A land of well-paid workers and willing taxpayers
Published On Fri Apr 30 2010. By Carol Goar, Editorial Board
The most memorable scene in Poor No More, a documentary that premiered this week in Toronto, takes place on the shop floor of a large truck manufacturer in Sweden.
A female employee, talking while she works, says it’s “okay to pay taxes because our system takes care of all the people.” She explains that if she became sick or had an accident, she would get 80 per cent of her wages. Like all Swedes, she is entitled to subsidized child care, elder care, high-quality health care and 10 days of parental leave a year.
A delegation of Canadian visitors — host Mary Welsh and two Canadian workers trapped in insecure, low-wage jobs — listens in disbelief.
The trio moves outside to a Stockholm street. “I love paying taxes,” a passerby affirms.
It seems as if the Canadians have stepped into fantasyland.
That is what the filmmakers intend. “If we can’t imagine a world without poverty, we probably can’t get there,” says executive producer David Langille.
The documentary, a three-year effort, is Langille’s first foray into the world of filmmaking. He is a part-time university professor with an extensive network of contacts in the social justice movement.
Fifty sponsors — from the Society of Energy Professionals to the Anglican Church of Canada — paid for the $550,000 film.
The goal of the documentary is to break the barriers that prevent Canadians from acting to eliminate poverty.
The first is a belief that only a small minority cares. The second is a belief that the cause is futile. The third is burnout. After 25 years of lobbying, organizing, demonstrating and preaching, the poverty rate has barely changed.
This time, Langille and his colleagues want to send a message of hope: Poverty can be beaten, without bankrupting the national treasury or reducing the country’s standard of living.
The documentary is polished, interesting and well-paced. But it is one-sided. Every commentator in it — professors, authors, union leaders and heads of think-tanks — blames big business and its friends in government for turning Canada into a land of poverty amidst plenty.
The story begins in the small town of Milverton, where Vicki Baier, a cashier at the local liquor store, is struggling to support herself and her 16-year-old daughter.
Despite 12 years at the LCBO, she remains a casual worker with no health or disability benefits. When her daughter undergoes a kidney transplant, she takes 10 weeks of unpaid leave. When she is diagnosed with breast cancer, she can’t afford to stop working, so she schedules chemotherapy treatments during her breaks.
The scene shifts to Toronto. Durval Terceira, the president of a construction union, tells his story. He was fired from his first job at a bakery in Portugal at 14 years of age for organizing a union. He came to Canada as an undocumented immigrant and worked in minimum wage jobs, eventually becoming a union organizer and a Canadian citizen.
Baier and Terceira travel with Walsh to Ireland, where workers are no better off than here — with one exception: Their kids can go to university for free.
The trio moves on to Sweden, where 70 per cent of the workforce is unionized, most social services are universal and citizens accept high taxes as the price of living in a country that takes care of its people.
The film ends on Parliament Hill, with an appeal to “common people” to take back their country from the rich and powerful and get Canada working for everyone. “All we need is the will,” Walsh says.
It is an unsatisfying conclusion. But the film puts a human face on poverty, raises important questions and offers an alternative to those who think there is no way out.
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