Not enough action on poverty file – Opinion – Not enough action on poverty file
December 29, 2008. Avvy Go

Many people of Chinese descent believe that to welcome the new year, we must first send off the old by cleaning our homes, paying off our debts and taking care of the unfinished business of the past year. Only by putting our house in order can we fully embrace all the prosperity that a new year brings.

For many Ontarians who live on the margins of our society, however, unfinished business cannot be taken care of without some help from government. And as 2008 draws to a close, there is little sign that help will be forthcoming any time soon.

This is a good time to remind both the provincial and the federal governments about a few matters that, had action been taken, would have made lives a bit easier and the future a touch brighter for many.

On July 25, Ontario’s attorney general released a report by Professor Michael Trebilcock on the legal aid system. The report confirmed the need for an immediate infusion of additional resources and the extension of legal aid services to the middle class and the working poor.

But as of today, the attorney general has made no promise to implement any of Trebilcock’s recommendations, citing, among other reasons, the lack of public appetite to invest more money in the legal system, as opposed to health care or education. Yet this perceived lack of public support has never stopped the same government from giving crown attorneys a raise or handing out more money to police.

Without access to legal aid, the poor in this province have no access to justice. Their legal issues either remain unresolved or are decided in a manner adverse to their interests. How can you welcome the new year if you are faced with the prospect of a jail term or are on the verge of eviction from your home because no one is there to help you navigate the legal system?

Then there is the Review of the Roots of Youth Violence report, which was released on Nov. 14 by Roy McMurtry, a former chief justice of Ontario, and Alvin Curling, a former speaker of the Ontario Legislature. Their report made a strong case for the repair of the disintegrating social support network as a way of addressing the roots of violence, including poverty, racism, poor housing and inadequate youth mental health services. It urged the government to strengthen communities by providing stable funding for agencies that serve disadvantaged communities.

While many of the measures outlined in the report do require substantial amounts of public investment, the cost of inaction will be even greater – and will be borne by youths from racialized and other disadvantaged communities for years to come.

Then there is the poverty reduction plan, announced on Dec. 4, as the blueprint to address a long-standing issue facing many Ontarians. However welcome this initiative might have been, it fell short of dealing with the growing economic disparities in Ontario, which are experienced most markedly by members of racialized communities and other disadvantaged groups. The persistent nature of poverty faced by these communities cannot be mitigated by a narrowly defined plan that focuses on child poverty without offering real solutions to eradicate the poverty faced by the parents of these children.

Finally, there is the joint announcement by the provincial and federal governments to provide a $4 billion bailout to the auto industry. To some, this was good news. Yet there was little assurance that the good fortune bestowed upon the Detroit Three would be spread equitably. Unlike those employed at GM, Ford and Chrysler plants, the vast majority of the working poor in Ontario are immigrants and members of racialized communities who work in non-unionized workplaces. The better educated they are, the darker their future in the upcoming recession, according to a new Statistics Canada report.

The fact that the troubles faced by these so-called “established” immigrants are not temporary means that permanent solutions are needed. The auto bailout does nothing to remove the barriers to employment that exist in our economy.

It will take more than a new year’s broom to sweep away the troubles our society faces. It will take political commitment and public support to make sure that the prosperity a new year should bring is shared by all.

Avvy Go is director of the Metro Toronto Chinese & Southeast Asian Legal Clinic.

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