When Mike Harris was elected to power in 1995, he promised to cut welfare payments by 21.6% and cut provincial income taxes by 30%. Thus, the class war began in Ontario. It became acceptable through the actions of our leaders to attack the most vulnerable among us. It became acceptable to lord your social class over somebody who is less fortunate and tell them to buck up; after all, just thinking makes it so.
Soon, it became popular for members of the public to believe that if only the poor "got a job", their circumstances would vastly improve. Employers needed to fill their minimum wage, unstable workforce, while taxpayers wanted to pay less taxes and invest in more mutual funds and overseas vacations. The homes of the wealthy got bigger, while many of the poor had no homes at all, and this was acceptable. After all, isn't wealth earned and deserved?
Since Mike Harris and Harris wannabes got into power across Canada, including Gordon Campbell of BC, among others, it has become fact that the wealthiest sector of our population became much better off than they ever were, while our poor folks continued to lose ground. Even after the Liberals got swept into power in 2003, under the leadership of Dalton McGuinty, old attitudes played hard. While they were a kinder, gentler version than Mike Harris, nevertheless, little has changed under their leadership as to how the very poor are dealt with.
Last year, a group of downtown residents identifying themselves as the "real taxpayers" lobbied city hall and the region about the so-called concentration of social services in the downtown of St. Catharines. They pointed out that the welfare office, a few methadone clinics, Start Me Up Niagara, among other organizations were crowded in the downtown core to such an extent that nobody wanted to do business up there. Horsefeathers! I sat for eleven varied periods in the vicinity of the one methadone clinic uptown to see if people entering and exiting the clinic proceeded to "hang out" or urinate in the laneways, etc. as some people believed. Not once during any of my travails have I noted any problems emanating from that clinic. Nor have I witnessed the same coming from the welfare office, which was for a time centrally located and accessible by transit ...
After the same NIMBY-ites continued their bantering at all levels by writing letters to the paper, appearing at meetings of city council and making genuine asses of themselves, the social services office moved over to the far east side of the city, inaccessible to many people without a car or bus fare. Of course, they justify it by saying many of their clients are living at the east side, but then again, many also live downtown, the west side, etc. The city is going to Hell in a handbasket and it has little to do with what services are located where. It has more to do with poor planning and not listening to the people they should be listening to.
One example is our judicial system in Niagara. In Niagara, we have the peculiar arrangement of three different courthouses for provincial offences, and two different judicial districts whereby some cases must be heard in Welland and others must be heard in St. Catharines. The option to have hearings in Niagara Falls has been obliterated with the exception of traffic court cases, which tend to have heavy caseloads at all the locations. The Niagara South judicial district is headed in Welland, where nobody without a car can travel to or from. If you live in Niagara Falls, or an incident occured in Niagara South, the hearing is turned over to Welland. This is a minor matter for most middle class people who can easily hop in their cars and drive anywhere; however, if you live in Niagara Falls, Fort Erie, Wainfleet, Wellandport, Port Colborne, etc. it becomes tricky. Because I don't drive, I am forced to pay $63 PER TRIP to a cab company to get me to that court and back, something I think no matter how high gas prices are, nobody that drives ever has to pay. This also applies to clients of mine ... many of whom I have to arrange transport from Niagara Falls, Fort Erie, Wainfleet, Wellandport or Port Colborne, so they can attend their hearing ... also at a cost of between $63 to $85 per round trip for them.
One can always say they don't have to file their case, but many times, these cases are filed against THEM and they have no choice but to defend themselves in a court that is inaccessible to them. The thinking in setting up the two judicial districts in Niagara Region was obviously done by somebody who drives and never had a disadvantage in that way, nor have they obviously consulted the legal or business community to determine the best way to handle Niagara-based cases.
Unfortunately, the same thinking is permeating the Niagara Health System. Several years ago, six of Niagara's hospitals were amalgamated under some scheme that was put forth by the former Conservative Government under the assumption that one level of bureaucracy to run all of the six hospitals was better than having six separate administrations. Unfortunately, several other hospitals, such as Grimsby and Hotel Dieu-Shaver, have been left out of the amalgamation for various reasons. So, anyways, the Niagara Health System gets its wrists slapped for having a $17.5 million deficit and they were ordered to submit a health care system redesign this month, after pseudo-consultation with the public. I wrote my comments in, as I am sure others did.
