Food Bank Use Remains Alarming

Alright, I’ve been away on vacation and negligent in updating, which a few posts in probably says a lot about my level of focus and commitment. None-the-less, let’s get back at it.

Food Bank Canada just released a report showing more Canadians are using food banks this year than last year. Given Canada has reportedly come through the economic crisis ‘relatively unscathed’ and GDP grew by 2% in 2013, shouldn’t we be seeing levels of food bank use returning to pre-economic recession levels? Well, no. Probably not, because most of that money isn’t going towards social supports or even job creation. It’s going into corporate bank accounts. Coincidentally, the same month Food Bank Canada did this study, Stats Canada reported that $626 billion was being hoarded in corporate accounts for a 6% increase over the previous quarter and amounting to over 30% of the GDP. Huh, no wonder we aren’t seeing many signs of improved outcomes for the average Canadian even 5 years after the recession supposedly ended.

So where else is the money going? Seriously, who is benefiting from the bounce back in the economy? Turns out the top 1% of earners have seen 37% of total income growth according to the OECD and the top 10% are eating over 60% of growth. Ah, yes, this seems like a fairly proportioned distribution of wealth. The other 90% of the population have incomes which are remaining largely the same. No wonder food bank use isn’t going down. (Seriously, 170,000 more people are still using food banks than before the recession.)

So, who specifically is relying on food banks at this point in time? Well, out of 840,000 users, over half were households with children. (1/3 of users being the children themselves.) For all the government rhetoric heralding our strong economic bounce-back, we still cannot provide for our most vulnerable citizens. In fact, Canada rates behind 23 of our fellow wealthy nations for child poverty. Countries ranging from Iceland, to Slovakia, to Ireland, to Estonia are all outperforming us when it comes to keeping our kids fed and clothed. In the immortal words of Helen LoveJoy: “Won’t somebody PLEASE think of the children?”

Pointing to the systemic causes of hunger in our country, the report shows 14% of food bank users are First Nations, Metis or Inuit while another 12% are immigrants and refugees. That’s over a quarter of food bank users who are visible minorities. Scarier still, 12% of users are employed highlighting the changing workforce which focuses on part-time, temporary and low paying jobs which generally have little job security and no benefits.

Come on Canada, if we have ‘recovered’ from the recession, we can do better than this. Reliable access to food is a basic human right and shouldn’t be difficult for anyone to achieve, especially in a supposedly prosperous nation.


“Fixing” Immigration The Easy Way

In typical fashion, the Canadian government has finally rolled out more of their delayed, reactive response to the negative press it has been receiving over it’s Temporary Foreign Worker program over the past few months. (The first response involved a rules adjustment which were intended to make it more difficult for Canadian companies to favour TFWs over Canadian employees.) The more recent plan to reduce reliance on TFWs is to expedite processing of Permanent Residency applications for ‘skilled workers’.

People who have already immigrated to Canada aren’t feeling very impressed – and with a history of this country undervaluing their worth to our economy, it’s no wonder. If the government is suprised, they clearly aren’t spending enough time on the StatsCan webpage. Perhaps some of that funding should be going towards ensuring that those who are already here are actually succeeding before bringing in more workers for shortages we may or may not actually have? Currently, many immigrants who have already qualified under the Federal Skilled Worker Program are underemployed due to barriers to accessing the Canadian job market.

In Canada we have laws to ensure employment equity and yet what does it say when median incomes for recent immigrants have gone down over the past three decades (whether they have a university degree or not) while incomes for Canadian born persons have stayed relatively stable? In 2005, the median income for males who had recently immigrated to Canada and held a university degree was $30,330 while the median income for their Canadian born counterparts was over double at $62,566. (Go figure, women performed lower in both populations at $18,969 and $44,545 respectively.) This trend has persisted even though today 42% of recent immigrants hold university degrees compared to 19% in 1980. Given that these immigrants were all recruited and selected under the same programs we will continue to use for Express Entry, this program is unlikely to improve that status of educated immigrants. Seriously, something about these numbers indicates that maybe a lack of skilled immigrants isn’t the problem.

Two major hurdles that new immigrants face is a lack of Canadian credentials and a lack of Canadian experience. Employers are less apt to hire applicants whose training comes from abroad even though that training has been approved by the Canadian government and that person has been recruited as skilled in a needed sector. The other issue is a lack of Canadian work experience where new immigrants are stuck in a loop. They cannot get hired to work in their fields due to lack of experience in Canada and they cannot gain experience in Canada without getting hired. These two factors are frequently cited as reason new immigrants are forced to take low skill positions outside their field of expertise to make ends meet while they search for work. Compound these issues with having English as a second language, being unfamiliar with Canadian culture and covert racism and you have a pretty good picture of why these positions aren’t being filled.

Given that these are the struggles immigrants with their permanent residency are already facing, it is easy to see how they may feel critical of the Conservatives’ most recent effort to boost the job market through recruiting more immigrants. While official word from Kenney’s office is that the government is planning to also look into those issues, it seems like another reflexive response. If they were actually being proactive on a problem that has been worsening for 30 years, they probably wouldn’t be rolling out a program that runs the risk of exacerbating the situation rather than improving it.

