Submission to Liberal Caucus Western Task Force

by Senator Douglas Roche, O.C.
July 16th, 1999

Upon entering the Senate in the autumn of 1998, I stressed in my maidenspeech that equitable economic and social development is essential tostrengthen Canadian society for the coming Millennium. Social policypriorities come down to determining what kind of a society we want -- whatwe want our society to look like.

Taking this concern to the Senate, I praised the government ofAlberta for developing the fastest-growing economy in Canada and forbalancing the budget and significantly reducing the province's debt. Thenet debt has now been erased, but fiscal management has come at a cost.Cuts in health, education and social spending have had a deleterious effecton our society, particularly on the most vulnerable people, those inlow-paying jobs, the aged, the ill, children and single parents. Thefederal government, as well as the provincial government, must accept itsresponsibility for this state of affairs.

Now that our fiscal accounts are in order, and on behalf of thedisadvantaged in our society, I call for a much higher priority for healthand education spending as an investment in the continued development of ourpeople. Such social spending has a higher claim in fiscal planning than taxcuts across the board. The responsibility for this rests on both thefederal and provincial governments, which together need to make a strongercommitment to the common good of our society. An adequatefederal-provincial funding formula based on national standards is required.The federal government must lead the way.

It is regrettable that negotiations between the levels of governmentin Canada are customarily driven almost exclusively by the perennials ofCanadian politics: money and power. Concern for the well-being ofCanadians must not only focus on issues such as fiscal imbalance,federal-provincial transfers, visibility, and intergovernmental cooperation mechanisms. While these issues surrounding federalism areimportant, they must be balanced with other values, such as the substance ofCanadian social policy and the kind of society we seek to build. Statistics released by the National Council for Welfare in 1998 areintolerable. The poverty rate in Canada rose from 16.6 per cent in 1996 to17.6 per cent, the child poverty rate jumped from 19.1 per cent in 1994 to20. 9 per cent, and the poverty rate for seniors is now at almost 19 percent.

The Edmonton Social Planning Council issued its own report in 1998,statingthat the number of families in Edmonton living in absolute poverty hadincreased from 3.3 percent in 1993 to 8.1 percent in 1995. Forsingle-parent families in Edmonton, the rate of absolute poverty increasedfrom 17.1 percent to 24.8 percent, the highest rate among Canadian cities.Putting a "face" on homelessness, a community-supported count on March 18thof this year found 836 Edmontonians were homeless. This figure includesfamilies (including 112 children), youth, single men and women, seniors, andaboriginals.

The reality of what is happening in Edmonton and communities across Canadais testament to the scandal of social, political, and economic exclusion.Moreover, it is also apparent that the social safety net, which has alwaysbeen so fundamental to our Canadian sense of fair play and justice, haseroded for those who need it most.

Despite their imperfections, social programs have kept thousands ofCanadians from falling too far out of the social and economic mainstream.Now the vulnerable are paying the highest price for debt reduction. Lowerincome levels for women and their preponderance as the head of single-parentfamilies is inexorably linked to the increasing numbers of children growing up in poverty. Adequate and affordable housingfor people is not being provided. Too few opportunities and supportservices exist for native youth.

The Edmonton community, along with communities across Canada, has theconviction and the experience to tackle these problems, but it needsresources. The federal government should provide true leadership byensuring that the provinces are able to equip communities with the means tosupport those priorities that seek to alleviate the rising burdens on thepoor and the homeless. Both federal and provincial governments must make aclear and unequivocal commitment to make the eradication of poverty,affordable and accessible housing, as well as community building projects apolicy priority.

A group of citizens concerned about the lack of attention being paidto the consequences of social policy changes in Alberta formed the Qualityof Life Commission in 1996. The Commission exposed the human dimensions ofthe poverty scandal in Canada today. That scandal lies not only in the factthat governments are letting the poor get poorer but that they are beingmarginalized in a society increasingly dominated by the strong and rich.The Commission has tried to point out that inordinate financial pressures onthe poor create an alienated class that destabilizes society.

Poverty, family breakdown and alienation come with consequences. People areleft fragile, isolated and apathetic. The negative effects of such socialexclusion are resentment and disaffection, and they ultimately erode thethreads of social fabric. Families who do not get proper nutrition are sickmore often. This costs more in health services. Families who experiencelong-term unemployment are more likely to break down, causing ever more poverty and isolation. Alienation increases therisk of addiction, which has a high human cost and a high financial cost inhealth services and addiction counseling. Young people who come fromtroubled families are more likely to fall into crime. This costs societythrough the justice and penal systems. The Quality of Life Commissioninvited the provincial government to undertake its own comprehensive,province-wide investigation, similar to what the Commission had itself done,in order to discover the effects of the growing rich-poor gap. Therecommendation went unheeded.

The Government of Canada must commit itself to making poverty eradication anall-out national priority. This would involve understanding the complex andinter-related causes and devastating long-term effects of poverty in oursociety. To overcome the feeling of fragility, isolation, anddisconnectedness in Alberta today, governments working together can sharewith all citizens the capacity to influence major decisions and policypriorities.