Local politicians are reacting to Ontario’s latest $173-billion budget, which includes nearly $7 billion in spending directly-related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ontario’s Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy released the latest provincial budget, Protecting People’s Health and Our Economy, Wednesday afternoon. It includes a projected $33.1 billion deficit in 2021-22, with continued deficits expected for the province each year through 2029.
Kenora-Rainy River MPP Greg Rickford says a highlight of 2021-22’s budget is an additional $2.3 billion for COVID-19 testing and contact tracing, and $1 billion to further support Ontario’s ongoing province-wide vaccination plan.
“Big day for Ontario. We reaffirmed our commitment for the priorities of the people of Ontario in the context of this pandemic first and foremost,” said Rickford, who also serves as the Minister of Northern Development and Mines, Energy and Indigenous Affairs, during a recent interview.
“That means targeted investments in long-term care. Support for hospitals. Support for small businesses. And making sure that families have the resources that they need as we all make our way through this pandemic.”
The budget calls for $700 million more in education funding than last year's budget, $1.4 billion in personal protective equipment, $5.1 billion to create 3,100 additional hospital beds and to address patient needs, $2.6 billion to build 30,000 new long-term care home beds and nearly $5 billion to improve living conditions within long-term care facilities.
Of note, Rickford stressed Kenora is mentioned in the budget specifically, with a continued commitment to twin Highway 17. The Minister hinted he’s had discussions with Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister on the project.
“The budget commits over $21 billion over the next 10 years to support the planning and construction of highway expansions, which includes Highway 17 from the Manitoba border to Rush Bay Road. I’ve felt better than I’ve ever felt before on the prospect of shovels going in the ground and getting this underway.”
Rickford notes more ‘big wins’ for Ontario include investments into hospitality and tourism-based businesses that have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, supports for the mining sector, an increase of funding for the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corporation and access to broadband internet.
“Actions speak louder than words,” said Opposition member and Kiiwetinoong MPP Sol Mamakwa. “The budget needed to give people help to get to the other side and the hope for a future they can look forward to. I believe this budget robs people of that hope.”
Mamakwa, who also serves as the NDP’s Indigenous and Treaty Relations Critic, says he doesn’t see enough specific supports for northern Ontario communities in the Kiiwetinoong and Kenora ridings in the budget.
“Northerners in Kenora, Dryden, Thunder Bay, Pickle Lake, Sandy Lake… we should be able to see some hope. Right now, it’s not happening. I hardly see anything for [northern Ontario].”
Mamakwa says the cuts remind him of 2019’s budget, when 10,000 teachers were told they’d be out of a job within five years.
“Some of the issues that we’re seeing… COVID-19 numbers are rising still. The pandemic isn’t over. We need the help. The government has started these cuts at a time when people need better long-term care, stronger hospitals and more supportive schools. The government is squeezing them.”
Mamakwa adds he welcomes new funding and supports for tourism-based businesses who have been in-need throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, but stressed operators have been asking for the funding for over a year now.
Mamakwa later echoed NDP Leader Andrea Horwath’s sentiments regarding the need for paid sick day policies to protect workers during the third wave of COVID-19 and vaccination rollout, noting the budget doesn’t add additional sick days for those who need them.
Around the province, the Canadian Union of Public Employees and the People for Education advocacy group have said the budget failed to meet the needs of workers or those in the education sector, while Ontario’s Chamber of Commerce and hospital association have welcomed supports for businesses and expansions to long-term care facilities.