By Lisa Dumontier
Far from the hard-hitting federal budget anticipated in recent weeks, the 2012 Economic Action Plan has hit the table to mixed reviews. Calling the plan for prosperity an “investment in Canada’s future”, Kenora-Rainy River MP Greg Rickford is dismissing Conservative critics noting that, while its scope is national in nature, the latest federal budget will be of benefit to Northwestern Ontario thanks to provisions addressing FedNor, the mining and forestry sectors as well as education, water and sewer infrastructure for First Nations communities.
“This budget focuses on growth and prosperity,” said Rickford. “We’re taking an approach that will not raise taxes or sacrifice our health care, education or social transfers to the provinces, as previous Liberal governments had done, nor does it affect in any significant way our programs that are delivered to Canadians directly.”
Dismissing opposition party statements declaring FedNor kaput, MP Rickford noted that the significance of the program—especially for communities across Northwestern Ontario that have accessed millions of dollars in funding through the agency—is not lost on the Conservative government. Confirming that the 7 to 10 per cent cost savings outlined for the program in the 2012 budget will apply to administrative costs only and will not result in any changes to actual program spending, the MP promised that FedNor, at least for the interim, is here to stay.
“FedNor is alive and well and we are not contemplating any reduction in program money in terms of our commitment to the important projects and scope of the program’s activities,” offered the regional MP who also confirmed that FedNor’s Community Infrastructure Improvement Fund will see a $150 million commitment across Canada over the next two years providing additional program resources to the federal economic development initiative. “FedNor will look at internal cost deficiencies but cuts will not be at the expense of programs.”
Hoping to see a rejuvenation of the region’s forestry sector, MP Rickford was also pleased to see provision included in the 2012 Economic Action Plan specific to the pulp and paper industry. Noting that the downturn in the market has had obvious repercussions for regional communities, the Member of Parliament detailed an important increase included in the Economic Action Plan to provide $105 million over two years specifically geared toward forest products and wood fibre innovations via a project jointly brought forward with Domtar to expand market opportunities.
Rickford also took time to detail mining related provisions which will be of substantial benefit to those who live and work in Northwestern Ontario. Calling the provision “good news for the region”, Rickford said that the federal government’s 15 per cent Mining Exploration Tax Credit will not only encourage further mining exploration but also deal with regulatory gaps for greater mining certainty. “Beyond Goldcorp and Rubicon in Red Lake, there continues to be considerable activity in the region. We have Northern Iron Works in Ear Falls, Treasury Metals outside of Dryden and Iron Works activity going on outside of Ignace to name a few,” he said. “So those exploration activities are being supported and we’ve gotten a great response from them.”
“There is also a well-known need to put resources into addressing the regulatory gaps around mining activities—specifically around tailings ponds—and we’re investing $21 million over two years to streamline and deal with regulatory gaps along these lines to make the regulations more effective to provide for greater certainty for mining activities that are actually occurring right now.”
Pledging to work with Canadian First Nations to unlock the potential of First Nations children, Minister Flaherty also unveiled the Government of Canada’s plan to provide $275 million—$1 million of which has been sanctioned for early literacy programming and other supports—over three years to build and renovate schools on reserve.
The centerpiece of a First Nation package that also includes $331 million for First Nations water infrastructure over two years; $12 million to address family violence on-reserves; $88 million to address flooding; and $13.6 million to support Consultation processes in addition to a promise to explore the possibility of private-property ownership on reserves, the education funding is appreciated but falls short of the $500 million the Assembly of First Nations believes will be necessary to set on-reserve schools on an equal footing with non-reserve schools nationwide.
“The investments in education in today’s budget indicate that the voices of our youth are perhaps beginning to be heard but we must do more,” said Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo. “We will be relentless in our efforts to ensure sustainable and secure funding for education. First Nations will seize this momentum to move forward to real reform and reconciliation. We will ensure our rights must be respected, our governments strengthened and our families enjoy safe and secure communities. The time is now.”
“We need to take ourselves to the point that by 2014 we have a piece of legislation that will enforce bylaw standards that both First Nation communities and their education authorities, the provinces and/or federal government can embrace and adhere to and then we can consider more on this path about resources for sustainable education investments that ensure legislatively that the outcomes on reserve are the same as in non-reserve communities,” said Rickford in response. “Rather than the idea of ‘spend now and ask questions later’, we’re saying ‘invest now, get to an appropriate point where we have objectives and we have a legislative frame of reference for what we want our outcomes to be and we’ll continue to make those investments’. I think this is a responsible approach and that’s what taxpayers and First Nations communities expect from their federal government.”
According to the MP, the First Nations funding is a package put together in good faith and is only the start of investments to bring Canada’s First Nations communities up to national standards.