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January 6, 2011

A New Year resolution for Canada

The Canadian Charger

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Maybe it's time for Canada to make a New Year Resolution: that this is the year we'll finally do something about poverty - most of all among our Aboriginal people.

When faced with an economy that may be permanently reduced and permanently more uncertain, are we going to decide that “there isn’t any money now for reducing poverty” – or will we decide: Now more than ever we must pull together as a society and make sure that everybody is included?

Our social safety net, in place since the 1960s, is getting seriously frayed.

Social benefits in Ontario have eroded in value by 20% since 1995.  How many of us could get along on 20% less than fifteen years ago?  Wages too have fallen behind inflation, and thousands of people who used to have a steady job at a decent wage are now trying to piece together a living out of 2 or 3 part-time minimum-wage jobs with no benefits.  And most of the unemployed do not qualify for Employment Insurance.

Many of these changes have been brought about by ideologically conservative governments.  They start by appealing to the values we all hold – for example, that work and marriage and education are good things.  But in fact all these things that would build prosperity and strong societies are being actively discouraged.

Consider the following four stories of folks in Ontario.

They are among hundreds collected by investigators with ISARC, the Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition, and published in the group’s newly released book Persistent Poverty.

Gladys, a single mother, had escaped an abusive relationship and wound up in a women’s shelter.  She applied for Ontario Works and got subsidized housing.  She was unable to work full-time because her youngest was only in half-day kindergarten, and she could not afford to pay for child care.  She found a part-time job that would bring in an extra $700 per month.  She was surprised to learn that Ontario Works would deduct 50% of her earned wages from her next month’s social assistance cheque.  How could she afford to pay for child care during her shifts and transportation to and from work?  After calculating that she would lose money each month, Gladys was forced to quit her job.

Kalil paid for night classes to become a truck driver.  He found a new job driving for a small company.  The company saw him as an independent contractor and paid him a flat fee of $600 per week.  Kalil got no overtime pay or benefits or holiday pay.  His working hours crept up to more than 50 hours per week, but he was not paid for working more hours.  Out of what amounted to $11 or $12 an hour, he had to pay his own taxes and CPP, leaving little left over to cover his costs as a parent with four children.  Working ever-longer hours to make ends meet, Kalil concluded that changes in the workplace today are leading to the disintegration of the family.  He was working for less than minimum wage, contrary to the employment standards act.  He was misclassified as an independent contractor.  If he spoke up for his rights he could be fired.

Helena suffered neurological damage from two serious car accidents.  She used to receive help from the Ontario Disability Support Program because her chronic pain was preventing her from working.  After her husband Ken found full-time work, Helena learned that she was no longer qualified for ODSP.  Ken was only employed seasonally.  “I wish I could have kept my ODSP, so that when my husband isn’t working I could help out financially,” Helena said.  “We’ve had huge fights over money.  So bad that someone called the police and I had to go stay with my daughter.”

Dale, who was on ODSP because of an injury, was supportive of the idea of his wife Felicia going back to university.  They filled out reams of forms to qualify for a loan from Ontario Student Assistance Program.  Felicia was finally ready to begin her studies. But the couple was shocked to discover that OSAP loans are deducted from ODSP cheques.  Dale sought an appeal but was denied three times.  They were forced to reject the OSAP loan, and Felicia dropped her plans for university.

Are these policies that encourage people to pull themselves up by their efforts?  They only make a sham of the “conservative” values the leaders promised to promote.  They trap people in hopeless poverty and create impossibly stressful family situations.

In recent months there has been a snowstorm of reports and studies on poverty and calls to action. 

The activist group Make Poverty History is urging Parliament to support a study done by the Human Resources committee of the House of Commons that has just come out after three years of work.  Some key things it calls for are:

  • Raising the Canada Child Tax Benefit and supplement to $5,000 within 5 years;
  • A long-term national housing and homelessness strategy, as called for by Bill C-304;
  • Measures to help the most vulnerable – a refundable Disability Tax Credit, easing EI qualifications, increasing adult literacy, increasing and indexing GIS for seniors, implementing an early learning and child care strategy; and
  • Major help for Aboriginal People for housing, education and social services, including elimination of the two per cent cap on federal funding.

To sign an on-line petition in support of this report, readers can visit and .

An even more thorough report was released by a committee of the Senate early in 2010.  But in September the Harper government rejected all 74 of its recommendations. 

So public pressure will be needed if the Human Resources committee’s report is to escape the same fate.  (The Senate’s report can be read at - Start reading on page 7.) 

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