It was with great anticipation and cautious hopefulness that we awaited the Government of Canada response to In from the Margins: A Call to Action on Poverty, Housing and Homelessness. This comprehensive report by the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology, Subcommittee on Cities was released in December 2009 and was passed unanimously by the Senate in April. Action on the 74 recommendations it contains could have had a profound impact on the lives of Canadians living in poverty.
The response that was delivered to the Senate Monday evening was, in a word: disappointing. Our frustration, however, certainly cannot compare with the profound distress faced by those who work every day to break free from poverty – for themselves, their parents, and their children – and are faced by a system seemingly determined to see them fail.
The Margins report called for a fundamental shift in our government’s approach to poverty. The first recommendation of the report is “that programmes dealing with poverty and homelessness are designed to lift Canadians out of poverty rather than make living within poverty more manageable…” The Senate has challenged our government to assume its responsibility to care for its citizens, to respect international human rights commitments, and to invest our collective resources conscientiously.
Sadly, the government’s response illustrates a disappointing unwillingness to constructively assume this responsibility.
Passing references are made to federal-provincial collaboration and respect for human rights. Yet any sincerity in this regard is wholly undermined by the complete absence of any substance in the 20-page document. Though formally termed a “response,” this government statement is simply a reiteration of current programs and existing financial commitments that comprise the federal component of Canada’s social safety net. This same net is, according to Senators Eggleton and Segal, in desperate need of repair, or better yet, replacement.
Liberal Senator Art Eggleton, who co-chaired the subcommittee behind the report, also expressed his disappointment. He is reported as having said, "I think we made it quite clear it's not just how much you spend but how efficiently and effectively you spend it. What we really needed was an action plan – an indication that this is a high priority for the government.”
Where the Senate report called for a move towards setting welfare rates at least at the after-tax low-income cut-off (LICO), the Government remained silent. Where the Senate recommended significant reforms to Employment Insurance and other income security programs, the Government said nothing. Where the Senate recommended the development of a national housing and homelessness strategy, the Government had no comment. Where the Senate recommended the establishment of a basic income guarantee at or above LICO for people with severe disabilities, again, the government had nothing to offer. And so it went, with recommendation after recommendation ignored.
It is only in the final line of the response that the government offers any potential indication of openness, saying “the Government will take the Committee’s recommendations under advisement.”
A few weeks ago, we asked “is poverty rising on the fall agenda?” Not for the federal government, if this response is any indication.
Regardless, we are called to be faithful to God’s vision of a caring, just society. Rather than seeing this response as a defeat, let us use it to spur ourselves on. There are a number of other critical moments when issues of fairness, equity and poverty elimination can be advanced in the weeks and months ahead. We can still use these as opportunities to seek openness and engagement. So, let us continue to move forward together. To speak more clearly, more loudly, and with more conviction to all Canadians – but especially to those we have elected to lead us.