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Southwestern Ontario group questions spending by Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry

By John Miner, The London Free Press

All they wanted was $10,000 for a wildlife project in the London area.

But when they asked the government for the money from an Ontario fund specifically designated for angling and hunting, they were told the cupboard was bare.

That got them asking how the fund — worth more than $70 million a year, and into which all the hunting and fishing licence revenue in Ontario goes — is being spent.

It took them four years to find out, but the group representing 1,400 Southwestern Ontario landowners, hunters and farmers, say they’re stunned by the answers they got from Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry.

— The spending included $65,000 to buy and sell a house.

— Also included were $4,000 for rental accommodations and $12,251 for psychologists.

— Then, there was money for dentists and doctors.

What the Aylmer Stakeholders Committee, which draws members from Middlesex, Elgin and Oxford counties, says it failed to find on the list was money for hunting and angling projects.

It’s unclear if the disclosures the group says it obtained cover only partial or complete expenses from the fund for the year involved.

“We didn’t see anything too constructive that directly benefited angling and hunting,” said Ken Currah of London, a volunteer director with the group.

The ministry says the expenditures from the special account are justified.


Ken Currah, director of the Aylmer Stakeholders Committee, is calling for greater transparency from the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources about how the revenue from licence fees is spent. (MORRIS LAMONT, The London Free Press)

The group, and a London-area opposition MPP, say the disclosures — after prolonged stonewalling trying to get the information — only leave them with more questions about the spending and government transparency.

The so-called special purpose account (SPA) was originally set up in 2005, with the money to be spent on programs to improve hunting and angling in the province.

A statement released by the stakeholders committee said it had been pursuing the ministry for years to get answers about how the special fund was being spent.

It took until August before it received the list of expenditures for 2011-2012, after the group filed a freedom-of-information request to get the details.

“Not surprisingly, the lack of transparency and accountability regarding the use of SPA revenue is creating an air of suspicion. Fees are increasing, generating even more revenue, yet services are declining and there seems to be no moves to enhance our angling and hunting in Ontario,” the committee said in its statement.

Currah said the landowners and farmers started asking questions about the fund after proposing a $10,000 project to evaluate deer numbers in the Elgin, Middlesex and Oxford wildlife zone.

Turned down, they were told there wasn’t any money for the project, despite the government collecting more than $920,000 in hunting and angling fees in the three Southwestern Ontario counties.

The group started by asking the ministry’s district office for a list of the expenditures from the special purpose account and worked their way up through the ministry. At every point, they were stonewalled, finally resorting to using Ontario’s freedom-of-information law, Currah said.

The list that was released, showing thousands of dollars going for medical and housing expenses, did nothing to alleviate the group’s concern over how the fund is being handled.

“We don’t agree with those expenditures coming out of that account. That is not within the spirit of why the account was set up.

“How do expenditures such as those benefit angling and hunting in Ontario?” Currah asked.

Progressive Conservative MPP Jeff Yurek, who represents Elgin-Middlesex-London, said he’s been working with the committee to get answers since he was elected in 2011.

“We’ve been stonewalled for years,” said Yurek, who said he’s raised concerns directly with Liberal government ministers and in the legislature.

The document that was released raises questions whether any of the expenditures fall under the mandate of the special purposes account to maintain healthy hunting and angling in the province, Yurek said.

“You ask any hunter and angler, and the services to them have decreased and fees have gone up.”

If the government wants to change the fund’s original purpose, to support hunting and angling, it should bring in legislation to do it, Yurek said.

The Free Press contacted Natural Resources and Forestry Minister Kathryn McGarry’s office for comment, but received no reply.

The ministry defended the spending from the special account in a statement to the newspaper, saying staff salaries and benefits for staff performing fish and wildlife management activities are paid from the account.

“There are directives and guidelines in place that govern benefits and staff relocation entitlements when required.

“MNRF staff play a key role in delivering the fish and wildlife management program. Staff funded from the FW SPA (Fish and Wildlife Special Purpose Account) include, but are not limited to biologists, scientists, conservation officers, fish culture staff, field staff and administration staff.”

jminer@postmedia.com

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