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Solidarity in the Snow: Sudbury Rallies Against Austerity

by Scott Neigh

Signs taped to the wall outside the office of Sudbury Liberal MPP Rick Bartolucci during the Solidarity Against Austerity action in Sudbury, Ontario on April 12, 2013. (Photo by Scott Neigh)
Signs taped to the wall outside the office of Sudbury Liberal MPP Rick Bartolucci during the Solidarity Against Austerity action in Sudbury, Ontario on April 12, 2013. (Photo by Scott Neigh)
People beginning to gather in Memorial Park in downtown Sudbury for the Solidarity Agaisnt Austerity rally, meal, and march, despite the weather. (Photo by Scott Neigh)
People beginning to gather in Memorial Park in downtown Sudbury for the Solidarity Agaisnt Austerity rally, meal, and march, despite the weather. (Photo by Scott Neigh)
The N'Swakamok Native Friendship Centre drumming group doing an opening song at the Solidarity Against Austerity action in Memorial Park. (Photo by Scott Neigh)
The N'Swakamok Native Friendship Centre drumming group doing an opening song at the Solidarity Against Austerity action in Memorial Park. (Photo by Scott Neigh)
An Ontario Coalition Against Poverty flag and people listening to speeches during the rally portion of the Solidarity Against Austerity event in Memorial Park. (Photo by Scott Neigh)
An Ontario Coalition Against Poverty flag and people listening to speeches during the rally portion of the Solidarity Against Austerity event in Memorial Park. (Photo by Scott Neigh)
Demonstrators take to the streets of downtown Sudbury during the Solidarity Against Austerity event. (Photo by Scott Neigh)
Demonstrators take to the streets of downtown Sudbury during the Solidarity Against Austerity event. (Photo by Scott Neigh)
Demonstrators and a sign demanding an increase to the social assistance rates, during the portion of the Solidarity Against Austerity event that happend outside the provincial building in downtown Sudbury. (Photo by Scott Neigh)
Demonstrators and a sign demanding an increase to the social assistance rates, during the portion of the Solidarity Against Austerity event that happend outside the provincial building in downtown Sudbury. (Photo by Scott Neigh)
Demonstrators and a "Solidarity Against Austerity" sign outside the provincial building. The speaker is Menal Mehari of Laurentian University's Graduate Student Association and the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 5011. (Photo by Scott Neigh)
Demonstrators and a "Solidarity Against Austerity" sign outside the provincial building. The speaker is Menal Mehari of Laurentian University's Graduate Student Association and the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 5011. (Photo by Scott Neigh)
Demonstrators posing outside the office of Liberal MPP Rick Bartolucci and demanding a raise to social assistance rates and an end to the austerity agenda. (Photo by Scott Neigh)
Demonstrators posing outside the office of Liberal MPP Rick Bartolucci and demanding a raise to social assistance rates and an end to the austerity agenda. (Photo by Scott Neigh)

As the city endured one final blast of winter, 75 residents of Sudbury braved the weather on Friday to express their opposition to austerity measures expected in the forthcoming provincial budget. The demonstrators gathered in Memorial Park for a meal and a rally, and later 40 or 50 of them then took to the streets to voice their demands outside the provincial building and at the office of Liberal MPP Rick Bartolucci.

Clarissa Lassaline of the Sudbury Coalition Against Poverty (SCAP) said that her group is "really fearful" about the impact that budget measures might have on the poorest people in the city -- "people living in poverty, people making minimum wage, who are not able with the income they have to feed themselves, to clothe themselves, to find proper housing."

The demands made during the rally and march included some that have been key goals for anti-poverty groups in the province for years, while others focused on changes and cuts that have been proposed in the wake of the recent provincial commission that reviewed the social assistance system.

SCAP and the many other community and labour groups that supported the action demanded that social assistance rates be raised to the same effective levels they were at in 1995, which would require a 56% increase; that the minimum wage be raised to $14 and indexed to inflation; and that the previously slashed Community Start Up and Maintenance Benefit (CSUMB) be restored. They also want a commitment by the province not to enact proposed measures that would download the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) to municipalities, cut the special dietary supplement, and force disabled people into poverty jobs through workfare measures.

