Seven things you might have missed in Canada’s 2017 budget
Sprinkled throughout Justin Trudeau’s second budget as prime minister, there’s new money for a special LGBTQ2 advisor, tax breaks for overdose kits, and financial support for Indigenous languages.
What’s missing, however, is just as interesting, as Canada’s nearly-overloaded court system sees scant additional funding, money gets pushed further into the future for the Canadian Armed Forces, and the country’s national security system — and the offices who watch over it — receive nary a mention in the whole document.
Here’s what you need to know about what’s between the covers on the 2017 federal budget.
Drugs, courts, and prisons
On the campaign trail, Trudeau vowed to undo his predecessor’s tough-on-crime agenda, reverse his war-on-drugs policing strategy, and improve Canada’s criminal justice system. Since taking office, his government has been hit with an opioid crisis that has killed thousands, and a rising prison population that has led to over-crowding and concerns about abuse inside Canada’s jails.
The 2017 budget has taken aim at each of those concerns in different ways.
To speed up the criminal justice system — a priority, since a 2016 Supreme Court case set new limits on how long criminal cases can be delayed — the government is kicking some $10 million to create 28 new judge positions on the bench.
To tackle the over-representation of Indigenous peoples in prison, there is $13 million per year for restorative justice programs designed to decrease recidivism and help with community re-integration.
There’s also roughly $12 million per year to improve mental health support for federal inmates. Beyond that, though, there’s little new money to improve conditions in Canadian prisons.
When it comes to the Liberal plan to legalize and regulate marijuana, Ottawa has continued its practice of not accounting for possible government revenue that would come from taxing the drug, meaning that the federal government may yet see a windfall that could make up some of its annual budgetary deficit. The only mention of the plan in this budget is a program, which will run at less than a million dollars a year, to fund “public education programming and surveillance activities” for marijuana, once it becomes legal.
Last year, in a bid to address the growing opioid epidemic, Ottawa removed the need for a prescription for Naloxone — a drug that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose and, often, save lives. In providing the drug over-the-counter, it became subject to the harmonized sales tax. The 2017 budget specifically removes that tax, making the life-saving drug more affordable.
Given an influx of border-crossing asylum seekers entering Canada from the United States, especially since immigration-skeptic Donald Trump has entered the White House, figuring out how to deal with those refugees has been top-of-mind.
The 2017 budget does two things: First, it actually beefs up Ottawa’s ability to reject refugee claimants by kicking in nearly $6 million a year “to intervene during asylum hearings in order to ensure the integrity and credibility of the information provided” with an eye of sussing out “fraudulent claims.”
On the other side, the budget also contributes more than $12.5 million to provide legal aid to would-be refugees who are filing a claim.
In the 2016 budget, the Trudeau government took more than $3.5 billion dollars from the short-term defence budget, and moved it past 2021. This time around, Ottawa is earmarking nearly $8.5 billion in spending for the Canadian Armed Forces and pushing it past 2036.
The government has been adamant that this is not a cut — it’s a “reallocation.” There is no new funding for the military at all.
That money was largely marked for large-scale acquisition projects, including for many programs that have been delayed or restarted, from the plan to buy a new fleet of next-generation fighter jets to replace the aging CF-18 jets, a major shipbuilding program, new light-armored vehicles, and a plan to acquire new fixed-wing search-and-rescue aircraft, amongst other programs. The government contends that the money that had been set aside for those projects is being pushed further into the future.
But now there is special attention being paid to exactly how much Ottawa allocates to its military, given that President Trump has repeatedly emphasized that America’s NATO allies need to start ponying up cash. Washington wants members to spend two percent of their GDP on military. Canada, as of last year, spent just 0.99 percent.
With this budget, that number may slip even lower.
Asked what his government will say to Washington at the next NATO meeting, Morneau told VICE News at a Wednesday afternoon press conference that his government believes in a well-equipped military — but did not address the deferred spending.
Morneau did say to expect more announcements from the forthcoming defence policy review, which consulted the public and industry on military spending and procurement.
Trudeau has repeatedly insisted that he’s looking to build a new relationship with Indigenous people, vowing to work on reconciliation, improve economic opportunities on reserves, and provide clean drinking water to every Indigenous community.
The budget provides for a variety of education programs for Indigenous youth on reserve, First Nations communities in the North, and expanding post-secondary and skills training for First Nations communities.
It also provides $30 million per year to promote, preserve, and expand the use of Indigenous languages that have become more rare over the last century. The budget also provides funding to develop “information technology to preserve oral histories by converting speech to text, and creating other interactive educational materials.”
Conspicuously missing, however, is any new funding to tackle the lack of clean drinking water for First Nations communities. While last year’s budget kicked in some $1.8 billion over five years to help end boil water advisories for Indigenous communities, many said the cost would likely be much larger — and while the 2017 budget insists Ottawa is “on track” to eliminate more than 60 percent of those advisories within three years, but human rights groups have previously said it is not on track to fulfill its five-year commitment.
While the Liberals haven’t announced a new tax on streaming services like Netflix, as many predicted they would, they are taking aim at one digital disruptor: Uber.
The budget would add the federal sales tax to the rideshare service, meaning that the cost of a ride could soon go up by 13 percent in Toronto and Vancouver — and seven percent in Montreal and Edmonton, which have already tried applying sales taxes to the rideshare app.
The budget also hikes the excise tax by two percent on alcohol and tobacco, which will likely lead to a two-percent price hike on both vices.
The alcohol tax would also be pegged to inflation, meaning that booze prices could climb by two to three percent for the foreseeable future. The budget hints that a similar tax scheme might be adopted for legal marijuana.
Scattered throughout the budget are some small initiatives to advance equality for sexual minorities in Canada.
Down the street from the prime minister’s own office, the government will be creating an LGBTQ2 Secretariat, led by the prime minister’s hand-picked advisor Randy Boissonnault, With its $1 million yearly budget, the office is tasked with “engaging with LGBTQ2 organizations from across the country to promote equality, protect the rights of LGBTQ2 Canadians and address discrimination against them—both historical and current.”
Also in the budget is a new measure that will expand a medical expense tax credit to parents who need help conceiving a child but who do not have a “medical infertility condition” — a move obviously targeted a gay couples looking to become parents.
National security, oversight, and transparency
Despite the government announcing that an update to Canada’s anti-terrorism act would be coming in the spring, there is no new money for any of the federal policing or spy agencies — or the watchdogs who oversee them.
The government did opt to make the Parliamentary Budget Officer, who costs government proposals and programs and tests their effectiveness, a formal officer of Parliament — giving it more independence and freedom.
But when it comes to the Security Intelligence Review Committee, the Communications Security Establishment Commissioner, the Information Commissioner, the Privacy Commissioner, or any other oversight body — including the ones that don’t yet exist, like the proposed watchdog for the Canadian Border Services Agency — there is not a single dollar.
Asked directly by VICE News why his budget didn’t touch on any of those issues, Morneau didn’t answer. Instead, he iterated that his government believed in transparency.
Cover: Ralph Damman/Vice Illustration