Ontario budget local impact

Summer reporter
Marc Stuempfle

Public service providers spoke during a panel discussion last Tuesday about the recent Ontario budget and policy changes made by the provincial government for the fiscal year–and the overall picture they painted wasn’t a pretty one.

Back in April, the provincial government informed all sectors there would be a four percent reduction in funding as part of the government plan to find $6 billion in efficiencies.

Ford’s government campaign plans were to altering the funding formula by changing the way it calculates funding for the school board.

High school classrooms will now be funded at a level based on 28 students per teacher as opposed to the previous 22 students, according to Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation local president Kent Kowalski.

As a direct result, locally seven people on the secondary panel and three in the elementary have been told they will be unemployed.

“The government’s claim that nobody will lose their job due to the funding changes is false,” said Kowalski.

He added funding is based on the average class size so if the first class has 22 students, the second must have 34 to obtain an average of 28. Classes such as special education are regulated by the government to only have a max of 16 students, therefore another class would require 40 students to balance the average.

One area the school board has examined in order to meet required class sizes is adopting split classes in the same academic area or combining multiple grades into one course. With fewer teachers, less direct contact time with students will create a more detached learning environment.

Students entering secondary school will be required to complete four compulsory e-learning courses. Kowalski added the completion of e-learning classes falls far below those of traditional credits.

“Large class sizes, elimination of specialty programs and compulsory e-learning and job losses are all the direct consequence of cost-cutting measures imposed to the education system by the Ford government,” remarked Kowalski.

Fort Frances Public Library CEO Caroline Goulding said the library sector is experiencing a 50 percent reduction in funding to Ontario Library Service (OLS) which operates agencies in northern and southern Ontario.

As a result of funding cuts, OLS north has reduced the number of support hours to 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday to Friday, as well as support staff. OLS is responsible for the maintenance of the “integrated library system” which allows libraries to check books in and out, put books on hold, and keep track of fines.

“There has been a reduction in the consultation services–there’s less professional development events and front-line staff have lost jobs,” claimed Goulding.

The new budget has created the inability to contact support staff during hours in which the library operates. According to Goulding, the library will experience service outages at least once or twice a year and have already noticed the longer duration in response times.

Goulding also made a point about how libraries have felt responsible for providing services to students for e-learning courses. She stated OLS used to receive a grant covering the cost of internet service but it has since been cut.

“I believe when asked what would happen to kids who don’t have access to broadband at home. The response was they can go to the library,” emphasized Goulding.

Trudy McCormick, executive director of the Northwest Community Legal Clinic, said locally there was not as much of a dramatic cut–only a reduction of 1.5 percent.

The concern is in the list of items which were previously funded by legal aid and would no longer be covered.

The largest impact is to specialty clinics that work on specialized areas of law which can have a high degree of difficulty and not all community clinics are able to provide. Specialty clinics are expected to see cuts between 20-30 percent.

McCormick also noted Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) was part of a provincial auditor general report to review community legal clinics and clinics models which may result in the elimination of the community board of directors.

LAO was advised not to fill any vacancies until the end of the review (March 31, 2020).

Cuts may result in the Northwestern Community Legal Clinic having to turn away clients.

“The Fort Frances office are having to cover work and deal with clients who are in Kenora which then means that if you come to the door in Fort Frances, it is far more likely that we’re going to have to say we don’t have the resources to help you right now,” stated McCormick.

Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) Fort Frances will not be experiencing any cuts due to budget. Mental health and addiction are to receive additional funding and Fort Frances will be receiving two subsidies for court program with release and custody, according to CMHA educator and trainer Christie Cousineau.

“CMHA Fort Frances relies on the Northwest Community Legal Clinic on a day-to-day basis to assist and ensure our clients,” she added.

“The [legal clinic] is an extension of our health team and it is there to maximize the health of our vulnerable and most marginalized clients.”

Dan McCormick, CAO of Rainy River District Social Services Administrative Board (DDSAB), spoke on behalf of the programs under DDSAB including Ontario Works, child services, community housing, and paramedic services.

Ontario Works funding for 2019 will be frozen at 2018 level and all economic increases will be absorbed by the municipalities and the provincial government has rescinded cuts to child services.

However, a proposed definition change to the Ontario Disabilities-if moved forward–could see a 40 percent caseload increase.

Community housing will be receiving an increase from $365,000 to $465,000 for the current community homelessness prevention initiative. The province has also announced two new housing programs.

Paramedic services have been advised the number of dispatch centres will shrink from 22 to 10.

The panel discussed how most policy changes and budget are based on southern Ontario’s philosophies and how it has become too common for northern Ontario to be painted with the same brush. Our public service providers believe services are already offered in an efficient way to cover a vast geography.

“The north has already made many initiatives changes, many things to make things more efficient more cost effective and we do not run bloated budgets,” said Dan McCormick.

“When you look at what’s going to be an effect on our community the biggest thing I worry about is a decrease in services in outlying areas and particularly our small rural areas.”

He added it is not an apples-to-apples comparison between the north and the south.

Mayor June Caul encouraged the panel members to come together in the hopes to create a more positive outcome for people falling in our most vulnerable sectors.

“We’re coming at it to me sort of like in different silos and I would like to see all of you together come up with a common denominator,” said Mayor Caul.

Goulding said one thing northwestern libraries have done was meeting with Minister Greg Rickford to talk with him about what impact is happening.

“We really tried to impress upon him . . . the north is different from the south and the realities of the south and the realities of the north are incredibly different and we are being hit by these funding cuts far more disproportionately than southern counterparts,” she stressed.

“We too are asking people to talk to our local MPP to make sure that our MPP understands what is important in our community and that decisions to take away services won’t result in a quiet response,” said Trudy McCormick.

On Monday, Rickford was asked about how the impact on funding changes will affect local agencies.

“Frankly, this has been a challenge for us to communicate that our health budgets, our education budgets, and our commitment to autism are well funded, in fact, were three areas where we increased our investments and so we’re looking forward to a fall where this is not the story,” said Rickford.

Part of the panel’s consensus was if you take away services or funding in one sector it would have a direct negative impact on another sector as it is part of one larger cohesive group.

“I would like people to remember that one legal problem can lead to a downward spiral of legal trouble which can be very difficult to overcome, as a result, any cuts to local services will have a devastating impact,” said Cousineau.

On June 20, Doug Ford announced a shuffling of the ministers as a reaction to the backlash the Ontario government received due to the public service cuts. But, as far as budget cuts and policy changes are concerned the future is still seemingly unclear.

“I’m not sure what it actually means, generally speaking, it doesn’t matter who the minister is–it’s the policy of the government and the government direction that dictates how we have a relationship with the government,” stated Dan McCormick.

He added he appreciates the fact this will allow the new ministers time to learn and review their portfolios from now until mid-October when the house will resume sitting.