Ontario Auditor General Report finds Wynne’s ‘free’ tuition scheme far more expensive than promised

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Former Liberal premier Kathleen Wynne’s signature “free” college and university tuition plan could soon cost $2 billion annually, a staggering 50 per cent higher than previous estimates, the provincial auditor general has found.

Although the program, which will soon cost taxpayers $650 million more a year than the old grant-and-loan system, was designed to help students from low-income families, there is little evidence that that is happening.

Former Premier Kathleen Wynne’s “free” college and university tuition plan could soon cost $2 billion annually, a staggering 50 per cent higher than previous estimates, the provincial auditor general has found.
Former Premier Kathleen Wynne’s “free” college and university tuition plan could soon cost $2 billion annually, a staggering 50 per cent higher than previous estimates, the provincial auditor general has found.  (Richard Lautens / Toronto Star file photo)

“We concluded that a large portion of the new OSAP recipients were already attending college of university — and paying for it by themselves or with loans — even before they qualified for the new aid,” auditor general Bonnie Lysyk said Wednesday.

In her two-volume 1,128-page annual report to the legislature, Lysyk examined a slew of programs, finding cost overruns and political meddling at transportation agency Metrolinx, problems for patients without private insurance paying for health services when traveling even within Canada, and ineffective development of Toronto’s waterfront.

The watchdog also found “most” elevators in Ontario do not meet safety standards and there are few penalties for scofflaw operators.

She said the Technical Standards and Safety Authority (TSSA), which oversees everything from elevators to ski lifts to amusement park rides, “seldom takes the initiative to protect public safety.”

Her conclusions from 15 “value-for-money” audits are aimed more at the transgressions of Wynne’s government than those of Premier Doug Ford’s administration, which was only sworn in on June 29.

“A central finding in almost all of our audits this year this year was that spending of public monies did not consistently result in the cost-effective achievement of anticipated program benefits or the the proactive addressing of program risks,” she said.

Ontario’s revamped student aid system, which provides low-income students with non-repayable grants to cover tuition and often more, was intended to increase access to college and university for under-represented groups. It reformed the old system which provided a combination of grants and loans.

The Ministry of Education had estimated that axing post-secondary tax credits “was expected to more than offset any increased costs” of the changes, but the auditor found that the “uptake to financial aid to date … has exceeded expectations” and will, in fact, cost many millions more each year.

Worse, because the ministry only “tracks limited data about (student aid) recipients …, (it) cannot determine whether the latest changes actually helped improve access to post-secondary education,” says the report, noting overall enrollment has remained roughly the same.

Lysyk also found that one-third of mature students — those who have been out of high school for four years or more — qualified for grants, but the ministry “did not know whether the students actually needed OSAP support.”

Unlike students who attend university straight out of high school, the income of the parents of mature students isn’t taken into consideration, even if they still live at home and their family earns more than $200,000 a year.

On Waterfront Toronto, Lysyk blasted the joint federal-provincial-municipal agency for failing to deliver on its mandate to transform the city’s 2,840-acre lakefront.

“Waterfront Toronto has directly developed only about 55 acres, or five percent of the total publicly owned developable land in the waterfront area, and provided development funding to other organizations for revitalization projects for just 151 acres, or about 14 per cent, since its inception (in 2002),” she said.

The auditor also questioned the wisdom of the agency’s agreement with Google-run Sidewalk Labs to developed a wired “smart city” on waterfront lands, including privacy concerns over the use of residents’ data.

“In order to protect the public interest, this situation does deserve government study before any long-term commitment is reached with Sidewalks Labs,” advised Lysyk.

As well, she expressed concern about the earmarking of $453 million toward port lands flood-protection at the mouth of the Don River.

On Metrolinx, Lysyk maintained that the agency’s 2016 decision to locate GO Transit stations at Kirby and Lawrence East was influenced by the then Liberal government and by city hall.

“Metrolinx’s initial business cases concluded that the costs and disadvantages of the two stations significantly outweighed their benefits,” said Lysyk, noting elected officials “made it clear they wanted these stations.”

Lysyk expressed concern about OHIP coverage for Ontarians when they travel abroad and even to other provinces.

“Ontario patients who may require emergency health services while in other countries … (are) reimbursed just five cents for every dollar that they were billed by a foreign physician or hospital under the out-of-country travellers program,” she said.

More surprisingly, she found that even travelling within Canada could be costly in the event of a health emergency, because the full cost of services in other provinces or territories is not always covered.

