Anti-poverty activists put Wynne on trial

TheSpec.com – Opinion/Columns –  Memo to Horwath: Don’t give us a reason to try you
Feb. 22, 2014.   Deirdre Pike

I was a witness at an interesting trial this week on behalf of Hamilton Organizing for Poverty Elimination (HOPE). I joined a couple of hundred anti-poverty activists from across Ontario at the Daniels Spectrum in Toronto’s Regent Park for the Trial of Kathleen Wynne.

The mock trial was tremendously executed by members of the Put Food in the Budget (PFIB) campaign, with organizer Mike Balkwill at the helm. The group alleges Wynne knowingly misled the public by calling herself a social justice premier and then not acting on poverty reduction.

Particularly noted was the measly 1 per cent increase in social assistance rates while PFIB has been calling for an immediate $100-a-month raise so people who must rely on the system can afford both rent and food each month without needing food banks.

Despite her verbal commitment to social justice, more than 1.7 million Ontarians live below the poverty line and 375,000 people in the province Wynne oversees count on food banks each month.

On behalf of HOPE, I said we had been hoping for change with this premier but our hopes had been dashed

Although the premier was officially subpoenaed, she didn’t appear at the Court of Public Opinion. However, Toronto actor Victoria Murdoch who played her was fabulous! There was also a great stand-in for Ted McMeekin, Minister of Community and Social Services, and Finance Minister Charles Souza, was played by a life-size doll.

A strong case was made to the jury, which included a First Nations journalist, an Anglican priest, an Ontario Works staffer, a teacher,and representatives of local social service agencies. The witnesses came from as far away as Elliot Lake telling stories about the effect of poverty on their lives or the lives of the people they work with.

On behalf of HOPE, I said we had been hoping for change with this premier but our hopes had been dashed, noting we could still fill Copps Coliseum (no one would know the new name yet) almost five times with the number of people living in poverty.

The social assistance system continues to drag down the health of its recipients and our communities with abysmally low rates (could you live on $620 a month?), punitive tactics and high surveillance. As I mentioned in my testimony, there is still a “snitch line” to call if you think someone is cheating on social assistance but where can I call if I think people are cheating on their taxes (which happens at almost six times the rate of so-called welfare fraud)?

So no surprise that, in the end, Kathleen Wynne was found guilty by special prosecutor, Jess Bryson. However, it left me thinking about who else may need to be “tried” for a lack of commitment to poverty reduction in this province.

Many supporters of Andrea Horwath, and I have counted myself among them, have been left asking what the NDP plans to do about poverty in Ontario, if elected.

When Premier Wynne recently announced she would raise minimum wage to $11 an hour, I was disappointed with the increase but not enough to turn it down without an alternate plan, which is what Horwath has done.

The Globe and Mail reported on Tuesday that the NDP leader wouldn’t support Wynne’s minimum wage plan and when asked repeatedly for her position on the matter, she didn’t offer one.

In fact, nine days after the government’s panel on minimum wage released its recommendations, Horwath said, “Well, look, I respect the work of the grassroots movements that have been calling for the $14 minimum wage, but I think that what our role is right now is to consult with families that are affected, as well as small business particularly that’s also affected.”

Andrea, as we have told the Liberal government, there is no need for further consultation. The records show the devastating impact of poverty on our people and raising minimum wage along with social assistant rates is essential. Please don’t give PFIB a reason to try you.

Deirdre Pike is a freelance columnist for the Hamilton Spectator who can be quite trying herself according to her partner with whom she lives in Hamilton’s Strathcona neighbourhood. You can reach her at dpikeatthespec@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter at @deirdrepike.

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