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Premier Doug Ford's Ontario government has cut 70 per cent of provincial funding to a non-profit organization that helps more than three dozen Indigenous communities protect endangered wildlife and natural resources, National Observer has learned.
The organization, the Anishinabek/Ontario Fisheries Resource Centre (A/OFRC), provides independent scientific information to the communities in order to help them manage both resources and wildlife. But the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry told it on April 12, the day after the Ford government delivered its first budget, that "the Ministry is seeking changes to the existing three-year Transfer Payment Agreement."
The money was part of a critical program designed to help about 40 First Nations participate in government decision-making related to conservation policies.
The payment agreement was in its second year, providing a budget of $860,000 for the arms-length organization to continue to provide independent, non-partisan information relevant to resource management in First Nations territories. This involves providing scientific recommendations to sustain the health and habitat of Ontario's fish population and other species like moose, turtles and wild rice, and offering technical support to First Nations to help protect their natural resources.
On April 14, the Anishinabek/Ontario Fisheries Resource Centre was informed by the ministry that their transfer payment had been reduced by 70 per cent to $250,000 for the 2019/20 year. According to a statement provided to National Observer, "at this time, there is no commitment from (the Natural Resources Ministry) to funding for the 2020/21 budget year."
"We had no indication, prior to the receipt of the letter on April 12, that we were specifically targeted for funding cuts. We had certainly no indication that we were looking at cuts of the magnitude of 70 per cent of our baseline that we ended up being handed," said Peter Meisenheimer, general manager at the Anishinabek/Ontario Fisheries Resource Centre, in an interview.
"We're scrambling right now, having already begun our fiscal year and project season, to find alternative sources of money, and we're making a very serious effort to make sure the important work of our organization goes on and that we can do what we've done for the last quarter of century," he said. "It's hard to find a reason to be enthusiastic."
The centre began its field season last month and had a list of 15-20 projects scheduled or underway, including one looking at the health of fish in Thames River with the Chippewa First Nation. News of the budget cut means the organization will now be spending money it doesn't have.
The dramatic cuts caught the centre off guard and left members wondering whether they would be forced to shut down their operations, now that they only have enough money left to pay for one staff member and a small office.
'This (budget cut) is on a scale we haven’t had to deal with," Meisenheimer said.
First Nations are the original stewards of the land. Cutting programs that directly benefit protecting the environment is not acceptable. https://t.co/fLtVwHBMrT— Perry Bellegarde (@perrybellegarde) May 17, 2019
News of the cuts follows revelations in the Toronto Star that the Ford government had backed away from more aggressive cuts in its budget following strongly-worded warnings from public servants that what the Tories wanted to cut could pose “a danger to life for children and youth at risk or in need of protection” and that many families “will be at higher risk of going into crises."
Justine Lewkowicz, a spokeswoman for Ontario Natural Resources Minister John Yakabuski, defended the cuts to the resource centre, saying that the Ford government was trying to protect what matters most — health care, education and other critical public services — in efforts to balance the province's books.
"Budget 2019 builds on the work done by our close and thorough review of all government programs in order to ensure investments are sustainable and modernized. The review is also meant to ensure that duplication is eliminated, and valuable programs and services are delivering outcomes for the people of Ontario," Lewkowicz said.
"The Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry monitors fish populations and aquatic ecosystems. We will continue working with the Anishinabek Ontario Fisheries Resource Centre to share information on fisheries resources. Ontario is committed to working in partnership with Indigenous communities to promote economic opportunities and improve quality of life."
A spokesperson for the federal Office of the Minister or Crown-Indigenous Relations said they were disappointed to see "yet again more cuts being made under Doug Ford and Ontario PC’s, without proper consultation. Cuts to programs and services that people rely on are hurting the economy and the environment, and putting jobs at risk."
"We will continue to work, in partnership, with Indigenous communities in Ontario on the issues that matter most to them."
Ford government is 'abandoning an entire baseline of information'
The Centre was formed as a result of the 1993 Anishinabek Conservation and Fishing Agreement between the Crown in Right of Ontario and the Anishinabek Nation as represented by the Union of Ontario Indians, to mend contentious relationships between the Anishinabek First Nation and the then Conservative government led by Premier Mike Harris.
Former Ontario Regional Chief Isadore Day told National Observer that the Fisheries Resources Centre was created so that it could be a means through which First Nations could tackle issues of contention or policy challenges on things like fishery management and habitat preservation. The Centre, Day said, helped "develop technical capacity, reporting capacity, a storage of scientific information and essentially used money for research and better policy" for both the government and First Nations communities to use in sustaining natural resources by combining Indigenous tradition and technology.
"This has been something of an important institution because there are fewer conflicts in the field (between the government and First Nations)," Day said. "There basically are more informed communities on issues like mussels and invasive species in the lake or fish management issues because of the Centre. We have come to grow used to and almost expect that there is somebody out there in the field working with the Ontario government on fisheries management issues and ultimately that would be what the Ontario Fisheries Resource Centre was, is."
The centre has served as a source of independent, trusted scientific information since 1995, when the Province of Ontario initially agreed to fund its operations. In recent years, the funding has been administrated mainly though transfer payment agreements, although the organization brings in some revenue from other grants and contracts.
Day called the Ford government's budget cut "a callous approach" to natural resources and the environment. The centre, he said, provided information that Ontario needs to tackle the climate crisis.
"Let's not forget we live in a very uncertain time in terms of how the environment is going to react to a changing climate," Day said. A few days earlier, a groundbreaking UN report found that human activity had put one million of the world's species at risk of extinction. The same week, the Ford government spelled out 20-pages of weakened protections for Ontario's species at risk in an omnibus bill about housing issues.
Slashing the budget for the centre "doesn't really do anything for us in terms of being able to understand or mitigate or deal with the issues from a proactive standpoint," Day said. What is going to happen when a river, stream or a pond with aquatic and terrestrial species is impacted by higher temperature? That alone is such a complex issue."
The Ford government is "abandoning an entire baseline of information that it's going to need in five years to understand how climate change is impacting the natural world" by severely limiting the centre's ability to do this work, Day explained.
Ontario "is making a big mistake because climate change is real and it's bigger than any sort of government policy, position or belief around whether economic development or climate change is more important," he added.
Ford government advised to cut transfer payments in line-by-line audit
Revelations about the cuts to the centre are the latest in a series of programs getting slashed as a result of the Ford government's April 11 budget.
In its financial plan, the Ford government slashed the budget for Indigenous Affairs — which promotes collaboration and coordination in policy and programs across ministries in partnership with First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities — from $146 million last year to just $74.4 million. A ministry spokesperson has previously said the 50 per cent decrease is due to the loss of one-time funding investments, and things like land claim settlements that are not tied to the base budget, which was only cut by about $5 million.
The Natural Resources Ministry budget was also reduced by $162 million.
The cuts also reflect findings from an audit released in September by consulting firm Ernst and Young, which highlighted how the government's spending was increasing, mainly due to transfer payments, as opposed to direct spending within the Ontario Public Service (OPS).
The line-by-line audit revealed that operating expenditure through transfer payments has grown to $46.3 billion, or by 99.8 per cent of total real growth in operating expenditures. According to the audit, "this means that for every one dollar spent in the OPS, nine dollars are spent through the 35,000 separate (transfer payment) arrangements that the Ontario Government manage."
The audit also found that "nearly all of the increase in expenditure has gone into funding Transfer Payments which, by design, are at arm’s length," and advised that these are "the expenditures over which Government can exert the strongest control and has done so repeatedly through a series of 'efficiency dividend' exercises."