Sunday, June 15, 2008


It is typically Canadian these days to complain about two things: (a) gas prices; and (b) the loss of our second national anthem, "The Hockey Song" which has been with us since 1968 for "Hockey Night in Canada". It seems that CBC lost, but CTV won the right with the second issue, thus "saving" Canada's anthem and its tradition of sorts. However, the first issue continues to remain a bee in almost everybody's bonnet.

Gasoline prices at the pump have steadily increased since the 1990's from about 40 cents a litre to what is now $1.40 per litre in many places. Prices are at least double this amount in European countries, but then again, people in Europe have more respect for alternatives to the automobile than they do here. People who do not drive in North America are viewed as aberrant and inferior for some reason. To me, it is a classist and ableist bias, but if our society wants to continue this -- it should cost those dearly that want to continue. On Face Book, there is a Canadian site with more than 300,000 people on it complaining about gas prices and another "global site" with over 1,000,000 people on it. Many of the sites record almost on a daily basis the price of gas per litre or per barrel ... as it almost seems like the price is shifting this way.

I have very mixed feelings about the price of gas. I do feel empathetic and concerned for those that transport goods and people as a principle part of their business, as this not only severely impacts their bottom lines, but also the bottom lines of many other businesses at the end of the line. If you run a store that relies on imported goods, such products had to get to you somehow; they certainly didn't walk there!!! As a business owner, you had to pay a surcharge to have these items delivered to you, or as a supplier, a surcharge to have your products shipped. Farmers are feeling it. Importers, exporters, small manufacturing companies, even convenience stores ... are all feeling the pinch. Those that do the transporting are feeling it even worse, as their margins are being further and further cut, forcing some shipping firms to cut staff, park vehicles and reduce loads. This is the part of the "price of gas" that bothers me.

To be blunt, I don't care if the price of gas surpasses $5 a litre for those that use their vehicles only to get to and from work, or to take road trips --vehicle owners never paid the full cost of their privilege. As they continue to whine about the price of gas, taxpayers of *all* descriptions (including those that do not or cannot drive for whatever reason) continue to pay for road building, maintenance, expansions, highways, "free parking" at malls, traffic control, traffic planning services, parking enforcement, etc. Yes, there is tax on gas to cover some of these expenses, but this tax does not cover all of it. According to the CAA, it costs an average of $8,000 to $10,000 a year to own and operate a personal vehicle. That means, in order to do this -- you are certainly privileged enough to have that much more disposable income after housing, food and other basic needs, to put aside for a vehicle. In my view, if this is the case, then those that can afford vehicles should not be alarmed by paying the full price of operating their cars and paying even more per litre of gas.

These same non-driving taxpayers also have to get around somehow as well; many, especially in regions like my own, are forced to pay many more times than the cost of a vehicle trip on a per kilometre basis, on taxi fares, bus fares (where there are buses), as well as forfeit a majority of job opportunities that pay more than minimum wage, especially since these days, when it is okay to discriminate against the poor and people with disabilities - employers simply invite only those who drive need apply. To many people, they might as well say, "No dogs or Jews need apply" or "Whites only". Replace the words "must have valid driver's license and reliable vehicle" with "must be of Caucasian or Oriental origin in order to understand our customers' needs" or "must be able to lift 100 pounds and run the four-minute mile" or "those in wheelchairs need not apply; office is not equipped for the handicapped". Blame the disabled person for having the disability; the employer need not accommodate.

These non-drivers are also paying three or four times as much on a per kilometre basis than those with vehicles and as most transportation studies confirm, they take 50 - 75% less personal trips and pay a larger portion of their incomes on transportation costs than for those who drive. How does this translate into higher costs for non-drivers if the price of gas is so high and the CAA cites the high cost of vehicle ownership? It is because drivers have a substantially greater chance of being hired into better paying jobs and according to many work-to-welfare studies from the U.S., people with cars tend to work longer hours and get paid up to $2 or more dollars per hour higher than those that do not drive. In my own view, driving a vehicle should ONLY be a qualification if the job requires driving a vehicle as a primary function of the job.

