Budget 2017 moves ahead cautiously on poverty and climate

By Citizens for Public Justice

Positive steps that lack needed urgency for low-income Canadians and refugees

Federal Budget 2017 inches forward but requires Canadians to continue to wait for full measures that address poverty in Canada and climate change.

With Budget 2017, Finance Minister Bill Morneau has made tentative financial commitments to key priorities identified in their consultations on housing and climate change, though not on international development.

However, the government’s spending priorities fail to understand the depth of the problems of poverty in Canada, climate change, and the concerns of refugees and newcomers – leaving these problems for our children to resolve.

In Building a Strong Middle Class, the government has declined to move ahead resolutely on these key issues. Instead, Budget 2017 proposes cautious actions that delay meaningful change on these critical problems facing Canada today. 

Poverty in Canada

This year’s budget makes positive steps in developing stronger social policy for those carrying the burden of poverty in Canada, including investments in affordable housing, as well as supports for families and Indigenous people. These, along with additional investments in health care, Employment Insurance reform (increased premiums), and targeted training supports, in particular to vulnerable youth, are positive steps forward.

With the federal government beginning the development of both the National Housing Strategy and the Canadian Poverty Reduction Strategy, it will also be important to see immediate action on funding commitments to address the most urgent needs, as well as a commitment to long-term funding allocation for the implementation of both strategies.  

Affordable Housing and the National Housing Strategy: An important part of that commitment is the allocation of $11.2 billion over the next 11 years toward “a variety of initiatives designed to build, renew and repair Canada’s stock of affordable housing and help ensure that Canadians have affordable housing that meets their needs.”

As part of the National Housing Strategy, this funding will include $3.2 billion for provinces and territories to build new affordable housing units, renovation and repair of existing units, and provisions for rental subsidies.

It will also include a new $5 billion (over five years) National Housing Fund through the Canadian Housing and Mortgage Foundation, with priority support going to vulnerable populations. There will also be targeted housing support for northern housing and for Indigenous people living off-reserve.  The funding also commits $2.1 billion over the next 11 years to expand and extend funding for the Homelessness Partnering Strategy beyond 2018–19.

Supports for families: The federal government is also committing in this budget “to invest an additional $7 billion over 10 years, starting in 2018–19, to support and create more high-quality, affordable child care spaces across the country.” Some of this funding will be allocated to programs for Indigenous children, both on and off-reserve.

They are planning to work with provinces and territories to develop a National Framework on Early Learning and Child Care, as well as a distinct Indigenous Framework on Early Learning and Child Care, created in cooperation with Indigenous partners.

The budget also commits to more flexible Employment Insurance parental benefits, which can be extended over 18 months at a lower rate (33% of average weekly earnings), and an extension to maternity leave benefits.

Supports for Indigenous people: The budget also commits to invest in Indigenous communities, with investments of $3.4 billion over five years to address areas of critical need.

This includes an additional $4 billion over 10 years, starting in 2018–19, to build and improve housing, water treatment systems, health facilities and other community infrastructure.

It also includes supports for Indigenous languages and culture ($89.9 million over three years), $90 million over two years for post-secondary education support, and $828.2 million over five years, starting in 2017–18, to improve the health outcomes of First Nations and Inuit.

Ecological Justice

CPJ’s membership has consistently called on the federal government to increase Canada’s emissions reduction target so that it is line with the Paris Agreement goal of keeping global warming to “well-below 2°C above pre-industrial levels.” While no such changes are indicated in Budget 2017, CPJ is pleased to see that it does address the commitments made as part of Canada’s climate framework. For the first time, the federal government has built a climate plan based on national consultations, established an important whole-of-government approach to implementation, and followed this with budget allocations. Unfortunately, however, very little of the identified funding will flow in this current budget year. 

Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation: In our 2016 pre-budget brief, CPJ urged the federal government to use Budget 2017 to signal a “shift to a low-carbon economy through a just transition of the Canadian economy from fossil fuels to renewables.” 

We were therefore pleased to see that important allocations of $21 billion for green infrastructure (including $2 billion to support national climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts), as well as over $20 billion for improved public transit, both over the next 11 years. We also appreciate that skills development and training are set to receive significant resources, as is the clean tech sector. It is our hope that moving forward, efforts will be made to ensure integration of these priorities.

Supports for Indigenous people: Given the particular vulnerability of Indigenous peoples to climate change, we are pleased that Budget 2017 includes close to $1 billion in funding and measures to help Indigenous peoples in Canada shift to cleaner energy, adapt to impacts of climate change, and contribute traditional Indigenous knowledge to the development of adaptation measures.

Fossil Fuel Subsidies: Notable shortfalls in Budget 2017, include the continuation of subsidies to the fossil fuel sector despite the acknowledgement that such subsidies run counter to Canada’s international climate change commitments, and the absence of any increase in the level of carbon pricing or extension to the mechanism beyond 2022, even though the general budget timeline runs through to 2028.

Refugee Rights

Resettling Yazidi Refugees: CPJ is glad to see that the government is making provisions to resettle 1,200 Yazidi refugees from Northern Iraq and Syria, as promised in 2016. The 2017 budget proposes $27.7 million to fund this resettlement plan over three years. However, there is no new funding allocated for the resettlement of refugees from other global regions.  CPJ had hoped to see a financial commitment in line with the government’s promise to reduce application processing times for all visa posts to twelve months by 2019, and to enhance resettlement from other parts of the world.

Employment Opportunities: Budget 2017 proposes the reallocation of $27.5 million over five years, and $5.5 million subsequently, from Employment and Social Development Canada, in support of a Targeted Employment Strategy for Newcomers. Given that 34.2% of newcomers live in poverty, this is positive. Among other objectives, the Strategy aims to explore innovative ways to enhance newcomer employability. CPJ hoped to see a focus on funding for additional language training services for refugees, to boost their job prospects. The $56 million allocated for language courses and skills training in Budget 2016 was insufficient for language schools to teach refugees English or French.

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