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Almost half of EI sickness-benefit recipients off work longer than help lasts

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  • OTTAWA — An internal government survey of people who used federal sickness benefits has found that nearly half were unable to work for longer than the 15 weeks the benefits last.

    The newly released documents detailing the results from a survey of people who did — and did not — claim Employment Insurance sickness benefits showed that of those who did receive payments, 48.6 per cent said they were unable to work for 15 weeks or more.

    Officials reviewing the figures note in a presentation from October that the figure could include people who never returned to work.

    Benefits recipients most often returned to work between 15 and 30 weeks, while 15 per cent of claimants didn’t return to work for more than a year, says the presentation obtained by The Canadian Press under the access-to-information law.

    The survey was among the first pieces of research in a sweeping review of the sickness benefit, which hasn’t been updated since it was introduced in 1971.

    Advocates say the figures support a years-long push, recently renewed in the House of Commons, to expand the program and provide more weeks of payments.

    Late last week, Liberal MP Mark Eyking kicked off the latest iteration when debate started on his motion to have a committee of MPs study extending the benefits beyond 15 weeks.

    During debate in the House of Commons on Thursday, Eyking argued increasing the number of weeks didn’t mean Canadians would use all those weeks. It was simply an option, he said.

    The motion appears to have cross-party support, but New Democrats, who have been pushing the Liberals on the issue, chided the government for its inaction so far.

    Sickness benefits is the only special benefit under employment insurance that the Liberals haven’t changed since coming to office in 2015, despite having supported previous proposals to extend benefits.

    Marie-Helene Dube, who has pushed for the change for a decade, said sickness benefits need to match today’s reality where people with cancer, for instance, need more than 15 weeks before being well enough to head back to work.

    “This would allow thousands of Canadians to heal properly and return as active citizens in society,” said Dube, a cancer survivor who started the campaign “15semaines” — French for 15 weeks.

    “Keeping this inadequate law in place is costing society dearly.”

    In 2017, nearly four in 10 beneficiaries maxed out their benefits, a rate that has remained relatively stable for the last five years.

    The documents obtained by The Canadian Press note more claimants than non-claimants in the department’s survey said they had “insufficient income to cover living expenses while on sick leave.”

    Respondents in the ESDC survey skewed over age 45, which officials noted could affect findings. Figures on benefit usage have shown the older a claimant, the longer he or she usually requires benefits.

    The October presentation notes most illnesses or injuries were not work-related. Almost four in five respondents cited a physical condition for their inability to work, while just under one in five cited a mental-health condition.

    The presentation says that most illnesses “developed recently.”

    In 2017, the most recent period for which figures are available, $1.6 billion in benefits was paid out to 379,000 claimants, who on average used 10 weeks of benefits.

    In 2012, the parliamentary budget office estimated that allowing people to claim sickness benefits for up to 50 weeks would cost about $900 million a year, and likely would have required an increase in EI premiums to cover the cost.

    The budget watchdog has been looking into the costs of the program, and is set to report on the effects of possible changes soon.

    — Follow @jpress on Twitter.

    Jordan Press, The Canadian Press


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    Health

    Rain, wind equals no 4-20 blow out for Parliament Hill, but West Coast shines

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  • OTTAWA — It was a blow out, man, the kind that’s a total drag.

    Protesters dotted one half of Parliament Hill’s front lawn on a blustery, rainy Saturday at the climax the first 4-20 “Weed Day” demonstration since Canada legalized recreational marijuana.

    The turnout disappointed organizers who expected thousands more, but a festive atmosphere prevailed as the Peace Tower clock struck 4:20 p.m., sparking simultaneous smart phone photography and the lighting of joints, bongs and pipes.

    “The weather didn’t co-operate. It kind of shut us down,” Shawn Mac, a program director for 4-20 Ottawa, said moments earlier. “Coming and going, we’ve probably seen about 3,000, but right now, probably about a thousand.”

    A bout of blowing rain earlier in the afternoon meant the shutdown of a public address system, and a made for a sparse gathering of perhaps several dozen people, most huddled under plastic ponchos or tarps.

    Sara Bakir, 29, of Ottawa was one of early arrivals, dressed in a dark hoodie under a black umbrella.

    “It’s still nice to be out with a few like-minded people,” she said laughing, and casting her eyes at the empty and soaked brownish yellow lawn. 

    Organizers learned a tough lesson even before the rain started falling — new freedoms bring great bureaucracy.

    Mac said his group is encountering more red tape Saturday than on past April 20 protests.

