SPECIAL REPORT

Unsuspecting victims of a collapsed economy

Linda Diebel November 8 1982
SPECIAL REPORT

Unsuspecting victims of a collapsed economy

Linda Diebel November 8 1982

Unsuspecting victims of a collapsed economy

SPECIAL REPORT

Linda Diebel

For David Nickerson, the hardest part is maintaining his self-respect. After a lifetime spent working at various office jobs—with occasional stints on unemployment insurance during the grimmest periods—he has been forced to turn to welfare for the first time in his 53 years. Nickerson, a Halifax native, lost his job with the National Harbors Board in mid-1981. His unemployment insurance (which can be collected for a maximum of 50 weeks) ran out this summer; his savings were exhausted long ago, and applications to local government offices, hotels, industries and stores have failed to produce a job in the roughest economic period he has ever experienced. “I have never been on welfare before in my life. It’s degrading,” says Nickerson, who shares the $256 he receives in welfare

payments and a small navy pension with his estranged wife. “It makes me angry more than anything else. You’re willing to work but you have to go and ... well, to me, it’s like accepting charity. I get so frustrated when I talk about it.”

Nickerson and thousands of other Canadians like him are known as “exhaustees,” the newly unemployed who have been out of work so long that the time during which they were eligible to collect unemployment insurance has expired. In recent years an average of

35.000 to 40,000 people have been falling into this category each month, with

2.000 to 3,000 of those turning to welfare because they could not find jobs and had no other source of support. But Canada’s economic free fall now is proving to be too much for the unemployment insurance safety net to contain, as recent statistics on exhaustee spillovers

show. With the unemployment rate at 12.2 per cent, the total number of exhaustees is expected to climb to as high as 55,000 a month by the end of 1982, and to 90,000 by the middle of 1983. Of those, an estimated 9,000 a month are expected to turn to welfare. In Winnipeg, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers official Bud Kolodie, who has helplessly watched half of his 745-member local file for unemployment insurance benefits, does not mince words. “It’s a bloody scandalous situation,” he says. “I have guys phoning me all the time just wanting to talk about what it’s like being out of work and asking if there’s any hope for a job.”

And, as Employment Minister Lloyd Axworthy flies back and forth across the country this week seeking support for the $500-million federal New Employment Expansion and Development Program (NEED), his critics argue that Ottawa is offering too little, too late. The scheme, announced last week by Finance Minister Marc Lalonde, is designed to create 60,000 jobs during the next 18 months. But Nova Scotia Social Services Minister Edmund Morris, for one, is unimpressed. “If the journey of getting back on a prosperous upturn economically is 100 miles, I would guess Mr. Lalonde has got us up to about six or seven,” says Morris. “What we need are 100 giant steps, and he took one or two baby steps.”

Crisis: Morris speaks from experience. His own ministry is trying to fight its way out of a mountain of disagreeable statistics that has grown high in recent months. He has pledged an additional $4.2 million this year to municipalities to deal with the exhaustees (welfare costs are split 50-50 between Ottawa and most of the provinces, and, in most cases, the municipalities administer the fund). That raises the total provincial welfare tab to $72 million. The story is repeated across the country. In British Columbia the cashstrapped government faces a $100-million overrun in its welfare payments. Quebec is responsible for a full 38 per cent of the country’s exhaustees. The new breed—the “employable unemployeds” in Ottawa jargon—has not only created a financial crisis but altered the public stereotype of welfare recipients. “Traditionally, people on welfare have been seen as those incapable or unwilling to be producers,” says Cy Gonick, head of the economics department at the University of Manitoba. “But today the typical person on welfare has been a highly productive member of society.”

As welfare forms are filled out, counsellors are dealing with the shame of first-time applicants. Dawn McNutt, a counsellor for the Association for Family Life in Halifax, says that for middle-

class people it is “very often a closeted kind of problem.” But, to qualify for welfare, applicants are subjected to a public screening. Mel Findly, regional director for the Alberta social services and community health department, says clients must wait, sometimes four to five hours, in reception rooms that were not designed to handle the growing crowds now using them. “That, combined with personal pressures, leads to some confrontations, including physical ones,” he says. “People are a lot more desperate.”

