Women’s, Indigenous, labour leaders underwhelmed by federal budget

The Trudeau Government’s 2017 budget has left some wondering if the Liberals intend to address the crises of economic and gender inequality and First Nations housing.

The Trudeau Government’s second annual budget features some new money for social programs and Indigenous communities but not nearly the extent of stimulus some economists and community leaders say is necessary to address income inequality and kickstart the economy in a meaningful way.

With a projected deficit in 2017-2018 of $28.5 billion, the budget is Canada’s first to have undergone a government-designed gender-based analysis — a welcomed approach by many in Canada, including Status of Women organizations across the country.

Despite all the hype and promises around a gender-aware budget, it “doesn’t hold up for what advocates were hoping for,” says Jenny Wright, Executive Director of the St. John’s Status of Women Council.

Wright says the $100.9 million allocated over five years to establish a National Strategy to Address Gender-Based Violence may sound like a lot, but relative to the estimate gender-based violence costs Canada $12 billion a year, the Liberals’ investment “gives us pause about how effective that’s going to be in dealing with a huge issue we have in this country, where a woman is murdered every five days.”

St. John's Status of Women Council Executive Director Jenny Wright. Twitter.
St. John’s Status of Women Council Executive Director Jenny Wright. Twitter.

Wright says the budget is lacking in any concrete plan to close the gender wage gap in Canada, where women earn 72 percent of what men who work similar jobs earn, according to Oxfam and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA).

Wright says the Liberals’ $7 billion investment over 10 years to make childcare more accessible is a “drop in the bucket for what we need to get women back working full-time and dropping some of the barriers [to that].”

A national childcare strategy is what she was hoping to see, explaining it would ensure any money invested in childcare would be optimized and work in tandem with other policies to close the wage gap.

“We would have really liked to see an increase in the minimum wage, which is a quick and efficient economic tool to pull women out of poverty,” she adds.

Wright also says the way in which benefits are given to caregivers, through employment insurance, ignores the “realization that women are often ineligible for EI because they don’t have enough work hours to be eligible for it.

“So if they had done a really clear gender-based analysis, those tax initiatives could have been targeted toward women in another way instead of through the EI program.”

The federal Status of Women office, which Wright points out is responsible for applying a gender-based analysis to all policies and practices undertaken by the government, “gets no new funding or resources,” she says, explaining federal and provincial Status of Women offices across Canada have historically been underfunded, and budget 2017 does nothing to change that.

“So what does that say about any real commitment to dealing with gender-based issues in the federal government?

“This is a department that’s responsible for 50 percent of the population, which continues to be the least funded department. We see this federally and we see it at home provincially.”

Wright says ultimately, for the benefit of women in Newfoundland and Labrador, she would like to see “more federal dollars towards an anti-violence strategy because we have the highest domestic violence rates in the country.

“My only concern in saying that is that money is just not enough, and again it doesn’t come with any targets or benchmarks to say, over the next 10 years this is how we’re going to close the gender wage gap, this is how we’re going to work with women’s advocacy organizations to deal with the issue of the high levels of violence women experience.”

First Nation in desperate need of housing

The chief of an Innu reservation in Labrador says he’s cautiously optimistic about the $3.4 billion of new money allocated for Indigenous Peoples in the budget.

Last year the Trudeau Government announced an unprecedented $8.4 billion to Indigenous communities and governments over five years, much of it aimed at improving education and infrastructure in First Nation, Metis and Inuit communities.

Sheshatshiu Innu First Nation Chief Eugene Hart. Facebook.
Sheshatshiu Innu First Nation Chief Eugene Hart. Facebook.

The new money in this year’s budget will also be spread out over a five year period, with a total of $1.15 billion going toward on-reserve housing and other infrastructure projects, including health facilities and enhancing access to clean water.

The budget proposes that $4 billion be spent on on-reserve infrastructure over 10 years, though none of the new money will be invested this year.

