Finance committee blasted on spending cuts

They came to Whitehorse expecting to talk about the 2007 budget, but the federal finance committee got a harsh talking-to instead.

They came to Whitehorse expecting to talk about the 2007 budget, but the federal finance committee got a harsh talking-to instead.

On Monday, several Yukon groups vocally opposed the $1 billion in spending cutbacks announced by Ottawa last week, impressing the impacts those cuts will have on the standing committee’s eight MPs.

 “The vast majority of the discussion was not about the next budget but rather the surprise, dramatic cuts last week,” said Yukon MP Larry Bagnell, following the committee’s first-ever stop in Whitehorse.

The cuts “came right out of the blue,” he said.

“The committee heard that loud and clear, and they’ll probably hear it as they continue their trip across the country.”

Last week, federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty announced $1 billion in spending decreases across government departments.

Programs deemed wasteful, unwanted or poor “value for money” have been slashed, often without consultation with affected groups.

Whole industries have been hit: tourism will lose $5.7 million in marketing money, as well as undetermined amounts from the shelved $78.8 million GST Visitor Rebate Program, $4.6 million in cuts from the Museum Assistance Program and cuts to volunteer programs.

Tobacco smoking education for First Nations and Inuit people, adult literacy, workplace skills training and youth employment programs are also getting axed.

The cuts arrived in the shadow of this year’s $13.2 billion federal surplus, which the Tories are devoting to paying down the nearly $500 billion national debt.

That’s a bitter pill for many Yukon groups.

The Yukon Literacy Coalition stands to lose $315,000 in funding, and will be forced to close its doors on January 1, if other money doesn’t become available, spokesperson Sierra Van der Meer told the committee.

“We were told that our funding was coming, that it was going to be delayed slightly,” said Van der Meer.

“We spent hundreds of hours preparing proposals, and 11 days after the call for proposals we were told there was no money,” she said.

“There was no consultation; we were shocked.”

Van der Meer pushed the committee to recommend the government re-examine cuts to literacy programs.

And she lashed out at the Tories for hearing from groups dependent on federal money after their funding has been cut.

“Why would you have us come in here and stand before a committee and tell you what we think when you’ve already made your cuts?” she said in an interview.

“Is that true consultation or is that trying to maintain an appearance of consultation?

“It’s insulting, to be honest.”

The logic behind cuts to the First Nation and Inuit anti-smoking program was questioned by Council of Yukon First Nations grand chief Andy Carvill.

“It’s very detrimental to a lot of people,” Carvill told the committee.

“If anything, we want to become less of a burden on society and for people to become healthy, but when they continue getting cuts, it goes against some of the very commitments that were made to us.”

The tobacco control strategy was cancelled “because, basically, it wasn’t effective in achieving its goal,” said Conservative MP for St. Catherines, Rick Dykstra, in response.

In addition to criticisms of the recent cuts, Carvill recommended the 2007 budget contain dedicated funding for the Council of Yukon First Nations.

The elimination of the GST Visitor Rebate Program for tourists, which lowers federal tax from six- to three-per cent for foreign visitors, will hit the Yukon very hard, said Rod Taylor, president of the Tourism Industry Association of the Yukon.

“Here in the Yukon, the thing about the tourism industry is it’s consistent,” Taylor told the committee.

“It doesn’t rely on the volatility of commodity prices like everything else.

“So when the Yukon is going through those crests and troughs of the resource industry, we’re absolutely consistent.

“That’s why that little three per cent is huge to tourism: it’s our lifeblood,” he said.

Taylor, who owns Uncommon Journeys Adventure Travel, told the committee that every foreign customer of his has used the rebate.

But less than three per cent of the 35 million foreign visitors that come to Canada yearly apply for the rebate, said Dykstra, responding to Taylor’s concerns.

More than $4 million in cuts to the Museum Assistance Program could mean program cutbacks at several Yukon community museums, Patricia Cunning, executive director of the MacBride Museum in Whitehorse, told the committee.

“We are very disappointed our federal government says our funding is wasteful and unneeded,” said Cunning.

If funding isn’t restored, MacBride will be forced to cut programs as early as April 2007, she added.

“I asked to speak here today. We would like for you to talk to us directly before you make these cuts.”

Partisan bickering continually reared its head during the discussions, but that didn’t prevent the committee from gleaning valuable insight, said Brian Pallister, Conservative MP for Portage-Lisgar in Manitoba, and chair of the committee.

“I’m a rural farm-boy from Manitoba and I wanted to make sure our committee reached out,” said Pallister.

“Today was helpful, though none of us are naïve,” he said.

“We all understand that anytime a government reduces spending they will hear in a disproportionate degree from the group that’s impacted.”

A report from the committee members will be prepared for Flaherty following meetings, which will hit British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan before an eastern swing through Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Quebec and Ontario.