Charles Tossell is an ODSP recipient. While he lives in social housing and is therefore usually able to make ends meet, many of his friends are not so lucky. He talked about one friend on ODSP -- a man who is blind and has an acquired brain injury. His market-rent apartment is quite typical, at $700 a month plus hydro. But this leaves him only around $200 a month to pay for food, transportation, clothing, and all of the other necessities of life. "How is that right?" Tossell asked.

According to calculations done by the organization Poverty Free Ontario, an adult working full-time for a full year on minimum wage still does not make enough money to surpass the poverty line -- even if they have no dependents. And a single person on Ontario Works (OW) receives only $606 a month to cover all of their expenses. Lianne Bergeron, co-ordinator of Sudbury's Homelessness Network, pointed out that a one-bedroom apartment in the city generally costs $700 to $750 a month.

Lassaline said that the austerity-based changes that have already been made to the social assistance system have meant that "some really nasty things have been happening here," especially to ODSP recipients. Among both ODSP and OW recipients, SCAP has seen numerous instances of people being initially denied benefits to which they are entitled under the rules, and only receiving them once the group has applied pressure.

ODSP recipient Pat Lemieux said that when he applied for a benefit to which he was sure he was entitled, "The first words out of the worker's mouth were 'No!' and 'No!' and 'No!" It was only after some noisy advocacy from SCAP that he finally received it. Gary Kinsman, an organizer with the group, said, "We've almost got a 100% success rate in terms of the direct action support work that we take up," and he encouraged others who have been denied benefits to contact them.

In addition, though ODSP as a whole is still run by the province, recent changes now require ODSP recipients to go through the municipally-run OW offices to receive certain key supplemental benefits that allow them to acquire and maintain housing. SCAP knows of instances of people losing their housing or having their hydro cut off despite being granted the benefit in question, because of what the group identifies as poor planning, poor communication, and inadequate follow-up by city staff not used to working with disabled people.

A number of speakers connected the changes expected in the provincial budget to the wave of austerity measures being introduced by governments around the world, and to the mounting popular resistance to them. Wyman MacKinnon, the vice-president of the Sudbury and District Labour Council, described the logic of austerity as, "Attack the midde-class, attack the people who have the least, and building the bank accounts of the rich and famous."

New Democrat MPP for Nicklebelt France Gelinas said, "I've had enough of the austerity agenda. It came because the rich saw an opening to impose it on the rest of us."

And Kinsman talked about austerity as "attempts to resolve the crisis of the rich and powerful at our expense." He argued, "Solidarity, caring, compassion -- that is the basis of a new society that could meet people's needs and not just the needs of the rich and powerful."

The action in Sudbury was part of a week-long series of actions across the province under the banner of the provincial Raise the Rates campaign. Lassaline said that similar collaboration must continue and grow. "We're trying to increase our alliances," she said, and pointed to both the existing labour involvement in this event as well as SCAP's ongoing efforts to build increasingly substantive relationships with unions -- "the union members more than the upper echelons," she said.

Carrie Lynn Poole-Cotnam, an activist with the Canadian Union of Public Employees, said that when it comes to the austerity agenda, "The government would like us to beg for scraps, but that's not going to happen any more. We're going to be an obstacle."

Scott Neigh is a writer and an activist based in Sudbury, Ontario. He recently published two books looking at Canadian history through the stories of activists, which you can learn about here and buy here. He blogs regularly on social and political topics.

To submit a media release to or to ask about writing for Grassroots: Sudbury's Media Collective, please email grassrootssudburymedia@gmail.com.


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scott.neigh (Scott Neigh)
Sudbury
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I am a writer, parent, and activist living in Sudbury, Ontario. For more of my writing, see my personal blog (at http://scottneigh.blogspot.com) and the site devoted to the work I've done focused on the voices of participants in Canadian social movements (at http://talkingradical.ca) which so far has resulted in two books looking at Canadian history through the stories of activists.

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