Tony Martin was 11 years old when he emigrated from Ireland to Canada with his mother and six siblings in January 1960. His father had arrived nine months earlier to find work. Martin recalls arriving in Sault Ste. Marie Ontario in the dead of winter then making an additional eight-hour train trip to Wawa, the family’s new home. “I began my Canadian journey in a community where people took care of one another,” Martin says. “That was the kind of Canada that we came to know but it is now slipping through our fingers.” Martin, who is a devout Roman Catholic, was a three-term member of Ontario’s provincial parliament and has now been the NDP Member of Parliament for Sault Ste. Marie since 2004. He spoke on a recent winter evening to about 75 people at Centretown United Church in Ottawa about his crusade to eradicate poverty in Canada. “I said eradicate poverty, not reduce it,” Martin said. “This is key to me. He says it can be done if there is enough popular support for it and the political will. “Government has no greater responsibility than to look after people who are marginalized.”
Poverty has been a problem of long duration in Canada. One of my first assignments as a young reporter at the Prince Albert Daily Herald in Saskatchewan in 1970 was to cover a visit by Senator David Croll and his Special Senate Committee on Poverty, which reported in 1971. Speaking months later to a business audience at the Empire Club in Toronto, Croll paraphrased the first lines in his Senate report. “It is obvious that the poor do not choose poverty,” he said, “It is at once their affliction and our national shame. The grim fact is that one Canadian in four lacks sufficient income to maintain a basic standard of living.” The central recommendation of his report was for a guaranteed annual income based on need and using the tax system to deliver it.
The guaranteed annual income never happened but Tony Martin says that over the years other good poverty reduction programs have been put into place. They have included medicare, Old Age Assistance and Guaranteed Income Supplement programs for seniors, and a variety of federal and provincial housing programs. But Martin says that things have been going downhill since 1995 when the federal government abdicated its responsibility by abandoning the Canada Assistance Plan (CAP).
Introduced in 1966, the CAP required Ottawa to pay half the cost of social assistance programs undertaken by provinces. That enabled the federal government to set national standards for social assistance and other programs in return for its financial contributions. Ottawa set a limit on those transfers in 1991 and was soon paying only about one-third of the actual costs for social assistance. The CAP was replaced in 1996 by a transfer program that combined federal spending for health, post secondary education and social assistance programs. Provinces could spend the money within that envelope pretty well as they wished. The Mike Harris government in Ontario, for example, attacked the poor by reducing the level of social assistance payments by 21 per cent almost immediately after being elected in 1995.
Poverty is not as widespread now as it was in David Croll’s day, but official estimates are that at least 3.4 million Canadians are poor, about 10 per cent of the population. Citizens for Public Justice, an ecumenical social justice group, believes that there are more likely 4.3 million people living in poverty – about 13 per cent of the population. Put another way, one can say the number of poor people in Canada is approximately equal to the number of residents in British Columbia.
The Great Recession that struck in 2008-09 hit the poor first and hit them hardest, as recessions always do. The ranks of the unemployed swelled but Employment Insurance benefits had been scaled back relentlessly since 1995 and the system was unable to cope. That, in turn, forced many of the unemployed to rely on social assistance and food banks. The rates of both child poverty and poverty in general have increased since 2007.
If poverty persists, so do the promises to eliminate it. In 1989, the House of Commons passed a motion pledging to eliminate child poverty by the year 2000. It hasn’t happened. In 2009, the House passed another motion calling for an immediate plan to eliminate poverty in Canada. Also, in 2009, about 40 years after the Croll report was tabled, another Senate committee issued yet another document calling for measures to lift people out of poverty.
Tony Martin also badgered his fellow MPs on the House of Commons Human Resources committee to look into poverty. They did and by all accounts worked in a collaborative manner, something that has been in short supply in recent parliaments. The committee tabled its report in November 2010. It calls for the federal government to commit to an action plan to reduce poverty and to back it up with a new federal transfer (a poverty reduction fund) supporting initiatives at the provincial and territorial level. The report also calls for a comprehensive and long-term national housing strategy. For good measure, Martin has tabled his own Private Member’s Bill, C-545, An Act to Eliminate Poverty in Canada.
Martin believes the stars are aligning. A grassroots coalition called Dignity for All is campaigning for a poverty-free Canada and has the support of 450 organizations and 7800 individuals. Citizens for Public Justice belongs to the coalition and reports that 89 MPs and 19 Senators have indicated their support as well. Dignity for All is calling for federal legislation to eliminate poverty; for an integrated federal-provincial plan to pursue the goal; and the committing of sufficient resources, to be derived from “fair taxes”, to pay for it.
A member of his Ottawa audience asked Martin whether creating jobs would not be a better plan for eradicating poverty than putting money into social security. He responded by saying it is tempting to believe that a job is the best social program available. “But we cannot limit an anti-poverty strategy to a labour market policy because it misses too many people. There are thousands and thousands of people working full-time and still living in poverty because they earn too little.”
Martin says that despite momentum to place poverty eradication high on the public agenda, he sees little hope that the Harper government will move on it. “They are focused on tax breaks to corporations. We all have to say to them, no not this time. The corporations are doing all right and they don’t need tax breaks. There are people who need help a lot more than the corporations do.”
Another questioner asked what people can do to push the anti-poverty agenda. Martin responded, “You are doing it tonight. There are many wonderful people behind this initiative. We are building hope and momentum everywhere, including in church halls and church basements.Â I am hopeful that we can move on eradicating poverty after the next election if we have a more progressive government that will make it a priority to look after people. So put pressure on your MPs and work in the next election.”