A man with a grey beard stands in an office lobby.
Sean Wiltshire is the CEO of Avalon Employment Inc., one of the local organizations affected by Ottawa’s decision to slash funding. (Curtis Hicks/CBC)

A group that helps people with disabilities and autism find employment in Newfoundland and Labrador has had a massive funding cut by the federal government. 

The recent federal budget cut $625 million from the Labour Market Development Agreement, which is used to fund community support organizations that help people find jobs. The program started in 1997. That extra money was added on top in 2017.

What that means is organizations in Newfoundland and Labrador will lose out on an additional $16.5 million annually. They can still draw from the $142 million pool the province gets, but organizers are worried about the future of some jobs and their programs.

For groups like Avalon Employment Inc. — and the 17 similar organizations in the province — about $3.25 million is now off of the table. 

“Any community agency in the province, or anywhere in the country, struggles with what is your value. And we know that when we put somebody to work we reduce income support,” said Sean Wiltshire, Avalon’s CEO. 

“And let’s not forget that we fill a job for an employer. So while the unemployment rate varies across this province, there are still employers looking for good employees and we’re able to link up folks with disabilities and autism to those good employers.”

Avalon’s program for helping adults with autism find work was recognized by the United Nations in 2021 as a world-leading, top-level service.

Losing federal funding for groups like his is a major setback, says Avalon Employment CEO:

Federal funding for groups that help employ people with disabilities has been slashed

Sean Wiltshire is the CEO of Avalon Employment Inc. — which has been recognized by the United Nations as a world-leading service for helping adults with autism find work. But that work is in danger, with millions of dollars in federal funding axed from groups in N.L. Wiltshire tells the CBC’s Mike Moore it’s a lose-lose situation — for people looking for jobs, but also employers seeking smart and capable workers.

But even with a 30-year successful track record, the future of Avalon’s programs is looking bleak.

Wiltshire said without the additional money Avalon may have to cancel its autism work program. 

Giving a purpose

Christopher Butler has benefited from programs through Avalon for 15 years.

For the last year he has worked for E.W. Gaze Seed Company in downtown St. John’s. His first gigs were with Zellers and Target. 

A man in a black t-shirt standing in a parking lot which overlooks a city.
Chris Butler has found gainful employment for the last 15 years with the help of Avalon Employment Inc. (Darryl Murphy/CBC)

He said Avalon Employment has been a big help.

“You always need someone to vouch for you, to get your foot in the door, especially if you’re a little shy or socially awkward,” Butler said.

“A lot of people with special needs have depression occasionally, and that’s because of a lack of purpose. Having a job gives you purpose and that’s what you need in life. To have an opportunity to contribute to society, to feel normal, that gives you a sense of purpose when you have a job.”

More than purpose and an opportunity to get out of his house, Butler said his paycheque also helps fuel his hobbies. He boasts an extensive Lego collection and takes part in local Lego building communities.  

Byrne pushes back

Newfoundland and Labrador has promised to fill the gap, at least for now.

Skills Minister Gerry Byrne told CBC News the provincial government has guaranteed six months of additional support to groups like Avalon until a solution can be found.

Byrne didn’t pull punches when asked about the budget cuts. He said he’s drumming up support from his counterparts in other provinces to make a stand against the feds. 

“The federal government did this two weeks into a new fiscal year for each and every one of these organizations. I cannot think of a more callous way to do this,” he said. 

“All of these organizations needed that stability because they had people, clients that were depending on them.” 

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