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National

Liberals prepare to spend $50M on social-finance plan, but no strategy for now

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OTTAWA — The Liberals made their first $50-million move Wednesday in a plan to finance experimental ways to deliver social services, intending to help small social-service organizations understand how to apply for a much bigger pot of money starting next year.

It’s uncharted water for both the government and the organizations it hopes will share hundreds of millions of dollars more, and the early part of the voyage has been rough.

Federal officials have been working on a strategy for social finance, as it’s known, for years, hoping to bring private funding, incentives and discipline into social services governments provide themselves or directly fund.

The idea is that private backers partner with a group or organization to fund new ways of helping people improve their job skills or health, for instance, with public dollars flowing in if the partnership produces measurable results — shifting the financial risk off the public purse.

The Liberals have promised $755 million over 10 years for a social-finance fund.

There is also the $50 million over two years to teach those organizations about a process that they have rarely, if ever, had any experience with. The government said Wednesday it is turning to 17 existing social-finance organizations, which will move the $50 million to smaller groups to make sure the larger fund, when it launches in 2020, doesn’t sit idle because no one knows how to apply.

“These organizations are looking for ways to make a difference not only from an economic, but also from a social and environmental, perspective. I am very hopeful and very confident that they will,” Social Development Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said in an interview.

Andrew Chunilall, CEO of the Community Foundations of Canada, said there is no way to be sure what benchmarks are needed to measure the spending’s success, pointing to the relatively new financing territory the country is traversing.

“It is about not knowing what the outcome is going to be and stepping into the space of uncertainty and just be willing to determine success on a set of variables you hadn’t contemplated in the first hand,” said Chunilall, whose organization will have a hand in how almost half the $50 million is spent.

“That really is a new way of thinking, it’s the way that this next generation of entrepreneurs is thinking.”

Duclos acknowledged that the unknowns have not made it easy for officials try to chart a policy path to make federal rules friendlier to the sector.

The government announced a new advisory council Wednesday to help guide federal efforts.

“It’s never been done before so the federal government has no experience in doing these things,” Duclos said. “It’s natural that people are talking about different mechanisms. That’s not only natural, but it’s a great thing because it’s going to make sure that these historic investments are going to be very impactful across Canada.”

Problems appeared to arise late last year when officials from Employment and Social Development Canada (Duclos’ department) and the Finance Department disagreed sharply about how the government should use the $755 million, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the behind-the-scenes talk who have spoken to The Canadian Press under condition of anonymity to detail private events.

The last version of the plan suggested a fund manager and secretariat be housed inside ESDC with an advisory council of external experts making funding recommendations. Duclos said the government is considering different options, with conversations taking place with outside organizations.

Sources also said the Canada Revenue Agency has balked at rewriting the tax code to allow non-profits to run socially motivated companies that would turn profits, which could then be reinvested, without fear of losing their tax-exempt status. 

Documents previously obtained by The Canadian Press under the access-to-information law suggested such a change would put small, for-profit businesses at a competitive disadvantage.

Jordan Press, The Canadian Press


National

Ethnic media aim to help maintain boost in voting by new Canadians

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OTTAWA — Zuhair Alshaer spends most of his day editing articles and organizing interviews with politicians for his Ottawa-based Arab Canada newspaper, to introduce Arabic-speaking new Canadians to federal politics.

The community Alshaer’s paper serves is growing — more immigrants are arriving in Canada from Africa, Asia and the Middle East than ever before, surpassing Europe that was once the dominant source.

And it is also becoming more politically engaged: The voting rate of immigrant from West Central Asia and the Middle East increased to 73 per cent in the 2015 election from the 57 per cent recorded four years earlier, the largest increase among the 10 immigrant regions studied by Statistics Canada.

For Alshaer, and other ethnic media outlets, all his efforts are aimed at helping Arabic-speaking new Canadians kick isolation and get involved in politics.

“We’re trying to encourage our audience to integrate,” he said. “We show them how important is to participate in politics.”

Research published by Statistics Canada in 2016 highlighted that new Canadians made up about one-fifth of the voting population. Their numbers are likely to increase in the coming years: Statistics Canada projects the proportion of foreign-born individuals who immigrated to Canada could reach between 25 per cent and 30 per cent by 2036.

Alshaer, a Palestinian immigrant who came to Canada 20 years ago, is hoping that his monthly newspaper, launched three years ago, will connect his community with federal politics, so more people cast a ballot on Oct. 21.

“We should believe that Canada is our country and behave accordingly,” he said.

The most recent issue of his newspaper, published earlier this month, included an op-ed signed by Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, and an extended interview with Conservative finance critic Pierre Poilievre, who are seeking re-election in their respective Ottawa-area seats.

