The belts are being tightened at Queen’s Park.
Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives are reviewing the future funding of a slew of government programs — including the Indigenous Culture Fund that was the province’s response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
The fund, which supports First Nations, Inuit and Métis community-based cultural projects, was part of $250 million in programs the former Liberal government announced after the searing 2015 examination of residential schools.
“Our government is reviewing the Indigenous Culture Fund (ICF) to ensure that taxpayer dollars are being used responsibly and efficiently. Individuals who have already received grants through the ICF will not be affected during this review,” the government said in a statement Friday.
Sources told the Star the government is also slashing $15 million from the Ontario Trillium Foundation’s $120 million budget, which annually helps 700 community programs across the province.
At the same time, the Tories are melding the environment and land tribunals, the social justice tribunals and the safety, licensing appeals and standards tribunals “into a single cluster named Tribunals Ontario,” according to an internal Ministry of the Attorney General memo.
“This change represents the first phase of the government’s review of tribunals accountable to the Ministry of the Attorney General to ensure that programs are effective, affordable and sustainable,” the memo said.
“It is intended to promote consistency in tribunal practices, procedures, decision-making and dispute resolution, while also providing a simplified and more accessible public interface.”
Attorney General Caroline Mulroney’s office said it is “taking action to improve access to justice and to make practical, reasonable and responsible decisions that respect taxpayers.”
“Tribunals Ontario will be led by a single executive chair, allowing for more co-ordinated and efficient leadership. Adjudicative tribunals play an important role in our justice system by providing a venue for the adjudication of numerous types of disputes,” Mulroney’s office said.
The changes come as the Ford’s government is coping with credit downgrade by Moody’s, the first for Ontario from the New York-based ratings company in six years.
While Finance Minister Vic Fedeli blamed “the recklessness of the previous Liberal government” for the setback, Moody’s suggested the new government bears some responsibility.
“Financing requirements for deficits and capital expenditures will result in an increase in the province’s already elevated net direct and indirect debt level,” the firm said, pointing to looming revenue shortfalls due to tax cuts.
“Recent actions undertaken by the province have included measures that reduce revenue levels, adding to budgetary pressure.”
Fedeli said the deficit is $14.5 billion, while the financial accountability officer maintains it is at least $1.2 billion lower.
The Tories have revised accounting methods and no longer count $11 billion in joint-sponsored public pensions as assets, which is worth anywhere between $1 billion and $5 billion to the annual bottom line.
Cindy Veinot, the provincial controller, resigned as the government’s top accountant in September after refusing to sign the public accounts because she felt the deficit was inflated.
NDP MPP Sandy Shaw said Moody’s downgrading of Ontario’s credit rating to Aa3 from Aa2 is due to both the Liberals and the Tories.
“The Liberal government let us down, but this credit rating is forward-looking, which means Doug Ford is now making things even worse,” said Shaw (Hamilton West-Ancaster-Dundas).
The government also quietly axed funding for the College of Midwives of Ontario, which had been waiting for the money since April 1.
“This means that the funding we had anticipated for the current fiscal year will not be received,” the college said in an update on its website. “We received this news on Nov. 8, 2018, eight months into our fiscal year.”
The college, which regulates the profession, has been receiving government grants from the health ministry for 25 years, and had been waiting for $705,553 in funding this year.
Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner called the decision “short-sighted and reactionary … the long-term financial costs and reduced health care services will far outweigh any ‘savings’ the government hopes to gain.”
In October, the government also cut all funding to the OPHEA, a non-profit resource and training organization for phys-ed teachers. It had received funding for the past 16 years. The organization was a key player in supporting the implementation of the updated sex-ed curriculum, which was scrapped by the Ford government.
Robert Benzie is the Star’s Queen’s Park bureau chief and a reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robertbenzie
Kristin Rushowy is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow her on Twitter: @krushowy