TORONTO, March 28, 2012 /CNW/ - Yesterday, Ontario Finance Minister Dwight Duncan presented the provincial budget which was described as a five year plan to keep Ontario on track to balance the budget by 2017-18. The budget proposes to reduce spending by $17.7 billion over the next three years while increasing revenues by $4.4 billion without raising taxes.
Ontario Regional Chief Toulouse indicated the provincial budget contained no new spending announcements targeted for the First Nations population but that it outlined specific priorities in several areas that are of concern to the First Nations in Ontario. "Clearly the focus of this budget is on cost containment and finding ways to generate new revenue. The First Nations in this province understand the financial realities but we are disappointed that there was no new investment," stated Ontario Regional Chief Angus Toulouse.
The budget reiterated the province's priority to continue development in the Ring of Fire area of northern Ontario, and indicated that the federal government should fund First Nations education at parity with "per student provincial funding for elementary and secondary education" and that they are prepared to share their expertise should federal funds be provided.
The Regional Chief indicated that these announcements are not new and that the province has been clear that they view development in the Ring of Fire as a key economic driver for northern Ontario and Ontario as a whole. "The First Nations in the Ring of Fire area remain firm; their views must be respected, they expect to be fully involved in all activities relating to infrastructure and mine development from the beginning and throughout the entire process. It is the First Nations that should benefit the most as it is their lands and waters that will be directly impacted when all is said and done. In their haste to reap the benefits of these resource development activities, the government cannot forget that First Nations have Treaty rights and the right to free prior and informed consent with respect to what happens on their lands," said the Regional Chief.
The chronic under-funding of First Nations education is a well-documented reality that requires immediate investment. Regional Chief Toulouse pointed out that the Drummond Report recommended provincial spending in this area without qualifying it to federal investment. He stated: "To simply reiterate for the umpteenth time that the federal government should address the funding gap is weak. The fact of the matter is that the federal government must act. We will not abide by the continuation of discriminatory levels of funding provided to our children and youth when it is clear that we will all benefit from our young and growing population having access to a quality education."
Regional Chief Toulouse expressed concern and disappointment that the province is taking aim at the First Nations tobacco trade by indicating their intention to increase enforcement in this area. The budget indicated that Ontario intends to double their enforcement efforts to address what they refer to as "the supply of cheap, illegal tobacco". The province indicated that they will focus on the implementation of additional regulatory, enforcement and other provisions provided in Bill 186. This bill was enacted in 2011 and was introduced and given Royal Assent all within five weeks. First Nations felt blindsided by this Bill and were not consulted or given an appropriate amount of time to have input into it. Bill 186 provides for the regulation of raw leaf tobacco under the Tobacco Tax Act effective October 1, 2012. The budget documents indicate that the Ontario Ministry of Finance will consult with key stakeholders, after the fact, including First Nations leadership as the regulations under Bill 186 are drafted.
Regional Chief Toulouse indicated that the approach of the province in this matter has not been conducive to establishing a good quality working relationship which is necessary to support an outcome that will be effective and acceptable to all parties. "The province has taken unilateral action with respect to the First Nations tobacco trade and clearly intends to take a punitive approach towards First Nations. The reality is that the tobacco trade has created jobs and has contributed to economic development in our First Nations," stated the Regional Chief. He indicated that First Nations have the jurisdiction to regulate economic development and trade within their own territories and that the province is overstepping their authority. "The focus has to be on community driven solutions and respect for the right of each First Nation to regulate this matter in their communities. First Nations that have manufacturers and distributors in their communities have put forward workable solutions that must be seriously considered. Increasing enforcement will not result in positive outcomes and such measures will be met with resistance. There is potential to reach a solution that can be acceptable to all parties but this must be done on a government to government basis with respect for First Nations jurisdiction," said the Regional Chief.
The focus of the provincial budget is on ensuring economic stability in Ontario in order to promote economic growth and create new jobs. The province wants to create certainty and a climate which encourages investment and a key part of achieving this hinges on ensuring that government develops and maintains good relationships with First Nations and that the government's approach recognizes and respects First Nations jurisdiction and Treaty rights. "History has shown that disrespect for our rights and unilateral action on the part of government will not produce positive outcomes. The First Nations in this province want to work toward the elimination of the barriers that restrict our participation in the economy and that provide safety and security for our children and families. With a good relationship, we could create a climate for steady recovery and prosperity together without losing sight of what issues are impacting our people. It would benefit and enrich Ontario's economy as a whole. Our objectives are quite similar but we often differ on how we get there and the wrong approach has all too often undermined the success that we can potentially achieve," stated Regional Chief Toulouse.
The Chiefs of Ontario (COO) is a coordinating body for the 133 First Nations located within the boundaries of the Province of Ontario.
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Andre Morriseau Communications Officer
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