Benefiting Fishermen: Origins of Fisherman's Unemployment Insurance in Canada, 1935-1957

By Schrank, William E | Journal of Canadian Studies, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Benefiting Fishermen: Origins of Fisherman's Unemployment Insurance in Canada, 1935-1957


Schrank, William E, Journal of Canadian Studies


The fishermen's unemployment insurance system in Canada must be one of the most controversial aspects of this most controversial of industries. This paper describes the debates concerning the desirability of extending the unemployment insurance system to fishermen, from the original parliamentary debate on unemployment insurance in 1935, through the enactment of the enabling legislation in 1956, to the implementation of fishermen's unemployment insurance in April 1957. The main question asked, and answered, is why a money transfer system that was opposed by the government agencies that would be most involved in its administration (the Department of Fisheries and the Unemployment Insurance Commission) was implemented.

Le systeme canadien d'assurance chomage des pecheurs est sans doute l'aspect le plus controverse de cette industrie deja fortement :ontroversee. Cette etude examine les debats portant sur l'idee d'entendre le systeme d'assurance chomage aux pecheurs, depuis les discussions parlementaires sur l'assurance chomage en 1935, en passant par la promulgation de la legislation d'habilitation en 1956, jusq' a la mise sur pied de l'assurance chomage des pecheurs en avril 1957. On cherche a savoir pourquoi un systeme de transfert monetaire: fut mis en place alors que les principales agences gouvernementales en charge de 1' appliquer (les dep'tements du travail et des pecheries, et la Commission d' assurance chomage) y etaient unanimement opposees.

In his Memoir, Jack Pickersgill describes how, after resigning his position as secretary to the Canadian Cabinet in 1953, he successfully campaigned for election to Canada's House of Commons as Liberal candidate for the Newfoundland district of Bonavista-Twillingate.1 He tells of meeting a fisherman in the outport of Herring Neck who "pointed across to the local fish merchant's premises and asked me why the men who worked there had unemployment insurance and the fishermen who provided the work did not." Pickersgill explained that fishermen were not wage earners, but independent operators and therefore were disqualified from receiving unemployment insurance (394). He found himself dissatisfied with his answer, and quickly was converted into an advocate for the extension of the unemployment insurance system to fishermen. Whether his advocacy arose from a belief that an injustice was being done to fishermen, or from an appreciation that supporting unemployment insurance for fishermen would be a popular position for a Newfoundland politician to take, or a combination of both, is not particularly germane to this paper. What matters is that after a long struggle that required "overcoming the stubborn resistance of the bureaucracy in the Unemployment Insurance Commission" (418), the desired legislation was enacted, becoming effective 1 April 1957. Indeed, Pickersgill regarded his part in securing unemployment insurance for fishermen as his most substantial contribution to the welfare of his constituents (420).

From the time when unemployment insurance was first debated in Canada's House of Commons during the Great Depression of the 1930s, it was the government's intention to exclude fishermen from coverage. The Unemployment Insurance Act became law in 1940 with fishermen excluded. A long struggle ensued, with fishermen and their allies promoting the extension of coverage against the determined opposition of officials in the Department of Fisheries and the Unemployment Insurance Commission.2 Finally, in 1957, the programme was extended to fishermen. Since then, virtually every policy review of unemployment insurance has condemned the fishermen's system, usually calling for the withdrawal of coverage from fishermen. Yet the economic and political exigencies of fishing communities, particularly in Newfoundland but throughout Canada's Atlantic and Pacific provinces, have ensured that once in place, the system could not be dismantled.

This paper discusses the debates that led to the extension of the unemployment insurance system to fishermen. …

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