In Niagara, non-drivers are left in the dust as well. I am looking for a mechanism to give the Honourable Jim Bradley, Minister of Transportation, and MPP for St. Catharines, an award ... This award would be similar to the type of award some of the Teachers Associations tried to give to then Education Minister, John "create a crisis" Snobelen, in the days of Mike Harris, when it was revealed that he did not even graduate from high school. For Jim, the stakes would be similar, the circumstances different ... except, he would be awarded the first Minister of Transportation to come from a region that has the Worst Transit System for a population of its size and demographic. If Bradley is unable to do anything for his own backyard, as some of his critics may ask, how can he be expected to change the transportation dynamic in Ontario as a whole?

People in Toronto joke all the time about the TTC, the Toronto Transit Commission. Sometimes, delays, no-shows, breakdowns and crowded buses irritate the TTC commuter. When buses and streetcars come by, on average, every five minutes, it is frustrating for a commuter to wait another five. In St. Catharines, service is every hour after six and in other municipalities, there is NO transit after six. Frustrated TTC commuters call the TTC "take the car". Niagara has its own TTC as well, except it IS "Take the Car". If you do not drive, you do not have citizenship in Niagara Region. Most jobs are given to only respectable "middle class" sorts that already have the spare change to spend on vehicle ownership; in other words, you will get a job in Niagara if you already have a good job. If you do not have a job, or your job pays too poorly, one of the first cuts many are forced to make is to park or even sell the car, as other cuts, such as living in a tent and eating one meal a day are less healthy for you, particularly in the winter-time. If you have a disability and cannot drive, employers don't want you anyways. After all, "governments and families" look after people with disabilities. Maybe that's why so many of them are having trouble keeping their housing and getting sick from such poor diets, etc.

Todd Littman, a transportation analyst has actually calculated the value of the "free ride" people who drive actually get from taxpayers and others. He valued it at about $5,800 per annum. In other words, people who drive are certainly not paying their full share of the costs. Maybe they should. The only "breaks" if anybody should get them should be businesses that are in the practice of transporting goods or people. If somebody who drives says they cannot afford to pay the "full cost", then park the car - period. I think if more of these people understood what kind of a privilege it is to drive and what advantages society confers onto them simply by having a driver's license and a vehicle, they just might understand how much more money they are costing the rest of us that do not drive. Public transportation users do have some subsidy as well, averaging about $1,300 a year in an urban centre -- but he argues in another paper that transit subsidies are more "just" as it equalizes to some extent the privileges of mobility for both classes - drivers and non-drivers.

Maybe the deal can work this way. We ALL pay full price for our choices. Except, the very large portion of my tax bill that currently goes to the privileges of private vehicle owners in terms of road and bridge repair, traffic lights, traffic control, planning, parking, urban sprawl, higher prices at malls, etc. should be wiped right OFF my tax bill and the tax bills of others that do not or cannot drive. I should also be getting a 15 - 20% discount at the supermarket, as those big box supermarkets do pay a LOT of money to give drivers "free parking", as well as pay for the transportation services of its business. Those that drive shall pay the balance, perhaps in the form of road tolls, paid parking regardless of where they go, levies for owning a car and keeping it within city limits, etc. When I see drivers paying the full load, which may exceed $20,000 a year or more per vehicle, then maybe I might be somewhat empathetic.

It should also be illegal for employers to discriminate against non-drivers unless the essential duties of the job are driving goods or people, or the job involves mandatory travel, such as travelling to various homes in a community to test their water pipes or inspect their furnaces (where it would be impossible, for example, for homeowners to come to an office to provide the parts). In most other jobs, having a transit service will enable non-drivers to do the essential duties of most jobs.

The use of a driver's license for identification has also been an issue for generations. Most video stores, public libraries, convenience stores/liquor stores (where you may need to be ID'd), border crossings, banks, etc. expect EVERYBODY to have a government-issued photo ID. The only one that the government issues that is not a driver's license is the health card, and most of these same places do not accept this as ID. So why do they accept a driver's license as an ID when less people have this type of identification than people who have say, a health card or a citizenship card? I successfully forced many of these types of places to accept non-driver's license identification by threatening a human rights action and if they refused to accept something else, I certainly would have followed through. This is MY citizenship rights.