Charity: Many communities suffering through the recession are confronting their problems head on by forming local committees to help the unemployed.

Campbell River, a logging town on Vancouver Island, recently held a “Hard Times” dance to raise money, and some residents, such as 23-year-old Vince Doherty, have formed a committee of the unemployed that runs a daily soup kitchen. Doherty moved to Campbell River last year after losing his job as a shipper-receiver in Prince George, another B.C. town hit hard by recession.

Since his unemployment insurance ran out in June, Doherty and his commonlaw wife, Brenda Friesen, 23, have lived on $620 a month in welfare payments, augmented by a $25 prenatal bonus for pregnant Brenda. Their fixed expenses consume all but a few dollars each month and “by the last week we are sitting there just hoping,” says Doherty.

The soup kitchen feeds about 40 people a day, serving soup or stew, day-old bread and buns and—if the donations have been good—venison or salmon.

Some of the contributions come from old-age pensioners who remember the Great Depression. “I have realized that I’m not the only one in this situation,”

Doherty says. “It’s nice that everybody is starting to get together.”

But the plight of that province’s unemployed elicits angrier sentiments

from labor leader Jack

Munro. Snaps the International Woodworkers of America regional director: “If the government can bail out Dome Petroleum, it can afford to pay some money to human beings.” The largest industrial union in the province has seen 30 per cent of its membership, totalling 15,000 workers, laid off, and more are expected to lose their jobs this winter. The IWA itself is close to laying off some of its 32 paid staff members. In Munro’s view, the federal government should continue to pay unemployment in-

surance benefits to woodworkers until the economy improves. Axworthy, for one, will not go that far. But his crosscountry tour, he points out, is supposed to determine exactly how the $500-million NEED program should be allocated and “where the problems are the most severe.”

In Calgary Doris Kelly, who lives with her 12-year-old son in a subsidized apartment, still cannot figure out how the program will benefit her. The 49year-old former real estate agent, whose husband walked out on her shortly after her son’s birth, is at the

1-a-week unemployment . insurance benefits and scheduled to go on welfare. Years ago she was a top legal secretary until osteoarthritis in her neck and spine impaired her ability to type for long periods. But she took a real estate course and was “doing quite well until real estate went kaput.” During the past few months, Kelly says, she has felt “utter desperation,” and her recent experiences have been nightmarish. First, she and her son were as> saulted in her apart| ment. Then, the boy was ï sexually assaulted in a o downtown park. Kelly

even considered giving up her son so that he could “have proper food even if I didn’t eat.” But she has not quit—yet. “I want to start working again,” says Kelly, “and when I do, I never want to see Kraft Dinner again.”

Fences: The Woodall family in Winnipeg has not yet reached such desperate straits. But Murray Woodall, an out-of-work electrician with 25 years of experience, says his unemployment insurance cheque barely covers his mortgage payments. With a household including three children and his wife, Rosemary, a part-time hairdresser, he says bluntly: “You really get fed up. I’m the type of guy who would go from one end of Canada to the other for work— but there’s nothing right now.” For Woodall—and hundreds of thousands of others in the same depressing situation—the only federal program worthy of consideration is one that would provide him with a job, immediately. Otherwise, all the grandiose federal schemes will amount to nothing more than, as Newfoundland Social Services Minister Tom Hickey says, “putting the second fence around the graveyard.” Murray Woodall insists that he is not giving up. He will “survive somehow.” But, for now, as for David Nickerson in Halifax, it is a daily struggle just to keep his self-respect alive.

With Malcolm Gray in Vancouver, Beryl McNee in Calgary, Cathy Carlyle-Gordge in Winnipeg, Jackie Carlos in Toronto, and Michael Clugston in Halifax.

Malcolm Gray

Beryl McNee

Cathy Carlyle-Gordge

Jackie Carlos

Michael Clugston