provincial conflict, a lack of nation-wide agreement on training standards may lead to declines in the portability of skills.

While the dominant narrative of the 1990s was a withdrawal of the federal government from direct involvement in training delivery, McBride and Stoyko's chapter on youth and the social union makes clear that this remains one area in which the federal government has retained the initiative and is remaining active. Indeed, they argue that while the 1999 Social Union Framework ostensibly sets out rules for federal-provincial information-sharing and a commitment to a co-operative federalism, there are some who view the federal government as using the vagueness of the agreement to expand their role in the youth field. This is in part due to the fact that, unlike shared-cost programs, youth initiatives give the federal government a high visibility. They also allay concerns within the government that radical cuts in social transfers by the Liberals have undermined the prospects of younger workers that are evident from the latter's much higher than average unemployment. This being said, like other chapters in Federalism, Democracy and Labour Market Policy in Canada, McBride and Stoyko's contribution sees current trends as leading away from unilateralism towards a more sophisticated regime of intergovernmental collaboration.

Federalism, Democracy and Labour Market Policy in Canada then offers an important overview to the shifting of federal-provincial governance structures of labour markets. Especially useful is the chapter by McIntosh and Boychuk who document in detail the extent to which Canadian workers are increasingly being left exposed to the vagaries of the labour market as EI and social assistance are rolled back. However, the book has some shortcomings. It is largely descriptive and while McIntosh makes some allusion to a shift from Fordism to post-Fordism there is little reference to broader theoretical perspectives as to what is driving the restructuring of labour market policy governance in Canada. More importantly, I would disagree with McIntosh that the decentralization of labour market policy in Canada is just a complex redefining of federal responsibilities, rather than one that is neo-liberal in character and crisis-driven. As Jane Jenson wrote over a decade ago, class politics and neo-liberalism in Canada have often been expressed in the form of redistributive conflicts within federalism. Thus, much of what many of the authors in this contribution view as governance disentangling is also consistent with many aspects of neo-liberalism or what Jamie Peck has termed a "centrally orchestrated erosion of the work-welfare regime from below." For example, LMDAs are less a rational re-ordering of governance responsibilities than an instrument of the federal government's desire to reduce its deficit. They can be associated with significant cuts in funds transferred to the provinces. Furthermore the rhetoric and the policies of both federal and provincial governments has encouraged both labour market flexibility and the individualization of employability. Finally, the impact of workfare programs, which is not addressed in great detail in this volume, is not simply about redefining eligibility criteria for those on social assistance, but about reducing the marginal wages of workers in the lower echelons of the labour market.

To their credit many of the authors in this volume realize the contradictions of policy disentanglement. Thus Klassen and others point out the dangers that EI and social assistance cuts, largely conceived during the employment recovery of the mid- to late 1990s, will mean that increasing numbers of workers will be unprotected in the next economic downturn. Seen in this light, the disentanglement process during the 1990s may be less a rational re-ordering of federal-provincial responsibilities than setting the context for the next crisis.

Tod D. Rutherford

Syracuse University
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Author:Rutherford, Tod D.
Publication:Labour/Le Travail
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2004
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