By Murray MacAdam
Poverty has spread so deeply into Canadian society that middle-class people and their children are now feeling its bite. Our faith traditions, however, can inspire us to think deeply about the society we want, and build an economy in that spirit.
Those where the key findings of a Queen’s Park forum on April 18 called “Awakening the Middle Class,” sponsored by the Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition (ISARC). It attracted 100 faith leaders, as well as Premier Kathleen Wynne and several cabinet ministers. Bishop Philip Poole also attended, along with 10 other Anglicans.
In a powerful theological reflection, the Rev. Maggie Helwig, a priest of the Diocese of Toronto, contrasted the envy and fear on which so much of society is driven and which divides us from one another, with the vision of solidarity that underlies not just Christianity but other major faith traditions as well. “We are all part of one another,” she noted. “When one is suffering, none are well. It is our responsibility to find ways of speaking and thinking about our common life. We are able to tell a different story about ourselves, not a story about the accumulation of material goods to acquire status or ward off fear, not about self-protection as the ultimate value, but a story about solidarity.” That can enable us to welcome each other and realize that everyone can have enough, instead of being manipulated into thinking that “those people,” such as the undeserving poor and refugees, are the root of our problems, she said.
Keynote speaker Armine Yalnizyan, an economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and a CBC radio commentator, provided statistics to back up this message. More and more Canadians struggle to pay for basic needs such as housing and education. Ontario’s poverty rate has been growing during the past two decades, and now stands at over 12 per cent. We cannot promise our children that they will remain in the middle class, she said. “People are worried about what’s going to happen to them and their children.”
“This is not for a lack of money,” noted Ms. Yalnizyan. “Canada is the 11th biggest economy in the world.” The problem is that the benefits of economic growth are not being shared widely. The bottom 40 per cent of Canadian society is living on less money than in the 1970s. Only 27 per cent of jobless workers in Ontario can access employment insurance benefits. Meanwhile low-paid workers now make up 23 per cent of Ontario’s workforce, and the minimum wage has not been raised for three years.
She zeroed in on the federal government’s Temporary Foreign Worker program as an example of what’s gone wrong. At a time when one in five young workers in Toronto can’t find work, there are now 340,000 foreign workers in Canada, many of them doing low-skilled work for highly profitable corporations such as fast food chains.
While outlining measures that could make a difference for low-income people, such as more affordable housing, Ms Yalnizyan also reminded her listeners that ultimately this comes down to their values and a vision for the common good. “At the end of the day, it’s the promise of abundant life that we can offer to one another. The abundant life is in our midst. If we’re not committed to this, we will all pay the price.”
Premier Wynne thanked participants for keeping poverty issues before society, and affirmed the government’s commitments to carry out the report of Ontario’s Social Assistance Review Commission, which outlined a range of measures to raise incomes and opportunities for people on social assistance. Ontario’s Attorney General, John Gerretsen, added his encouragement as well, urging the group to “keep hammering at the doors of government.”