The 2023 Ontario budget includes several key investments in mental health, skills development and rural internet access, but it falls short of addressing a handful of important social issues, especially as Ontarians continue to face ongoing housing and affordability crises and the lasting effects of the pandemic.
This year’s budget has committed to significant spending on industry (highways, transit, infrastructure projects), healthcare, and critical mineral projects. With their heavy emphasis on funding industry and mining to drive economic recovery, the government has a prime opportunity to add value to these investments by committing to progressive community wealth building principles that ensure that tax dollars are spent locally, and benefit and local and more vulnerable communities.
We would have liked to see greater support for food access in rural communities; a commitment to ensuring infrastructure dollars are invested in local businesses, helping them create equitable hiring practices; action to address violence against women; and a clear plan to increase affordable housing in the province.
Below, we take an in-depth look at how this year’s provincial budget sets out to invest in areas that urgently need support in our local communities, and where we must continue to work together to address critical gaps.
We all need a safe, healthy place to live, learn, work, and thrive. Housing is one of the most basic human needs, and without it, staying healthy in other facets of one’s life is almost impossible. Community organizations like United Way have been advocating for more affordable housing, particularly in rural communities and for equity deserving populations.
The Ontario government plans to build 1.5 million homes by 2031 and invest an additional $202 million per year in the Homelessness Prevention Program and Indigenous Supportive Housing Program.
The province is, however, behind on its 2031 target. Ontario will build about 80,000 new housing starts (the beginning process of construction on new dwellings) per year over the next three years. However only roughly 96,000 homes were started and 72,000 were completed in 2022 –well under the 150,000 per year target. The province must do better to keep up with its target to adequately address the growing demand for housing in our communities.
The government has also committed $24 million over three years to clear housing related dispute backlogs. While these measures will certainly help improve the supply of housing, the government has not provided any specific measures or targets for affordable housing.
In Ottawa alone, we currently have a 10,000-household waitlist for social housing, and as of the most recent census, 20 per cent of residents live in unaffordable housing. While housing and infrastructure projects are a portion of this year’s budget, leaving the responsibility of housing to the private market may leave out the most vulnerable, most of whom are often renters with very little agency.
We must work together to improve the quality of life for rural residents who are often left isolated due to a lack of public transportation and internet connectivity.
We have been advocating for investments in food distribution for rural residents with limited mobility; stronger capacity of local businesses and the agri-food sector who provide affordable and sustainable solutions for food deserts; and improved mobility through affordable and reliable transportation services.
The province is investing $9.5 million over the next three years to improve soil data mapping and soil evaluation, which will be necessary to strengthen Ontario’s agri-food supply chain and local food production. But we believe more must be done to connect rural communities to food.
The Ontario government has also committed $4 billion beginning in 2019-20 to ensure every community across the province has access to high-speed internet by the end of 2025. This includes investing $71 million to the Eastern Ontario Regional Network (EORN) to improve access to cellular service.
Early in the pandemic, United Way East Ontario saw a growing need for devices and improved bandwidth, particularly in rural and remote rural communities. We welcome the government’s commitment to supporting high-speed internet access, including the improvements to cellular service in East Ontario, as a step to address the digital divide.
The province has also committed to partnering with towns and rural communities to grow with a mix of ownership and rental housing that meets the needs of people across the province.
We are pleased to see Renfrew County (RC) VTAC will become a permanent fixture in the community, with $3.2 million from the provincial government invested for 2023-24 to ensure residents have access to health-care services close to home.
RC VTAC was formed as a response to COVID-19 available as a call-in line for all residents who require access to primary care resources. Roughly 30,000 people, or 28 per cent of the county’s population have no access to primary care physicians or support, and that number continues to grow. An innovative health care model for rural communities, VTAC offers essential services that divert approximately 1,000 ER visits every month.