“We worked on building trust between our audience and the politicians and candidates,” said Alshaer, the paper’s editor-in-chief. “We don’t have any affiliation with any candidate or political party.”

But newcomers from countries with no established democratic traditions is an obstacle that makes participating in Canadian politics more challenging. Research has also shown that lower-income individuals — a group that includes newcomers — may not see voting as a priority for because they are more focused on more immediate concerns, adding another obstacle.

“A lot of newcomers, in the first few years, are facing tremendous anxiety and challenges when it comes to economic and social integration,” said Liberal MP Omar Alghabra, who was born in Saudi Arabia to a Syrian family and immigrated to Canada about 30 years ago.

Statistics Canada data show that turnout rates for established immigrants, defined as those who lived in the country for at least 10 years, was a few points higher in 2015 than recent immigrants.

Overall, turnout rates were up by 14.4 percentage points in 2015 compared to the 2011 election, Statistics Canada said, with above-average increases recorded for newcomers from West Central Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

Getting used to the idea of voting “takes a few years for newcomers to wrap their heads around it,” Algabra said. He added it was important to explain to new Canadians that the outcomes of the election “will have an immediate impact on their lives” and each outcome could mean different things to different people.

A few of the volunteers with Algabra’s re-election campaign are newcomers. Some don’t even have their permanent residency or citizenship, but are “excited about living in a country with a society that encourages participation and democratic practices,” Algabra said.

“I’ve also seen a group of newcomers who are extremely excited about earning their Canadian citizenship,” Alghabra said. “They are really keen on not only voting, but also participating in democratic process.”

Maan Alhmidi, The Canadian Press

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National

Saskatchewan abandons commitment to improve northern airport after crash: chief

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Louie Mercredi of the Fond du Lac Denesuline First Nation

REGINA — A chief of a remote Saskatchewan First Nation says the province’s decision not to help improve an airport runway in his community while doing so in a city outside Regina shows racism.

Louie Mercredi of the Fond du Lac Denesuline First Nation says the province is abandoning its commitment to develop the runway near his isolated northern reserve.

He says the airport is in poor condition and the runway needs to be expanded. He’s been pushing for changes since one person died and nine were seriously injured following a plane crash there in December 2017.

Lori Carr, minister of government relations, says the province didn’t receive a completed application for the project.

She says officials requested in June that the First Nation hand in a full application, but it was not done.

“It should not come down to an application,” Mercredi told a news conference in Regina on Thursday.

“I have told my people that we are getting a runway upgraded so the province (has) created a liar. I’ve lied to my people.”

Mercredi said the province was almost done with the design of the project. He says the First Nation submitted an application in March, but it was incomplete because staff lacked technical expertise.

He wants the province to help finish the application and fund the project, since the government committed to doing so.

“Now that I’ve found out a Moose Jaw airport application was also late and that was accepted by the province, what is going on here?” he said.

“Are they just supporting their ridings? What I’m seeing is racism here.”

“This airport is the only access point for many northern communities and the fact that needed improvements still haven’t been made is ridiculous,” said Opposition infrastructure critic Buckley Belanger.

A runway expansion for Moose Jaw was one of nearly 30 projects the province brought to the federal government in a request for infrastructure funding, which has been the subject of an ongoing dispute between Saskatchewan and Ottawa.

The Saskatchewan NDP said the government has been engaged in “partisan finger-pointing” over infrastructure funding.

Mercredi said he has sent about a dozen letters to the provincial government seeking updates to his proposal and was under the impression the province was still committed to paying for runway improvements.

“Still ’til today no response.”

He said he learned through a news report that the runway wasn’t a priority for the province.

Deputy premier Gord Wyant has said the upgrades are not a priority for the government this budget year.

“What is more important than human lives?” Mercredi asked.

“What kind of government is this when they prioritize landfills before human lives?”

Bobby Cameron, chief of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, said applications shouldn’t be the issue and the province should focus on safety.

Mercredi said the Fond du Lac runway isn’t safe for larger aircraft, so people are transported on smaller planes and their flights are consistently delayed.

As well, he said, most of their food is flown in and that’s fallen behind due to having to downsize the planes being used.

Carr said Fond du Lac’s existing runway is safe and the Transportation Safety Board didn’t find the airstrip contributed to the 2017 crash.

The safety board said in a report in December that the pilot of the plane took off despite noticing ice on the aircraft during a pre-flight inspection.

The board said people using remote, northern airports are at substantial risk because of a lack of proper equipment for de-icing planes.

The federal government announced in February that it was spending $12 million for safety upgrades at the airport.

Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press

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