Federal budget offers mixed bag for North

The federal budget promises money for harbour construction in Pangnirtung, Nunavut, a diamond review, and new Health Canada posts in Iqaluit and Yellowknife.

Money pledged for a harbour in Pangnirtung and for Health Canada posts while CanNor and Aboriginal Affairs face cuts

Minister of Finance Jim Flaherty shakes hands with Prime Minister Stephen Harper after delivering the Budget in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, March 29, 2012. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

The federal budget, released Thursday in Ottawa, contains some of the biggest cross-country cuts since the 1990s.

Old age security eligibility will be raised to the age of 67, the penny will be phased out, and about 19,000 public sector jobs will be cut over the next three years.

The budget also includes several plans for the North.

Among the most notable plans is $225 million to repair harbours across the country. Included in that money is a plan to "accelerate" the construction of the harbour in Pangnirtung, Nunavut, which was originally announced in 2009.

Also included in the budget is the continuation of an assessment of diamonds in the North – with a price tag of $12.3 million over two years. The plan will renew the Diamond Valuation and Royalty Assessment program, which is run by the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development.

Other items in the 2012 budget are:

  • The Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency, which has only existed since 2009, will be cut by $5 million over the next three years.
  • The Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development will also see deep cuts to its budget – it will lose more than $250 million over the next three years.
  • Health Canada will set up offices in Iqaluit and Yellowknife. The budget cites that the government wants to enhance its regional presence in the North with these offices, to be able to better deliver services "locally rather than from Ottawa."
  • The Canadian Coast Guard fleet is getting a major renewal, with $5.2 billion going to the country’s maritime presence over the next 11 years. This will include getting new ships and helicopters and to repair existing ones. The budget document says the coast guard is especially important to Canada’s High Arctic region.
  • The government said it will continue work on building the Canadian High Arctic Research Station. In 2010, the prime minister announced the station would be in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut. The budget doesn’t mention any specific funding for the station, saying only that it will announce the next steps for the station in the coming months.  
  • The government plans to spend $1 million over two years to amend metal mining regulations across the country. It will also cap the regulatory review process to 24 months.

Mixed reactions from northerners

The federal government has pledged to spend $275 million to build and renovate schools on reserves in Canada.

The Katlodeeche First Nation is one of two reserves in the Northwest Territories. The school’s principal, Ian Patterson, welcomes the funding, but said it could have gone to more pressing needs.

"Buildings may not be what I would go to first. People on the ground support staff, teaching staff and classroom support systems is really what we need on the ground," said Patterson.

Dennis Bevington, the member of Parliament for the Western Arctic, says the extra money for aboriginal education will come out of other crucial areas.

"We see an overall cut to $250 million to [the Department of] Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development," he said. "We see additional funds being provided to very deserving and important educational purposes on reserves, yes. That will have to be made up somewhere else in Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development’s budget.

"You are going to see the total impact on the northern programs may be quite large."

Bevington added that another program, an Urban Aboriginal Strategy, doesn’t include the North.

Inuit overlooked in budget, says ITK

Mary Simon, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, said Inuit in Canada have been side-stepped once again, as there is no new money for mental wellness or housing.

She says Inuit also need funding for education, as 75 per cent of Inuit students in Nunavut do not finish high school. That means many do not have the required basic education to get better jobs.

"And therefore, we feel our children should not have to wait year after year, budget cycle after budget cycle, for new direction and results. I don't think that's a good way to do business in the Arctic."

Nunavut MP and federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq disagrees. Aglukkaq said the federal transfers to the territories won’t be cut, and that it should be enough money to run programs and services.

"Funding through the transfers, and I'll use Nunavut as an example, is $1.3 billion, which will go towards education, health, infrastructure, and what not," she said.

Money for arts maintained

The arts community in Yukon is celebrating the budget as funding for the Canada Council of the Arts will be maintained.

"That's critical – the Canada Council as an arm’s length funder is able to support a wide variety of arts organizations – the Yukon Arts Centre, the Yukon Arts Centre public gallery which is recipient of core funding that makes it possible to operate the gallery," said Al Cushing, CEO of the Yukon Arts Centre.

"I'm sure that for our theatre companies in town, Gwandaak [Theatre Society] and others, Nakai [Theatre] … are recipients of Canada Council grants as well."

But an environmental group in Yukon says the budget doesn’t go nearly far enough to help the North deal with climate change.

"We don't have much funding to deal with climate change impacts or adaptation, and the fact there was no mention in the budget at all as far as we could tell… Does that just mean it's not on the government's radar at the federal level? We hope not," said Lewis Rifkind from the Yukon Conservation Society.