The high cost of austerity

By Niigaan Sinclair

Previously published in the Winnipeg Free Press June 23, 2023

After winning the 2016 provincial election, then-premier Brian Pallister moved Manitoba’s department of Indigenous and northern affairs under the municipal relations banner — suggesting a radical change in how the government viewed treaty rights, Indigenous rights, and working with First Nations and Métis communities.

The move was short-lived though, and the following year, Indigenous and northern relations were revived. In 2019, it was renamed the Department of Indigenous Reconciliation and Northern Relations.

This is a good representation of the strained relationship between the last seven years of Conservative governments and Manitoba’s Indigenous communities.

These days, Tory Premier Heather Stefanson’s government works with communities to address the COVID-19 pandemic, support flooded-out northern communities, help search for burial sites at former residential schools, manage water, and negotiate land settlements.

As the provincial representative of the Crown, the department is vital, working with First Nations and Métis communities on infrastructure, health care, natural resources, governance, economic projects and fulfilling “Manitoba’s constitutional responsibilities” (according to its annual report).

This work alone demonstrates the important — and increasing — role the province plays in the lives of Indigenous peoples.

Despite this, the department’s budget has been slashed over the years, reducing services, creating overwhelming workloads for employees, and even endangering lives.

While some of those reductions began with premier Greg Selinger’s NDP government, most have happened over the past seven years.

These are the findings of new research I’ve undertaken with my colleague Jennifer Keith, which will be published in a new book entitled: Public Service in Tough Times: Working Under Austerity in Manitoba (edited by Jesse Hajer, Ian Hudson, and Keith).

Our research shows some of the worst cuts happened during the first three years of Conservative rule in Manitoba, when the annual budget for Indigenous and northern affairs dropped to $28.5 million (a stark difference to previous NDP budgets ranging between $40-50 million).

While funding fluctuated during the COVID-19 pandemic, the annual budget remains around this mark — with increases only coming in the lead-up to the 2023 fall election.

Working in the department is stressful and overwhelming. We surveyed seven current and former employees, with 36 years combined experience.

They told us about handling impossible workloads and inevitable problems with personal mental health.

This is deeply tied to deep cuts in staffing. In 2012, the department had 121 full-time employees. At one point in 2022, there were 65. There are now around 80.

Workers reported vacancies go unfilled because of low pay (compared with competitors such as Manitoba Hydro) and well-known poor working conditions.

“Because of the cuts,” one staffer said, “I felt that I was unable to complete all my job duties. However, the expectation was to do so and it did not make sense.”

Employees are expected to make decisions without interacting with the communities they are making decisions for.

“When the cuts came,” a staff member said, “front-line staff were benched and only under extreme reasons were staff able to travel.”

It’s no surprise austerity impacts the quality of provincial services.

“Fewer staff equals fewer projects,” a departmental analyst said.

Austerity actually results in more costs to taxpayers, our research shows. Over the past seven years, basic situations that should be handled within the community have grown into emergencies ending up at the Health Sciences Centre, in RCMP precincts, and on the streets of Winnipeg.

Over the past seven years, handleable situations have become emergencies, seen now at the Health Sciences Centre, the child welfare system, and throughout the streets of Winnipeg — leading to increased costs for policing, housing and education.

In addition, neglected provincial programs and services in Indigenous communities (particularly in the North) need more funding now to “catch up.”

“(Bringing) things back to a level they were at before the cuts,” one employee said, “will cost more in the long run.”

Things have undoubtedly changed for the department in the lead-up to the 2023 election. Stefanson has opened up money for all departments.

Employees told us they were so “fed up with working conditions” they said “recent changes were useless” as no one wants to work for the province anymore.

The biggest issue now is departmental staff are expected to make decisions for communities without working with them at all. “The focus of the government now seems to be on policy and not field work,” one employee said.

Wherever one stands on austerity measures to balance budgets, there is a real-life cost.

For the Department of Indigenous Reconciliation and Northern Relations, it has resulted in fewer services, overwhelming workloads, unsafe situations, and increased costs to taxpayers.

This is hardly reconciliation.

Niigaan Sinclair is Anishinaabe and is a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press.