OTTAWA - Union leaders representing more than 33,000 workers say Conservative budget cuts are threatening public safety, and lament that the federal security minister won't attend a coming forum to hear their concerns.
The unions, whose members work in Canadian prisons, at the borders and in the federal justice system, contend Public Safety Minister Vic Toews did not consult them before imposing the millions of dollars in cuts — part of a government-wide deficit-trimming exercise.
The Public Safety Department's budget will be cut by $688 million, or 10 per cent.
The government is eliminating a money laundering intelligence unit, scaling back key personnel and dog-detector teams at the border, closing older prisons and increasing caseloads for parole officers, five union leaders told a news conference Thursday.
"We believe these cuts will compromise Canadian public safety," said Pierre Mallette, president of the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers.
The five unions are teaming up to organize a forum on public safety in Ottawa this fall, but Toews has declined an invitation to attend.
In a letter to the unions, Toews says budgetary decisions were made only after careful deliberation. "Every step of the way, considerations relating to the public safety and security of Canadians were paramount."
Just before the unions held their news conference, Toews's office circulated the letter, warning of "misinformation" that might come from the union bosses.
The leaders said they still want to meet with Toews to get more information about the cuts and how they will affect service to Canadians.
To date, even they do not know the full impact due to "piecemeal" information from the government, Mallette said. "The minister has chosen to exclude its public security experts, our members, from discussion."
Following the news conference, a spokeswoman for Toews said the minister would be "inviting each one of these gentlemen to to meet with him to discuss concerns."
But Julie Carmichael denied the federal cuts have endangered safety.
"To make claims to the contrary is patently false and nothing more than fear mongering," Carmichael said in a statement. "It’s unfortunate that these big union bosses have decided to spread misinformation about our government’s measures to reduce the deficit."
The approximately 2,000 parole officers who work with federal offenders were already overtaxed before the spring budget cuts, said John Edmunds, national president for the Union of Solicitor General Employees.
"Now, we're seeing caseloads rise."
Parole officers at halfway houses are seeing an increase of 60 per cent, meaning 13 offenders for every officer instead of eight.
"We believe this is the wrong direction, and not the one that Canadians want," Edmunds said.
Jean-Pierre Fortin, national president of the Customs and Immigration Union, said paring back intelligence gathering will weaken the first line of defence against illicit guns and drugs at the border.
"We have a big border to enforce," Fortin said. "It is that intelligence that helps our members fight organized crime and to target better."
The union says 1,351 positions at the border are being eliminated, though the government counters that the actual number of people being cut is much lower.
Still, Fortin says the elimination of positions will have an effect on front-line border enforcement.
"This concerns our members greatly."