Kristin Rushowy is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow her on Twitter: @krushowy

Robert Benzie is the Star’s Queen’s Park bureau chief and a reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robertbenzie

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RCMP’s sexual harassment suit bigger and more expensive than predicted

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The Royal Canadian Mounted Police need more money to help cover a historic class-action lawsuit after more women than expected came forward with stories of harassment and sexual abuse.

The « need to seek additional funds » was flagged in a briefing note from RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki to Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, obtained by CBC News through access to information laws.  

In 2016, Bob Paulson — then the RCMP commissioner — delivered a historic apology to female officers and civilian members as part of a settlement in two class-action lawsuits.

The settlement — known as the Merlo-Davidson settlement after plaintiffs Janet Merlo and Linda Davidson — covers all women who were harassed while working for the RCMP during and after September, 1974. Each victim is eligible for a payout of between $10,000 and $220,000.

As the settlement was announced, the government set aside $100 million to cover the claims but left open the option of increasing the sum.

That $100 million fund was established back when the RCMP expected about 1,000 people to submit claims. Instead, the assessor’s office received more than three times that number of claims.

« The RCMP will soon determine the amount of incremental funding required to pay for both the compensation awards to claimants above those originally estimated and the resulting impact on the assessor’s office, » wrote Lucki back in June.

The RCMP won’t say how much extra money they’ll need.

« Every claimant who is determined by the independent assessor to be eligible for compensation will receive the amount she is entitled to under the settlement, however, we are not in a position to speculate on the total amount at this time, » said RCMP spokesperson Staff Sgt. Tania Vaughan in an email to CBC.

« The RCMP is continuing to monitor the claims process and the amount of incremental funding required to pay for the whole of the claims process. »

Scott Bardsley, a spokesperson for Goodale, said the department hasn’t yet received a request for funding from the RCMP but is expecting one. Once it arrives, it will be forwarded to the finance department.

Last fiscal year the force paid out $6.7 million to 144 claimants and more than $12 million in legal fees, according to the annual Public Accounts tabled recently in Parliament. The deadline to file was extended until May of this year.

Goodale has called publicly for a « new culture » within the force, one free of « workplace harassment, bullying and sexual misconduct. »

« Those suffering mental anguish as victims must have access to the help and support they need to heal, » he wrote in a blog post this summer.

#Metoo effect

David Klein, one of the lead lawyers in the RCMP class action lawsuit, said the boom in the number of claims is a good thing.

« We’re encouraged that women have felt sufficiently comfortable to come forward and tell their stories, » he said.

Retired RCMP officers Linda Davidson, left, and Janet Merlo share a laugh outside Federal Court in Toronto on Wednesday, May 24, 2017. Davidson and Merlo were representative plaintiffs in a class-action suit against the RCMP on behalf of sexually harassed female employees. (Colin Perkel/Canadian Press)

« We think the increased numbers sends a message to the RCMP and all employers that this is something that needs to be taken seriously and addressed, that everything that can be done to address sexual harassment in the workplace should be done. »

The briefing note says the forecast of 1,000 claims was based on « the information that was available at that time. »

« During the claims window, greater societal attention became focused on issues of harassment and discrimination, including the rise of the #MeToo movement, which may have contributed to the greater-than-expected number of claims being submitted, » it says.

More help needed

As of Nov. 15, 2018, independent assessor Michel ​Bastarache — a former Supreme Court justice — had waded through about a quarter of the claims, rendering 809 decisions out of 3,131 claims.

Late last month, the Federal Court assigned Lynn Smith, a former judge with the British Columbia Supreme Court, as an additional assessor « to ensure the expeditious processing of claims. »

Successful claimants are awarded compensation on a sliding scale, ranging from level one claims — which cover sexualized comments —  to level six claims involving « forcing [the] complainant to engage in penetrative sex acts. »

Guy Versailles, a spokesperson for the assessor’s office, said the office isn’t ready to provide a breakdown of how many claimants have been assessed at each level so far.

« We do not give numbers beyond those on our website. Complete breakdown by categories will be given in our final report, » he said in an email to CBC.

Versailles said the assessor’s office expects it will take another 18 to 20 months to process all the claims.

The RCMP could be on the hook for even more money if a second class action is approved. Earlier this year, lawyers for two veteran male RCMP officers filed a $1.1 billion class action claim in federal court that seeks compensation for thousands of past and present employees for what they claim is widespread « bullying, harassment and intimidation. »

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