The Ontario Government is apparently trying to set up a type of non-driver's licence photo ID for non-drivers to use, but in my view -- they shouldn't be using licenses either, as in my view - the use of a driver's license for ID purposes is no more useful than using a health card for ID purposes ... maybe a national identity and photo ID card should be issued, much like a social insurance number, to anybody who asks and can present other identification, such as a birth certificate, etc. If the person wants to add security information to their national ID card so they can do things like cross borders, then they can choose to undertake a simple security screening.

The trouble with using the driver's license is it normalizes the acquisition and use of a driver's license as a type of proof of citizenship. As the Minister of Transportation said himself, almost four million Ontarians do not have a driver's license. In addition to those that do not have a license, about a quarter to a third of licensed drivers do not have access to a personal vehicle. This is a LOT of people to deny citizenship right to and to relegate to lowest levels of the workforce. It also reinforces the power and economic interests that Big Oil have over all of us. Those that drive can earn good money. Those that want to continue to drive pay more per litre of gas than they did even last year or even last week! Those that choose not to drive are denied the right to earn a decent living, and are not viewed favourably by the "middle class".

If you are a man in your forties, for example, and you do not choose to have a license - perhaps, for environmental reasons or you never felt you wanted one or whatever reason -- it is automatically assumed by the absence of your license there is "something wrong" with you. I know a PHd who chose not to drive for many years; further, he had some cognitive difficulties that affected him in a way that learning to drive was not easy for him. Despite his PHd, his strong writing and research skills, he was denied almost every job he applied for. Once he got married, his new wife taught him patiently how to drive and now he is working full-time. We have to separate our dependence on Big Oil from our potential and livelihood. If we don't do it now, more and more people will be left out of the loop and if you think your taxes are bad now, just wait until we have to support thousands and thousands more people on welfare because of our "middle class" and "ableist" bias.


Tuesday, June 3, 2008


As expressed repetitively here, the two last taboos in our society are classism and ableism. Classism really comes to light when policy discussions around poverty take place. On mainstream chatlines, we hear about how 90% of those collecting "disability pensions" are not really disabled, how "welfare fraud" is so rampant and how people on social assistance shouldn't be allowed to smoke, own pets or have an occasional beer. Successive governments since the 1980's made it okay to pick on the poor. Well, shouldn't they all just "get a job"?

In addition to hearing these comments, low-income people do not see themselves in popular culture. Low-income people are not the heroes or heroines in the movies, nor are they the positive protagonists in popular novels. If poor people are portrayed, they are depicted as dirty, unhygienic and leaches at best; criminals at worst. The hit television series Trailer Park Boys, though portraying its main characters in many ways as lovable and sometimes deserving of our sympathies, they are also portrayed as small time criminals and irresponsible. "Ricky" is seen as a high school drop-out, a petty thief, a marijuana user and irresponsible, living full time in an old beat up vehicle. "Bubbles", bearing Coke-bottle glasses, lives in a make-shift shack built out of plywood among dozens of cats. "Julian" is portrayed as the smarter one, who has a real home in Sunnyvale Trailer Park, but nevertheless, gets involved in Ricky's schemes and he too, is a small time criminal.

Years ago, a comedy series called Good Times portrayed a black family living in the ghetto. MAD Magazine had no trouble producing a spoof of the series by poking fun at the poverty of this family. One example given was when the kids asked their mother what was for breakfast, she responded "a box of Corn Flakes". The kids then pointed out to her that there were no corn flakes in the box, then she repeated, "That's what I said, the box of corn flakes!" Poor families in movies were always portrayed as families with too many children, most of which were never properly dressed or fed, usually clinging to a stay-at-home mother that collects a big welfare cheque. These stereotypes have borne well over time and have translated into social policy with limits on how many children a family can receive welfare for, almost implying that the first thing a woman does when she qualifies is to go have more kids.

