Infrastructure cutbacks highlight government’s shaky commitment to north

A $500 million cutback in projected stimulus spending in last week’s budget should be seen as disconcerting for communities in the north, many of whom were shut-out of the funds made available last year. This is on top of an additional $1.5 billion of stimulus that was left on the cutting-room floor last year; money that was not brought forward to this calendar year.

What might appear as a prudent, half-billion dollar cutback in this year’s budget is in fact a worrisome sign that Canada’s response to the economic crisis has become much softer than was originally anticipated. The combined $2 billion total reduction in this fund could have funded a lot of employment opportunities, especially in Northern communities who have arguably the most need for this type of economic assistance.

Projects like the multiplex in Elliot Lake, upgrades to the Gore Bay airport, and the pellet cogeneration plant in Opasatika, just to name a few – would have provided economic benefits for their communities in the short-term and for years to come. Yet the government is paring dollars away from the stimulus budget instead of staying committed to the vision of economic recovery they set out just last year.

This would be acceptable if Canada’s recovery was undeniable, but it is fragile at best. Most jobs created have been low-paying. They are not equivalent replacements for the jobs lost throughout the recession.

Also seen as problematic is the way the stimulus money has been tied to matching funds. Not every community has access to the kind of money needed to pursue the projects that would make sense for them. Arguably, the small northern communities hit so hard by the events of the past year and half would benefit more than their economically diverse, centrally located cousins.

New Democrats have long been calling for a portion of the gas tax to be delivered to local governments to help them forge their own destiny. If that were the case, there would have been more money available for these communities to match the funds that were available, but have now dried up. Still, we have seen how even when the communities were able to match funds, the government was reluctant to actually buy into many proposals.

The idea that 20% of the stimulus budget has yet to flow is also a bit misleading. The money is all spoken for. There will be no new projects announced, just payment for jobs that will happen this fiscal year, as opposed to last. The money cut this year and left unspent last year, $2 billion in wiggle room, would look pretty good right now, especially if your community would like another kick at the can with a refined proposal.