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January 29, 2014

Conservatives dismantling social programs built over generations

Les Whittington

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A Toronto Star analysis has for the first time pulled together a detailed account of the range of recent cuts seen under Stephen Harper's government.

OTTAWA—Nathaniel Parent has known hunger on and off for most of his life.

Now cleaning offices for $11 an hour while he awaits a chance to acquire better job skills, the 21-year-old former foster care ward from Midland, Ont., finds himself choosing between student loan payments and food.

“For the most part, I don’t eat very often,” Parent says. Sometimes when his debt has to be paid, he says, “I do choose to pay it and it’ll be like, OK, I’ll just wait to eat or maybe have something at a friend’s house.”

Parent, who says he often went without food as a child before being placed in foster care, adds that it’s a struggle for many of his acquaintances to keep from winding up on the street.

He currently pays employment insurance premiums but, Parent says, like most people he knows, he wouldn’t expect to see any of that money if he lost his job. “I have no faith in that system,” he says in an interview.

From the unemployed to low-income families and poor seniors, more people than ever are struggling with grim choices as they try to cope in the leaner, meaner Canada presided over by Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Since winning power eight years ago next month, the federal Conservatives have chipped away at programs that helped define the compassionate, caring Canada built over the course of several generations.

“It is changing Canada,” former Saskatchewan premier Roy Romanow says of the current federal approach to social and economic policy.

“Unchecked, if we continue down this path, the big danger is a more regionalized and more unequal nation,” Romanow, who headed a royal commission on the future of health care in 2002, told the Star.

Social programs long valued by Canadians are in the Conservatives’ crosshairs.

Federal health-care spending is to be reined in. Canadians in future will have to work two years longer before receiving old age security — a measure Harper said was meant to address Canadians’ disproportionate focus on “our services and entitlements.”

And at a time when 1.3 million are without jobs, the federal government has toughened the criteria that employment insurance recipients must meet to hang on to their benefits. In all, only 37 per cent of jobless Canadians are eligible for EI benefits.

Dozens of groups dedicated to improving human rights or the well-being of the most vulnerable citizens have also seen their funding reduced or eliminated as Ottawa redraws its priorities and budget allocations.

At least 10 aboriginal organizations and more than a dozen environmental groups, including the Experimental Lakes Area research site and the Hazardous Materials Information Review Commission, were hit. Groups working on child care, rights advocates, health-care researchers, numerous immigrant support organizations and women’s groups — including the National Association of Women and the Law as well as the National Network on Environments and Women’s Health — received less support from Ottawa. The list goes on and on.

Many believe the Harper agenda is turning Canada into a more unjust society where free-market, business-driven values trump a commitment to fairness, equal opportunity and community-building.

NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair said the government is reducing “services that Canadians rely on” — from health care and pensions to basic municipal infrastructure — to pay for across-the-board corporate income tax breaks, a practice he says started with previous Liberal governments.

“Families are getting hit three times at once,” Mulcair said. “They’re getting fewer services. They’re paying a bigger share of the tax bill. And while incomes have increased for the top 20 per cent of families, the bottom 80 per cent of families have seen their incomes decline.

“In short, we’re becoming the first generation in our country’s history to leave our children and grandchildren with a lower quality of life than we inherited from our parents,” Mulcair said.

The government does not provide a comprehensive list showing all the federal programs that have been cut or eliminated, or naming the non-government groups that have seen part or all of their funding axed by Ottawa. A Star analysis has for the first time pulled together a detailed account of the full range of recent cuts.

In 2006, in their first year as a minority government, the Conservatives unexpectedly began chiselling away at programs and spending on the same day Finance Minister Jim Flaherty announced a $13-billion budget surplus from the previous fiscal year.

Acting on long-held Tory objections to what was considered unneeded spending by the previous Liberal government, Flaherty eliminated $1 billion in spending. Gone were the Court Challenges Program, which had funded legal actions by gays and rights activists, and the Law Commission of Canada, a respected federal law reform agency. At the same time, the Conservatives took aim at Status of Women Canada, closing regional offices and barring the federal organization from funding women’s groups involved in advocacy and research.

Also among Harper’s first moves was cancellation of the $5-billion, five-year national child care program set up by the Liberals. It was replaced by a program that provides $100 a month to parents for each young child. Debate over whether the Conservative plan — which has now cost $17 billion — has really helped parents, particularly when the majority of mothers with young children are working, has raged ever since.

During the 2008-09 global recession, the Harper government spent heavily to prop up the economy. But by 2010 the Conservatives had resumed their efforts to reduce Ottawa’s spending. The 2012 budget — coming less than a year after the Tories won a majority government — carried the full imprint of Harper’s thinking.