What about the news media? While there appears to be a lot more discussion on poverty in certain print media, such as the Toronto Star, low-income people are still portrayed as somebody to be pitied, usually under-educated, poor English, or if homeless, riddled with addictions. Those that give to charities, especially 'band aid' organizations like food banks, are portrayed as heroes and given positive press coverage, while those that must rely on food banks are either portrayed pitifully or somehow incapable of competing in our "fair society". However, in these same newpapers, even in the same editions where stories about poverty are published, three full sections of the paper depict luxury cars, while another depicts travel to faraway places and around the end of February, numerous articles about investments are published. If low-income readers are still reading the paper, they certainly do not find themselves in it.

This is only part of the onslaught that low-income families face on a regular basis from the mass media. Low-income families are said to spend more time watching television than middle and upper income families, because outside activities are out of reach for many of them. However, the television only serves as yet another reminder that they do not belong. Actors portray roles in sit-coms, movies and documentaries that perpetuate the myth that everybody's "middle class". Actors always seem to have fancy late model vehicles, or live in spacious homes. During the 1970's, the Brady Bunch, while trying to introduce the concept of a blended family, only served to 'normalize' middle class privilege. Despite this "intact" family having six children to support, Mike Brady (the father) was a sole earner and was able to afford a spacious family home, regular family vacations and keep "Alice", their maid, on the household's payroll. Later versions like The Cosbys, Married with Children, Family Ties, and even Friends (though this is about young urban professionals) and Sex and the City adhere to a middle to upper-middle class standard as the 'norm'. Even with Sex and the City making itself a movie hit on the big screen, popular fashion and jewellery associated with the characters in the show are now becoming a "fad". Yeah, must be nice.

Though many people do not watch television commercials that are supposed to give us a break from this steady diet from this salacious consumerism and class-biased assumptions, commercials apparently do sell to many people ... how often do you watch late night shows only to be bombarded with zoom, zoom, zoom (Mazda commercials), encouraging you to "discover Ireland" or to invest with Fidelity. Low-income people don't care about these commercials and don't have the resources to purchase these products, yet they are bombarded all the time with the culture-think that "everybody else" can buy these things. Regardless of how true that is, low-income people continue to not see themselves in these commercials. The poor are isolated, have no voice.

Once in awhile, however, a commercial for a public service or charitable organization comes online whereas we see children running around bone thin with fat stomachs and tons of flies around them, as we are persuaded to give a monthly donation to a "child like ____________". These 'sponsor a child' advertisements thwart the middle class perception of what poverty is about in their own backyard. Poverty in developing countries, while certainly an international disgrace, that is certainly a planned misadventure on the part of irresponsible governments and greedy world organizations that act as "lenders", cannot overshadow the poverty that is amongst us. We cannot become a country of hypocrites, although this is what we seem to want to be. We can't cry to the press about how we got to give more and more money and resources to "children in Africa", while our neighbours continue to go without and suffer irreparably as a result of constant financial pressures and food insecurity. We can't as businesses give huge charitable donations to food banks, while we pay our employees low wages, which only set them up to go to the food banks the boss just wrote a big cheque to.

We have to stop keeping our own poverty as an invisible vice of our society. Instead of going to demonstrations and throwing water bombs at politicians, it might be an avenue for some creative organizations to develop cultural initiatives that include people living in poverty, to give them a voice. Musicians can write songs that include what life is like for low-income people. Tracy Chapman, Bruce Springsteen, Eddie Grant, among others, already have ... make culture accessible to people on low-incomes, make it include them and who they are. Commercials may wish to include low-income people using a relatively inexpensive cleaning product, saving a LOT of money at a sale at Wal-Mart or using a no-charge banking service. Bank of America ran a few ads a few years ago that included people with disabilities and how the bank has made its services accessible. These persons were not portrayed as "pathetic" persons, but as ordinary people living ordinary lives who at some point needed to visit a bank. Inclusive design in cultural initiatives is going to be a tough go, but it is not impossible.

