Hicks: Conservatives don’t have to cut, they want to

Thirty-five years after David Searle described the Northwest Territories as “a sick, sick society,” our Nunavut political correspondent, Jack Hicks, discusses the federal budget, its meaning for northerners, and the cost of dissent.

[dropcap_1]I[/dropcap_1] would like to begin by thanking the creators of Northern Public Affairs, both for starting a northern public policy website at such an important moment in northern history and for inviting me to blog here.

[dropcap_1]T[/dropcap_1]he key elements of the federal budget unveiled on March 29 will have come as no surprise to Canadians who have been listening to what Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been saying, and campaigning on, in recent years.
If you heard Harper talk about the emerging energy superpower our government intends to build:

[w]e will make it a national priority to ensure we have the capacity to export our energy products beyond the United States and specifically to Asia. In this regard, we will soon take action to ensure that major energy and mining projects are not subject to unnecessary regulatory delays – that is, delay merely for the sake of delay.

then you might have predicted that the Budget Implementation Act would dramatically weaken the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, the Fisheries Act, and other legislation which safeguards and protects the environment. In a very tough article in the National Post, columnist Andrew Coyne called these “the most extraordinary chapters” of what is in fact an omnibus bill – “the sort of thing people used to make quite a fuss over.”
And you were likely not surprised when hundreds of scientists and researchers at Environment Canada were laid off, and when those who remain are gagged from talking to the press.
If you heard Harper say that it was his intention to raise the retirement age to 67, you were probably not surprised that the progressive policy think-tanks spoke out. The Caledon Institute of Social Policy questioned the wisdom of raising the age of eligibility for Old Age Security from 65 to 67 when the government could “combine Old Age Security, the Guaranteed Income Supplement, the age credit and the pension income credit into a single income-tested program, based on family income.” Campaign 2000 asked, “With no federal poverty strategy, no official poverty measurement tools, and now, no National Council of Welfare, how can we assess how we are doing?” The Conservatives didn’t bother to respond, for these questions are of no interest to them.
Measures like these are taking place in the context of deep corporate tax cuts and, simultaneously, cuts to the budget of federal departments. The Canadian Labour Congress estimates that corporate tax cuts will cost the federal treasury approximately $13 billion in the 2012-13 fiscal year. Lower revenues results in budget deficits, which are used to justify cutting program spending – and the laying-off of many of the people who have been delivering those programs. A rise in the after-tax income of the richest Canadians means lay-offs at Health Canada, Parks Canada, Statistics Canada, etc. The relationship between the tax cuts and program cuts is obvious, and the result will be a further redistribution of wealth between the rich and the rest of us.

[dropcap_1]T[/dropcap_1]he general character of the federal budget is clear enough, but what does it mean for Aboriginal peoples and the North?
The first major piece of news was the elimination of the National Aboriginal Health Organization; 100% cuts to health funding to the Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada, the Native Women’s Association of Canada and the Métis National Council; and, 40% cuts to the health funding provided to Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and the Assembly of First Nations. These cuts weaken the ability of the aboriginal ‘managerial class’ to lobby the federal government.
As Doug Cuthand wrote in the Saskatoon StarPheonix:

The question arises as to why our institutions are taking it on the chin. I’m afraid the answer is straightforward. A budget cut of six per cent is not a benign exercise. It’s a reflection of the government’s priorities and what it values. And these cuts reflect the Conservative government’s dislike of advocacy groups that compete with it or show it in a bad light. This government wants to control the information, and what better way than to silence the advocacy groups and their research and policy development institutions? Budget cuts are an opportunity to attack aboriginal civil society. The result is that our political voice is being silenced, with our institutions dying the death of a thousand cuts.

(It should also be noted that we don’t yet know how much of the budget cutting within Health Canada itself will be to the First Nations and Inuit Health Branch.)
Critics were quick to complain that these cuts may result in the gaps in health outcomes between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians widening further, which would be both morally wrong and more expensive to the country in the long run.
Doug Cuthand again:

Aboriginal people felt that with Leona Aglukkaq, an Inuit woman from Nunavut at the helm of Health Canada, we would have someone with an appreciation of the role played by the aboriginal NGOs. Unfortunately, the opposite has been the case.

Minister Aglukkaq stuck to her script: “Our government ensured we protected the front-line services of all health care services across the sector.”
Things went somewhat off the rails in the House of Commons when Liberal Health critic Carolyn Bennett asked Aglukkaq: “Can the minister explain to this house why her cuts target the population with the worse health outcomes in Canada, the Aboriginal people of Canada?” Aglukkaq responded that “As an Aboriginal person, I take that type of line of questioning to be unacceptable.” Apparently one may not ask Aboriginal ministers about cuts which disproportionately impact Aboriginal peoples…
(If the exchange between the two seemed a bit extra-nasty, it may have to do with the fact that Bennett fawned over Aglukkaq when she was territorial Health minister – and still a Liberal.)
While partisan sniping in the House of Commons is to be expected, groups that don’t usually opine on federal budgets have also been speaking out. The Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada issued a media release saying it “strongly regrets” the cuts to the Aboriginal health organizations, and the President of the Canadian Psychiatric Association has said that recent cuts to mental health in federal areas of responsibility are “very worrying.” When the obstetricians, gynecologists and psychiatrists are worried, you should be worried too!

