Discovering the Cape Breton experiment

August 9, 2002

Halifax: A paper released today by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives--Nova Scotia concludes that the Cape Breton Community Employment and Innovation Project (CBCEIP), is less innovative than its title suggests and is an "experiment" unsuited for Cape Breton. According to the author of "Discovering the Cape Breton Experiment," the project provides no formal training opportunities and, more importantly, no sustainable jobs.

The project, known locally as "the experiment," is designed as a quasi-experimental social research project. It claims to investigate "the practical and financial feasibility of developing a new strategy for delivering transfer payments to individuals." It is funded by Human Resources Development Canada and the Nova Scotia Dept. of Community Services.

According to the Constance deRoche (UCCB, Professor of Anthropology), this effort to get people off the government payment rolls and into the labour market, is in some ways akin to workfare. The paper notes that, like in other welfare-to-work projects, this one assumes that the problem lies not in the absence of employment opportunities but, rather, in the lack of skills, and in the inadequate work habits and poor attitudes of the unemployed. Such an approach, according to deRoche, is misinformed at the best of times, but "it's especially distressing to find such an approach being applied to 'industrial' Cape Breton in the midst of a labour-market collapse that has seen a loss of some 2,300 reasonably well paid industrial jobs since 2000."

Offering low-wage, short-term employment, the project resembles older make-work projects. But, says deRoche, "these days, it's not 'politically correct' to speak of 'make-work.' In leadership circles, it's currently far more acceptable to talk instead about making workers (into what, officials suppose, they are not, but should be)."

"The CBCEIP does nothing to create reasonably paid, sustainable jobs." This kind of job is a now rare commodity in Cape Breton. "So," says deRoche, "it's hard to imagine that members of the project group will have a great deal of luck graduating from the experiment to the regular regional workforce. As a test of the welfare-to-work strategy, the experiment is meaningless when undertaken in an area of high-unemployment like Cape Breton."

Though the project promises to do very little for Cape Breton in the long run, Cape Bretoners are grateful for whatever employment they can find. The critique of the project, according to the author, "is not meant to patronize participants or wish them less than has been granted them. Rather, it is to assert that Cape Bretoners deserve something better than sort-term work for poverty wage levels. Policy alternatives may be needed but the experiment is not one of them."

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