Inside the 2017 Ontario budget

A balanced budget, free pharmacare, and OSAP adjustments highlight Wynne’s fifth budget

Inside the 2017 Ontario budget

The Province of Ontario released its first balanced budget in nearly a decade this Thursday. The budget features no raises in corporate or individual taxes and pours billions of dollars in spending on health care for youth.

Here is a quick look at the highlights of this year’s budget. 

Healthcare

One of the major initiatives included in this year’s budget is OHIP+, a program that promises to fully cover the cost of prescription medications for all individuals aged 24 and under. Due to roll out on January 1, 2018, the free pharmacare program is projected to cost $465 million per year. This figure was not found in the official budget document but was iterated to members of the press attending the 2017 Ontario Budget Media Lockup.

4400 different drugs are expected to be covered under OHIP+. According to the Ministry of Finance, this will include “medications to treat most acute conditions, common chronic conditions, childhood cancers and other diseases.”

The Ontario Liberal Party claims this program is the first of its kind in Canada, and that it will “ensure that young adults have access to universal drug coverage and parents never have to choose between paying for their children’s prescription drugs and providing other essentials.”

“It’s about ensuring we provide for more of our citizens and more of our people,” said Sousa.

Both the Progressive Conservatives (PC) and New Democratic Party (NDP) have criticized the Liberals for not including universal pharmacare coverage for all ages. “I want to make sure that those precious taxpayer dollars are going to the people that really need it,” said PC leader Patrick Brown, citing “millionaire families that have no problem with drug access,” as those who should not be covered under the Liberal’s pharmacare plan.

Post-Secondary Education and Jobs Growth

The budget also details an “additional investment of $6.4 billion over three years” in education, highlighted by apprenticeship supports, employment services, and the newly introduced Career Kick-Start Strategy.

The proposed initiative will provide about $190 million over three years to create 40,000 “work-related opportunities for students and recent graduates” to help them find gainful employment. The Liberals plan to spend $600 million more in the Postsecondary and Training sector than the last budget.

There are also changes being made to the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP); the minimum salary to start repaying OSAP loans is now $35,000, increased from $25,000. The Liberals also plan to remove financial barriers that hinder Indigenous students’ ability to pursue postsecondary studies.

Housing and Basic Income

Job insecurity in the form of non-standard employment and part-time work has led the Ontario government to implement measures intended to stabilize incomes. In the budget, the Liberals detailed their plans for a Basic Income Pilot, which was first announced in the 2016 Budget.

Basic Income will become available for voluntary participants in Hamilton, Thunder Bay, and Lindsay. People earning below a specified amount per year will receive payments from the government for basic needs such as housing and food, says the budget. The document does not detail what specified amount will be required to receive Basic Income.

This measure has garnered international attention as governments around the world watch for its success.

The province is also looking to expand rent control to all private rental units, and will also be introducing legislation in the form of the “Rental Fairness Act,” which sees that landlords compensate tenants who they evict based on the “landlord’s own use provision.” The budget document states that these measures are “part of the government’s plan to address rising housing costs.”

Anti-Racism

The Budget also features some equity-focused initiatives. In March, the provincial government released A Better Way Forward: Ontario’s 3-Year Anti-Racism Strategic Plan in March 2017. The plan intends to collect race-based data in several institutions, including the justice system, health sector, and education sector. It also includes the Ontario Black Youth Action Plan, which allocates $47 million over four years to address disparities and increase opportunities for Black youth and their families.

Indigenous-focused anti-racism programs will receive $4 million over two years. Over the next two years, $3 million a year will go towards Multicultural Community Capacity Grant, which will fund initiatives to help immigrants, refugees, and ethnic communities to “navigate barriers and advance towards full integration and participation in Ontario.”

Province renews cap on post-secondary tuition fee increases for two years

Renewal to coincide with rollout of new tuition grants

Province renews cap on post-secondary tuition fee increases for two years

The province has extended the three per cent annual cap on university and college tuition fee increases, with the cap scheduled to last for another two years.

The limit was set to expire in 2017 and takes place amidst the rolling out of the new Ontario Student Grant (OSG), which will see OSAP integrated with a number of distinct provincial and federal grants and loans to create a holistic system of financial aid. Between the rollout of the OSG and the imminent question of whether or not the Ontario Liberals will retain control of Queens Park after the 2018 election, there is significant pressure on the government to implement reforms.

University of Toronto Students’ Union President Jasmine Wong Denike views the extension of the caps not as an end in itself, but rather as a process through which to enact broader reform.

“Although I don’t think that renewing the tuition increase caps is sufficient, I see it as an opportunity for the government to meaningfully consult students, and student-run organizations, on their policy suggestions to ensure that as many students as possible have access to affordable, high-quality education,” she told The Varsity.

Denike continued: “The OSG and the extension of the caps heading into 2017 prove to be an interesting change, and given the upcoming Provincial Elections (2018) it gives students a real advantage in engaging with the government to ensure that student issues, especially tuition, play a major role moving forward.”

