BACKSTAGE: OTTAWA

Lip service for Canada’s poor

A mini-city-state out of touch with tough times in the land

Robert Lewis January 5 1981
BACKSTAGE: OTTAWA

Lip service for Canada’s poor

A mini-city-state out of touch with tough times in the land

Robert Lewis January 5 1981

Lip service for Canada’s poor

A mini-city-state out of touch with tough times in the land

BACKSTAGE: OTTAWA

Robert Lewis

In a year that promises so little economic cheer, the poor are fortunate to be so well represented at the seat of the national government. Over the years, caring policies have reduced their numbers to a level that barely surpasses the population of British Columbia. Their common cause is mentioned at least once a day on Parliament Hill, where people know all about budgeting for lunch. In the Ottawa whirl, it seems that the plight of the impoverished is only less trendy than Pierre Trudeau’s constitution, Peter Lougheed’s oil and Joe Clark’s leadership. Why, just the other day the prime minister took time out from planning a trip to Africa and Latin America to produce a “common sense” guide to belt-tightening: “spend a bit more on food than other things.”

Poor Pierre Trudeau: he states the obvious and a whole bunch of folks rush off to misinterpret. Take Marjorie Hartling, a 46-year-old mother with those tired eyes that come from raising eight children in hard times. She claims people “have cut everything to begin with.” Of course, you’d expect Mrs. Härtling to talk that way; since 1971 she has been a chief officer of the poor people’s lobby in Ottawa, the National Anti-Poverty Organization.

Another whiner is Marjorie Mann, 71, past president of the Council on Aging in Ottawa.

She is so confused about Trudeau’s real intent as to declare:

“He just doesn’t have a clue.”

What bothers Härtling and Mann is that at least three million people began the new year below the official poverty line—that is, by foolishly spending 62 per cent of their incomes on only three items: food, clothing and shelter. Almost one-quarter of Canada’s retired couples and 60 per cent of unattached individuals—most of them women—had similar, misplaced priorities. Of the 2.3 million old-age pensioners, more than half submitted to a test to claim the Guaranteed Income Supplement. Officials estimate that almost 200,000 others did not apply, only because they were too proud to declare themselves in poverty or succumb to the paperwork burden.

In fairness to the prime minister, he has articulated a powerful sense of justice toward the underprivileged, at least since 1964 when he joined others in proclaiming: “The present distribution of revenue and wealth among social groups and various regions of Canada is plainly unacceptable.” Lamentably, he has had no more success in righting imbalances than governments since 1951. In 1978, according to the Canadian Council on Social Development, 42.5 per cent of all income continued to go to the richest 20 per cent of the population—those earning more than $30,000while only four per cent went to the poorest 20 per cent. The pattern, basically, has remained unchanged for 30 years. Canada’s social security system is often described as

enviable—and properly so, compared to many parts of the globe. Still, constant efforts by three levels of government have, according to the council, “probably changed the incomes of the top and bottom income groups by only two or three per cent in the direction of greater equality.” What the Parliament Hill mob needs is a Millenium Falcon to get back in touch with these earthly realities. Somehow, many MPs, bureaucrats and reporters on Parliament Hill have slipped into a slough of subsidy in this mini-city-state out of sync with tough times in the land. Lavish parties, freebie flips abroad on jet planes, unblinking spending on services and office suites have become the norm. Life in the national fishbowl is full of special tension, to be sure, but it is doubtful that one cost should be a $3-million subsidy for meals on Parliament Hill. More profoundly, the old club on the Hill has grown into an elite of special interests. Commentators

in the media, grown too friendly with the powerful, amplify official voices urging big pay raises—as if there is something terribly tacky about governors, stressful though their lives may be, living like everyone else. From the PM down, the place is overrun with monied singles and bachelors, affluent couples and young ministerial aides without financial cares. Dedicated though they are, they are often out of joint with a nation of families, seniors and poor people. The elixir of power, when quaffed as an i end in itself, can be blinding. The affairs of the state are treated like a horse race, with monthly averages—seasonally adjusted.

Dennis Olsen, a self-described “former blue-collar workingman” and sociologist at Ottawa’s Carleton University, chalks up the blur to a class struggle of sorts. In The State Elite (McClelland & Stewart, 1980) he submits that there are enough power brokers of wealth, “with enough continuity to ensure that. . . the private ownership and control of wealth are safely preserved.” The rulers “keep political peace” by sharing the reins with an upwardly mobile caste of managers. “It is this class, rather than the upper class,” Olsen concludes, “that must struggle and engage in politics in order to secure favorable policies from the state.”

The solution to redistribution, says the social development council, is to transfer income away from families at the top. The hitch is that, starting at $30,000 a year, many of the wealthiest regard themselves, at best, as only comfortably middle class—especially at the supermarket checkout counters. They also tend to line up as crucial “swing” voters at election time and largely determine which party takes power. On that basis, Marjorie Härtling should be patient with her recent plea for an entrenched “right to be free from want.” In Ottawa, these days, that is not their wont.

Robert Lewis is Maclean’s Ottawa bureau chief.