Did you know that the Social Assistance Reform Commissioners had been in the Niagara Region earlier this month?
OK. You are probably asking: (1) What is a Social Assistance Reform Commissioner?; (2) Whatever they are, what were they doing in Niagara?; and (3) Why should I care? I spoke to people in the broader social services and legal community and they were aghast as usual, but then again, given our recent "consultations" on the HIP (or Hospital Improvement Plan, anaethema to anybody in Niagara who even sees these three little initials), this is sort of the expected thing that goes on around here.
First, late last year, as a part of the Poverty Reduction Act, which was passed provincially and agreed to by all three major political parties in the Legislature, the Provincial Government appointed Frances Lankin, of former NDP Cabinet and Toronto United Way fame, and Munir Sheikh, made famous by his departure from Statistics Canada when our wonder Prime Minister decided we can do away with a major part of our National Census, to go on the road to consult the community on how to make social security programs and systems work better in Ontario. It is not limited to Ontario Works (OW) and Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP), and will encompass housing, training, employment supports and related programs, to see how people can improve their lives (mostly by returning to work, but not necessarily) and to streamline the systems.
Anyways, the Social Assistance Review, is arms length from the government, although it includes some civil servants who have been seconded from their jobs in other parts of the Ministry, as well as some external researchers. On visiting their website, we learn about who they are, why they were appointed and what kind of job they are going to do. There are numerous resource documents being posted to their website, one of which they have asked for from me, which will be made available to them as soon as some minor adjustments are made to it. They have made a commitment to visit twenty-two Ontario communities to meet with social service people, agency folks, advocates and people who have direct and "lived experience" with both programs.
While each region was asked to set up their own meeting, and how they set it up was up to the regional contacts, not the Commission itself, almost all of the meetings set up around Ontario were public to some degree. By the term "to some degree", I mean, some of them were organized by anti-poverty organizations that reached out to others and basically set it up conference format. Others like the one in Hamilton, opened up its convention centre, and opened it up to anybody that registered in advance. However, when Niagara set up theirs, they shut it up tighter than a drum the minute they agreed to a date with Commission organizers. I looked it up the minute the Ontario calendar was put up, and made a phone call and email to the persons identified as contacts for Niagara.
The first thing they said was that it was "full". Upon further probing, I learned it was not even open to anybody in the "public" to begin with. Nevertheless, I feel badly that the Commissioners did not have the best opportunity to hear about some of the unique challenges presented by persons in Niagara. I am not saying the people there or even organizing the event did not have good intentions; I am saying it was completely wrong to exclude legal advocates like myself, and probably about thirty or forty other persons (easily) that I can bring with me that have "lived experience" to speak for themselves as to their own personal dilemmas created by either program.
So, as usual, I created my own hornet's nest, not because I am trying to embarrass anybody, but trying to show people what consultation and community inclusion actually involves. I personally never felt included in this Region (for a number of reasons), even though I lived here since 1983, and the least these people could have done was to make an effort to seek my input, and allow me to bring a few individuals I feel would be representative of the Niagara community of "lived experience". It is not that I don't have other ways of making my views known and articulated, because I am involved at other levels where I have provided comprehensive input, and will continue to do so with selected groups. It is that segment of the community I work with that were very upset to know this happened, and they were forfeited an opportunity to present their stories in person. As one of them told me, "there is a difference if I were presenting on my issues face to face, than even if I put it in writing". This particular woman single handedly organized a poverty forum a couple years ago with almost a hundred people in attendance. Why wasn't she invited?
There is symbolism in my presentation, different than anything I can ever write. I was gently prodded by a friend that reminded me of a story I relayed to my local MPP while the Mike Harris government was in charge. This story created a greater interest among even those with financial conservative leanings, when they understood why the policy of making oneself "permanently unemployable" was not a good thing. It killed somebody here, and as executive director of a local community group at the time, I made this an issue, which in turn led to a lot of the push province wide around the ODSP eligibility criteria we have today. I read about myself in Hansard, on Google, in the special collections department at the library, and in other records, and I envy the perseverence and energy I seemed to portray in those days. My friend, who I shared many of the links with, said I can do this again.
I am concerned that somebody might be worried about too many people going on ODSP and not going off, and who might want to tinker with the definition of eligibility once again, therefore putting more vulnerable people at risk. There have been musings by the current Minister that there were too many people on ODSP and the definition of disability is "too broad". This Minister has also been in charge of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, almost leading one to believe that this hugely watered down Integrated Accessibility Standard is going to get employers province wide to suddenly open their doors to people with disabilities. As I tell people, because I was also involved in this process as well, that the standards are an important step, but it is not going to cure the labour market of most of its ills. To tell a person on ODSP who is trying to work, for example, that they will no longer qualify for the higher benefits this program offers, will discourage any of this effort from going further, or worse yet, lead to more people like Stella Mae Williams (the name of the person who chose suicide over likely and imminent eviction when she was cut off her then Family Benefits cheque for trying to keep a part-time job).
I mention this incident because it happened right here in Niagara, and our beloved Peter Kormos, took this to the legislature, as just another example of how mean social assistance rules can become. I wanted the Commissioners to hear about Stella Mae Williams, and others like her that did not become known through the legislature or through my usual publicity pushing efforts. I wanted the Commissioners to know some of the people by name that I have known, year over year, who have turned to suicide, as opposed to continuously living in abject poverty and alone in this world that is created by ODSP, as well as its predecessor, Family Benefits. The rate of break up in relationships between ODSP recipients and working spouses is very high, over ninety percent of those I have known have split, while the so-called divorce rate for the rest of us is about forty percent. Some ODSP recipients have died, while others continue to live desperately alone.
In my community, I am a paradox. I work professionally as a paralegal advocate, taking cases to courts, tribunals and appeals all over. Many times, I attempt to mediate solutions between parties to get something for both sides, at times in very difficult circumstances. While most of my cases are typical events involving companies, individuals, employers and others, and all of them are very important to me, as all have a legitimate issues that need to be dealt with. About twenty five percent of my caseload is poor, many of them trying to qualify for various disability benefits, or to deal with some other circumstance, such as trying to seek health care that is not available in Ontario. I see the world that nobody else sees, other than some of my peers, as well as folks that work directly in social services. I see for myself what has not worked over the years, and I hear from people all the time what would make things work better for them.
It is unfortunate in our society today, there appears to be an addiction to charity and other ineffective solutions, which only deflect the issues, and continue to fail the people they serve. The culture that is created within the charitable context solidifies the dichotomy of our community between us and "those people" (who would be the intended recipients of charity). Donors are told to feel good, be proud and some even seek their fifteen minutes of fame for running major campaigns to support these charities that in the end produce nothing. It is unfortunate in places like Niagara that people that run these kinds of charities have more say about what should be done than those that live the issues. I am not saying that those that run these charities are bad people or do their work with ill intentions; they fail to understand the effect of the dichotomy this creates, and how it impacts on the self-esteem of the people that are provided for.
In other words, I missed my opportunity to tell the Commissioners what my people tell me they need to become more financially self-sufficient or to bring their families out of the kinds of desperate circumstances that lead them to the door of these charities. I value the adage that if you feed a man a fish for a day, he will not be hungry today, but if you teach a man to fish, you have fed him for a lifetime. We need to get more people that think like me on board to make sure that we stop covering our gaping wounds with band aids and congratulating those that provide the strips. We need more people that can heal the wounds, and make people whole, or at least to the point, where they can choose.
If anybody in charge here in Niagara is reading this, I certainly hope they make attempts to contact me, as I need to belong, and teach people how to stop the bleeding. Your thoughts?