Sunday, January 25, 2009


This Tuesday is going to be an historic event, much like last Tuesday was for the installation of the forty-forth U.S. President Barack Obama. However, how historic this event becomes is the choice of the federal Conservatives.

The doors to the federal Parliament are being unlocked tomorrow after the dust had settled for the better part of six weeks. I suspect somebody went in there during the weekend to dust the shelves, the oak wood and other parts of the building to lift that abandoned building smell before the chickens come home to roost.

To remind Canadians who have been hiding under logs or staying away from the television or newspapers or even the Internet for the past six weeks or more, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, at the very risk of losing a confidence vote over a particularly partisan economic statement, sought to hide behind the skirts of the Governor General to prorogue Parliament until tomorrow.

It is not like nothing is happening behind the scenes. The attack ads are out painting the prospective coalition government in waiting as an undemocratic exercise that defeats the results of the vote that Canadians voted for. Of course, anybody that understands basic Grade Ten politics understands that this is not true and once again, fuels fire on the brains of the largely uneducated public.

The federal government, as well as both Opposition Parties, have hit the road over the past several weeks to consult with Canadians, business, unions and others, to determine what should go in this oh-so-important budget that's coming up. I was part of the NDP's consultation by default because I happen to live in an NDP riding and two associates of mine work in that MP's constituency office. I also sent my written remarks to the government and the Liberals as well.

My remarks would not surprise anybody here, but would involve careful infrastructure investments including new transit systems (using Canadian companies to manufacture buses and rail cars), more help for persons with disabilities for whom there is "always a recession" and to aid in the development of a diversified economy that would meet the needs for more Canadians and not just those losing jobs in factories and oil fields.

At the riding's town hall meeting, Jack Layton came down to attend with our MP, Malcolm Allen. Malcolm Allen is the only non-Conservative MP we have in the Niagara Region. Although I do like Rick Dykstra and Rob Nicholson as well (and do not know Dean Allison well enough to have an opinion one way or another about him), Niagara needed a different voice. From that meeting, it appeared that Malcolm Allen is providing a very different approach.

People came from all over Niagara and beyond. Some came from as far away as Whitby and Burlington to talk about job losses and the failure of their governing MPs to accept petitions that thousands of people in their respective ridings have signed. People are worried about housing, health care, the NHS system changes (which Jack Layton seemed to be aware of), increased child and general poverty, the rights of persons with disabilities and aboriginal Canadians, as well as transportation issues. These things are all impacts of huge job losses, accompanied by the failure of governments to turn things around in a careful manner.

Unfortunately, the way things are with politicians and policy makers who have no clue about what goes on at the ground level is that things sway to either extreme. Governments can invest billions and billions of dollars into job training, infrastructure and other programs, only to put us all into a major deficit without any real economic gains. Or governments can focus on tax cuts for upper middle classes and wealthy classes, actually believing these folks will spend more money locally if they kept more of their own. Even billionnaires won't buy more local necessities than they have to ... and why would somebody buy yet one more expensive car, when they already have five in their garage?

Job training dollars can be useful if targeted correctly and if they are done inclusively and in concert with improving the employment environment for disadvantaged workers, so that they can actually get hired in jobs that respect their abilities, education and career aspirations instead of spinning them on to one call centre or another, or to train them to be Wal-Mart greeters. Even among those jobs, there are only so many people required and yes, these jobs should be for those that are less skilled and educated. However, that is NOT what is happening ... as I can point to endless examples of people placed in policy positions that have no clue what they are doing, or well educated people referred to low-paying, low-aspirational work.

One example of poor policy advice that was given was a few years ago, a group of disability organizations wanted to review the federal disability tax credit and make recommendations about how to make that credit more accessible to persons with certain types of disabilities, such as mental health problems. I work in the legal field in administrative law and I can tell you, I have read their recommendations and final report, including their lack of impact on any changes whatsoever for mental health issues, that people with mental health issues will be struggling for years to come, unless their disabilities are so severe, they cannot function independently. That is why you don't have poorly educated "consumers" representing consumer interests in these policy discussions.

