Ontario budget hits the vulnerable, ignores the North: critics

Ontario Premier Doug Ford, pictured at a St. Patrick’s Day event, has received mixed reviews for his government’s first budget. Shutterstock

Deficit will continue into next round of government past 2022 election

QUEEN’S PARK – Booze figures large in the first Ford Conservative budget, but critics are slagging the fiscal blueprint for a lacklustre tackling of the deficit that places most of the burden on the poor and vulnerable. Conservatives, on the other hand, while expressing a slight dismay at the length of time it will take to bring the books back to black, are pleased at the right-hand turn.

“This is a budget that is geared to hurt the most vulnerable,” said official opposition member Algoma-Manitoulin NDP MPP Mike Mantha. “This budget is about booze and rebranding. A budget is supposed to reflect the values and priorities of the government. This budget is very cruel to Ontarians and there is nothing in it for Northern Ontario.” He noted that the budget mentions “booze over 40 times, but not one mention of poverty.”

Mr. Mantha pointed to cuts that will disproportionately hit the North, where many communities are economically challenged.

“I am hearing an abundance of positive about the budget,” countered Sault Ste. Marie MPP Ross Romano. “I think we have a budget, finally, that will bring us into a sustainable balance that will protect that which is most important, our publically funded health care and education systems.”

Mr. Romano reiterated the Progressive Conservative claim that their government inherited a $15 billion deficit, a number expressed by the premier the night before the budget was released, followed by Finance Minister Vic Fedeli’s $13 billion tally. The budget itself set the number at $10.3 billion.

Mr. Romano noted the budget projects that the scales will return to balance in five years. “We have chosen to take a responsible and sustainable approach,” he said. “We were on a path to bankruptcy, now we are on a path to balance.”

The Sault MPP said that the course has been plotted “without a single tax increase” while still managing to return $10 billion to Ontario taxpayers through the cancellation of the cap and trade program and what he characterized as other “tax grabs.”

The budget slashed funding to Indigenous Affairs in half, from $146-million to $74-million, but some First Nation leaders are choosing to remain upbeat despite that ministry taking the largest percentage hit in the budget.

“Despite the cut to core funding for Indigenous Affairs, the priorities of our leadership towards improving the well-being of our communities will continue with vigor,” said Anishinabek Nation Grand Council Chief Glen Hare. “I will continue to advocate on behalf of our citizens to advance what is in the best interest of our nations.”

But that positive view is tempered by other parts of the budget that placed funding cuts and freezes on programs and services that disproportionality serve the poor and vulnerable.

“The Anishinabek Nation has long advocated for opportunities that will benefit the lives of our children, families, and communities—this budget contains very little in that regard,” stated Grand Council Chief Hare. “The proposed implications to the environment, social programs, education, and health in the short-term and over time are a deepening concern.” The reality of having inadequate funding to carry out duties and responsibilities is a concept far too familiar for First Nations.

“The release of today’s Ontario Budget titled ‘Protecting What Matters Most‘ provides for some serious concern on the direction by the Ford government, which neglects direct investments and commitments to First Nations in Ontario,” notes a release from Ontario Regional Chiefs RoseAnne Archibald. “As the Ontario regional chief, I have communicated with Premier Ford, and shared that I understand his commitment to enact policy and measures that support and lift up Ontario’s lowest economic earners. While we can see the investment and substantive commitments he has made in the budget to economic investment, transit and healthcare infrastructure, what we fail to see is a specific mention of First Nations inclusion in these investments. It is also a bit alarming to see Budget 2019 provide an almost 10 percent cut to core funding for Indigenous Affairs, to $74.4 million, further reducing the capacity of the ministry, and also not to see any additional investments in one-time investment dollars, which raises many questions.” 

Other hits in the budget tally up to an approximately $1 billion reduction in the Children, Community and Social Services Ministry over the next three years. Annual spending will drop from $17 billion for the last fiscal year ending March 31 to $16 billion projected for the 2021-22 fiscal year. The reduction is mostly due to the government’s previously announced plan to overhaul social assistance over the next year and a half to achieve what is characterized as better outcomes for clients, reduced costs and more accountable programs.

Those changes, aimed at helping people move from welfare into work, will result in estimated annual savings of $720 million within three years, according to the budget and a further $510 million in annual savings are said to be anticipated through streamlined administration and simplified reporting in programs such as income support, child care, affordable housing and homelessness prevention programs.

Legal Aid has also taken a significant hit, with $133 million reduction in the books and a stipulation that funding cannot be allocated to refugee or immigration—areas the province points out are more properly the purview of the federal government.

There will also be a 35 percent cut to the Ontario’s Ministry of the Environment, a move that is being slammed by Greenpeace Canada as “the most anti-environmental budget in Ontario since the deadly tainted-water disaster in Walkerton.”

The budget puts $1.4 billion into Ontario’s education system during this school year, but next year will see a spending freeze. Gone also is free tuition for low income students, a program that was apparently the victim of its own success as the Ford government has labelled it as “unsustainable.”

Colleges and universities will also see their operating budgets tied to what the government has labelled “performance targets” and could lose up to 60 percent of their provincial funding for failing to meet said targets. In all, nearly $700 million in overall funding for post-secondary education will be cut as part of this budget.

More than $306 million will be trimmed for this year from the ministry responsible for enforcing employment standards across the province. In its place will be self-policing digital options for employers.

“The PC budget puts profits over people at every turn, and the people of this province are ready to fight back against these reckless government cuts that make life harder in Ontario,” said Ontario Federation of Labour President Chris Buckley in a Monday release. “Doug Ford does not have a mandate to make it harder for Ontario families to get the public services they depend on, like health care and education.”

Mr. Mantha highlighted that this budget will see the Ministry of Natural Resources hit with a $25 million cut, the forest fire protection program cut by $100 million and agriculture absorbing a drop of $283 million. “Northern Development and Mines lost $566 million and they have indicated they will be looking at the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund. That is what has helped economic opportunities for Northern Ontario as well, including Indigenous communities that also saw a huge hit. 

The government has pledged $174 million for mental health and addictions care in 2019, but that is a level that those in the field claim falls far short of demand.

Health care spending in general is forecast in the budget to go up by less than the rate of inflation, which critics say amounts to a net reduction in funds.

As for the aforementioned “booze,” those imbibing in bars and restaurants will enjoy extended hours that now allow them to serve alcohol from 9 am instead of 11 am. Municipalities will also be able to pass bylaws to allow picnickers to enjoy a glass of wine or a beer in parks.

The budget anticipates coming into balance after the next provincial election.