    Organizers can’t use the steps to the now-closed Centre Block, which means spectators will need a front row position on the lawn to see or hear — something Mac calls a “huge letdown.” 

    “Hearing is already a problem so not being able to see is a crushing blow,” he said.

    Organizers have also been told to limit musical performers to just two, Mac said, adding that isn’t in the rules of how to hold a public event on the Hill. 

    New limits on auto access also meant organizers had to haul equipment and material by hand up to the lawn from Wellington Street, he added.

    “It’s frustrating because legalization was supposed to … make things easier and not more complicated,” he said.

    Lingering post-legalization concerns are sustaining a sense of protest among 4-20 event organizers across the country.

    They include concerns over the government’s decision to tax medicinal marijuana, slow progress on legislation to expedite pardons for people previously convicted of simple pot possession, and the fact that provincial and municipal governments are grappling with retail sales and land-use laws for growing pot.

    The federal government also has yet to legalize edible marijuana products and has six more months to set rules to do so. 

    “Everything about legalization has made things harder, which is the opposite of what is was supposed to be,” said Mac.

    Others were more upbeat and saw Saturday’s event as an inspiration to the world.

    “Again, the world is watching, and I’m very proud of Canada today and Canadians,” said Kelly Coulter, a cannabis policy adviser based in British Columbia.

    She said Canada is helping change global attitudes and policies as the first G7 nation to legalize pot, and she expected people from Germany and Britain to take part in Saturday’s festivities on the Hill.

    It was a far cry from Ottawa’s subdued festivities on the West Coast, as hoards of people crowded Vancouver’s Sunset Beach to mark the city’s 25th annual 4-20 event warmed by rays of glorious spring sunshine amid a low lying marijuana haze.

    A much smaller crowd gathered at the front lawn of British Columbia’s legislature in Victoria, but the mood was equally celebratory and defiant.

    “Today, in many ways, is bittersweet for us,” said long-time marijuana activist Ted Smith, who led the countdown chant to 4:20 p.m. in Victoria. “We’re happy it’s legalized, sure, but there’s a lot of things to protest.”

    Smith, in between puffs from a large joint, said the current marijuana rules are biased against entrepreneurs who want to sell their products in much the same way as craft brewers and winemakers.

    And a downpour didn’t dampen the festivities at Woodbine Park in Toronto’s east end, where revellers trampled through the muddy grass to the steady thrum of house music.

    Cannabis artisans sold their wares at tarp-covered stands, many expressing hope that they could one day emerge from the “grey market” to set up shop at brick-and-mortar storefronts.

    Justin Loizos, owner of the Just Compassion marijuana dispensary in Toronto, said the mood Saturday was more celebratory than in past 4-20 gatherings, which felt more like protests.

    The current regime may not be the “legalization people asked for,” Loizos said, but the cannabis community should take heart in just how far Canada has come.

    “I see a lot of people complaining, whatever — don’t,” he said. “We’re just going to celebrate here and enjoy the day.”

    — with files from Adina Bresge and Dirk Meissner.

    Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press




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    Celebrity Dance Off

    Travolta and Newton-John wrap up the Celebrity Dance Off

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  • Trevor Sopracolle went from watching the Celebrity Dance Off last year, to being front and centre this year!  Trevor was the first “Oil Man” in the Celebrity Dance Off.  Hopefully the first of many.  He’s also one of the toughest looking Travolta’s you’ll ever see.  Trevor and his pro partner Alex McPherson wrapped up the show with a brilliant choice of music from Grease.  “Olivia” was amazing.. and “John” turned the world upside down.  See for yourself. .. 

    My Story…

    I was born in Goodsoil, Saskatchewan and moved to Alberta when I was in grade 3 and spent most of my youth in Consort.

    I lost my Dad to cancer when I was in high school and so I grew up fast. At 17 I secured a loan for a 2-bedroom house with a dirt floor basement. To make ends meet, I worked as a tire technician at the local tire shop while attending high school. One of the only benefits of owning your own place in high school is having the coolest parties after the high school dances!

    I moved to Red Deer in 1999 at the age of 19 and began working at Fountain Tire. Not long later a local snubbing company hired me. Over a 10-year period I worked my way up becoming a senior supervisor overseeing most of the higher-class pressure jobs and many overseas projects. In 2008, Garrett Radchenko and I started Goliath Snubbing Ltd., and we haven’t looked back.

    I have also been blessed with the best kids a Dad could ask for. Being a single Dad with three kids under 8 definitely keeps me busy.


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