Deb Matthews, who is Ontario’s Minister of Advanced Education and Skills Development, describes the extension as a stopgap measure before full financial aid reform.

“Limiting tuition fee increases balances affordability for students and their families, while providing postsecondary institutions with financial stability as we work to transform OSAP – making tuition free for low-income students and more affordable for students from middle-income families,” Matthews said in a press release. “Moving forward, we’ll continue to ensure that every qualified student has access to postsecondary education through our generous student financial aid program.”

Wynne shuffles provincial cabinet

Premier announces seven new ministers and more women in cabinet

Wynne shuffles provincial cabinet

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne announced a shuffle and expansion of her cabinet, which will now contain more female ministers. Wynne stated, “These ministers bring experience, energy, fresh ideas and diversity to the cabinet table.”

Some of the long-term ministers who were also part of former Premier Dalton McGuinty’s cabinet will remain, including Charles Sousa as Finance Minister, Eric Hoskins as Minister of Health and Long-Term Care, and Glen Murray as Minister of the Environment and Climate Change.

Ontario’s cabinet will be expanded from 27 to 30 minister positions.

“Wynne expanded the size of the cabinet so she could appoint more women,” said Nelson Wiseman, U of T professor of Canadian politics and director of the Canadian Studies program. “I think Wynne felt pressured after Trudeau appointed women to as many cabinet portfolios as men.”

In comparison, Wynne created a 40 per cent female cabinet, and Trudeau created a 50 per cent female cabinet.

Wynne’s expansion also creates three new portfolios, as she divided some of the larger ministries. There are now separate ministers for Housing, International Trade, and Infrastructure.

Included as new members of the cabinet are: Laura Albanese, Minister of Citizenship and Immigration; Chris Ballard, Minister Responsible for the Poverty Reduction Strategy and Minister of Housing; Marie-France Lalonde, Minister Responsible for Francophone Affairs Minister and Minister of Government and Consumer Services; Kathryn McGarry, Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry; Eleanor McMahon Minister of Tourism, Culture and Sport; Glenn Thibeault, Minister of Energy; and Indira Naidoo-Harris, Associate Minister of Finance (Ontario Retirement Pension Plan).

These changes to the cabinet come after four ministers recently announced their departure, including former Attorney General Madeleine Meilleur and former Chair of Cabinet Jim Bradley.

According to Wiseman, “Election campaign planning begins much earlier now so that MPPs are asked to commit now to whether they will run again in 2018. Since some cabinet ministers were not planning to run, [Wynne] had them resign now to open up some cabinet posts.”

The announcement also included Deputy Premier Deb Matthews’ new appointments as Minister of Advanced Education and Skills Development and Minister Responsible for Digital Government.

“Wynne trusts her advice, judgement, and competence,” Wiseman stated.

Matthews’ appointment to Minister of Advanced Education and Skills Development will see her take on the responsibilities of the recently revamped Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities. Previously, Reza Moridi served as Minister of Training, Colleges, and Universities; Moridi will now serve as the Minister of Research, Innovation, and Science.

Within her new role, Matthews will be overseeing the launch of the Ontario Student Grant program in September 2017, which is expected to lower or cover the costs of tuition for university students. In addition, Matthews will be charged with equipping the Ontario workforce with the necessary skills in order to compete within the global economy.

A bill without a cause

Why the controversial BDS bill failed before it began

A bill without a cause

The first reading of Private Member’s Bill (PMB) 202 at Queen’s Park passed without much incident. However, the bill deservedly received a lot of attention in the following two days, before it was defeated in its second reading on May 19. If adopted into law, the bill would compel the Province of Ontario to immediately terminate all contracts, divest from all companies, and effectively defund all universities that are associated with the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Most of the attention the bill received was negative. In a May 18 statement, the Canadian contingent of Independent Jewish Voices (IJV) called it “draconian” and “outrageous.” Activists across Toronto rallied at Queen’s Park to protest what they saw as an undue suppression of free speech.

Members of Provincial Parliament and co-authors Tim Hudak and Mike Colle define BDS as a political movement whose “primary purpose” is to boycott, divest from, and apply sanctions against “Israel and Israeli academics, students, corporations, businesses and cultural institutions” as well as businesses “owned by” or “affiliated with” Jewish Canadians.

At first glance, it seems intuitive to support legislation that would fight anti-Semitism, even if it has to impose on free speech to do so. If the manner in which Hudak and Colle defined BDS were accurate, there would be no question of the movement’s anti-Semitism. If a business refused to interact with another because the owner was Jewish, this would certainly qualify as discrimination.

However, BDS isn’t as simple as Hudak and Colle’s definition. The 2005 call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions originated from a coalition of over 100 Palestinian trade unions, human rights groups, interest groups, clubs, and non-governmental organizations based in the Occupied Territories and inside the ’67 borders. They came together in an attempt to nonviolently draw attention to and encourage response to Israeli violations of human rights and international law.

