Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government unveiled its 2016 budget on Tuesday, projecting a $29.4-billion deficit.
It includes big changes to how Albertans will collect employment insurance (EI) benefits, but left out targeted infrastructure spending for the areas hit hardest by the ongoing economic downturn.
“What we have to do is analyze the numbers in particular,” Premier Rachel Notley said. “There’s a pretty major identification of infrastructure money but we don’t exactly know how it’s going to be allocated. That’s a critical piece that we need to evaluate.”
EI Duration and Eligibility Requirements
Among other things, the changes will reduce the time Canadians must wait before they start claiming EI, as well as slash the number of working hours they need to have accumulated in the year prior to applying to receive EI.
EI benefits in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Northern Ontario and Newfoundland and Labrador can now be claimed for a maximum of 50 weeks, an increase of five weeks.
The 2016 budget also reduces waiting periods and the required work experience for new entrants and re-entrants for EI.
“It’s going to add money directly in peoples’ pockets in regions of the country where the resource sector is facing some really difficult challenges – in Alberta and other places,” Hassan Yssuff, the president of the Canadian Labour Congress, said.
Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson was asked about the changes to EI and why Edmonton was apparently omitted.
“I’m still trying to get some background on why Edmonton is not included when the rest of Alberta is,” he said. “I can surmise that it has something to do with the fact that our employment numbers are a little bit better than the rest of the province.
“I want to get confirmation that if our numbers shift, if the economy deteriorates, that we would become eligible.”
The government of Canada divides Alberta into four EI regions: Edmonton, Calgary, Northern Alberta and Southern Alberta.
In January, Alberta lost 10,000 jobs, bringing the unemployment rate in the province to 7.4 per cent – the highest in 20 years. However, Edmonton managed to avoid a lot of the pain, recording an unemployment rate of 6.5 per cent. In Calgary, the jobless rate now sits at 7.7 per cent, half a percentage point above the national average.
WATCH: Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson was pleased to see investment in transit and affordable housing, but will seek clarification on why Edmonton was omitted from the EI changes.
Notley said she also wanted more information on the Edmonton EI exclusion.
“My understand is that it’s because the employment numbers in Edmonton have not dropped as dramatically or as significantly as other parts of the province. That being said… should those numbers change we will advocate vociferously to have Edmonton included,” Notley said.
She added the difference in jobs numbers could be because of a lag between Edmonton and the rest of the province. She also said added having the provincial government as an employer in Edmonton may have helped shield the numbers too.
When asked by Global Calgary’s Morning News why Edmonton was excluded from EI changes, the Prime Minister wouldn’t get into specifics, saying they were responding to areas where people have been hardest hit.
“We got clear asks from Albertans to – and people in Saskatchewan and in Newfoundland and Labrador – to respond to the very real crisis that happened because of the lower oil prices – and that’s exactly what we’re delivering through these changes to the EI program that will respond to what thousands of families are going through in terms of difficulties,” Trudeau said.
The Liberals’ first budget sets aside $2.3 billion over two years for affordable housing, including doubling spending on a federal affordable housing program and adding $111.8 million to help 61 cities tackle the ongoing challenge of homelessness.
Included in that amount will be about $200 million over two years to repair and build affordable housing units for more than 5,000 low-income seniors and $739 million over the same time for housing for First Nations, Inuit and northern communities.
Many of the 570,000 units of social housing the government funds nationwide aren’t energy or water efficient, or are in dire need of repair.
Anti-poverty advocates and housing providers had asked the government for much more – $3.2 billion to renovate old units and build 100,000 new units nationwide – to aid the estimated 200,000 people who experience homelessness annually and reverse years of decline in federal spending on affordable housing.
Iveson applauded the federal government for its three-year commitment to supporting public transit.
“I think we’re all pleased to see a confirmation of significant new investments and some very important rule changes … particularly when it comes to transit,” Iveson said.
“To see $3.4 billion for public transit in this country over the next three years and new eligibility rules… that flexibility, we did not used to have… But the most significant change on transit that we’re seeing is the increase in eligible costs up to 50 per cent.”
So, how are leaders in Alberta reacting to the budget news?
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley
“We are generally pleased,” Notley said Tuesday afternoon.
She said Alberta was particularly happy to see the changes to EI, potential allocations of funds for infrastructure, affordable housing funding and investments in clean technology.
