“We want to be partners in the work to end poverty in Ontario. We want to establish those relationships and to build them.” This was the message that Bishop Linda Nicholls brought to Ontario’s Minister of Finance Dwight Duncan, at a meeting on Aug. 10. Bishop Nicholls was joined at the meeting by the Rev. Maggie Helwig, assistant curate at St. Timothy, North Toronto, and chair of the diocese’s Social Justice and Advocacy Committee (SJAC), and Ted Glover, a member of St. George Memorial, Oshawa, and a long-time member of SJAC. The meeting was a follow-up to a brief conversation between Mr. Duncan and Bishop Nicholls after a rally outside his office on March 10, which had called for a $100-per-month Healthy Food Supplement to social assistance.
Mr. Duncan acknowledged that churches are “the front-line providers” of food, shelter and support, and that in many ways they are “easing the burden of government.” In return, the Anglican representatives expressed appreciation for what the provincial government has already done, notably the increased minimum wage and the Ontario Child Benefit, which have made a difference in the lives of low-income people, but noted that poverty rates in Ontario are continuing to rise overall.
Bishop Nicholls and Ms. Helwig emphasized the importance of thinking in the long term. Social investments, such as continuing to increase the minimum wage and raising social assistance rates, may cost money in the short term, but over a longer period will enable more people to live decent lives, get back into the labour force when possible, and reduce the drain on health care and other programs.
“If we don’t address the longer term, we will pay for it,” said Bishop Nicholls, noting that the riots in London were in part the result of a deterioration in social conditions and increasing social inequality. She mentioned that she had recently visited the lunch program at St. John the Evangelist in Peterborough and was shocked to realize that many people could not even eat much of the healthy food provided because of the poor condition of their teeth.
Mr. Duncan agreed, but said that “unfortunately, things aren’t measured that way. We’re constrained by international markets, tax fatigue … but if there’s a program that people believe will be effective, we will put money into it, the way we did with full-day learning.”
He encouraged Anglicans to build relationships not only with himself and his office but with other cabinet ministers and MPPs, so that when there is a crisis or a decision to be made, they are not coming to the table as strangers. He was also pleased to hear that SJAC has submitted a brief to the Social Assistance Review Commission and that Ms. Helwig has been in dialogue with the commissioners to express SJAC’s concerns. “We’ll be taking any recommendations that come out of that commission very seriously,” he stressed.
At the conclusion of the meeting, Minister Duncan promised to ensure that SJAC representatives would be integrated into the work of the Forum on Social Innovation, and —acknowledging that Ontario is close to a provincial election—suggested that, if re-elected, he would be happy to meet with the Bishop and others again in the late fall, and then also during the preparation of the next provincial budget.