Northern Ontario has beautiful landscape but crushing poverty

Posted on July 28, 2014 in Social Security Debates – Opinion/Commentary – Survival in Ontario’s north requires ingenuity, endurance and a trace of subversion.
Jul 27 2014.   By: Carol Goar, Star Columnist

This is high tourist season in the Kenora-Rainy River district. Anglers are flying in from all over North America to fish northwestern Ontario’s 150,000 pristine lakes.

The food bank in Ignace is hoping to benefit from the catch — but not in the way southerners might think. Well-outfitted sport fishermen don’t patronize the town’s businesses or donate to its charities. But they do have a habit of overfishing. When they’re caught, the local judge orders them to pay their $150 fine to the food bank. The greedier they are, the better the food bank does — as long as Queen’s Park doesn’t find out about the arrangement.

The Ministry of Natural Resources tried to pitch in. Local conservation officers were poised to donate moose meat seized from hunters who broke the rules to community food banks. But Public Health Ontario squelched that. It forbade them to distribute game that had not been properly inspected.

The most frustrating provincial regulation, as far as many northerners are concerned, involves medical emergencies. OHIP will cover the cost of an ambulance to take people to the nearest hospital (which can be hundreds of kilometres away). But they have to find their own way home. That might make sense in downtown Toronto, but in northern Ontario it leaves patients stranded. If they don’t have a relative or friend who can pick them up, the only way home is a taxi. The cab fare from the hospital in Dryden to the centre of Ignace is $210.

These three tales epitomized the gulf in understanding that exists between policy-makers at Queen’s Park and folks in northwestern Ontario for anti-poverty activist Mike Balkwill , a Torontonian who just completed a fact-finding tour of this harsh but beautiful part of the province.

The local perspective is slightly different. For front-line workers who live in the north, the ultimate absurdity is the province’s “nutritious food basket.”

Every spring, the government requires public health units across the province to send out trained food surveyors to collect the prices of 67 items its dietitians consider essential for healthy eating. They are instructed to visit at least six grocery stores and are told their information is necessary to ensure the province’s programs reflect the reality on the ground.

In Atikokan, Red Lake and Sioux Lookout , medical professionals wonder what planet these people live on. The notion of checking six grocery stores is laughable. Northern towns have one small food outlet if they’re lucky. If not, residents go to the next town. No matter where they shop, they won’t see cantaloupes, fresh pears, bunches of raw broccoli, inside round steak or 200 gram blocks of partially skim mozzarella cheese. At least half of the items on the province’s checklist aren’t available in the north.

Public health workers gather as many prices as they can find, knowing their data is a total misrepresentation of the way people eat in their communities. The province’s “nutritious food basket” excludes prepared foods, snack foods and “foods of little nutritional value.” Often that’s all their clients can get. The Ministry of Health makes no allowance for travel costs, which can run into the hundreds of dollars for northerners.

“Why are we doing this?’ they asked Balkwill, provincial organizer of Put Food in the Budget, a citizens’ coalition fighting for low-income Ontarians . “The government doesn’t pay attention to our research.”

Premier Kathleen Wynne and her colleagues think they understand poverty. “I’m pleased that a positive, progressive plan endorsed by the people of Ontario in the last election is being implemented,” Finance Minister Charles Sousa proclaimed last week as his 2014 budget was approved by the legislature. It included a $30 per month top-up in social assistance for individuals (now $626) and a 1 per cent increase in benefits for families who receive Ontario Works and Ontarians with disabilities (now $1,086).

This won’t come close to making food affordable in the north, Balkwill said. In fact, he is no longer convinced that raising social assistance rates will get to the heart of poverty in northern communities. The welfare stigma is so strong in these towns that people who desperately need help won’t apply. Members of First Nations face deeply entrenched racism. There is a pervasive sense of lost hope.

Wynne has promised to announce a new poverty reduction strategy this fall. Balkwill hopes she will travel to the north to announce it, confronting the chasm between her government and the community leaders who run themselves ragged helping their clients navigate the obstacles the province throws in front of them.

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One Response to “Northern Ontario has beautiful landscape but crushing poverty”

  1. Kelsey Crane says:

    Prior to reading this article I was unaware of how big the issue of poverty is in northwestern Ontario. After reading this article I realized that the issues of poverty in northwestern Ontario are recognized but necessary actions have not been taken. There are very minor actions being taken to help the individuals in poverty, but these actions are not nearly enough. Although Finance Minister Charles Sousa was able to get a 2014 budget approved by the legislature it was not nearly enough. The high price and limit of groceries is the reason for the poverty within northwestern Ontario. This leaves the northwestern population with a life risking environment. As stated in the article, OHIP only pays for the trip to the hospital and not the trip back. The trip back from the hospital averages around 210 dollars. The individuals are already suffering health wise because they cannot afford food and when help is needed they cannot afford to get back to their homes. The northwestern population will be affected as a whole because if they do not have enough food intake or the money to go to the hospital people will suffer from life threatening illnesses. Northwestern Ontario also does not have fresh produce that we are used to. Our population is used to having multiple grocery stores available to us within blocks of each other and in northwestern Ontario this is not the case. There is only one grocery store in a town and if that grocery store does not have the item you are looking for you often have to travel to another town. The limitedness of basic necessities for these individuals is appalling.

    While I refer to this population as “individuals” there is a certain group in the population who is suffering more than others. This group is the First Nations people. These individuals living in northwestern Ontario do have the option of welfare, but it is welfare that is not nearly enough. These individuals are already stereotyped and heavily looked down upon which makes it harder for them to apply for welfare and receive it. First Nation’s people have been suffering from poverty and oppression for a long time and this does not help. Kathleen Wynne needs to understand that her understanding of poverty is inaccurate and much greater actions need to be taken. I agree with this article because it states the truth about the poverty occurring in northwestern Ontario and that the actions that are being taken are not nearly enough.


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