WATCH: Alberta Premier Rachel Notley reacts to the 2016 Federal Budget.
One day before the budget was delivered, Notley said she believes Alberta deserves special consideration in this federal budget, especially when it comes to employment insurance.
“As a government, fiscally, we’ve lost about 20 per cent of our revenue in a 12-month period. We’ve lost tens of thousands of jobs in that same period,” Notley said.
“Alberta has always contributed significantly both fiscally and economically to the benefit of all Canadians and we have suffered an unprecedented drop just in the last 12 months. So yes, we think it will benefit not only Albertans, but all Canadians… We think that most Canadians would agree with us on this; that when times are tough, we come together and help each other out.”
Notley said Tuesday afternoon that the changes to EI could be worth about $380 million.
Notley hoped Tuesday’s federal budget would include at least $1 billion in infrastructure investment for Alberta as well as better Employment Insurance access and longer coverage for Albertans.
After the budget was delivered, she said the province would have to analyze the infrastructure dollars since it wasn’t clear where they’d be going.
WATCH: The Liberal government expanded employment insurance benefits for those in the west and Premier Notley is cautiously optimistic about infrastructure spending. Tom Vernon reports.
Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson
Infrastructure support was also a priority for Iveson. He said the growth Edmonton is seeing cannot be handled under the current structure.
“This is a critical conversation happening in cities all across Canada; I intentionally use the word ‘critical’ because Edmonton is simply not financially sustainable under our current growth model,” Iveson wrote in a blog post.
On Tuesday afternoon, Iveson said he was particularly pleased with the commitments to public transit and affordable housing.
“Realistically, we know we weren’t going to get all $60 billion explained to us in our first budget, but if we have the same kind of relationship that we’ve had in the preceding months getting to this point, if we have that for the next several months working towards the next budget, I think we’ll be in very good shape.”
Last week, Iveson highlighted the issue of affordable housing, saying cities needs support from both provincial and federal governments.
“We’re hearing encouraging murmurs from provincial and federal sources about a desire and recognition of the need to reinvest in renewing the existing social housing stock and building new units,” Iveson said. “We’ll wait and see until it’s actually in the budgets.”
On Tuesday, more details were released.
“Some promising investments in here,” Iveson said. “$1.5 billion over the next five years for a number of housing initiatives, including increased funding for ending homelessness, increased funding for shelters for people fleeing violence… some stop-gap funding for maintenance of existing housing funding agreements as well as a little bit of new money for creation of new units. It’s not quite what we’re hoping for yet, but we also understand that there’s a national housing strategy starting.”
Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi
Nenshi said, overall, he is pleased with the 2016 federal budget.
“We’re seeing investments in the areas where we need to make investments: in public transit, in infrastructure, in repairs and particularly in water and waste water,” he said.
The mayor was also impressed with stimulus spending which is expected to boost Gross Domestic Product by one per cent this year.
“I’ve been saying for some time that the best thing that governments can do in this economic downturn is to keep building and this federal budget gets us on the path towards keeping building,” Nenshi said.
Nenshi said he can’t say yet which projects will benefit from infrastructure money earmarked for municipalities, but he hopes to see a continued investment in the upcoming provincial budget.
“I am committed, city council is committed to putting the new money to work right away in this city – getting stuff built, getting people to work – but we need the province to do its part to determine which projects the money will go towards,” Nenshi added.
Nenshi also lauded the federal government’s investments in affordable housing, EI benefits and student grants.
Interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose
Ambrose called the budget a “nightmare scenario” from a taxpayer’s point of view.
“We have the Liberals borrowing way beyond the $10-billion deficit promise, we have no plan to create the jobs that we need in Canada right now and we have taxes going up.
Ambrose said she expected the Liberals to keep promises made to Canadians during the election.
“The three things that he promised was to keep the deficit to $10 billion, to balance the budget by 2019 and to be fiscally responsible. Today he’s broken all of those promises and my concern is that now taxes are going up. It’s not that they are going to go up, they’ve gone up today. So the taxpayer has lost in this argument,” Ambrose said.
Ambrose said families are also losing things they need.
“We see families losing the education tax credit, we see families losing the arts tax credit, the fitness tax credit for kids.
“I think this is going to be an expensive government for the middle class.”