HALIFAX -- A mystery writer might call it the Case of the Missing 1,100.
That's the number of people who left Prince Edward Island last year for greener pastures. Critics of the Harper government are seizing on the figure as proof the Conservatives' overhaul of the employment insurance program unfairly targets seasonal workers, driving them from their homes to look for jobs.
Statistics Canada revealed last week 1,074 more islanders headed to other provinces in 2012-13 than arrived. It's the largest loss of residents in more than three decades and almost double the number who moved away the previous year.
In a province with the population of a small city -- just a shade above 145,000 -- it's a big loss, and a big deal.
The P.E.I. government blames new EI rules that require repeat claimants to take a similar job, even if it pays less than what they were making before they were laid off. They may also be required to take a job within an hour's commute of their homes.
Workers in the seasonal industries that are the mainstay of Atlantic Canada's rural communities -- fishing, farming, forestry and tourism -- fall squarely within the new criteria. Many rely on EI to tide them over until fishing season opens or summer visitors return.
The Conservatives and their supporters might find this dependency on pogey distasteful. But for many people living in areas where jobs are scarce, it's an economic reality. By one estimate, the changes affect as many as 200,000 Atlantic Canadians receiving EI benefits.
P.E.I.'s innovation minister, Allen Roach, warned last week the exodus may be only the beginning as seasonal workers denied benefits are forced to relocate, leaving employers to grapple with seasonal shortages.
The federal Tories dismiss the latest attack on EI reform as the partisan posturing of a provincial Liberal government. Confronted with the migration statistics, Employment Minister Jason Kenney insisted "not one person has to leave P.E.I. in order to search for available work to qualify for EI."
While no one knows for sure why the 1,100 left, there's growing evidence the reforms are having an effect on the regional economy and labour market.
A dude-ranch operator in New Brunswick has complained of having to train new workers to fill unexpected summer vacancies. Atlantic bishops went public in the spring to warn the changes are hurting the most vulnerable members of their communities. Statistics Canada reports a drop of 10 per cent or more in the number of people collecting EI in the Atlantic provinces even though the unemployment rate has been stable.
And it's not just an East Coast problem. Four out of 10 Canadians working in seasonal jobs live in Quebec, where a provincial investigation found women and seasonal workers are bearing the brunt of the reforms. The Quebec government is demanding revised EI rules, including an end to the commuting requirement.
The premiers of the four Atlantic provinces -- two of them leaders of Progressive Conservative governments -- have called on Ottawa to reverse or modify the EI changes to take into account the needs of seasonal industries. They fault Ottawa for failing to consult them about the changes and have sent a task force into rural communities to gauge their impact.
As if to underline how little thought went into the reforms, a Halifax newspaper reported last week Ottawa is quietly revising a rule that penalized fishermen who take a lower-paying on-shore job to supplement their income.
The reforms -- and the government behind them -- have little support in Atlantic Canada. A poll released in June found fewer than half of respondents agreed with the changes. Two-thirds rejected the notion claimants should be obliged to accept lower-paying jobs.
The federal Tories trail Justin Trudeau's Liberals in the region by a wide margin. Harper holds 13 of 32 seats -- more than half of them in a single province, New Brunswick. If polling numbers hold, many could be in jeopardy in 2015.
The employment-insurance backlash is also hurting provincial Tories. PC premiers David Alward of New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador's Kathy Dunderdale are jockeying with the NDP for last place in the polls. Hal Perry, one of a handful of PCs in the P.E.I. legislature, defected to the Liberals this fall to try to help rural constituents suffering under the new rules.
EI reform is the prime suspect in the Case of the Missing 1,100. As for why support is dwindling for the Harper Conservatives, a party out of touch with the realities of life in Atlantic Canada and averse to facing the facts? Well, there's no mystery there.
Dean Jobb, an associate professor in the School of Journalism at the University of King's College, is the East Coast correspondent for the Winnipeg Free Press. www.deanjobb.com