Will 'Welfare Air' fly?

A new B.C. program aims to send people on social assistance north to find work

Will 'Welfare Air' fly?

Darryl Dyck/CP

Mike Bernier, the mayor of Dawson Creek, B.C., handed out business cards to protesters during Occupy Vancouver last year. His message: why not come up north where jobs are plentiful and the cost of living is cheaper? Bernier’s pitch didn’t resonate with the camped-out crowd. They were more interested in finding jobs in balmy Vancouver, he says.

But someone was, apparently, listening in Victoria. The B.C. government this week revealed funding for a $2.9-million pilot program designed to move people off social assistance and into high-paying jobs—largely in the province’s north where resource industries are booming. Dubbed “Welfare Air,” the goal is to place as many as 250 people in new jobs, starting with those who already live in the region. If it’s successful, the hope is to expand the program province-wide in 2013.

Some local mayors aren’t totally sold on the idea. Lori Ackerman, the mayor of Fort St. John, says employers in the oil and gas sector increasingly want technology backgrounds and she’s not confident the program will do enough to train candidates. She’s also concerned about Fort St. John’s ability to absorb an influx of former welfare recipients from elsewhere in the province. “Our community’s social infrastructure is not as robust as what you may find in the Lower Mainland,” she says.

Bernier, meanwhile, says the program “has merit,” but agrees it will only be successful if there’s sufficient training. Even then, it’s not going to work for everyone, he says, including those who suffer addiction or disabilities that make it difficult for them to hold down a full-time job. Bernier also acknowledges that, like protesters he encountered in Vancouver, many may simply not be interested in relocating to the province’s north. “It’s a different mindset,” he says. “You can’t force people into it.”

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