The first budget of the new Liberal majority government passed yesterday, and members and supporters of the Sudbury Coalition Against Poverty (S-CAP) are not happy with the impacts it will have on the Ontarians who already have the least.
The budget invests new money in infrastructure projects and in public transit, as well as creating a new provincial counterpart to the Canada Pension Plan. Liberal Finance Minister Charles Sousa was quoted in the Toronto Star describing it as "a progressive, positive plan."
At today's Austerity Budget Breakdown Funfest, S-CAP organizer Anna Harbulik retorted, "I think it's absolute bullshit that this is a 'progressive' budget. ... There's nothing in there that says 'progressive' to me. I think that's a flat-out lie."
She pointed to the budget's impact on the poorest residents of the province. Though the $11/hr provincial minum wage is indexed to inflation in the budget, it is not raised beyond the indexing, which means that it will continue to leave the many workers who must survive on it well below the poverty line. There is a 1% increase in social assistance rates, but that is less than the rate of inflation, so the purchasing power of Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) recipients continues to decline. S-CAP has long pointed out that for those rates to have the same purchasing power as they had in 1995, it would require at least a 55% increase. As well, contrary to the demands of many anti-poverty groups across the province, earlier government attacks on benefits that were focused on preventing homelessness and on ensuring adequate nutrition have not been reversed in the current budget.
"These are continued austerity measures and they're affecting the people who are most vulnerable in our society," Harbulik continued. These choices by the government "are going to do more harm to people and do more violence to people living in poverty. ... If the government is concerned with cutting back they should do it where there's room for those cutbacks, like for the most wealthy in society or corporations."
Around 20 people gathered for the event. They ate, drew with chalk on the sidewalk in front of the Provincial Building in downtown Sudbury, jumped rope, listened to music and to a few speakers, played hopscotch, and chatted about the issues.
Emile Ruth is a Haudenosaunee man and an ODSP recipient, and he was enthusiastically taking part in the sidewalk chalking. He said he manages to get by on the amount he receives each month, more or less, but complained that he regularly faces logistical errors in getting his cheque, some of which mean he has to make difficult trips to other parts of the city to resolve them.
Another ODSP recipient, Charles Tossell, was more blunt: "The Liberals need to smarten up and listen to us. ODSP is getting worse in many ways, and Ontario Works as well." He listed a number of detailed rule changes and changes in benefits that are making life harder for himself and other disabled people who depend on the system.
The "funfest" model is a somewhat different kind of event than many that S-CAP has organized in the last few years. Harbulik explained, "It does get tiring to always feel like we're fighting and to feel really confrontational. This is a really important fight and we do have to keep that up, but it's also important for us to come togehter as a cohesive group and grow the sense of commmunity and connection and solidarity between us, all of the people who are involved in this fight -- just to come together and support one another and discuss these things that are really important to us."
Scott Neigh is a writer, activist, and media producer based in Sudbury, Ontario. He is the host of Talking Radical Radio, the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists, and a blogger.