We know there will be long-term mental health repercussions for children, youth and adults who have experienced extended periods of isolation due to the pandemic. Many local youths are reporting poor mental health. The pandemic also saw an increase in gender-based violence as women and their families became more isolated and had fewer opportunities to reach out for help during lockdowns.
As we work closely with frontline agencies, government, and other partners to identify long-term, sustainable solutions to issues exacerbated by COVID-19, we are encouraged by the province’s investment in mental health.
The government plans to invest $425 million over three years in several mental health programs across the province.
At United Way, we asked that the provincial government invest in community-based programming, including staff capacity, pay equity and infrastructure, for nonprofit-driven care services to achieve long-term and sustainable recovery across the sector.
The province’s investment includes community-led services, addiction services, support for children and youth, data and digital health, supportive housing, and culturally appropriate care for Indigenous people. It is expected these new dollars will help not-for-profits adjust salaries and retain staff while being able to respond to the escalating demands from the community.
Meanwhile, we welcome investments in preventing youth violence and human trafficking, but we would like to have seen more specific funding for programs and supports related to violence against women, especially considering the increase in the number of murdered women and girls in Ottawa and East Ontario.
In our region, the United for All coalition has also identified racially motivated incidents of hate and violence to be a growing problem in the communities we serve, requiring investment in strategies that address root causes. We were disappointed that the budget did not recognize this growing issue.
The rising cost of living in our region continues to disproportionately affect the financial wellbeing and employment of Indigenous people, vulnerable women, youth, newcomers, racialized communities, and people with disabilities.
The 2023 Ontario Budget provides several supports for job seekers, entrepreneurs and newcomers. These include:
- $75 million over three years towards the Skills Development Fund;
- $224 million in 2023-24 to expand access to brick-and-mortar training centres;
- $15 million over three years for Racialized and Indigenous Supports for Entrepreneurs (RAISE) Grant Program to help address systemic racism and help Indigenous, Black, and other racialized youth and entrepreneurs with support to overcome barriers to participation in the economy;
- $3 million in 2023-24 to expand the Ontario Bridge Training Program to help internationally trained newcomers find employment; and
- $3.5 million over three years to support skills training and development for people with disabilities.
Beyond these are a broad range of employment and labour supports offered in the budget, in keeping with the government’s emphasis on industry.
By incentivizing the implementation of social procurement policies in government departments and the private sector, the government could provide capacity building support to social enterprises and promote local businesses.
- $569 million in 2023-24 to get more people connected to care in the comfort of their home and community, including $300 million to stabilize the home and community care workforce.
- $200 million to connect children and youth to care at hospitals and close to home, including new funding toward improving wait times, pediatric hospitals and rehabilitation programs, and mental health and community supports.
- $25 million over two years to provide support for students in senior kindergarten to Grade two, including reading skills assessments.
- $25.1 million in 2023-24 to support the identification, investigation, protection and commemoration of Residential School burial sites across the province, as well as mental health supports for First Nation Communities.
Where we go from here
The effects of COVID-19 continue and will leave a long-lasting impact on our communities’ health, social, political, and economic fabric. We continue to see vulnerable people be disproportionately affected by the effects of the pandemic. This budget was tabled at a time when Ontarians are facing acute economic uncertainty.
It is important to note that the current economic environment is unlike anything we have experienced in recent history. It is characterized by record high inflation, labour shortages (despite the fact that the province is seeing record-high revenues and a historically low unemployment rate), a sharp increase in demand for community services, and interest rate increases. Unfortunately, economists have projected that economic growth has been slowing and is expected to be modest for the next year or so.
While we know the road ahead will be challenging, we are a trusted partner to government, and remain committed to long-term pandemic recovery and a sustainable environment for all our social sector partners and the communities we serve. It’s incumbent upon us to continue to track where provincial funding lands are and how it is distributed to impact the most vulnerable people in our communities.
We look forward to continuing our work with all levels of government, by prioritizing policies required to respond to the needs of our communities.