Budget talks at the legislative assembly continue this week, and as they do, Northerners are making their displeasure with the budget known.
The Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) North protested the budget outside the assembly Tuesday, and plans to continue at noon every day until Thursday.
Protesters and even regular MLAs have called this an ‘austerity’ budget.
They’ve accused cabinet of using the budget to service 10 years’ worth of debt rather than boost the economy.
“To service a debt that had accumulated over 10 years during a course of four years is going to be detrimental to our economy with the cuts that they’re currently proposing,” said Jack Bourassa, regional executive vice-president of PSAC North.
“They need to do something as it relates to the people, because their primary function is to ensure that the people are the bottom line, not dollars and cents.”
Job cuts, cuts to education coming
With the current budget, the NWT is looking at cuts to 65 public servant jobs – 45 in Yellowknife alone.
It also means $1.9 million in funding will be cut from Aurora College, leading to the loss of the social work and teachers education programs. The two programs will not be accepting new students as of this fall.
“It’s going to affect us in so far as transfer payments from Ottawa,” Bourassa said.
With job cuts comes the worry of out-migration from the territory, and the financial consequences that come with it.
“If even a small handful of families leave, you’re looking at [losing] $3 million,” Bourassa said.
“So four families leave that have two to four children, that’s $3 million in transfer payments that doesn’t come here, that’s four families that aren’t spending money in the local economy and four families that are earning money, that pay taxes, that also will be realized.”
PSAC North wants the government to reassess the budget to make it more citizen-oriented.
“What we’re hoping is this government will roll back $15 million of their proposed cuts, and add an additional $10 million,” Bourassa said.
“That’s $25 million in total that represents less than two per cent of the overall budget that they have. If they do that there won’t be any job cuts at all, and it’s something that would help stimulate the economy, not strangle it which is what this current budget is doing.”
What the union is asking for is similar to what MLAs have suggested to cabinet.
Yellowknife Centre MLA Julie Green told ministers on Monday that MLAs want an additional $10 million investment in their mandate from the budget, equivalent to less than one per cent of the government’s total spending.
“We also want a rollback on $15 million of the proposed cuts,” she added. “I repeat that this is a pretty small list of asks, but one cabinet has been unwilling to work with regular members to achieve.”
Bourassa admits there are some good points to the budget.
Funds were announced for junior kindergarten and the implementation of a territory-wide 911 service, along with additional support for employment in small NWT communities.
However, Bourassa says what’s being taken away is not good for the people.
“It’s my feeling that they’re focused more on the bottom line than they are on the citizens of the NWT,” he said.
“We’ve lost so much in the way of population, and you can’t boost an economy when you’re instilling uncertainty among this population such that you’re losing people.”
The Union of Northern Workers joined the protest Tuesday.
On Wednesday, the Northwest Territories Teachers’ Association will be raising its banner alongside PSAC North to make their concerns known.
Frame Lake MLA Kevin O’Reilly told Moose FM he was pleased to see people showing their support for regular MLAs trying to change the budget.
“There’s a lot of work that still remains to be done,” he said.
“We’re really hoping to see investment in some of the more significant parts of our mandate, rather than the kind of debt-management approach, fiscal austerity that’s coming from cabinet.”
Some headway has already been made.
Following letters from parents and an uproar from school boards, the GNWT made the last-minute decision to fully fund junior kindergarten for the 2017-2018 year despite saying otherwise in its budget address last week.
O’Reilly believes more changes like this will come if the public continues to make its opposition known.
“We’re hoping to still convince them that we can make changes together and do the right thing for the people of the Northwest Territories,” he said.
In a separate protest, members of Aurora College’s social work and teachers education programs will be marching from the college to the legislative assembly at 12:30 p.m. Thursday to oppose the loss of their two programs.
The students plan to demonstrate outside before sitting in on session.