Harper throws National Council of Welfare on the scrap heap

Posted on April 13, 2012 in Inclusion Policy Context

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TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion
Published On Thu Apr 12 2012.   By Carol Goar, Editorial Board

It was a throwaway line in Jim Flaherty’s budget; a throwaway institution in Stephen Harper’s Ottawa.

Deeply buried in an attachment to the 2012 budget was a one-sentence announcement that the National Council of Welfarehad been axed.

For a few days anti-poverty activists thought low-income Canadians had been spared. By the time they discovered the truth, all they could do was mourn the demise of another once-proud social agency.

Since 1962, the National Council of Welfare had held up a mirror to the nation, highlighting the pockets of poverty and warning policy-makers of the consequences of neglecting those in need. It gave non-profit groups the facts they needed to speak credibly about hardship in a land of plenty. It tracked the emergence and growth of a crack in society between the comfortably well-off and the struggling. And it brought together social policy thinkers to find solutions to poverty — or at least keep the debate alive.

Now it’s gone. Kellie Leitch, parliamentary secretary to the minister of human resources, dismissed the loss offhandedly. “We are putting our policy resources to best use and reducing duplication,” she said, pointing to Campaign 2000 and Canada Without Poverty as high-profile non-profit organizations serving the same role.

Actually they don’t. They don’t have a government mandate “to advise the (human resources) minister on matters concerning poverty and the realities of low-income Canadians.” They don’t have the resources to buy Statistics Canada’s unpublished data. They don’t have the statutory authority to create opportunities for the poor to participate in the national decision-making process.

But Leitch’s rationale scarcely mattered. Everybody working in the field knew the real reason the Conservatives dumped the agency was that it was an unwanted piece of Liberal baggage. They hadn’t listened to it in years. They didn’t want to be nagged about poverty, inequality or social responsibility.

Scrapping the council saved an easy $1.1 million.

Only one MP, New Democrat Carol Hughes, challenged the decision in Parliament.

There was no outcry from the provinces. They were happy to keep their own actions out of the spotlight. Ontario just froze its welfare rate at $599 per month and halved this year’s increase in the provincial child benefit.

The Star was the only media outlet that reported the death of the National Council of Welfare. Other newspapers and broadcast outlets — even the publicly owned CBC — didn’t consider it newsworthy.

That left the churches, food banks and social agencies to protest. But most of them are so overwhelmed coping with surging demand in the face of dwindling donations that they can’t afford to engage in advocacy.

Moreover, they’re weary.

They fought to save the long-form census, the best source of information on living conditions in Canada, and lost.

They fought for decent social assistance rates and lost.

They fought for the 60 per cent of jobless workers excluded from the employment insurance system, only to be told by Human Resources Minister Diane Finley: “We do not want to make it lucrative for them to stay home and get paid.”

There are still reasons — albeit tenuous ones — for hope.

Last week, Opposition Leader Thomas Mulcair told business leaders face-to-face: “The NDP is going to do everything it can to create a Canada that is more prosperous, as long as it is more prosperous for everybody.” Liberal Leader Bob Rae affirmed his party’s commitment to reverse the “stunning growth” of income inequality. And the courts drew a line in the sand. Judge Sandra Simpson of the Federal Court issued an injunction preventing the government from proceeding with one of the measures in its budget: a drastic reduction in social assistance to First Nations communities. The move would cause “emotional and psychological stress amounting to irreparable harm for some recipients,” she said.

The Conservatives can keep tossing away the fixtures of a compassionate Canada. But they can’t turn this into a nation of throwaway values. Only Canadians can do that.

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