That, in the opinion of the House, there is a growing prosperity gap in Canada that is making it harder for working and middle-class families to make ends meet and sees more and more Canadians, including women, children, seniors, aboriginal people and people with disabilities, slipping into poverty and therefore calls on the government, in cooperation with the provinces and territories, to implement a national anti-poverty strategy beginning with the reinstatement of the federal minimum wage to be initially set at $10 per hour.
Mr. Speaker, it is an honour to stand in the House today to move our party's motion that calls for a national anti-poverty strategy beginning with the reinstatement of the $10 minimum wage.
I will be sharing my time with the member for Parkdale—High Park.
Over the course of today, my party will lay out what we see as the elements of a national anti-poverty plan.
Before I got into politics in 1990, I was a soup kitchen director. I got into politics to fight poverty and, 17 years later, I am still fighting. I wish I could say the fight was over.
As I travelled across Canada over the past two years, first on a tour looking at early learning for children and, more recently, talking with people about poverty and the growing prosperity gap, I was struck by the deep level of compassion and caring that exists. However, people are increasingly uneasy about the disparity they see around them and their own tenuous grip on some security for themselves and their families.
They remember a time when community mattered and government could and did make a difference. Canada has a rich tradition and history of gathering together as a community against geography, distance and weather to ensure that no one got left behind or was forgotten.
People are looking for a vision consistent with the Canadian story, where we wove a safety net of basic income, health care, education, unemployment insurance and pensions for all, the kind of vision that Canadians still remember. It was no accident that Tommy Douglas was voted the greatest Canadian.
Today there is a competing vision, one vision playing itself out over the last 15 years, rooted in the Margaret Thatcher thesis that there really is no such thing as society, rather a world of individuals who see money and the market as the driving force behind all human activity. The result is a growing uneasiness and dissatisfaction. There is a poverty and inequality that are symptoms of a structural dysfunction affecting more and more of our citizens and newcomers to our land.
Thomas Walkom wrote recently in the Toronto Star:
--the poor are the canaries in the coal mine. The deliberate attempts to reconfigure Canada over the past 30 years—by gutting social programs, dismantling national institutions and insisting that market forces alone can solve every problem—have affected everyone. But they've hit the poor first and hardest.
Mr. Walkom goes on to say:
We shouldn't care about poverty just to be nice. We should care about poverty because, in the end, this story isn't just about the 11 per cent or 16 per cent of the population...officially designated as low-income. It is about the deliberate erosion of middle-class Canada. It's about us, too.
Over the past nine months, I have travelled across the country to communities big and small. I have seen and heard the stories of misery and hurt and the tremendous effort of good people with little resource trying to make a difference. It is what I call a bad news-good news and yet even more bad news story.
The bad news is that the statistics flowing from institutions like the National Council of Welfare indicate that poverty is more pervasive and deeper than ever. The good news is that we are hearing about it again. For too long, it has been hidden and invisible. National newspapers are writing about poverty. People are willing to come to meetings to talk about it.
However, the even more bad news is why we are hearing about poverty again. The number of homeless is estimated to be as high as 250,000 and in places that we would never expect. Studies are showing alarmingly high numbers of people working full time all year and yet not earning enough to make ends meet.
I have been travelling on an anti-poverty campaign to learn first-hand about its reality in our country. I made a commitment to bring those stories, hopes and recommendations back to Parliament.
In Calgary and Victoria, two communities where the economy is booming, there is no affordable housing. Alarming numbers of people are living on the street as shelters, church halls and warehouses prove insufficient. The homeless are in the very shadows of the prosperous oil companies with their tax breaks.
In Calgary, I visited a shelter that beds down on floormats 1,000 to 1,200 of the 3,500-plus homeless living in that city. I watched as two city buses took another 100 or so to the suburbs to be bedded down on mats in warehouses. The rest find refuge where they can, most under bridges and in parks, while city hall passes laws making it criminal behaviour to do so.
A few will turn to crack and crystal meth, since, as I was told by street workers, it takes away any feeling of hunger, cold and fear. However, that lasts only five to ten minutes and they need another hit, which, in turn, leaves our streets dangerous places.
Other stories emerge. In Halifax, I was told of the disproportionate number of women facing poverty; women who go hungry to feed their children; the disappearance of good, well paying jobs in the manufacturing sector in the Niagara-Hamilton corridor of Ontario; the overwhelming aboriginal face of truly destitute poverty in Thunder Bay; the huge increases in health issues for people living in the poorer neighbourhoods of Saskatoon; whole families living in motel rooms through the winter in the Penticton area of B.C., then disappearing, with children gone from school when the tourists arrive in the spring. It is thought that they live in the mountains and campgrounds while picking fruit and working on farms to make a living. I was also told about the more than 50 disabled people living on the streets of Victoria, and the deteriorating and diseased stock of affordable housing in Toronto and Vancouver.
Canada has not had a national affordable housing program in over 15 years and what does exist is being torn down and replaced with expensive condos at an alarming rate.
About 175 people gathered in Castlegar, B.C. and told me of their struggles to get ahead, the roadblocks, the lack of resources and the cutbacks, in particular to early learning and child care.
Students at Brock University in St. Catharines told me about the challenges they face trying to access post-secondary education, the ever-increasing tuition and ancillary fees and the cost of housing and living expenses, while summer work is harder to get and pays only minimum wage that does not keep pace with inflation.
Poverty is debilitating and mind numbing. Poverty can paralyze and kill the spirit. Combined with thoughtless, harmful public policy, poverty can rip out our hearts and souls. Poverty can actually kill.
I remember the summer of 2001 and the story of Kimberly Rogers. Kimberly lived on social assistance and decided to go to college to better her situation. She was in her third year, soon to graduate, when she successfully applied for a student loan. What she did not know was that the Mike Harris government in Ontario at that time had passed legislation to make it illegal, criminal behaviour, to be in receipt of social assistance and also collect a student loan. She was charged, pleaded guilty and sentenced to house arrest. On the hottest day of August, in the summer of 2001, Kimberly Rogers and her unborn child died in that apartment living out her sentence. That should never happen in this country and we should never let it happen again.
Today we are calling for a national anti-poverty strategy, starting with the reinstatement of a federal minimum wage of $10 an hour. We do not have to reinvent the wheel. Jurisdictions in the European Union and elsewhere are proposing national plans to combat poverty. They are doing this with noticeably early success and have now been joined by a couple of our own provinces, with an anti-poverty law in Quebec and a poverty reducing strategy in Newfoundland and Labrador.
The National Council of Welfare has presented a framework for action, a poverty plan with targets and timelines, a budget, accountability, and the establishment of official poverty indicators. Groups across the country are doing some very creative things. They are looking for national leadership. Let us take advantage of this opportunity with this minority government to do the right thing for families, for our neighbours, for working men and women, and for the at risk and marginalized.
We have an economic boom in many parts of our country. Sadly, we also have a poverty boom. We can do better. We must do better for each and every Canadian and newcomer, for our poor on assistance, for the 650,000 working poor in our country, for women, children, seniors, veterans and persons with disabilities, who all struggle with unacceptable levels of poverty.
We must fundamentally right the wrongs and honour the obligations we have to our first nations, Métis and Inuit. It is all about human rights, justice and fairness.
People are watching us today to see if we can find the political will to win this fight. For their sake, for our sake and for Canada's sake, we must.