[dropcap_1]W[/dropcap_1]hat’s important understand about all this is that the Conservative government isn’t making cuts like these (and to the Community Access Program, the National Archives Development Program, and many other programs) because they have to, but because they want to—and because they can.
Canadian public finance is not in dire circumstances. The Conservatives say so themselves, and so does the business press. The dollars ‘saved’ by eliminating NAHO and cutting the health budgets of the national Aboriginal organizations isn’t even pocket change. We’re not seeing a government managing a fiscal crisis, we’re seeing a very ideological government. The people who call the shots in the federal government today – and for the next few years – believe that the role of the federal government is best limited to a very limited number of tasks. Everything else should either be privatized, devolved to the provinces/territories, left up to charities, or… cut.
This is the overarching narrative of the Harper government. As Alex Himelfarb, a former Clerk of the Privy Council, has put it:

undoing, brick by brick, in the slowest of motion, but inexorably, the institutions and programs built over decades following the second world war, by governments of quite different stripes.

(Keep in mind that the environmental legislation that Harper is gutting was put in place by Brian Mulroney.)

[dropcap_1]T[/dropcap_1]he Conservatives are obsessed with the resource extraction sector. They are out to deregulate the economy, de-fund any group that might criticize (or produce data or analysis with which others might criticize) the government, and limit public participation in public environmental review processes.
Push will likely come to shove first in northern British Columbia. The President of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, Grand Chief Stewart Phillip has stated that:

It is clear that Harper’s agenda and priorities are the fast-tracking of resource development projects such as the Northern Gateway Enbridge project, expansion of the Kinder-Morgan pipeline and the Taseko Mines Ltd.’s New Prosperity Mine at the expense of the surrounding watersheds. It is simply repugnant and reprehensible for the Harper Government to shamelessly pander to industry in what should be independent processes and ultimately hold a veto or grant their industry cronies a second chance for any project if an independent review panel conclusions are not the desired conclusions.

The Harper government seems determined to silence critics of unfettered resource extraction. In January, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver sparked an angry response from environmental groups when he said “environmental and other radical groups” were using foreign funds to try to block major projects and undermine Canada’s economy. Environment Minister Peter Kent then told the CBC that the government has been concerned that charitable agencies have been used “to launder offshore foreign funds for inappropriate use against Canadian interest”:

Essentially what our government is doing through the finance committee is investigating allegations that offshore funds have improperly been funnelled through – laundered if you will, that’s a fairly accurate word – through Canadian organizations that have charitable status to be used in ways that would be improper given that charitable status.

The Senator for Nunavut, Dennis Patterson, went even further. As Nunatsiaq News reported:

“Foreign money” pouring into the bank accounts of Canadian environmental organizations from shadowy, hidden donors in the United States and other places represents a new threat to Canadian sovereignty, Conservative Senator Dennis Patterson claimed March 29 in the Senate.
“Sovereignty also means control over our right to determine our destiny in an environment where foreign, economic and trade interests are not exceeding the limits of political activity masquerading as environmentalists,” Patterson said.

Patterson’s McCarthy-esque rhetoric soared to even greater heights in the Senate on May 3rd, when he referred to the Pew Foundation in the same breath as Greenpeace, PETA and Coca-Cola – and claimed that they “have apparently coerced 2,000 scientists from 67 countries to join the cause.” Patterson did not specify how it was that they had managed to do this, scientists not usually being easy people to coerce.
Patterson also told the Senate that Ducks Unlimited had engaged in money laundering. Be vewwy, vewwy afwaid of Ducks Unlimited…

[dropcap_1]T[/dropcap_1]hirty-five years ago the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of the Northwest Territories was a lawyer named David Searle. Searle was, to put it mildly, a pretty right-wing guy. Would have fit quite nicely in Stephen Harper’s Cabinet.
Searle is perhaps best remembered for an over-the-top speech he gave in the Legislative Assembly in 1976, which the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada magazine Inuit Today lampooned in issue 5-06. The cartoon and commentary are posted below.

[dropcap_1]T[/dropcap_1]he impacts of the Harper government’s strategic policy thrusts may well be magnified in the North – not because we’re located in the north of the country, but because of the nature of our economy and society at this critical period in the evolution of the north. This humble blog will do its best to report on and analyze those impacts.
Jack Hicks lives in Iqaluit, Nunavut. He was the NDP candidate in Nunavut for the 2011 federal election. In addition to working in community development, adult education and suicide prevention he served as Director of Research for the Nunavut Implementation Commission and as the Government of Nunavut’s first Director of Evaluation and Statistics. He co-authored (with Graham White) the standard university text on the creation of Nunavut, available here. Jack is wrapping up his Ph.D. disseration on the social determinants of elevated rates of suicidal behaviour by Inuit youth. Jack can be reached at jackhicks@live.ca.

Photo credit: “Parliament Hill – Ottawa” © 2010 Nico, used under a Creative Commons license.

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