It laid out plans for billions in annual spending cuts by government departments, including a reduction of the federal workforce by 19,000 over three years. An analysis by then parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page said $783 million, or 15 per cent, of that year’s cuts came out of social programs.

The pivotal budget axed the renowned Katimavik youth program; cut the Canadian International Development Agency’s budget by $319 million; trimmed spending in the Aboriginal Affairs Department by $165 million and reduced Environment Canada’s budget by $88 million. It also scrapped the independent National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy that had been created in 1988 by the Mulroney government, and it informed everyone younger than 54 that they would have to work to the age of 67 — not 65 — to receive old age security.

The budget legislation overhauled environmental protections established over many years, weakened equal pay rules meant to protect women, aboriginals and others working for federal government contractors, and launched a crackdown on charities, including environmental groups, suspected of doing too much political advocacy.

Overall, it is estimated that by 2017 Ottawa will have reduced spending by a cumulative total of $13.6 billion since 2010.

But it was changes to the EI system that sparked some of the angriest responses to the Conservative agenda. The new rules require laid-off workers to take jobs they might previously have considered unsuitable, possibly with up to 30 per cent less pay. If not, they could lose their EI benefits.

Labour organizations see the new approach as unfair, particularly because it comes when shifts in the job market are forcing more workers into part-time or contract employment that doesn’t make workers eligible for benefits.

“It’s a downward spiral that this government is putting us in and they need to seriously look at what they’re doing to Canadians,” said Tracey Newman, a special needs educational assistant who joined a recent protest against the EI changes in Toronto. “The Harper government has made changes to our employment insurance system that puts workers like me at risk. The changes have been made without a mandate at election to do so and they have been made without consultation with the public.”

But the government says the vast majority of workers who pay into EI and leave work through no fault of their own receive benefits. Employment and Social Development Minister Jason Kenney said the EI changes are meant to ensure unemployment payments are not a “disincentive” to job seeking. He said the initial indications are that more people are working year-round in high-unemployment regions as a result of the reforms.

As for fewer people having the kind of permanent, full-time jobs that lead to EI benefits, Kenney said the trend toward self-employment and contract work has been building for decades and “is just a reality.”

Overall, say anti-poverty activists, Harper’s policies have contributed to a glaring social deficit. Food bank usage in Toronto is still higher than before the recession began in 2008. The number of children living in poverty is down 200,000 since the Tories came to power, but it still totals 967,000 — or one in every seven children, according to Campaign 2000, a national coalition of social organizations. The Canada Child Tax Benefit, the main federal tool for combating family poverty, needs substantially more funding, the group says.

An estimated 30,000 people are homeless every night in Canada, and federally subsidized housing units have been on the decline for years. While the 2013 budget earmarked $1.25 billion for affordable housing, that’s seen as not nearly enough to deal with a housing situation that is getting worse as a result of skyrocketing shelter costs across the country. Some 72,000 households are stuck on the waiting list for social housing in Toronto alone, according to the Ontario Non-Profit Housing Association.

More needs to be done to address income equality, opposition MPs say. A recent study by Statistics Canada said the top 1 per cent of Canada’s tax filers accounted for 10.6 per cent of the nation’s total income in 2010, up from 7 per cent in the early 1980s.

With wages stagnant, the middle class is falling deeper into debt, says Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau. “Canadians are struggling at a time when our economy is supposedly doing well, and people I meet across the country have a lot of questions as to why their government hasn’t been able to help them through these difficult times,” he commented.

There are also calls for Ottawa to take the lead to head off what many call an impending crisis of inadequate pensions. The current lack of action is “an outrage” and is giving people “very little hope,” said Susan Eng, vice-president of advocacy for CARP, the seniors group.

And the government’s critics say the Conservatives’ policies are not dictated by a lack of money, since they have forgone an estimated $23 billion a year with cuts to the GST and business tax breaks.

In an interview, Kenney rejected the notion that the Conservatives are undercutting social programs. “This is a government that has been far more humane in its approach to balance the budget and fiscal discipline” than the Liberals in the 1990s, he said. Unlike the Liberals, the government has chosen not to attack the budget deficit by reducing transfers of federal money to persons or transfers to the provinces. Instead, he said, the Conservatives are finding efficiencies in internal government operations.

As for cutbacks to immigrant settlement agencies, he said funding has been increased but shifted away from some groups to others because of changes in the pattern of where people settle. Kenney added that changes had to be made to old age security eligibility and health-care transfers to the provinces in future to ensure they are financially sustainable.

And he made no apology for the Conservatives’ decision to bar funding for non-governmental groups engaged in advocacy, saying it was a deliberate policy to favour “programs that help real people.”

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Dotan Rousso. Holds a Ph.D. in Law—a former criminal prosecutor in Israel. Currently working as a college professor in Canada.

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