Still No Progress on Aboriginal Issues

It’s been a bit of a whirlwind of policy and opinion over the past two weeks. Harper stuck his foot in his mouth and then kept sucking his own toes while refusing to admit it was a bad choice. Finally, the federal government has agreed to consider a roundtable – provided it results in more than just talk. As MacKay has stated: “What we don’t need, is yet another study on top of the some 40 studies and reports that have already been done, that made specific recommendations which are being pursued, to delay ongoing action.”

 There are essentially two things being implied in this statement. First, that we already have all the information there is to gather on the issue. (Colour me skeptical but I will concede that we have a large body of information.) The second is that there are actions which have been being taken in response to that information. If, as MacKay has stated, recommendations from studies dating back to 1996 have been pursued, show me!

Inquiries are an amazing tool. They can work with the funding and mandate that many researchers would otherwise never have access to and thus be thorough and productive sources of information. No wonder so many people want one on this issue! Let’s get the proper information to make recommendations on how to move forwards and then do that! Awesome! Go team!

Except that’s often not what happens and the trend of ignoring these sources of knowledge almost as soon as they are completed is perhaps even worse for literature on aboriginal issues. The 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples put forth a twenty year timeline for implementing its suggested changes. Now that we are coming up on that twenty year mark, how many of the 440 recommendations have actually become policy? Perhaps an even better question, how many policy makers have even read the full report?

While the most well known, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples is far from the only source of information on the status of aboriginal people’s in Canada. The 2011 Urban Aborginal Peoples Study looked at First Nations, Inuit and Metis living in cities was un updated look on an evolving demographic and their struggles trying to integrate into Caucasian Canadian spaces. In 2012, the BC inquiry on its own missing women, Forsaken, was released. These works have likewise seen little to no follow through from government on the problems and possible solutions outlined. So, again MacKay, please show me what ‘specific recommendations’ from these studies are already being pursued.

Is it the recommendation that First Nations schools only receive half to two-thirds of the funding of provincially funded schools and decrying calls for increased funding as against government ‘messaging and direction’?* I forget the study that suggested fewer high school graduates among First Nations students leads to more positive outcomes. It’s probably in the same study that decided funding for aboriginal child welfare was unnecessary… to aboriginal child welfare? Also that NAHO funding was unnecessary. Oh, and funding for the Aboriginal Healing Foundation. If steps are being taken in response to recommendations made in any of those inquiries, I’m afraid you may have a political staffer who can’t read.

First Nations issues occupy an interesting space in politics because areas of administration which are typically managed by provincial goverments, are instead managed by a federal government which has made it increasingly clear that they want nothing to do with health care, education, welfare unless not doing so will lose them an election.** The consistent message from Ottawa on First Nations issues has been “We care. We care a lot. Unless it’s going to cost us time and money to do anything about it because we have a budget to balance and that looks a hell of a lot more impressive come election time than increasing quality of life outcomes for aboriginal children.” It is going to fall on us, the public, to tell the goverment what’s more important. Given the explicit choice between people and the bottom-line, I’d like to think most people would choose people; however, that choice is implicit in the policies we do or do not support, the governments we do and do not support, and we seem to be making the opposite decision. Hopefully this is one issue that will not be forgotten by the wayside as soon as someone flashes the word ‘economy’ around in an attempt to distract us.

 *It is worth noting that this particular case of foot-in-mouth disease was followed by an improved (though still problematic) version of the First Nations education act. Perhaps the recent one will do the same? A little backpedalling into “see-we-totally-still-care” territory would likely be useful here.

**See my post on this here.

How Lucky to be Homeless in Vancouver

I wanted to start this post by apologizing for what I’m about to do: in a blog geared at Canadian issues, I’m bringing it right down to the local level (and it’s only my second post!). So, sorry about that but this is important so I’m doing it anyway. Also I feel that while the specifics are occurring in Vancouver, the same issues are important in all Canadian cities.

So Vancouver is the third best place in the world to live according to The Economist. (Eat it Toronto and Calgary in the non-podium-attaining 4th and 5th places respectively!) At the same time, at least 150 people are living in Oppenheimer Park to protest the housing situation in Vancouver. Yup. They’re still there over a month later – you just haven’t heard much about it because it’s been a pretty boring protest.

Working in the area, there are two common complaints I have heard about the protest. (Hint: neither of them are related to its legality.) The first is that the protest has taken away the park from residents for whom it used to be a quiet space to relax. Oppenheimer is the only accessible space of its kind for many marginalized persons with low mobility. Because of the protest, large events and smaller activities have been displaced and it sucks. The second concern is more political and is largely used by the disgruntled to discredit the protest. Namely, many of the persons living in tent city are not homeless.

