Ottawa’s massive pandemic budget still falls short on measures needed to contain COVID-19 and on providing cash for affordable housing, while ignoring a call for billions in new health care funding, provincial and municipal leaders say.
Ontario Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy said Monday the new federal budget brings in nothing to stop new variants of COVID-19 at the borders or expand the supply of vaccines. And, he pointed out, it fails to deliver the massive infusion of baseline health care funding sought unanimously by all of the country’s premiers.
His own Progressive Conservative provincial government has faced a vehement backlash in recent days over pandemic measures many say will do too little to stop its hospitals from being swamped by COVID-19. At the centre of the fight is a refusal by the Ontario government to bring in paid sick days for essential workers, which medical experts say could curb the spread of the virus.
But on Monday, Mr. Bethlenfalvy pointed to Ottawa as the problem, saying the new budget makes no changes to the federal Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit, a program meant to compensate workers who take time off to self-isolate that critics say is too miserly and subject to delays.
B.C. Finance Minister Selina Robinson welcomed Ottawa’s commitment to a new national $10-a-day child-care plan as “very, very significant” and said she is looking forward to more details in order to see how it can bolster her province’s years-long attempt to implement such a program.
She also welcomed the budget’s new vacancy tax, but said she was disappointed the federal government dedicated no new resources to creating a system of paid sick leave.
Manitoba Finance Minister Scott Fielding said addressing the federal health transfer is his government’s No. 1 issue.
“We’re struggling, as other provinces are, with wait times, so we would like to use unencumbered money to address health care wait times,” he told reporters at the legislature in Winnipeg.
The new budget includes nearly $2.5-billion in new funding for affordable housing and accelerates the spending of $1.3-billion in previously announced cash. But the plans still fall short of the ambitions outlined by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.
Before the budget, FCM had asked Ottawa to ramp up its $1-billion Rapid Housing Initiative, into a $7-billion program. However, Monday’s budget includes just another $1.5-billion for the next round of the initiative, which provides cash to municipalities to fast-track quick-build “modular” affordable housing projects.
“The nice part is that they saw the evidence that it’s working. They took a step toward it. We’ll have to keep down this path,” said Garth Frizzell, FCM president and a city councillor in Prince George, B.C.
Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said a $300-million fund to convert disused office space into housing could help Calgary’s hard-hit downtown a little bit. But the other housing funding won’t be enough to address chronic homelessness, he said.
Toronto Mayor John Tory said while the budget reconfirms previously announced large cash commitments for transit and infrastructure, municipalities need more funding to recover from COVID-19.
“Cities need this support to deal with the ongoing impact of the pandemic and the administration of vaccines that must be done so we can bring this emergency to an end,” he said in a statement.
This budget’s national child-care plan – Quebec already has its own in place – will require talks with other provinces. Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce said he would work with Ottawa, but warned against a “one-size-fits-all approach.”
Saskatchewan Finance Minister Donna Harpauer, who also said she was disappointed with the lack of an increase to health care transfers, argued the federal government should make the new child-care funding flexible.
“My concern is that it doesn’t tie up dollars that we would maybe like to spend elsewhere, such as mental health and addictions,” Ms. Harpauer said.
With reports from Carrie Tait and Pratyush Dayal
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