It could always be worse
On the bright side, we in the Far East of Ontario are accustomed to making do with less.
It could always be worse. When that axiom provides solace we know that the situation is not rosy. Nobody should be surprised that public services in Eastern Ontario, often considered the forgotten region of the province, will be dramatically changed by the widespread, yet necessary, austerity measures being inflicted on us by The Government For The People.
We all realize that the province is awash in debt, that we get the government we deserve and that the government is supported by the vast majority of Ontarians.
Thus, we must assume that most people are perfectly fine with all the “efficiencies” that are being found in our bulky, bloated and costly public services. Everyone saw this coming, evidently. The official line from the majority Conservative government is that the Tories campaigned on chopping four cents for every provincial dollar spent “and we are asking our partners to do the same.” The conventional rebuke is that if all of the affected public bodies were indeed “partners,” the government might have consulted them before making funding reductions that were implemented after their budgets had been adopted.
Monday, Premier Doug Ford yielded to pressure and reversed this year's cuts to municipal funding, proclaiming, “We're a government that listens.”
At the same time, he stressed the reprieve would be brief, and that restrictions would be imposed in the future.
Obviously, a four per cent budget reduction will require some efficiencies and belt-tightening. Costs must be pared while revenues must be maintained or increased. And taxpayers will pay the price of efficient government, either through higher taxes or reduced services, or both.
Another, less evident, price will be a loss of any sense of autonomy or distinction. Mergers are a popular prescription for financial woes. And amalgamations are on the agenda again as the “Bigger is better and more cost effective” mantra echoes through the corridors of Queen’s Park.
The Eastern Ontario Health Unit, the oldest in the province, will disappear once restructuring of public health is finalized.
The EOHU now serves about 200,000 people in StormontDundas-Glengarry and Prescott-Russell. It would be swallowed by a behemoth board that would serve 1.7 million people in a territory that would encompass Frontenac, Lanark, Leeds and Grenville, Renfrew, and Kingston.
The EOHU has sounded the alarm, warning that restructuring “will reduce the capacity for public health to address the unique challenges of the eastern counties.”
Francophones ought to be particularly concerned since the EOHU is one of the few in the province to offer fully bilingual services. Provision of services in the langue de Molière will not likely be a priority for a new health agency that would be serving a predominantly anglophone district. The EOHU also touts its ability to respond to local needs. Ironically, amalgamation is again being advocated as a means to save local schools.
Area schools must brace themselves for “disastrous consequences” if the Ontario government pushes through its education reforms, cautions unions representing teachers and education
“Decimating cuts to Ontario’s world-class public education system” will be “amplified locally where geography, declining enrolment, and rural economic challenges already place great strain on our rural schools, which are now being asked to do even more with even less,” the unions declare. “Disastrous consequences of these cuts will include classes that balloon in size and hundreds of courses that will no longer be available, severely constraining students’ options for planning their pathways for their futures,” the unions warn.
Municipal politicians continue to offer advice to school boards, as the chorus for mergers gains more voices. North Glengarry Mayor and Stormont-Dundas-Glengarry Warden Jamie MacDonald is pushing for a downsizing that would see the four boards in Eastern Ontario melded into one. We have too many expenses and too few students. But any move to merge will face opposition from many quarters. Roman Catholics have been guaranteed funding for separate schools since 1867; francophones will continue to defend the systems they fought for generations to achieve.
The case for the status quo can be eroded with predictions such as mergers could save $1 billion a year, in addition to salvaging small rural schools.
Larger class sizes are another issue. The United Counties of SDG council has endorsed a call by the Community Schools Alliance to defer increasing the average class sizes from 22 to 28.
The increase in average class sizes is a “dire threat to the quality of education” in rural schools, states the alliance. In small secondary schools in rural and Northern Ontario, there may not be enough students to have larger classes. The only solution would be to close schools, says the organization.
Schools are a hot topic. This was demonstrated during the Save Our Schools movements in Glengarry a few years back.
The potential loss of schools is a concern that is expressed whenever the future development of the county is discussed. Newcomers will steer clear of any community that does not have schools. As services are undermined on a regular basis, a pushback to defend the interests of rural Ontario must be mounted on all fronts. But we cannot forget that Ontarians have voted for a Premier who is not averse to imposing his will on other elected officials and is not big on listening, until the political heat becomes unbearable. Everyone agrees that something must be done to right the leaky fiscal ship. The Tories are living up to their campaign promises, for better or for worse. On the bright side, since we are accustomed to making do with less, the impact will be less dramatic. Cold comfort, eh?