Not even a crumb from Harper

TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorial Opinion
Published On Fri Oct 01 2010.   By Carol Goar, Editorial Board

They braced for a disappointment, but the brush-off was more callous than they anticipated.

This week, the government delivered its response to the Senate’s 2009 report, In From the Margins: A Call to Action on Poverty, Housing and Homelessness.

It rejected every one of the report’s 74 recommendations. It ignored the senators’ evidence that Ottawa is spending $150 billion a year on social programs that merely perpetuate poverty. It concluded with these all-too-familiar words: “The best long-term strategy to fight poverty is the sustained employment of Canadians.”

The glimmer of hope that anti-poverty activists, people with disabilities and overburdened charities had nursed since last December when the Senate’s social affairs committee released its comprehensive plan to eradicate poverty, went out.

“The government has turned its back on low-income people in Canada,” said Campaign 2000, a national coalition of children’s advocates that has been working for 19 years to keep Parliament’s resolution to end child poverty by the year 2000 on the national agenda.

“The government seems unwilling to make any commitment to work with the provinces to develop a poverty elimination plan for Canadians,” said Citizens for Public Justice, a faith-based network of 1,500 people dedicated to creating a society in which everyone can live in dignity.

“What we got from the government of Canada was: Get a Job,” said a bitter Tony Dolan, who chairs the Council of Canadians with Disabilities, many of whose members can’t work.

Senator Art Eggleton, author of the 362-page report, was less crushed than his supporters. His expectations had always been low. Although his co-chair, Senator Hugh Segal, had done his best to convince fellow Conservatives to temper their message of austerity with compassion, Eggleton knew Prime Minister Stephen Harper wasn’t interested in social issues.

Ottawa’s display of indifference came at a disheartening time for the 3.4 million Canadians living in poverty.

The Ontario government, which pledged to lift 25 per cent of low-income residents out of poverty by 2014, has all but abandoned its poverty reduction strategy. Since raising the Ontario Child Benefit in the spring of 2009, the province has done nothing substantive.

The municipal outlook is bleak, especially in Toronto, which is usually a social policy leader. Voters are in a surly mood. The mayoral contenders in this month’s election are vying to outdo one another, promising to slash costs and impose harsh fiscal discipline on city hall. Poverty has barely been mentioned in the 10-month campaign.

Charities, faced with rising demand for services and shrinking support from the government and private donors, are watching their workers burn out and their volunteers give up.

Eggleton, Toronto’s longest-serving mayor before entering federal politics, insists the battle isn’t over.

“I’m going to continue my efforts,” he said, as he headed off to Yellowknife to meet civil society groups and government officials.

He still believes there is a case to be made to business that Canada can’t afford to relegate aboriginal people, new immigrants, single parents, older workers and high-school dropouts to the sidelines as its workforce shrinks.

He also thinks he can convince taxpayers it makes no sense to pour billions of public dollars into a social welfare system that doesn’t improve lives or strengthen the economy.

Asked why his own party has said so little about this issue, Eggleton hedged, then said he and a few Liberal colleagues — Ken Dryden, Anita Neville, Mike Savage, Carolyn Bennett, Maria Minna — are drafting an anti-poverty plank for party leader Michael Ignatieff’s election platform. “It’s a work in progress.”

That is faint solace to Canadians who can’t pay their rent, can’t afford healthy food and can’t fill their prescriptions. They need tangible help. They need unambiguous champions. They need a path to a better future.

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