This information is on the homepage of the BDS website, along with the original 2005 letter calling for BDS solidarity and a list of demands, which do not include the exclusion or sanctioning of Jewish individuals or businesses. What it does say, though, is that these “non-violent punitive measures” are to be maintained “until Israel meets its obligation to recognize the Palestinian people’s inalienable right to self-determination and fully complies with the precepts of international law.”

The BDS call argues that this goal requires dismantling the military apparatus that harms and endangers Palestinians, legally “recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality,” and empowering refugees “to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.”

These properties would include, for example, the 700 hectares that make up Canada Park, an Israeli tourist destination that was established through Canadian fundraising efforts on lands formerly belonging to three Palestinian villages. In 1967, Israeli military forces razed the villages, expelling their 7,000 inhabitants. In 1972, a Canadian campaign by the Jewish National Fund (JNF) began to afforest the area with fast-growing, non-indigenous pine trees that made it impossible for refugees to find and resettle the sites of their old homes. These villages, and this land, all fall outside of the 1967 borders of Israel, since they are recognized as occupied Palestinian territory under international law and Canadian official policy, and thus, both the park and its Canadian support are by definition illegal.

If this is the kind of business “affiliated with Jewish Canadians” that PMB 202 incorrectly alleges BDS activists are targeting, that relies on extremely loose interpretations.

One of the campaigns underway by BDS movement supporters is centred on the JNF and that specific incident. In a March 2016 statement by IJV Canada, they cite the project and its Canadian support as  examples of the violations of international law that BDS seeks to address. Members of IJV Canada have reached out to the JNF and numerous Canadian pro-Israel lobby groups; they have been categorically ignored, slandered, or silenced.

Maybe it is to the aforementioned campaign that Hudak and Colle are referring. After all, the local Canadian branch of the JNF appears as if it could qualify as a Jewish Canadian institution, and it does appear that the BDS movement has targeted it. Yet, to settle on that approach is a dangerous misreading of the situation. Affiliated with Jewish Canadians as it may be — and though the same could be said about IJV Canada — the JNF is neither a Canadian-owned nor Jewish-owned entity.

Instead, it is a state-chartered organization based in Israel, that the Israeli government empowers to manage land exclusively for Jewish, non-Palestinian Israelis. If this is the kind of business “affiliated with Jewish Canadians” that PMB 202 incorrectly alleges BDS activists are targeting, that relies on extremely loose interpretations.

Furthermore, even if the definition applied, such a campaign hardly falls under the bill’s “primary purpose” of protecting Jewish and Israeli businesses and individuals from harm. The rationale behind this specific issue is clearly based in an incident where both Israel’s and Canada’s hands are dirty with violating international law and Canadian policy.

Legally restricting the rights of people in Ontario to protest such human rights violations, as land expropriation and occupation continues to occur in other countries, is an undue threat to civil rights in this province. Furthermore, the bill is a completely unacceptable and ineffective way of fighting anti-Semitism.

This bill is an extremely aggressive, blunt instrument that seems ill-prepared to address problems that — if they existed at all — would fall under the purview of other legislation.

This is not to mention that Ontario already has legislation in place specifically designed to deal with the kind of discrimination based on creed, background, and country of origin that PMB 202 claims to be addressing: the 1990 Discriminatory Business Practices Act and the Ontario Human Rights Code’s 2015 “Policy on preventing discrimination based on creed.” The former very clearly regulates against the kind of discrimination that PMB 202 wrongly attributes to the BDS movement, and the latter directly outlines steps for addressing discrimination through education, training, streamlined procedures for internal accountability, and the implementation of anti-harassment policies.

If the BDS movement was indeed guilty of all that PMB 202 argues, despite the breadth of accessible evidence to the contrary, then the bulk of those issues would be handily addressed by existing, robust provincial legislation. That’s a very big ‘if’ — Hudak and Colle completely redefined the BDS movement’s entire purpose and practice in order to justify PMB 202. This bill is an extremely aggressive, blunt instrument that seems ill-prepared to address problems that — if they existed at all — would fall under the purview of other legislation.

PMB 202 is attempting to respond to a set of circumstances that do not exist. It does so based on misinformation that could be easily corrected if its co-authors had done any research on the BDS movement at all.

Unfortunately, such misinformation is rife among many similar projects opposing BDS activism. Many campaigns argue that the movement threatens academic freedom by barring Israeli or Jewish people from participating in member organizations. Yet this claim has been proven false time and time again, most saliently in the case of a 2014 conference hosted by the American Studies Association, which featured Jewish and Israeli participants, while still remaining compliant with the boycott.

The primary purpose of the BDS movement is to expose and address the violations of international law and human rights that affect its Palestinian founders most significantly. Yet under the terms imposed by PMB 202, we are to automatically believe that such important criticism of Israel — criticism of the type that many Jewish and non-Jewish students alike actively engage in every day — is deserving of disproportionate governmental punishment. As a student, as a Canadian, and as a Jew, I am extremely thankful that this bill failed.

Alex Verman is a recent graduate of New College who studied Political Science. They served on the ASSU executive, on the BDS Coalition, and in several Jewish community groups based in Toronto.