CANADA’S POOR, three million of them women, have been slow to public anger. That may not be counted on much longer, for they are proving quick to learn. For the first time since the hunger marches of the 1930s on Regina and Ottawa, deep-running resentment is being purposefully channeled into rent strikes, city-hall demonstrations, sit-ins at legislatures, a sophisticated use of television, radio and lobbying. A new breed of articulate and impatient poor is emerging, absorbing anger from being an immense one-fourth or more of all Canadians in the big land, frustration from a welfare system that keeps them poor, and tactics from student rebellions, British rent squatters and slum rioters in the United States. They are organizing — in Montreal, Toronto, Calgary, Victoria, Kingston, Ottawa. They demand more welfare less degradingly administered, but also changes in the unequal conditions that surround them. So conservative a leader as Premier Harry Strom of Alberta candidly fears the frustrated poor may “revolt against these conditions . . . [in] spontaneous violence.”
In Victoria in October, Federal Health and Welfare Minister John Munro sat in silence, but an audience applauded, as a woman said: ‘Tm a shoplifter. I steal all my clothes and all my kids’ clothes because I can’t afford to buy them on welfare. I hope to God I don’t get caught.” In Calgary, Mrs. Mary Alice Payne and Mrs. Mervyne Patterson spoke to Alberta Social Development Minister Ray Speaker on behalf of a reformist group called No Other Way (NOW). They told of the humiliation of vouchers in a supermarket, of clerks stamping WELFARE on their shopping bags, of children having to present telltale vouchers to teachers before their classmates for books. A young Calgary mother must walk with her baby half a dozen blocks
daily for fresh milk and other food—the corner store and the milkman refuse to accept vouchers.
“Unless we make some real progress in attaining a better life for the poor, Canada will experience explosive violence,” Dr. C. F. Bentley, dean of agriculture at the University of Alberta, warned this summer. Some concerned young people asked a Toronto group of poor, who bitterly call themselves The Just Society, how they could help. “You can tear down your Establishment structures, from the inside,” replied the society’s spokesman, John Mooney. In Victoria, social worker Reg Clarkson threatens to burn down some of the most decrepit welfare housing; he says “the next step has to be violence against things.” A young mother of two, part of Montreal’s 250,000 poor who are forming militant citizens’ groups, asks, “Why shouldn’t we fight with violence? We have so little to lose.”
The Economic Council of Canada says a shocking 6.6 million, or 41 percent of
Canadians, are poor. A more conservative ECC yardstick says a family of three earning less than $3,000 a year is below the poverty line. If that’s true, 4,700,000 Canadians (29 percent) live in poverty.
A minority of poor people are on welfare, perhaps about 1.2 million. The ECC says most poor people pay more taxes than they receive in welfare payments. A married man with two children pays taxes on income above $2,700 a year. Overtaxing, the ECC says, helps keep the poor that way. Finance Minister Edgar Benson says the economy would lose five billion dollars if he reduced taxes on low-income people.
In this wealthy land:
□ At least 2,000,000 children under 16 live in poverty. In families that earn less than $4,000 a year, only one child in eight continues past high school.
□ Some 350,000 women with 1,000,000 children are on welfare. There are 3,000,000 poor women in Canada—women are the bulk of the poor.
□ One in five of Canada’s 3,600,000 non-farm families earn below $3,000 a year. More than 160,000 have less than $1,000 a year. Almost 500,000 rural families earn less than $3,000 a year.
In boom-town Calgary one person in 20 depends on welfare cheques. Half of these are children and one third are families headed by a woman who has been widowed, divorced, separated or deserted. That one-in-20 figure also applies in “Good Life” British Columbia. One hundred thousand persons are on welfare in Alberta, about 30,000 in Montreal, about 35,000 in Metro Toronto.
It is not as if taxpayers are squandering growing fortunes on welfare. Expenditures by all governments on health and social welfare in 1960-61 were $3,356,800,000 or 9.2 percent of the gross national product. By 1968-69 health and welfare expenditures had risen to $6.7billion, still only 9.4 percent of the GNP. In straight welfare, all governments in Canada spent roughly $3.7 billion last year.
A still-too-common attitude is that welfare recipients are ne’er-do-well shirkers, not workers. The ECC says, “This is simply incorrect — most of the poor are ready to seize appropriate job opportunities . . .” Only 27 percent of the income of all Canadians below the poverty line comes from government payments — and many of these are the family-allowance cheques and old-age pensions that everybody gets. Only 10 or 11 percent of all people on welfare are employable unemployed. The rest are unavoidably ► unemployed; they are old, mentally or physically ill, or are unsupported mothers of dependent children. The ECC especially criticizes overtaxation of the poor. The poor mostly live in areas where school facilities and teachers are inadequate, where the environment encourages dropping out. There is wage discrimination against women, who head most welfare families. Federal manpower-training efforts do not work, and are not co-ordinated with welfare programs. There is an incredible proliferation of “largely unrelated” federal, provincial, municipal and private welfare efforts, which leaves poor people intimidated and confused about their rights. The welfare bureaucracy lives by inflexible rules, which can keep a family down. A family is not permitted to earn enough extra money, above its welfare cheque, to heal itself economically and often medically so that it can go off welfare. Ontario refuses to pay income supplements to persons who are employed but are under the poverty line, although Ottawa will contribute to that under the Canada Assistance Plan. There are inflexible schedules of payments for rents (almost always unrealistically low), food and clothing. In Mont-
real, the maximum monthly revenue permitted two adults and two children is $180; the Montreal Diet Dispensary says such a family should have a minimum of $274, excluding dental and medical fees, medicine, insurance, telephone. Harassed parents say they must simply take the rent money “out of the food,” keep children home from school when they can’t afford lunches.
Welfare workers can be as rigid as the rules. A social worker in Ottawa admits, “We still often feel that to be poor is one’s own fault.” Social workers often barge into the homes of mothers who don’t have husbands around, somehow refusing to believe a man is not under or in their beds. Many treat welfare as charity, not as a right.
And so low-income pressure groups are forming across the country. They are getting some attention. Undereducated, undernourished residents of Montreal’s St. Jacques district, where rat-infested slum buildings mix with Place des Arts, set up their own free medical clinic staffed by volunteer doctors. Now they are working on day-care centres for children (across Canada a shortage of such centres prevents mothers from working) and legal-aid programs. The spirit in St.
Jacques is exhilarating. “We are fed up with so-called charity,” says a 42-yearold mother of five who receives just $165 in social assistance.
The Miltown-Park Citizens Committee, hotly protesting a six-block downtown development project in Montreal, is challenging the right of private enterprise to do as it pleases without the consent of tenants. Several groups are applying similar tactics in Toronto and other cities. Throughout Canada, groups protest the replacement of downtown housing by expensive highrises, while public housing is isolated on cheap land miles from employment, schools and shopping.
Ottawa has a massive poverty and welfare study underway, but sources say to expect no action soon. The Conservatives and NDP say a guaranteed minimum income for everyone would cut the welfare tangle, remove many of the degradations of receiving welfare by supplication. Prime Minister Trudeau remains publicly casual about this proposal, saying it will have to be discussed some time or other. Whether or not a guaranteed income is the answer, the militant poor can be expected to step up the pressure on Trudeau for leadership in resolving Canada’s welfare mess. □
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