Cullen criticizes 2017 ‘back-load’ budget

Local MP Nathan Cullen says most new spending listed in the Liberal government's second budget won't flow for years.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau wore ‘NAFTA’ shoes designed in Canada, made in Mexico when he delivered the federal budget last week.

But according to Skeena-Bulkley Valley NDP MP Nathan Cullen, a pair of loafers would have been a better fit.

Cullen called the Liberals’ second budget a “back-load budget,” noting for example that the $7 billion in already promised funding for new childcare spaces doesn’t start flowing for three years, and is parcelled out over a decade.

Likewise, Cullen said most of the $11 billion over 11 years for new affordable housing projects doesn’t start until years eight, nine, and 10, adding that rules on matching funds and tight deadlines could leave small Haida Gwaii and northwest towns out of the loop.

“We wanted to see the money spent in the front, not at the end, and we wanted to see the rules actually open up so that smaller ones, like the ones I represent, can actually get a fair shot at getting the money,” he said.

“The rules are rigged in favour of larger towns.”

Cullen was also skeptical of a proposed $900-million, six-year increase to job skills training funded by the employment insurance (EI) program, which will be funded in part by a five-cent increase in EI premiums that starts next year.

While the budget proposes to change the Employment Insurance Act so more people are eligible for such training, Cullen said that hasn’t happened yet.

“You can’t access training dollars, even if they’ve increased the amount of training funding, if you can’t qualify for EI in the first place.”

Cullen also highlighted two things that are not in the budget initiatives to support a forestry industry that faces a U.S. trade dispute, or a clear answer to the question of whether Canada might privatize airports and ports such as the Port of Prince Rupert.

“They left the door open for later privatization of public assets,” said Cullen, warning that private ports and airports would likely prove more costly for Canadians in the long-term.

With $330 billion in spending and only $305 billion in revenue, Canada’s 2017 budget will run a deficit of $28.5 billion, even though only about $3 billion is new spending that wasn’t already budgeted last year.

One new item is a $25-million, five-year pilot project to start expanding the Indigenous Guardians program. About 30 First Nations currently run Guardians programs, which have roots in the Guardian Watchmen program on Haida Gwaii and the North Coast that started in 2005, as well as the volunteers who started the Haida Gwaii Watchmen back in 1981.

Bill Morneau said the seed funding gives indigenous peoples greater resources to manage their traditional lands and waterways, and to co-manage monitoring of ecosystems and cultural sites.

Cullen welcomed the move, which he said has been in the works for the last 18 months.

“We have been innovators on this program in the northwest on Haida Gwaii, Bella Bella and other communities,” said Cullen.

“This is something we can certainly expand right across the country because it works, and it offers greater protection to our coastal communities and the environment.”

According to the latest budget, overall funding for Indigenous and Northern Affairs will rise from $11 billion to $14 billion by 2021-2022.

In his budget speech, Morneau noted that the increase is well above a decades-old two per cent funding cap the Liberals removed last year, and said it will contribute to a higher quality of life on reserves.

“All this, while setting Canada on a path toward true reconciliation with indigenous peoples,” he said.

The 2017 budget includes $3.1 million in new funding for a quarterly working group, announced by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in January, that will see federal cabinet ministers and Assembly of First Nations representatives review all federal laws and policies regarding indigenous peoples.

The group is tasked with ensuring Canada upholds its constitutional and treaty obligations toward indigenous peoples, as well as meeting the standards set by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.