About 100 public servants at the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency were told Wednesday morning their jobs could soon be eliminated – the latest in an ongoing trickle of cuts as departments and agencies squeeze into tighter budgets.
The cuts at ACOA are the end result of previously announced “strategic reviews,” which are much smaller than the Strategic and Operating Review currently being led by a special cabinet committee.
The cuts, which were confirmed by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada and the Public Service Alliance of Canada based on official notice to the unions from the agency, include 80 PIPSC member positions, mostly in commerce. Cuts to PSAC members include 12 jobs in New Brunswick, two in Nova Scotia and five in Ottawa.
A government official stressed, however, that while 104 workers received letters Wednesday, it is the first part of a month-long process that is expected to whittle down the number of cut positions to no more than 42.
The affected jobs by PIPSC members cover a salary range of $50,100 to $125,389. Employees affected by these and other strategic review cuts are offered help finding other jobs in government.
Long before becoming Prime Minister, Stephen Harper was an advocate for ending ACOA and other regional development agencies. But the position proved so controversial that he changed course in his successful 2006 campaign on a pledge not to cut ACOA’s budget. However a review of the government’s spending records reveal that promise has not been kept.
The agency’s latest quarterly report shows ACOA has an approved budget of $317.9-million this fiscal year, down from a budget of $382.2-million the year before. That is a 16.8 per cent decrease.
The agency’s most recent long-term planning report forecasts its budget will drop to $278.5-million by 2013-14, which would be a 27 per cent cut from 2010-11 numbers.
The scale of cuts to the agency is more dramatic when compared to the year the Conservatives first came to power in January 2006. The budget for ACOA that year was $456.4-million, meaning it has since been cut by 30.3 per cent and is on track for a 39 per cent cut when comparing 2005-2006 to planned spending for 2013-14.
While campaigning in Halifax in January 2006, Mr. Harper promised ACOA would not be cut.
“We believe there’s an important role for ACOA, and we’ve been clear on what that is and we’re going to maintain the budget for ACOA,” Mr. Harper was quoted as saying at the time.
That pledge was a clear attempt by Mr. Harper to distance himself from past criticisms of regional support programs that had dogged him for years in Atlantic Canada.
While leader of the Canadian Alliance, a party that promised to end regional development programs like ACOA, Mr. Harper made comments to a New Brunswick newspaper that caused him years of headaches in the region.
“Atlantic Canada's culture of defeat will be hard to overcome as long as Atlantic Canada is actually physically trailing the rest of the country. When that starts to change, the culture will start to change too,” he was quoted as saying in 2002.
“There is a tendency in the region that breeds a culture of defeatism,” he said. “Nobody's to blame for it, but it is the responsibility of parties to offer alternatives and we have a program that says that Atlantic Canada can be as wealthy as any other region.”
Mr. Harper clearly changed his tune while in office, creating new regional development agencies for Southern Ontario and the Far North.
Nova Scotia Conservative MP Gerald Keddy, the parliamentary secretary for ACOA, said not all workers who receive notices will lose their jobs. He also noted the economy has changed since the government promised in 2006 not to cut its budget.
He said there have been “some substantial changes in the economy from 2006 to 2011, and I think we have to recognize that.”
PSAC President John Gordon told the House of Commons finance committee’s pre-budget hearings Tuesday that the government should consider the ripple effect that occurs when high-paying government jobs are lost, particularly in smaller communities.
“It will be the small businesses – the local restaurants, corner stores – that will be hit hardest,” he said.