The Canadian Federation of Independent Business welcomed the government’s decision to begin phasing out education property taxes, saying that farmers and businesses now pay a disproportionate amount of such levies (60 per cent of the provincial total, by its calculation).
"I think this is help that is very, very needed and can’t come soon enough," said Jonathan Alward, director of provincial affairs for the CFIB in Manitoba.
The organization was alarmed at first that the throne speech referred only to reducing property taxes paid by individuals, but government officials confirmed that it would also apply to farms and businesses.
The Manitoba Chambers of Commerce applauded a plan to establish a new, independent private-sector-led economic development agency to attract new investment to the province and promote international trade. "I was intrigued by that," said president Chuck Davidson, adding that eliminating the education property tax and promising to balance the provincial budget within the next two terms was good news for business.
What the throne speech was missing was a "sector-specific" program to help businesses in tourism and hospitality hit hardest by the pandemic and a plan to provide better connectivity to rural Manitobans learning and working from home." In rural Manitoba, there's a need for increased investment in digital infrastructure," Davidson said.
Manitoba Federation of Labour president Kevin Rebeck said he expected to see more attention paid to the government’s plans to keep the public safe and people working during the pandemic. Manitobans are concerned about their jobs, about their future and about long lineups to get screened for COVID-19, he said.
"I learned a whole lot more about the 4-H (youth development organization) than I did about what this province is doing for COVID-19 testing, and that’s wrong," he said, referring to a section in the speech that promises to establish a 4-H endowment strategy.
Rebeck did commend the government, however, for its role in encouraging Ottawa to introduce paid sick leave for workers who need to take time off due to COVID-19, and for vowing to take action on the provincial end to make it happen.
The throne speech promised to develop "a modern child-care system and funding model that will enable and support the child-care sector to grow in line with demand from Manitoba families." The executive director of the Manitoba Child Care Association says before it can grow, the long-underfunded sector needs some major repairs to its foundation. Executive director Jodie Kehl said the province needs to increase operating grants to facilities by at least 15 per cent to make up for the past four years of frozen funding levels and the increased cost of operating safely during the pandemic. "We know the frozen funding has wreaked havoc on the system and the strains that were there pre-COVID are more so today," Kehl said. One in seven programs that operated prior to the pandemic, for instance, has not yet been able to reopen.
Announcing a plan to change the Manitoba Assistance Act and move people off welfare and into jobs during a pandemic and a recession was met with derision by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. "This provincial government is attacking the poor when they are down," said Molly McCracken, Manitoba director. "Social assistance is atrocious, single adults can't get their heads above water with $800 a month. Thousands are joining provincial welfare rolls due to job losses and the end of (Canada Emergency Response Benefit).... They just ended the eviction moratorium without a plan, which will push, potentially, thousands into homelessness right before winter."
Reconciliation and blockades
Plans to erect a monument to Chief Peguis on the grounds of the legislature to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Selkirk Treaty and the contributions of Saulteaux Chief Peguis was welcomed by Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief Garrison Settee. Recognition of the need to expedite Treaty Land Entitlement was also appreciated, he said. What Settee objected to was legislation that would prevent blockades, noting it was a blockade by four northern First Nations that made sure COVID-19 didn't arrive with workers at the Keeyask dam construction site and Manitoba Hydro addressed their concerns. "It is absolutely our democratic right to protest," he said.
Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Arlen Dumas also objected to the legislation. "I am very concerned by the proposed ‘blockades’ legislation… If this proposed legislation is passed, First Nations in Manitoba will not tolerate this attack on our civil liberties."
Making up for the revenue lost by phasing out the education property tax beginning next year worries the president of the Manitoba School Board Association. "We continue to have questions around what funding looks like in a world where over 40 per cent, which is a big number, is going to be phased out," Alan Campbell said. "The commitment to boost education funding by $1.6 billion is welcome news, but with the balance of phasing out property-tax funding… what comes out in the wash will remain to be seen."
The Manitoba Teachers’ Society is waiting to see how a "blended learning strategy" with remote and in-class learning options would work. "We certainly are very interested in what that might look like," said president James Bedford. "We can’t have a classroom teacher doing two jobs at the same time."
The province's plan to "align" post-secondary education with "labour market needs" is "unacceptable," says the Manitoba chapter of the Canadian Federation of Students’ chairman Brenden Gali. "In the throne speech today we heard that this government not only wants to control how our post-secondary institutions are funded, but also threatens student choices in what they study. This is unacceptable and this government is telling students and faculty that they don’t respect their environments of learning."
— Carol Sanders, Larry Kusch and Maggie Macintosh