Up until now, I suppose this didn't matter anyways for the majority of consumers with mental health issues, as most were on disability allowances and did not have much taxable income to benefit from anyways. However, the concept of making this credit into a refundable one, or tying this into eligibility for the Registered Disability Savings Program, especially with the bonds and grants part of it (as most of these people don't have family to contribute to this type of account either), makes access to additional resources more desirable, but still out of reach.

Of course, this program was a Conservative initiative, whereby they only know of the families that might have approached them about concerns about the livelihoods of their children (most of whom have severe physical or intellectual disabilities) and voila, they solved the problems of poverty for all persons with disabilities with a single pen stroke! In reality, I believe this will benefit approximately 5 - 10% of my clients with disabilities, including those only seeking the grants and bonds portion. Many of them are older than 49 years old, and thus no longer eligible to receive such grants and bonds that would otherwise be available to those unable to contribute. That is why organizations supporting poverty-reduction for persons with disabilities should only acknowledge this, but not focus too closely on it. Continue to fight for help for ALL low-income persons with disabilities, instead of falling to divide and conquer which seems to work well.

Many people who support this type of government have never seen want or need. Most grew up in relatively middle class households with supportive parents who likely covered at least part of the costs of their university education; many even gave them a car and taught them how to drive shortly after their sixteenth birthday. They have no clue there are many Canadians who grew up without this advantage, or who later lost this support for whatever reason (e. g. parents having died or became ill themselves). They have no idea that telling this latter group to pull themselves up by their bootstraps is useless, as they have no bootstraps to pull themselves up with.

Unfortunately, the only federal support the Conservatives see for persons with mental health issues is by continuing to push for the assumption that most are homeless, incompetent and unable to manage their lives, so they funded five pilot projects to sort out what needs to be done for homeless persons with mental health issues. I know many people who have been diagnosed with mental health problems, including bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Ninety-nine percent of this group have never been homeless, even though some are forced to live on low incomes.

The few I know who have lost their homes have done so when they had no money, not because of their mental health problems. Many others have lost their homes as well and never have had any mental health issues. And besides that, what is this government going to do to FORCE employers to hire people with mental health problems and pay them a decent wage?

The whole premise behind the Conservative budgetary choices is that those who fall into desperation are NOT like us; there is something WRONG with them, not the economy, not employers that refuse to hire qualified persons with disabilities, not with social assistance rates, and certainly not with families that have frequently abandoned them. This is supposed to reassure us, but however, it does nothing to reassure the people that these things happen to despite doing everything in their lives right: getting an education, getting married, trying to work or start a business, etc. Unfortunately, this is what the current economy is about ... creating desperate situations for people who never expected to find themselves there.

There are lots of pundit views as to what is going to happen with the budget. Some say there will be sufficient infrastructure and social spending to satisfy the Liberals, but there will also be large tax cuts for people who already have a significant disposable income. As usual, there will likely be nothing more for persons with disabilities, nothing for low-income workers, nothing for laid off workers (who cannot survive on existing EI rates, even if they miraculously do qualify). Ignatieff is not playing his hand until the actual budget is laid out. Layton said even if the budget includes everything they want, they don't trust the Conservatives to follow through with it.

My concern is the Conservatives' obsession with tax cuts. Unemployed workers do not pay taxes. Persons with disabilities living on low incomes do not pay taxes. Low income pensioners do not pay taxes. Low-wage workers pay only a small amount of taxes, so if any tax cuts are given to these people, they wouldn't even notice. Such tax cuts do not pay the mortgage for these people, nor do such tax cuts pay the grocery or utility bills. Desperate people will remain desperate and continue to have little or no disposable income.

