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Week of Anti-Poverty Action Kicks Off in Sudbury

by Scott Neigh

Demonstrators outside McDonald's on Notre Dame Avenue in Sudbury, Ontario, calling for an increase in the minimum wage to $14 an hour.
Demonstrators outside McDonald's on Notre Dame Avenue in Sudbury, Ontario, calling for an increase in the minimum wage to $14 an hour.
Demonstrators outside McDonald's on Notre Dame Avenue in Sudbury, Ontario, calling for an increase in the minimum wage to $14 an hour.
Demonstrators outside McDonald's on Notre Dame Avenue in Sudbury, Ontario, calling for an increase in the minimum wage to $14 an hour.
A demonstrator outside McDonald's on Notre Dame Avenue in Sudbury, Ontario, calling for an increase in the minimum wage to $14 an hour.
A demonstrator outside McDonald's on Notre Dame Avenue in Sudbury, Ontario, calling for an increase in the minimum wage to $14 an hour.
A demonstrator outside McDonald's on Notre Dame Avenue in Sudbury, Ontario, calling for an increase in the minimum wage to $14 an hour.
A demonstrator outside McDonald's on Notre Dame Avenue in Sudbury, Ontario, calling for an increase in the minimum wage to $14 an hour.
A demonstrator outside Tim Horton's at the corner of Cedar and Paris Streets in Sudbury, Ontario, calling for an increase in the minimum wage to $14 an hour.
A demonstrator outside Tim Horton's at the corner of Cedar and Paris Streets in Sudbury, Ontario, calling for an increase in the minimum wage to $14 an hour.
Demonstrators outside Tim Horton's at the corner of Cedar and Paris Streets in Sudbury, Ontario, calling for an increase in the minimum wage to $14 an hour.
Demonstrators outside Tim Horton's at the corner of Cedar and Paris Streets in Sudbury, Ontario, calling for an increase in the minimum wage to $14 an hour.

SUDBURY, ON -- The demonstration launching the Sudbury component of an Ontario-wide week of action against poverty was modest in size -- 15 people gathered on a sunny holiday Monday in front of the McDonald's restaurant on Notre Dame Avenue. The culmination of the week on Saturday is expected to be much larger, when people from across the province will gather in Sudbury and march to demand major changes in government policy.

Anna Harbulik, an organizer with the Sudbury Coalition Against Poverty, said that this first action of the week was also part of a longer series in which groups across the province have acted on the 14th of each month "to demonstrate that we need to raise the minimum wage to $14 per hour so that full-time, minimum-wage workers can be living above the poverty line."

The Monday action saw people gather outside of McDonald's and then walk down Notre Dame to the the Tim Horton's at the corner of Cedar and Paris Streets in the downtown. These two chains were targeted, Harbulik said, because "both are involved in lobbying the government to keep the minimum wage low" as members of the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association (CRFA).

In its submission to the provincial government's Minimum Wage Advisory Panel, the CRFA opposed an increase and argued, "Raising the minimum wage will lead to fewer jobs, especially for young people." The submission argued against considering questions of poverty when making decisions about the minimum wage level, saying "minimum wage is ... not a social justice tool" and that government programs would be a better response. It also claimed that those calling out the association's opposition to raising the minimum wage were doing so "to further their personal agendas."

Francine Mouton is on the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) and is also a minimum-wage worker. Her agenda for attending the protest was, she said, "to support everybody," and for her, a raise in the minimum wage would mean "more money for food."

Harbulik pointed out that the position taken by CRFA and other business associations effectively "means keeping their workers living in poverty." She argued, "A fair wage means being able to sustain yourself," but at the present time, "minimum wage workers often times can't put food on the table" and they "are being forced to get food from the foodbank."

A recent report by the Wellesley Institute found that the proportion of workers who are making minimum wage in Ontario has more than doubled since 2003. Women are more than twice as likely as men to be working for the minimum wage, and racialized workers are nearly 50% more likely to do so than white workers. In addition, contrary to myths that only youth work in low-wage jobs, more than 60% of those earning minimum wage or slightly above are older than 25.

A key element of the week of action will be drawing links between groups living in poverty that are often treated quite differently -- for instance, people working for minimum wage, people on disability benefits, and people on welfare. Harbulik said, "It's about not looking at whether people are deserving or undeserving of a minimum standard." She continued, "Everyone deserves to be able to sustain themselves. ... Both workers and non-workers deserve to have these basic needs met, and all of our demands relate to these basic needs."

Other events over the course of the week will include a free showing of the anti-poverty film Invisible City on Tuesday, a march with a local focus on Friday, and the provincial march on Saturday.

The demands of the marches later in the week focus on the social assistance system. Organizers are asking for the restoration of a benefit meant to keep people out of homelessness, for First Nations control of the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) on reserves, and for a 55% increase in social assistance rates to bring their purchasing power back to the level they had in 1995. They are also speaking out against the proposed merger of ODSP and Ontario Works, the social assistance program for non-disabled people in Ontario.

Charles Tossell, an ODSP receipient, worries that if the two programs do merge, "people on ODSP will be stuck with Ontario Works rates," which are substantially lower. Harbulik said that based on how similar changes have recently been implemented in the United Kingdom, the merger would "probably mean that the rights and benefits that people on ODSP currently have will be reduced," and it could mean pushing many people on disability benefits into mandatory "workfare" positions. Disabled people will be leading the Saturday march.

The week of action is part of the provincial Raise the Rates campaign, and is being supported by a number of different labour and community groups at both the local and provincial levels.

Scott Neigh is the author of two books of Canadian history told through the stories of activist from Fernwood Publishing, and the producer/host of Talking Radical Radio.


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scott.neigh (Scott Neigh)
Sudbury
Member since September 2012

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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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The Sudbury working-group of The Media Co-op was formed to create independent media in the North, to speak to our issues and outlooks on our communities as well as the world around us. Independent media provides an avenue for people who are wishing to gain critical perspective on the issues that matter most to us, and to give a voice to those people and stories that you won't find in the mainstream media.

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