October 15, 2014 2:38 pm

Legal aid tops agenda at provincial justice ministers meeting

The provinces are asking Ottawa to fully fund legal aid and to not cut dollars to drug treatment court and band constables.

David Lipnowski / The Canadian Press

BANFF, Alta. – Manitoba’s justice minister says the federal Conservative government is not living up to its “law-and-order” image by supporting provinces where it counts.

Andrew Swan and other provincial and territorial justice ministers are meeting with their federal counterparts in Banff, Alta., this week. Much of the agenda is to be dominated with requests that Ottawa fully fund legal aid and not cut dollars to drug treatment court and band constables, Swan said.

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“One of the frustrations is we keep having to come to meetings, using up time asking the federal government to support or continue supporting things that we know are working,” Swan said in an interview Wednesday.

“We’re trying to be a good partner, but it’s frustrating when so much of our time has to be taken up simply fighting to hold on to things that should be very clear to the federal government.”

Swan pointed to legal aid, saying in the last eight years, Ottawa has contributed less and less to the program, which subsidizes legal services for those in need.

Ottawa used to split the cost of the program 50-50 but now only chips in about 16 per cent, Swan said. Since 2003, there has been no new federal funding to the program, leaving it to provinces to make up the difference.

“It’s not a frill,” Swan said. “It’s something that must be provided.”

Manitoba is also concerned about the fate of two other programs that rely on federal funding.

Winnipeg’s drug treatment court, one of six across the country that helps turn lives around through supervised drug rehab, is in danger of shutting down unless Ottawa comes up with long-term cash. The court costs Ottawa $600,000 a year, but Swan said the Conservative government hasn’t committed to a funding extension.

Without a guarantee of future funding, Swan said, the court is not accepting any new clients and plans to expand have been put on hold.

“Every western province is equally frustrated,” Swan said. “We all have a drug treatment court. Each one of those courts works very well. We think it’s important for public safety.”

Swan is also hoping to convince Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney to continue funding the band constable program which funds peace officers on 31 Manitoba First Nations. The program’s funding runs out March 31 and Swan said Blaney has rejected any extension.

Blaney has said the program fell short of its goals and money will be reallocated into the First Nations Policing Program.

The 45-year-old program allows First Nations officers to help police their own communities and is particularly important for reserves that don’t have an RCMP detachment, Swan said. Both Alberta and New Brunswick have band constable programs similar to Manitoba’s, where it’s more widespread in remote northern communities.

“You may be looking at having to fly in or take a boat even to get in to investigate crimes. We’d rather have band constables preventing crimes from happening,” Swan said.

“I don’t understand how a government in Ottawa that claims to be in support of law and order would take away something that’s been very, very valuable.”

© 2014 The Canadian Press

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