04/12/2019 15:07 EDT | Updated 04/15/2019 14:39 EDT

Bennett Calls Ford’s Indigenous Affairs Budget Cut A 'Huge Step Backward'

Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s first budget was a talker in Ottawa.

Adrian Wyld/CP
Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett speaks to the Assembly of First Nations national forum in Gatineau, Que., on Sept. 11, 2018.

OTTAWA — Federal Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett called the Ontario government's budget cuts to Indigenous Affairs a "huge step backward" Friday.

The province announced its budget this week, the first under Progressive Conservative Premier Doug Ford, unveiling cuts to ministries. Indigenous Affairs is among the hardest hit.

"In a budget entitled, 'Protecting what matters most,' this sends a strong message about his government's commitment to reconciliation," a spokesperson from Bennett's office told HuffPost Canada.

"Canada is working hard to renew our relationship with Indigenous peoples, and we have backed this commitment with substantial investments and transformative legislation. It is extremely disappointing that Ontario will no longer be a full partner in this work."

Watch: Federal Liberals see Ontario budget as blueprint for Scheer

The last budget under the previous Ontario Liberal government set aside $101.3-million for the department, previously named the Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation.

Indigenous Affairs currently operates under an interim $81-million budget. After cuts, that will pare down to $74.4 million — excluding the $65 million budgeted for "one-time investments including settlements."

Nearly nine per cent of the department's operational budget, excluding settlements, is being cut. Queen's Park said funding for future settlements will be added as needed. The projected cost of settlements were not included in the budget, and were not factored into the previous year's budget either.

Liberal MP Adam Vaughan described the budget decision as a "50 per cent cut to Indigenous services," comparing the department's existing budget (including settlement money) to its planned budget costs (excluding future settlement money).

Speaking to reporters in Ottawa, the former Toronto city councillor claimed the Ford government is angling to make austerity look "painless."

"This budget is a bloodbath, make no mistake about it," he said. "They've done it in a way that they can hide those cuts for months and my guess is they're trying to hide them until after the federal election."

Vaughan explained that the Ontario government has until the end of the fiscal year, after the fall federal election, to make cuts.

I am disappointed that the federal government continues to play partisan games with Indigenous people in Ontario and tactics to distract from their own record.Ontario Indigenous Affairs Minister Greg Rickford

Ontario's Indigenous Affairs Minister Greg Rickford defended his government's budget as one that makes investments and creates opportunities for Indigenous people.

"I am disappointed that the federal government continues to play partisan games with Indigenous people in Ontario and tactics to distract from their own record," he said in an email.

"Indigenous communities across Ontario have been clear that they are looking for real action on reconciliation, and our government is doing much more than just talking about it."

Ontario budget 'lacking in specifics' for northern First Nation communities

Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler said in a statement Thursday that despite the budget making education and skills training promises, it's "lacking in specifics" for the 49 northern First Nation communities he represents.

"We are concerned with the funding reduction for the Ministry of Indigenous Affairs and the impact that it will have on the delivery of programs and services to our First Nations," he said. "This budget acknowledges several ongoing activities with our First Nations, and we are hopeful the government will maintain those commitments."

The provincial budget included a $3.7-million commitment to fund high school curriculums and programs to improve graduation rates for Indigenous students.

Frank Gunn/CP
Ontario Finance Minister Vic Fedeli presents the 2019 budget as Premier Doug Ford looks on at the legislature in Toronto on April 11, 2019.

There is also a promise to connect remote First Nations communities to the electricity grid. Twenty-five First Nation communities rely on diesel-powered generators as a source for electricity, according to the province.

Under Ford, Indigenous Affairs has seen a $20-million reduction to its baseline budget. The department was also downgraded last year after the PC government rolled three previously separate files (Energy, Indigenous Affairs, and Northern Development and Mines) under one minister.

But Bennett wasn't the only federal minister to criticize Ford's first spending plan.

They have great doublespeak about health, education, and safety and this is a hallmark of Conservative government.Labour Minister Patty Hajdu

At a press conference in Ottawa, Labour Minister Patty Hajdu accused Premier Doug Ford "and his cronies" of unveiling a provincial budget loaded with "gimmicks."

"They have great doublespeak about health, education, and safety and this is a hallmark of Conservative government," she said before taking a jab at the federal Tory leader. "You know, it's quite clear that Andrew Scheer would take exactly the same tactic."

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer returned fire and told HuffPost in a statement that former Ontario Liberal premier Kathleen Wynne's "disastrous fiscal policies" are to blame for the province's financial "mess."

"We can avoid having the same mess to clean up federally, but only if we change course this October and defeat Justin Trudeau," the Tory leader said.

With a $11.7-billion deficit, Ontario Tories don't expect a balanced budget until 2023-24.

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