The truth is that the economy needs people who have disposable income AND a margin of need for additional products and services delivered locally. To give somebody earning $90,000 a year additional disposable income when they already have five cars, a six-bedroom house, a cottage in Muskoka and a regular gym and golf club membership is not going to add to their local spending. However, if somebody earning $25,000 a year gets an additional $5,000 a year, this additional $5,000 WILL be spent locally.

The fact that Conservatives want to deny and hide behind is they do not understand the true plight of low income Canadians. These people are NOT driving a car, NOT going to the movies, NOT eating out (even at McDonald's), NOT buying clothing, NOT sending their kids on school trips and NOT even buying things for their homes, because almost every last penny goes to rent or mortgage, utilities and food. Many rely on food banks to make their income stretch further. This does NOT help the economy. As more and more Canadians plunge into this situation, it is certainly not going to help by throwing more money at people who already have what they need and more.

In fact, any deep tax cuts at this point will likely plunge us further into a deficit and when times turn around again, of course the government will once again focus on shrinking the size of the deficit, which means only service cuts to those who can least afford to endure them. That means, among other things: cuts to medicare, cuts to EI, cuts to housing programs, cuts to job training programs, increases to tuition fees and student loans, etc. A decent lifestyle will become even less accessible to those of us among the disadvantaged and among future generations. At this point, I would not even count on having an old age pension if you are under 55 years old today. Retirement will become an opportunity only for the wealthy. The rest of us work until we die.

All of this is because we have managers and policy makers in government and politics that have no clue what it is like to want for anything. They do not even consult with other levels of governments on the rare occasion they do come up with some policy idea. Different programs often operate at cross-purposes to one another and not one single government has ever attempted to disentangle them. It works in the interests of those who work in these programs to keep people in them, thus keep the poor from ever becoming non-poor. This keeps them happy enough not to strike against the powers that be who have hired them.

To me, the greatest offender against the rights of persons with disabilities, for example, is the government and often, politicians that have no clue what it means to have a disability. Politicians in Niagara Region, for example, only see "disability" as being in a wheelchair, scooter or walker, as nobody else is granted relief from exorbitant transportation costs in Niagara. The provincial government has listed only 42 conditions that they feel merit a "special dietary allowance", when in fact almost EVERY medical condition has impacts through diet. They just don't want to admit that most people on any kind of assistance can't even afford a basic diet. And as I said above, the Disability Tax Credit definition leaves out many people for whom disability related issues carry costs to them, but do not qualify under their stringent criteria.

On one hand, government wants to say that people with disabilities are able and should remain independent and when one tries to assert that independence and get a job or start a business, but are prevented from doing so because of the prejudice of employers, they are then denied many kinds of disability benefits, as these OTHER benefits require people to be almost unable to manage their own funds (e.g. require a trustee), unable to live independently (e.g. live in a group home or high intensive supportive housing), unable to bathe/carry out person hygiene (e.g. need home care for personal assistance), etc.

To me, if employers do not want to hire people with disabilities then TAX THEM HEAVILY so that this money can be directed to be paid ON TOP of disability pensions and not clawed back, so that people forced to live on social assistance can at least eat and live decently, until such day a sympathetic employer will hire them. The number of disability programs should be reduced, but paid out more generously. My fear is that by the federal government using the Disability Tax Credit criteria, it may one day require all provinces to harmonize their definitions with theirs and guess what's going to happen? Exactly what they would never anticipate ... more people on the streets, more people in desperate poverty.

I just hope the federal government at least tries to put out a budget that will help low-income Canadians and persons with disabilities and bring them hope ... which is so foreign on this side of the border, just so soon after the inauguration of a wonderful man down south who made history as the first African-American President. I think we would be fooled to believe that Americans were asking for change desperately from the Bush administration to such a point they moved behind Obama in great numbers, that my fellow Canadians don't think the same way.

In other words, if Stephen Harper doesn't want to move with the mood for change, he may as well step aside and let somebody else take the reins. More and more Canadians are sick and tired of being left behind and for any politician that wants to remain in power, it is best they pay close attention in the next year or so.

Your thoughts?

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