Movies showing a low-income protagonist living an ordinary life, somebody who is not illiterate, not a criminal and not a "mental patient" would also be nice to watch. The movie doesn't have to be about poverty issues, but it can show that the protagonist is informed, self-aware and capable of being something more. They do not need to run off with a handsome prince in the end, but a message can be shown that low-income people have some capacity and can be fully participating citizens. Perhaps, the protagonist does not have a car, but it shows her walk her children to school and watch them in their school plays. Perhaps, the protagonist does not live in a spacious house, but has a small, but clean apartment. The message is not only in the struggle, but in the possibilities. Perhaps, a story about a single parent on welfare struggling for custody of her disabled child against all odds, but in the end, love wins out. The movie I am Sam kind of mixed both the poverty and the disability issues quite well, leaving the protagonist somebody that anybody can love.

The movie 8 Mile also portrayed a character raised on the 'other side of the tracks' in Detroit, Michigan. He was white, lived with his mother who was hooked up with an alcoholic man who apparently abused her. His growing intolerance of the situation at home grew as his ambition developed into becoming a white rap artist that won the hearts and souls of Detroit's black community. This movie, starring Eminem himself, portrays the part of "rabbit", whose life played along pretty much like his did. Amazingly at the end, those watching saw how talented this man actually became. The most poignant part came at the end after he won a hip-hop contest against a group of blacks, his friend who encouraged him to join asked him to come back and play, as doesn't he want to see everybody look up to him? "Rabbit" turned around and told him, "I have to go to work. I'm probably going to do it my own way". Nevertheless, Eminem became quite wealthy with hit records, his own line of clothing and many appearances. While I am not a big hip-hop fan, I listened and learned that this man does have considerable talent.

Popular culture needs to show more of these types of movies, not only portraying the rags to riches story of Eminem, the fabled Matthew Mathers from the ghettos of Detroit, but low-income people just living out their lives, earning the little victories. The movie Nobody's Child, based on the life story of Marie Balter was such a story ... her life as a youngster, severely "mentally ill" and institutionalized as schizophrenic and highly phobic, ends the movie by speaking at a meeting held by the very institution she was in. She started her speech by telling everybody there, many of the same doctors and nurses who were there when she was hospitalized, that, "When I left this place, many of you shook your head and said to me that I'll be back. Well, today I am back" (she was appointed to an executive position at this same facility many years later).

Using popular culture as a way to "educate" the public is an effective tool. I once met a man when I went to college who used to meet up with my husband and I, who were then attending different courses at the same college, for lunch. He often joked around about how problems can be solved, make a movie about it ... to some extent, this is a very strong part of what I believe in regarding the way popular culture can be developed as a tool of sorts, in addition to all the other work we do. When we see people with mental health issues that do not end taking a saw and hacking people to death, or a Middle-Eastern man that does not board planes and hijack them, we begin to learn that people with differences are more like us than different from us. This is especially true if we have a chance to "meet" their families, their children and follow them through their day ... but, unfortunately, popular culture still promotes many stereotypes that do not help our work.

Part of the exclusion people in low-income communities feel is because they do not see themselves portrayed in popular culture in a positive way. As a human community, we tend to relate to many of the characters we see on TV or those that sing about their sorrows on the radio. We all want to be liked. We all want to have friends. We all want to belong. Portrayal of poverty under its stereotypes or not at all makes it feel like one doesn't belong; promoting products and services during evening hours on television that only upper middle class can afford makes the low-income feel they don't belong; and certainly, writing about poverty by giving admiration and adulation to those that give thousands of dollars to the charities that should be put out of necessity (as opposed to becoming a growth industry) makes those that rely on those charities feel like a burden, and many also tend to view themselves in the same ways that mainstream Internet chat groups do: that they are not working hard enough, that they are not giving enough to their children, that they are not a good parent, that they are not a good provider, etc. Let's start lifting the burden and empowering them to help themselves and to portray themselves as yet another colourful part of our multicultural social fabric.

By normalizing their experiences, people will feel less bad about what they are going through, as well as develop a sense of hope for the future. By further portraying realistic figures into popular culture, perhaps less people will be so eager to bash the poor and understand that deep inside, we are all the same.