The Conservative government’s $233 billion budget is the largest in Canadian history.
It offers about $10-billion in extra money for the provinces and territories, tax cuts to seniors and middle-income earners, $1.5 billion for climate-change programs and the reinstatement of recently scrapped aboriginal justice strategy.
Thanks to a changes to a formula used to determine how much each territory receives from Ottawa, the Yukon will also get about $24 million in extra transfers from Ottawa in 2007-2008.
While that has Premier Dennis Fentie singing the budget’s praises, others see it as little more than an election ploy aimed at voters in Ontario and Quebec that manages to ignore the North and First Nations.
Budget a boon
for Yukon: Fentie
Fentie is adamant the budget is nothing but good news for the Yukon.
The territory will receive about $540 million from Ottawa in the coming fiscal year, compared to $514 million in 2006-2007, he said in an interview from Ottawa on Tuesday.
He was there along with Northwest Territories Premier Joe Handley and Nunavut Premier Paul Okalik at the invitation of the government to watched the budget be unveiled.
The increases in funding are only the beginning, he said.
The new arrangement between Ottawa and the territories includes several “mechanisms” that will add money to transfers for such factors as increases in population, said Fentie
The budget includes the continuation of the federal gas tax infrastructure program — which provides money to municipal governments — until 2014.
It also contains a $25-million yearly contribution towards infrastructure in the Yukon over the next seven years, said Fentie.
“It’s taken us back in a positive direction and in the long-term will contribute to Yukon’s growth and benefit,” he said.
There is little specific new money for First Nations, however.
But the Yukon government will spread the new infrastructure cash to First Nations governments, much like it did with the $50 million it received from the Northern Housing Trust, said Fentie.
Of the $50 million, the Yukon government kept $17.5 million for its own programs and gave $32.5 million to the Yukon’s 14 First Nations.
That money, mixed with a future deal on direct relationship between Ottawa and Yukon First Nations, are critical for the Yukon “to move forward,” he said.
“There’s a number of positives here that have set in motion a positive direction to meet fiscal imbalance in the Yukon,” said Fentie.
The Yukon will also receive $5 million of ecoTrust money to launch programs to curb greenhouse gasses.
While he wouldn’t explain what the money will be used for, the focus will be on hydroelectricity, said Fentie.
Liberals won’t support the budget: Bagnell
While Fentie is firmly onside with the budget, Yukon MP Larry Bagnell and the federal Liberals definitely are not.
The Liberals are voting against the budget along with the NDP.
Only support from the Bloc Quebecois will keep the minority Conservative government afloat.
“This is the largest budget in history and there’s very little for the poor, childcare, and there are minimum amounts for the environment,” said Bagnell from Ottawa on Tuesday.
“The big losers are aboriginal people,” he said, noting the still-borne Kelowna Accord drafted by the former Liberal government has been ignored by the Conservatives.
Money for aboriginal language programs has also been cut, he said.
There is only about $440 million in the budget for aboriginal people, he added.
“They made all these cuts to aboriginal people and there’s almost no new money,” said Bagnell.
There are a few positives in the budget, he noted.
The scrapped aboriginal justice strategy, which has nine alternative-justice programs running in the territory, has been spared.
“I’m very happy that’s been re-instated,” he said.
Beyond that, the budget signals Prime Minister Stephen Harper has abruptly shifted focus from the North, said Bagnell.
For example, there is no Northern Strategy money in the new budget.
“The Northern Strategy was a whole emphasis on the North,” he said. “Where is it? There’s no talk about it anymore.”
Harper’s promises of a new port and icebreakers, which he made during his junket through the Yukon, Nunavut and the NWT last summer, are nowhere to be found in the budget, added Bagnell.
First Nations largely ignored by budget
Perhaps the biggest surprise in Monday’s budget is its dearth of specific First Nation spending or program announcements.
As a result, several Yukon First Nation leaders are challenging Harper’s government.
“Clearly this is an election budget that targets the middle-class and the provinces where the government hopes to win more seats,” said Assembly of First Nations regional chief Rick O’Brien.
“In the Yukon we only have one seat. Are they really going to invest money to win that one seat? I think not.”
O’Brien and Council of Yukon First Nations grand chief Andy Carvill spoke to reporters in Whitehorse.
The large gaps in housing are a major bone of contention with Yukon First Nations that this budget has not addressed, said O’Brien.
“The homeless people need to have some good news,” he said.
“We just had a huge Games event here. They found a lot of money to build the athletes’ village, they found a lot of money to heat the tent downtown for a month, but yet there’s still struggle in the national budget to find money for homeless people and that really has me thinking, ‘Where is this government’s mind for the homeless people?’
“It’s a crying shame. We live in one of the richest countries in the world, (but) we continue to manage poverty in a lot of the First Nation communities.”
But there are a few good points within the budget for aboriginal people, said O’Brien.
The aboriginal-justice strategy has been reinstated as have programs for aboriginal women.
But, he noted, the justice strategy has received only a two-year commitment.
And despite $642 million in the budget over five years for languages, there is nothing for aboriginal languages, said O’Brien.
Carvill was similarly reserved in his reaction.
“We don’t see a lot in the budget with respect to Yukon First Nations,” he said.
There is no money in the budget for completing land claim negotiations with the White River First Nation and the Kaska First Nations, said Carvill.
And the amounts committed for improving housing in First Nation communities are “a mere pittance to what’s actually needed,” he said, reflecting on how much more money was committed in the now scrapped Kelowna Accord.
Carvill is hoping the $25 million in infrastructure money the Yukon government will receive over the next seven years will find its way to Yukon First Nations.
“Of course, we have an issue with respect to the premier being in charge of any added money deemed to be aboriginal or First Nation government dollars,” said Carvill.
“We’re optimistic it will filter down, but that remains to be seen.”