In a wide-ranging throne speech on Wednesday, the Manitoba government pledged education reform and health-care investments while continuing to lobby the federal government for increased funding.
Lt.-Gov. Janice Filmon delivered the speech from the legislature in the afternoon, only a couple of weeks after Gov. Gen. Julie Payette delivered the federal throne speech from Ottawa.
Some of the biggest promises came on the education file, where the government promised to increase funding by $1.6 billion over the next four years.
Another promise was made to transform the K-12 education system "into a modern, responsive, and ambitious educational system that is classroom-focused, student-centred, and parent-friendly."
Speaking to media at noon ahead of the speech, Premier Brian Pallister didn’t provide a specific date, but said the educational reform would take into account the as-yet-unreleased Manitoba commission on K-12 education report, the release of which has been delayed for months by the COVID-19 pandemic. He said that $1.6 billion is "brand-new money" and not reallocated funds.
One component of the reform will be a provincial blended learning strategy that will aim at providing distance learning to more students.
"I would say apart from Duff Roblin’s initiatives back in the ’60s, this is the most ambitious undertaking in education improvement and enhancement at the K-12 that our province has ever seen," Pallister said. "I want to be clear again, it’s not going to happen from the top down because the problem with our system is that there’s too much top-down."
According to the speech, the Pallister government will be introducing legislation that will "better align post-secondary institutions with labour market needs, expand work-integrated learning opportunities for students, and improve the governance, transparency and accountability of our colleges and universities."
See ‘Speech’ — Page A2
On health care, the throne speech repeated the province’s call for the federal government to increase its share of funding but boasted of decreasing wait times and that Manitoba is spending more than ever on health. A promise was made to create a plan that will allow seniors to have greater control over their health care and invest more money into the quality of the province’s personal care homes.
For Manitobans with prolonged disabilities, another promise was made to create an income support program for them and for investments to be made in helping adults with intellectual disabilities find jobs.
"The best social program is a job," Pallister said. "The best social program isn’t an intergenerational dependence on social welfare programs."
On immigration, the speech pledged to create a new immigration program that will more quickly recognize newcomers’ qualifications and to ask the federal government to increase the yearly quota for Manitoba’s provincial nominee program.
Much of the speech was dedicated to outlining what the government had accomplished in the year since it was re-elected to a majority government and what it had done so far to help Manitobans get through the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some of that encompassed taxes, mentioning how the PST was lowered and reminding Manitobans of the promise to phase out the individual portion of education property taxes. Further to that, the PST will be eliminated from income tax preparation and probate fees will be eliminated.
A further reduction of the PST to six per cent, which was scheduled and then shelved due to COVID-19, is believed by Pallister not to be achievable in the near future.
Asked if there was anything else he’d like to do about taxes, Pallister said he believes that taxes are still too high in the province and regretted not currently being in a position to cut them further. However, the speech promised to balance the books in two terms and eliminate the deficit caused by COVID-19 spending.
In response to the blockades of trucks and railways that happened earlier this year, the throne speech promises to introduce legislation to prevent "illegal protests and blockades." The premier said he supports people’s right to protest, but not when it breaks the law or infringes on others’ rights. The current laws on the matter are not clear enough according to law enforcement, Pallister said.
Last week, Central Services Minister Reg Helwer said the federal government was blocking the province’s purchase of COVID-19 rapid tests from Abbott Laboratories, which the federal government has denied.
On Wednesday, Pallister reasserted his province’s assertion, but said that Abbott has informed Manitoba it is one of two provinces next in line for the rapid tests once the federal government’s order is fulfilled.
Several groups voiced their opinion of the throne speech, both positive and negative.
CUPE Manitoba said that any education plans made before the pandemic are past their best before date.
"The province’s ongoing health reforms led to worker fatigue and staff shortages before the pandemic started, and now those issues have become even worse," president Abe Araya said in an email. "The looming threat of education reform has already impacted morale among front-line workers and educators in the school system at a time when the focus should be entirely on supporting our kids."
The Manitoba Nurses Union said the speech was scant on details about health care.
"The 2020 Speech from the Throne leaves nurses with more questions than answers to the many problems plaguing our health-care system. In the midst of a global pandemic, the Pallister government has decided to offer a series of vague platitudes, instead of any substantive details about how they plan to improve health care for all Manitobans," union president Darlene Jackson said in an email.
Brandon-based realtor Glen Tosh praised the government’s commitment to phase out the education property tax in his role as president of the Manitoba Real Estate Association.
Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont had few kind words for the throne speech.
"This is a government that invokes the Depression while referring to the pandemic, but is still following the same mindless right-wing social engineering we saw before the pandemic," Lamont said in an emailed statement. "The PCs’ entire plan is to dismantle and defund the very institutions that were created to get us out of the Depression."
In a statement, Manitoba Metis Federation president David Chartrand criticized the speech for talking about Manitoba’s 150th birthday without making any reference to Louis Riel.
"It is inexcusable that the Métis can be mentioned a historic four times in Prime Minister Trudeau’s Throne Speech, but just weeks later can be entirely omitted from Pallister’s Throne Speech in the very province we created," he said.
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