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2019 Ontario budget “a new beginning”: Fedeli

By Shayla Bradley

The 2019 Ontario budget is out as of April 11, pitched as “restoring sustainability to government finances in order to protect what matters most,” according to Minister of Finance Vic Fedeli.

“As a proud northerner, we know that northern Ontario has the potential to make an even greater contribution to the cultural and economic success of our province,” said Fedeli, who was born and raised in North Bay and now lives in Corbeil.

“But many northern communities face unique challenges to growth, including a lack of economic diversification, an aging population, outmigration and gaps in infrastructure,” he said, introducing the budget initiatives aimed at impacting the north.

Premier Doug Ford’s government is planning to look at bus, passenger rail, and rail freight services in the north, introduce a northern Ontario internship program with a stream for skilled labour and a stream for Indigenous people, develop a forestry strategy and mining working group, and end “delays blocking development of the Ring of Fire by working with willing partners to ensure sustainable development.”

Also in the budget is natural gas, broadband and cellular, and electric grid expansion in the north, adjusting tuition rates for smaller northern postsecondary schools, and a big game management advisory committee.

The Northern Ontario Heritage Fund will remain at previous funding levels.

The budget includes widening sections of Highway 17 between Kenora and the Manitoba border, something MPP Greg Rickford is thrilled to see. The highway twinning will be good for economic growth and road safety, he said.

Budget cuts include nearly $1 billion from the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services over three years, and a 30 per cent reduction in provincial funding for legal aid services, increasing to nearly 40 per cent by 2021-2022. Legal Aid Ontario will no longer be able to spend provincial funds on immigration or refugee cases, leaving those to the federal government.

The Northwest Community Legal Clinic, which services the Kenora and Rainy River districts, says these cuts could “result in a serious reduction in front-line services.”

“We don’t yet know how this apparent cut will affect our local clinic,” said Trudy McCormick, executive director. “We will work with our communities as the impact on our services becomes known.”

Notably, figures show the Indigenous Affairs budget at a 50 per cent decrease, from $146 million last year to $74.4 million this year. However, that decrease may be attributed to the loss of one-time funding investments, leaving the base budget cut by $5 million, from $88 million last year.

Ontario regional chief RoseAnne Archibald said the budget “provides for some serious concern on the direction by the Ford government, which neglects direct investments and commitments to First Nations in Ontario.”

Archibald says she can see the investment and substantiative commitments Ford and his government have made to economic investment, transit and healthcare infrastructure, but does not see specific mention of First Nations inclusion in those investments. Indigenous people are mentioned in larger investments like mental health and long term care, she said, and the budget needs to be exampled closely so First Nations leadership have the relevant details.

The cuts to Indigenous Affairs as well as not seeing any additional one-time investment dollars raises many questions, she added.

“The diminishment of investments for First Nations in the budget, and Indigenous Affairs causes concern on the safety and security of program funding that has been fundamental in advancing First Nations communities,” said Archibald. “Ontario has a responsibility to support these programs, as we outlined in our pre-budget submission to the Minister of Finance, and this will be something we will need to continue to watch.”

Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler shared similar sentiments.

“The first budget by the Ford government makes many commitments to improve access to education, skills and training, and economic development but is lacking in specifics for NAN First Nations,” he said. “We are concerned with the funding reduction for the Ministry of Indigenous Affairs and the impact that it will have on the delivery of programs and services to our First Nations. This budget acknowledges several ongoing activities with our First Nations, and we are hopeful the government will maintain those commitments. We look forward to details of the budget’s implementation and learning how all ministries will support the work of this government to fulfill its Treaty obligations to NAN First Nations.”

The government is planning to balance the budget by 2023-24.

The full budget is available at http://budget.ontario.ca.

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