The Ontario government’s rejection of shared responsibility for legal aid is an “excuse for spending cuts” that will leave many of the province’s most vulnerable at greater risk, federal Justice Minister David Lametti said Tuesday.
The federal government has consistently recognized the importance of working with its provincial counterparts on matters relating to legal aid, Lametti wrote in a letter dated Tuesday to the Ontario attorney general.
“It will perhaps come as no surprise that I strongly disagree with the path that Premier (Doug) Ford has chosen,” he wrote.
Friction between the Ontario Tories and the federal Liberals is expected to be on full display in the upcoming federal election campaign and both parties appear to be relishing the fight.
In the spring, the provincial Progressive Conservative government announced it would cut funding for refugee– and immigration-law services provided by Legal Aid Ontario on the grounds that refugee claims and immigration claims are properly a federal responsibility.
A Liberal spokesperson indicated this week that the party has already received a strong response against Ford’s policy during door-to-door canvassing.
The Ontario government’s failure to provide its legal-aid program with adequate support will increase the likelihood of life-altering and unacceptable outcomes, Lametti wrote Tuesday, while he cited examples like Ontarians facing the prospects of criminal trials without appropriate representation or the need to escape domestic violence.
Lametti’s letter comes after Ontario Attorney General Doug Downey recently wrote to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau directly and asked him to instruct his ministers to reply to the province’s requests to fill what he says is a funding gap of $25 million.
The number of refugee claims in Ontario has soared by nearly 160 per cent since 2013, Downey said, connecting the increase to the Trudeau government’s immigration policies.
“Because of their decision to increase the service need, we think they need to increase the service resources,” Downey said in a recent interview with The Canadian Press.
Immigration is a federal responsibility so Ottawa should shoulder these costs, he argued, adding Ontario has not been receiving the same level of funding as other provinces for legal-aid services provided to immigrants.
The federal justice department says, however, that provincial allocations for immigration and refugee legal aid are calculated annually based on a formula that was agreed upon by all provinces and territories.
“Over the past five years, Ontario received 62 to 74 per cent of the total annual federal funding available,” Lametti noted.
Canadians across the country expect their governments to work together to support those in need of legal assistance, he added.
“An approach on the part of the Ontario government that departs from that co-operative precedent and seeks to obscure that shared responsibility as an excuse for spending cuts will leave many of the province’s most vulnerable people at increased risk and without legal protection,” he wrote.
“Governments have an obligation to represent and support all people, not just the people who can afford to hire legal representation.”
“After four months, the federal government’s non-answer reveals one fact: Justin Trudeau and David Lametti don’t dispute that immigration is clearly a federal responsibility,” shot back Jesse Robichaud, a spokesman for Downey. “Now, all Justin Trudeau and David Lametti offer are irrelevant statistics designed to conceal the fact that they shortchanged Ontario by $28 million last year and have a plan to further reduce legal aid for immigrants and refugees in Ontario this year.”