In the consultation itself, much was said about what they had already planned anyways. Unfortunately, they are moving towards a multi-site, centre of excellence model, which would work well for Toronto or some other location where reliable, affordable transportation is available to members of the public. However, when the announcement was finally made as to what their intentions were, it didn't surprise me whatsoever. It once again was set up similar to the way our judicial system is set up ... dividing up Niagara's hospitals into specialized areas; St. Catharines being where the babies are born from throughout Niagara, as well as the centre for cancer care and childhood ear-nose-throat surgery and cardiac care ... Niagara Falls for orthopedic surgery, adult ENT surgery and many day therapies ... Welland for dialysis, etc.
Okay, if somebody starts getting contractions at three in the morning, will the NHS pay their cab fare from Fort Erie to St. Catharines? If somebody has to leave their community to go to Niagara Falls for example and their family is in Welland, will the NHS pay their cab fare to go visit their hospitalized family member getting orthopedic surgery following a car accident, for example? How about mental health care? This is going to be centred in St. Catharines, so if you have a mental breakdown but live in Port Colborne, I suppose the NHS is going to provide cab fare to get to St. Catharines. This also applies to family members that do not have cars, but want to visit. The rich have social support and family companionship, the poor get isolated. Isn't that always the case? It is obvious that whoever thought up this hare-brained scheme drives and everybody in their family drives ... and nobody bothered considering the 1/3 of adults in Niagara Region who either have no license or access to a car.
Instead, some propose asking "charities" to provide rides to people. Poor people do not want charity. Poor people simply want access, the same access taken for granted by others in the community. Those without cars are fed up with hearing those with cars complaining about the price of gas, when those living in poverty are lucky to eat and have a place to stay in the same month. People that do not drive are looked down upon here, like they are some kind of "damaged goods". They are not offered jobs, they are offered charity. They are not considered equally skilled to the "mobile" population, but deemed only skilled enough for minimum wage. It seems alright for these folks to live perpetually on social assistance, while others with the exact same or even less qualifications can climb the corporate ladder and retire in relative comfort someday ... while the poor find the idea of retirement to be merely a dream.
Then the Ontario Government comes up with this other hare-brained scheme called the Ontario Child Benefit, which they say will be given to all low-income families, whether working or on assistance. However, they don't mention that this is simply another clawback to replace the alleged clawback for the National Child Benefit Supplement. OW/ ODSP families will be getting anywhere from 10% - 30% less on their cheques in exchange for an insulting Ontario Child Benefit to "take their children off welfare". Yeah, right. Once the shell games stop, it only becomes clear that OW/ ODSP people actually LOSE in the end. No more back to school. No more winter clothing. Hey, they can now "save" their money from their meagre OW/ ODSP cheques to pay for these items ... yeah, the last I knew, many families had to unfortunately use this money to pay a hydro bill or to re-connect their telephone. If this is the cornerstone of Ontario's poverty-reduction strategy, I am very disappointed.
There are still a lot of prejudices out there, that low-income people cannot manage their money so they need a "trustee" to handle it for them, or that poor people spend all their money on booze and cigarettes and they somehow should be not permitted to do so ... like, what are they going to do? Hire an army of investigators to go through the cupboards of poor families to ensure they didn't buy any booze or anything like that? There are others that actually believe low-income women in particular keep getting pregnant and having more and more kids so they can get more money, which is another myth that is not supported by data. Yet when members of the public are asked how much they believe people actually get on welfare, the figures they give are grossly higher than they actually are ... and then they wonder why poor people hide their heads in shame and many do not even bother asking for help. They too are fed up with being seen as "damaged goods".
I personally am not going to wait for a time in the undetermined future when people are supposed to become more enlightened and compassionate and will not consider the source of your income or the fact you have a disability or a child with special needs an anomaly that must be punished. I think that TODAY we have to tell our governments to stop speaking out of both sides of their mouth ... saying they want to eliminate child poverty on one hand, but on the other, create much more of it ... this world is so full of inequality and in particular, kids from low income families are tired of having it rubbed in their faces how inferior they feel. It is time that low-income people have access to the same goods and services others do without having to resort to charities or to "cry poor" everywhere they go, just so they can get half a slice of day old bread.
Ontario is not a third world country ... we are not led by a despot that has taken all the gold and lives in fifteen palaces and uses weapons of mass destruction against his own people. We supposedly live in a democracy and a rich one, thank you very much ... and to me, ALL Ontarians, not just the so-called middle and upper classes, should have equal access to all that Ontario offers as a matter of course. Why am I stuck in a region that is light years behind many others, even places like Kitchener-Waterloo that have decisively put together an inter-municipal transit service and are looking into light rail now has the second lowest poverty rate across Ontario?