Thursday, January 24, 2008


It’s not often that I deal directly with the government. Sure, I’m aware that certain entities rule society, but in my daily life I try to avoid these entities. Governance, like charity, begins at home. If I get up when the alarm rings in the morning, I consider the day a success. So it was with extreme trepidation that I recently applied for E.I. The only government service I use on an occasional basis is our health care system. Yes, we pay for it through taxes, but seeing a doctor without physically shelling out a nickel never ceases to amaze me. I had an organ removed two years ago. This required major surgery and a hospital stay. I didn’t have to put so much as a deposit on a credit card. Three squares a day, drugs administered by caring staff – it felt like a vacation. But E.I, that feels like doing hard time.

The last time I sullied a government office with my presence was when E.I was U.I. Remember those cards you had to fill out? Are you ready, willing and able to work? No, no and yes. As a self-employed artist I haven’t been eligible for E.I in twenty years. My last contract, ironically enough for a government ministry, deducted money at source, including E.I. contributions. First time I’ve had taxes off a pay cheque in many years. Why not investigate the world of government programs? How frustrating could it be?

I applied for E.I. online. The process has been streamlined for easy access. You can have your cheque deposited directly into your bank account. Sweet! Unfortunately, there comes a lot of hassle with it, in the form of reporting your activity to The Man every two weeks. That hasn’t changed. They want to know the dates worked in a week, the gross amount earned, the name and address of the employer, monies received other than salary and dates and reasons if not working. As a freelancer, I balk at the intrusion. I am self-directed, thank you very much. In Toronto, with our unemployment rate at 6.6 per cent, a person has to work 665 hours to be able to claim E.I. If the unemployment rate is 13 per cent and over, only 420 hours of toil is needed. There’s regular, maternity and parental, sickness, compassionate care, fishing, out of country and family supplement benefits, all out of the same kitty. For once in my life I was deemed “regular”.

My local Service Canada location is at the Dufferin Mall. In my ten years of living in the west end, I have never set foot in the place. People are invariably stunned when I tell them this. “Do you live under a rock?” is the usual response. Yes, a big, heavy, comfy rock that keeps me from going to places like malls. I broke out into a sweat the minute I entered the consumer terminal.

After a half an hour of panicked searching, I finally found the Service Canada office in the basement. Surprisingly, there was no lineup. I queued anyway, out of habit, until the woman behind the desk waved me over. I handed her my crumpled Record of Employment (something you’ll need if you ever apply) and hyperventilated. I still needed a couple of other ROEs from CBC, which is like getting blood from a stone. I flashbacked to the time I was ushered out of line and frisked at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. Why? Maybe I shouldn’t have worn army pants and a t-shirt that said “Kill the Rich and Eat the Poor”. As I stood trembling in front of the Service Canada clerk, I regretted ever going on their website and hitting the “send” button. I collect my self-employment receipts in a shoebox. How would I ever keep track of my whereabouts? Although E.I. is every working person’s right, it still feels like a quagmire.

I have to wait the obligatory two weeks before I know if my claim is going to go through. In the meantime I’m hustling for more work. Just don’t tell Service Canada. It’s time for The Man to pay it back.

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