Budget session with minister gives answers, leaves questions

The provincial government came to town last week, although the provincial finance minister Scott Fielding and an entourage of provincial officials didn’t stay long.

Flin Flon was one of 10 locations where provincial cabinet ministers met with the public to ask for input on what the 2020 provincial budget should look like. Minister Fielding was scheduled in Flin Flon from 10:30 a.m. to noon for a meeting at Flin Flon City Hall.

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After presenting for nearly an hour, he took input and questions from attendees, although most of the dozens in attendance did not get a chance to speak.

Ten such meetings are scheduled between Jan. 7–27, with seven outside of Winnipeg.

Fielding was joined by Scott Johnston, the MLA for Assiniboia.

“We may not necessarily have all the answers, but I can assure you we will take down all of the concerns raised and all the suggestions and consider those for budget processes,” Johnston said.

“Scott, as minister, will take suggestions to his cabinet colleagues.”

Fielding wanted feedback and encouraged anyone who wasn’t able to speak at the meeting to email in their thoughts.

“We want to hear from you,” he said before opening the floor to questions.

“This is your day. We want to be here practicing listening, not talking for the rest of the session. I want to hear what the priorities for these areas are.”

Fielding pointed to a number of policies that have had positive impacts on Manitoba’s bottom line, but cited the improvement of Manitoba’s credit rating as a big reason to trust the Progressive Conservative (PC) government.

“You got the credit rating agencies saying you're doing a good job, your credit rating becomes better, so when you're going for capital, it costs you less money to do it,” he said during the presentation.

“That is more money for investments we can make for Manitobans and that is important. It also is kind of a third party that looks at these things and says that taxpayer money is being effective.”

Flin Flon MLA Tom Lindsey, a member of the opposition NDP, attended the session and was planning to speak, but with the tight schedule, the minister wasn’t able to get to him. Lindsey had strong words for Fielding, who left immediately afterward, heading to Swan River for another consultation later that day.

“This budget consultation was a sham to begin with because they spent the majority of time talking about how wonderful they are,” Lindsey said.

“There were 25 people, I'm sure, if given the opportunity, they would have all had something to say.”

“Never mind that they've disrespected the local MLA, they've disrespected the local media. They didn't even give them a chance to ask questions or to actively participate,” Lindsey said.

“It really comes down to the illusion of consultation, that they've already decided what they're going to do.”

Lindsey said the NDP has only so much power in opposing this budget. The PCs have a strong majority in the legislature, representing 36 of the 57 ridings in Manitoba.

“It's the local media, it should be the local community, their representatives, as well as myself that are standing shoulder to shoulder saying that this provincial government needs to do something to help people in the north,” he said.

Discussion

Seven people or groups got a chance to talk to the minister.

Flin Flon Mayor Cal Huntley spoke first after Fielding’s presentation, asking for more information on a potential base tax, unifying the area around Flin Flon for services and the carbon tax. The carbon tax was also brought up by Hudbay representative Richard Trudeau.

“Manitoba, given our hydro power and all that, is probably one of the greenest provinces in Canada,” Fielding said.

“That doesn't seem to be recognized in the cookie-cutter approach that the feds have taken. We really think that should be recognized.”

The Manitoba government proposed their own provincial carbon tax plan in 2017, as other provinces had done, but their flat rate of $25 per ton was half of the federal government mandate. The PCs eventually abandoned that plan and were, until an an announcement Jan. 20, fighting the federal government in court to challenge the legality of the tax.

“We certainly have taken the lead on opposing what the federal government has offered,” Fielding said.

Hudbay representative Trudeau called for mining companies to be exempt from any carbon tax.

“Miners are price makers,” Trudeau said.

“We sell our product based on the current amount of price. That tax is put on us. We can't pass it on. Plus, our suppliers will pass that on to companies as well in regards to transport.”

Despite Fielding’s tough talk Jan. 14 in Flin Flon, just six days later, Premier Brian Pallister met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Winnipeg and said Manitoba could sign onto the carbon tax.

Stephen Masson spoke on behalf of the Manitoba and Saskatchewan Prospectors and Development Association, giving another mining perspective.

“You can’t just keep cutting, you have to invest,” he said.

“I think it’s a real statement if you could move the mines branch to Flin Flon.”

The provincial government mines branch, operated under the Ministry of Growth, Enterprise and Trade, is located in Winnipeg.

Fielding said he would take the suggestion to government.

Fielding added the replacement for the Mining Community Reserve Fund, administered by the Manitoba Chambers of Commerce, should be releasing criteria for funding projects soon. Fielding did not give a date.

The government’s representatives were pushing for specific items that could make a difference when a group asked for more investments.

When Ron Black presented on the danger posed to the area by invasive zebra mussels, he called for additional conservation officers to be placed in the area to enforce regulations.

“There are only two resource officers in this area – one here, one in Cranberry Portage,” he said.

“With all their other duties, it's highly difficult for them to enforce the regulations. Many would like to work with the problems. That's the key. We’d like to see funding made available to volunteer groups such as ours to help work with the resource people.”

Executive director of the Flin Flon Aboriginal Friendship Centre, Shelly Craig, called for more stable, multi-year funding for projects.

“We are very project-based,” she said.

“It’s very difficult to get programs and initiate events happening in our community. It's here today gone tomorrow. We lose the trust and belief that our members deserve.”

Donna Champagne and Annette Banach were the two individuals who got a chance to question the minister and both asked for more cross-border cooperation between Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

Champagne, a Denare Beach resident, implored the minister to do more to allow for easier use of Manitoba medical facilities.

“We mostly see ourselves as one community, With about as disparity as one sees a large city from one neighborhood to the next,” she said.

“There is a difference though. We have health disparities. We'd like to collaborate for a solution to resolve these issues that are caused by an invisible border.”

Flin Flon MLA Tom Lindsey said he was surprised no one commented on the general state of healthcare in the region.

“Nobody, not our mayor or any of our counselors stood up and talked about the need for health care in Flin Flon,” he said.

“We've been without [obstetric] services for over a year now. They released their clinical services plan, but you really didn't see anything… I’d like to see the provincial government make investments in health care. I'd like to see them work in conjunction with the Saskatchewan government, the federal government and First Nations to expand services that we offer.”

Banach called for the governments to set up a response station in the region to coordinate resources in the event of disaster.

“Up north here, we rely heavily on Hudbay and we’ve been blessed by having Hudbay,” she said.

“Once they leave, we are going to have a drastic cut to our emergency management, from locally to interprovincially, to our region's lake country.”

When questioned on what the future of Flin Flon might be when Hudbay’s scheduled April 2022 shutdown occurs, Johnston said the government would fight for everyone.

“Our second term is all about economic development,” he said.

Lindsey called for the government to do more to support mineral exploration in the area. In the 777 mine closure date announcement, Hudbay also announced they were stopping further exploration in the Flin Flon area to focus on their Snow Lake properties.

“I believe the government needs to step in and encourage not just Hudbay, but encourage exploration in the north that can help us find those resources that will sustain us,” Lindsey said after the consultation.

“Is it Hudbay that finds the next mine? I don't know the answer to that... but there are other entities here that are looking for minerals.”

To give feedback or suggestions for the next provincial budget, email budget2020@gov.mb.ca.

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