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A large crowd of Newfoundland and Labrador fish harvesters gather in front of the legislature in St. John's on March 21.Sarah Smellie/The Canadian Press

Newfoundland and Labrador’s finance minister took the unusual step of sleeping at the legislature Wednesday night in order to present her budget after a chaotic demonstration by fish harvesters had prevented her scheduled budget speech.

Protesters again gathered outside the legislature Thursday, but Siobhan Coady was inside and able to table her $10.4-billion spending plan for 2024-25, which delays the province’s planned return to a balanced budget.

“I wanted to be prepared for today,” Coady said about her legislature sleepover. “Because I wasn’t here yesterday, I wanted to make sure I was well prepared today.” She said it was the first time she had spent the night inside the government building.

She delivered her budget speech to rows of empty desks as the Progressive Conservative and NDP opposition members refused to enter the building in a show of solidarity with the fish harvesters.

Her budget projects a $152-million deficit for the 2024-25 fiscal year, which had previously been set as the target year for the government to balance its books.

The province will carry a net debt of $17.8 billion in the coming year, which works out to more than $33,500 per capita in the province of about 530,000 people. Part of that will come from borrowing worth $2.8 billion, which is more than the government will spend on education, transportation and infrastructure combined.

Coady said she arrived at the legislature at about 8 p.m. Wednesday, after the crowd had dispersed. During Wednesday’s protest, two Royal Newfoundland Constabulary officers rode horses into the crowd of angry fish harvesters who were blocking government officials from entering the building.

The fishers lined up and pushed back, and the officers ultimately steered their animals away. A fish harvester and a police officer were taken away from the scene on stretchers.

A judge awarded the province an injunction against the demonstrators on Wednesday afternoon, forbidding them from blocking anyone from entering the building. Liberal Premier Andrew Furey said Wednesday the fishers have a right to protest peacefully, but he said demonstrators must not use violence or block workers from going to their jobs.

On Thursday morning, the harvesters were back, demanding greater free market conditions in the fishery, which they allege is dominated by a small number of large seafood processing companies that operate like a “cartel.”

Coady’s budget allocates $3 million to the provincial Association of Seafood Producers for “increased marketing of the seafood sector.”

A record $4.1 billion – nearly 40 per cent of the entire budget – will go to health care, as the province struggles to recruit and keep doctors, nurses and other specialists.

Like much of Canada, Newfoundland and Labrador is in the midst of a housing crisis, which is underlined by a tent city beside a historic building in downtown St. John’s. The budget forecasts only about 1,300 new housing starts for the province in the coming year.

The government announced in January a three-year, $20.7-million lease agreement to transform a former Comfort Hotel into a “transitional” facility that will offer shelter alongside health-care and addiction supports, however nobody has moved in since the province took it over.

Housing Minister Fred Hutton told reporters Thursday the facility faces “staffing issues,” but he could not say how many employees are still needed.

As part of the budget, the provincial public housing corporation will be folded into core government operations, and its budget will more than double to nearly $162 million. Hutton said about $50 million of that is earmarked for a program to help encourage the construction of rental units, and another $8 million will go toward repairing the province’s 5,600 public housing units.

Hutton confirmed that he, too, slept in the legislature building Wednesday night.

The budget projects record revenues for the 2024-25 year, but officials confirm its spending is also set to be higher than ever. The government will spend $1.15 billion in interest on its debts in 2024-25, which represents about 11 per cent of overall expenses.

At news conferences after the budget, the leaders of the NDP and Progressive Conservatives said Furey should not have let the turmoil in the fishery build to the point of massive protests.

“We heard, last night, the premier very clearly drawing a line in the sand that this budget will go through and there may be arrests made,” NDP Leader Jim Dinn said.

“If he had shown the same determination in addressing the very real fundamental issues that face harvesters as he did in getting this budget through, I think we’d be in the house of assembly today.”

The N.L. government says it plans to deliver its budget, despite a second day of protests on March 21 outside the legislature, involving fishers who want fewer regulations in the province's fishery. The day before, protesters forced the province to delay the budget presentation.

The Canadian Press

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