For me this is possibly the best argument I have actually heard supporting why this demonstration is so necessary. Let me ask, how many of you would voluntarily live in Tent City for the summer when you have a home to return to within 10 blocks? Given the questionable safety and comfort of the park (especially last week when even a thunderstorm didn’t deter protesters!), likely not too many. Now it’s time to talk about being under-housed on the DTES and how putting the homeless problem behind walls often doesn’t improve quality of life. It only helps make things a little more manageable for businesses trying to convince their customers to walk a little farther east than Gastown.

“Home” for many people living on the DTES exists in a Single-Room-Occupancy Hotel. Bathrooms are shared facilities and many residents have indicated they feel cleaner before taking a shower, which is why they’ll only stomach it once a week. There are no kitchen facilities and even finding a shelf for a microwave can be tricky in some of these shoe boxes. For those trying to find a good night’s sleep, their neighbours are banging and yelling at all hours of the night. For those trying to get clean, their neighbours are using and dealing in the hallways. For those trying to feel safe, a stranger they’ve never had business with is screaming through their door about money being owed and payment being taken one way or another. Someone keeps trying to flush clothing down the toilet. Somebody threw flaming paper down the garbage chute. That guy downstairs keeps stabbing rigs into the walls. Finally, the problem of bed bugs is at epidemic proportions. If your landlord/building management company is lazy and cheap, the bed bugs will spread to such an extent that you are covered with bites each night so bad you can hardly sleep. You may have to threaten a lawsuit to get them to do anything about the little bastards. If you’re luckier and you have a decent building management company, you’ll be getting treatments done so often that you’re packing up your entire life every couple of months until the end of time (because every time your neighbour visits that one friend of his or that funky joint he likes, he brings home a new one and the cycle starts over). Please don’t think I’m exaggerating. I hear a story like these nearly every day.

So, yes, housing is a problem in Vancouver. The title of ‘3rd most liveable city’ in the world doesn’t apply to everyone trying to make their home here. Quantity and quality both need to be addressed before the protesters will feel more comfortable anywhere else so please don’t forget about them. They’re still there, hoping someone from Vision Vancouver will take their complaints seriously.

–Some day I’ll tell you all about what staying in a shelter is like.

Why Ottawa Does Have Responsibilities In Health and Social Welfare

Too often, the blame for substandard health and social welfare in Canada is brushed neatly off the shoulders of the federal government like pesky dandruff so it can sprinkle directly onto the heads of the smaller provinces. It’s a convenient narrative. The provinces choose how to spend their money, so how could you possibly blame the feds? Bear with me while I weave a little tale of how the federal government has always held some responsibility for what is ostensibly the province’s purview. 

Once upon a time, and up until 1996, the federal and provincial governments had an agreement called the Canada Assistance Plan. This plan established a 50/50 cost sharing relationship for social assistance. This means that whatever the needs of the provinces vis-a-vis social spending, the feds pitched in for half. As long as the provinces provided needs tests, of course. This supported other cost-sharing programs such as the Hospital Insurance and Diagnostic Services Act. Here the federal government declared they would reimburse provinces for half their healthcare costs as long as the provinces followed their guidelines on comprehensiveness, universality, portability, and accessibility. (They dropped these stipulations for seven years but they were reinstated again when the provinces misbehaved.) Point is, until 1996 the federal government was footing half the bill, providing the provinces followed directions. Seriously, hands were tied (for good or bad) by the risk of losing funding.

In 1996 the provinces received a phone call from Ottawa telling them it was getting tired of paying half and was going to pay whatever it felt was appropriate instead. This was the Canada Health and Social Transfer; a set block fund. The CHST was set at $26.9 billion for 96/97 and $25.1 billion for 97/98. After 97/98, CHST funds were to grow by 2% GDP, then 1.5% GDP, then 1% GDP. In exchange for receiving less money, the federal government declared they would less the provinces do whatever the heck they wanted with it. Federally supervised standards? Who needs those? 

In 2004, the CHST was split into the Canada Health Transfer and Canada Social Transfer in order to increase transparency and accountability in health funding as part of the 10-Year Plan to Strengthen Health Care. While probably good for health care, as it has been the favoured child of the CHST, this has allowed the federal government to more easily cut back on spending for the red-headed stepchild that is social welfare. 

2014 marks the end of that 10-Year Plan. I’ll leave the discussion of its success or failure for another day. Probably one rather far away. After two years, the CHT will be increased annually based on rate of productivity growth plus inflation instead of, you know, need. High unemployment and an economic downturn will directly translate into less money at a time when Canadians need it most. The 2014 budget also announced CHT payments to provinces will now be done on a per capita basis without consideration of actual cost to implement health care in those provinces. The CST rate of increase going forward may not even cover inflation, never mind increased need. Will they live happily ever after? To be continued…

Some of you may have noticed just a hint of a trend in that story. The federal government has fairly consistently taken steps out of health and social welfare by reducing oversight while also reducing payments – and then they claim its not their responsibility when conditions deteriorate. You can’t build a bomb (or some less explosive but more crumbly, slow analogy), run away and then claim no fault when it goes off. (Quick! Run away!) What the heck, guys?


**Fun aside, BC tried to sue the federal government when it declared a cap on increases in transfers of five percent for the Canada Assistance Plan. They lost.