Eugene Hart, Chief of Sheshatshiu Innu First Nation in Central Labrador, says he wants to believe the federal government will make good on it’s investment, “but we’ll have to wait and see if [it] will get to the communities who need it.”

Hart says Sheshatshiu, which according to the 2011 census has a population of 1,285 people living in 290 households, is in the midst of a housing crisis and “in desperate need of housing investment.”

In November the federal government announced $1.3 million in funding for housing in Labrador’s two Innu communities, but Hart says Sheshatshiu has only been promised $150,000 of that to repair 10 housing units.

We’ll have to wait and see if [it] will get to the communities who need it. –Sheshatshiu First Nation Chief Eugene Hart

As of today our office has close to 200 housing requests from members of the community,” the chief said in a written statement to The Independent following Wednesday’s budget announcement, adding many of those requests are accompanied by letters from government agencies that “specifically state that [residents’] current living situation needs either to be changed or requires significant repairs in order to address either health issues or childcare issues.”

Hart says Sheshatshiu is nearing completion of a community plan, and that one of the key pieces of information that has arisen from the study points to a need for significant investment in new housing, in addition to the infrastructure repairs already required.

Our community currently averages 50 births per year with 60 children being welcomed into families just this year alone,” he says. “Based on our data and the fact roughly over 60 percent of the community are under the age 35, that number is expected to grow even further. It’s getting to the point where we are also discussing the need to expand the school in order to sustain the increase in class size.”

Hart says based on this data the community will need to build at least 20 houses a year for the next 20 years “just to sustain the need that will exist based on the growth of our community.”

Greater social investments needed to adequately address income inequality

Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour President Mary Shortall says that while the Trudeau Government recognized the need for stimulus spending last year, and while that spending rendered positive and tangible results, she’s “disappointed” by what she and others in organized labour say is a lack of new spending this year.

On Wednesday CCPA Senior Economist David Macdonald said while there were “some positive aspects” to Budget 2017, “let’s not mistake this for the bold, visionary inequality reduction budget that Canadians were promised by this government.

“Despite working harder, too many Canadians have been excluded from the economic growth that has gone to CEO and corporate profits instead of workers’ wages.”

“Economic growth is meaningless if it’s enjoyed only by a lucky few. The measures in today’s budget will do little to address the big issues facing Canadians,” Macdonald said in a statement published on the CCPA’s website.

Let’s not mistake this for the bold, visionary inequality reduction budget that Canadians were promised by this government. –CCPA Senior Economist David Macdonald

Shortall says addressing inequality, by ensuring all Canadians’ basic needs are met via strong and accessible social programs and other supports, is the pathway to stable growth.

On Wednesday Finance Minister Bill Morneau announced a framework for how $7 billion of the money allocated to social infrastructure in last year’s budget will be spent on child care over the coming decade. The funding could result in up to 40,000 new subsidized child care spaces over the next few years, but that hardly addresses the existing need, says Shortall.

“They need to do more than just make extra spaces and supplement some people when there’s such a big need for it,” she says.

According to the CCPA, there is an immediate need for 500,000 new child care spaces across Canada; if the need was met, it would help the estimated 275,000 women in Canada who are working part-time because they can’t afford child care.

Shortall says organized labour in Canada has long recognized and advocated for a universal child care program to help women who want to join the workforce full-time, but that the Trudeau Liberals “still aren’t committed to doing that.”

Likewise, Budget 2017 revealed no plans to negotiate a health accord with the provinces, and no intention of looking at a pharmacare strategy, Shortall continued, adding Canada is the “only country in the G8 that has a publicly funded healthcare system but doesn’t have a pharmacare program.”

Shortall also says a federal minimum wage would help those who fall outside the Trudeau government’s definition of middle class and who are working full-time but still living around or below the poverty line.

“Some of these things would really make a difference in closing the gender gap” and addressing inequality, she concludes, “but they’ve been either ignored or tampered with a little bit, but not enough to make a big difference.”

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