A place to grow?

Finance Minister Vic Fedeli introduced the Conservative government’s first budget last week by saying: “The cornerstone of putting people first is consumer choice and convenience.”

For Doug Ford’s Conservatives, this seems to translate mostly into relaxing the rules about the purchase and consumption of alcohol. Otherwise, almost every aspect of the budget signals a miserly approach to choice and convenience.

The good news for drinkers is that Ontario will permit the sale of alcohol beginning at 9 a.m., seven days a week, in bars, restaurants and golf clubs. Beer and wine will be sold in corner stores. Happy hour is coming back. Casinos will be allowed to offer free alcohol to gamblers. And, tailgate parties near sports events will be permitted.

I am all for a more relaxed approach to the sale of alcohol, but shouldn’t we bring the same approach to the sale of now-legal marijuana, a product that can only be bought online or in one of the fewer than 25 stores licensed to sell it? And, why just tailgate parties near sports events? Why not a casual wine and cheese tailgate party at my neighbourhood park of a summer’s eve?

Streamlining or denying access to justice?

While there is much to comment on in this budget, for now I am going to focus on cuts to two law-related areas.

The budget includes a 30% cut to funding for Legal Aid Ontario (LAO), as well as an end to any provincial money to fund immigration and refugee work. The intention, according to the government, is to streamline the delivery of legal aid to promote long-term sustainability.

Others have a different way of describing the results of this cut. LAO CEO David Field said:

“We will have to look at the entire organization and how we can adapt to the new fiscal realities that we are facing.”

Legal Aid lawyer Dana Fisher commented:

“You’re looking at immediate impacts to defending people’s rights to liberty, to access to justice, to people being able to fight for custody and access to their children, including women fleeing domestic violence.”

Both family and criminal courts are already bogged down because of the number of litigants who do not have lawyers. This cut to LAO’s budget will increase these numbers, which has a profound impact on both the quality of outcomes people obtain in court and on the length of time proceedings take to reach completion.

Life threatening consequences

Refugees face imminent and serious consequences as a result of the decision not to fund legal representation for them. The Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers notes that refugees without legal representation face life-threatening consequences, including detention, torture and possibly even death if they are deported.

“It will throw the justice system into chaos.”

Will the federal government step into the breach to provide additional dollars to LAO for refugee and immigration cases? It would certainly be a good pre-election move for the Liberals to make. However, the federal government is in the midst of its own budget process, which contains a provision to prevent anyone who has made a refugee claim in certain other countries from making a claim in Canada. This is intended to slow down the number of “irregular entries” to Canada made at unofficial border crossings between Canada and the United States, which is one of the countries covered by the budget provision.

Perhaps no joy for refugees and immigrants is to be found at the federal level, either.

Enhancing financial assistance for victims

In 1971, Ontario passed the Compensation for Victims of Crime Act. Since then, through the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board (CICB), thousands of victims of violent crime have received financial assistance to help them cover out of pocket costs, participate in therapy as well as to provide some measure of compensation for the harm done to them.

Doug Ford has decided to scrap the legislation and, with it, the CICB in order to, in the words of the budget “reduce administrative costs” and replace it with an “enhanced victims’ financial assistance program.”

I am not sure what about it will be enhanced, since the plan will save $23 million a year while reinvesting $6 million annually in “victim services.” This is a broad and vague term, and there is no guarantee it will be directed towards the current mandate of the CICB. Coupled with earlier statements from the Ministry of the Attorney General, which will take on management of the new assistance program, that it plans to rationalize all victim services to develop an integrated system free from duplication and overlap my blog, there is much to be concerned about.

Perhaps it’s time for a tailgate party to raise money for everything this government is cutting.

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