Over 200 people showed up on a cold spring afternoon in the heart of downtown Toronto to protest the Ontario Liberal government’s inaction on issues of poverty.
The protest gathered at Metro Hall and then marched down University Avenue towards the Metro Toronto Convention Centre where the Liberals were holding their annual general meeting. While the media speculated about a possible spring election and Premier Kathleen Wynne’s apparent reversal on some issues, activists were talking about things that actually affect Ontarians.
The march was organized by a number of groups including the Ontario Common Front, No One is Illegal (NOII), and CUPE Ontario. Activists from as far away as Sudbury attended the march, making it a pan-Ontario affair. The protest’s main theme was “Stop the War on the Poor.” The participating groups highlighted and spoke about the four main issues that they want the provincial government to deal with:
1. Increase Ontario Works (OW) and Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) payments by 55 per cent. This would reverse the savage cuts of the Mike Harris government of the 1990s, and the loss of purchasing power through inflation because of the Liberals meagre increases throughout the 2000s.
2. Increase Ontario’s minimum wage to $14 per hour, indexed to inflation. This would put minimum wage earners above the poverty line. The Wynne government’s minor increase of the minimum wage to $11 per hour still leaves over 700,000 minimum wage earners in Ontario below the poverty line.
3. Restore the special diet allowance and the Community Start-Up Maintenance Benefit (CSUMB) to OW and ODSP. These programs have both been cut by the Liberals. The special diet allowance allowed social assistance claimants with medical conditions to access additional funds to allow them to be able to afford a healthy diet based on their condition. The CSUMB allowed social assistance recipients to access funds every two years to be able to cover moving costs or to pay for essential household items like bedding and furniture. The CSUMB was also accessed by those fleeing domestic violence and, especially in the Toronto context, those dealing with infestations of bed bugs or cockroaches.
4. Not merging OW and ODSP. In October 2012, a review of Ontario’s social assistance programs commissioned by the province was released. It called for the merger of OW and ODSP. OW is currently administered by municipalities with provincial funding, while ODSP is administered directly by the province. Recipients of ODSP were particularly worried that the merging of these programs would make it less attentive to their specific needs.
In addition, a representative from NOII spoke about the problems undocumented individuals have in accessing social services. This has been mitigated somewhat in Toronto and Hamilton, as they have become Canada’s only sanctuary cities in the past two years. This has been a major victory for NOII, as they have been fighting for this policy since 2004.
The labour movement had a strong presence at the march. Apart from co-sponsor CUPE Ontario, there were members of the USW, OSSTF and OPSEU in attendance. Union activists were quite clear on the need for organized labour to support anti-poverty initiatives.
“Our struggles are connected to other struggles against neoliberalism. Supporting OCAP is a no-brainer from the standpoint of understanding that issues of poverty are connected to issues of work and labour,” said CUPE 3903 member Tyler Shipley.
“I think it’s important for all union members in this province to support all workers, because everyone has the right to work for pay,” said OSSTF member and secondary school teacher Kate Curtis.
“Specifically as being an education worker, we know the income of our students is tied to the achievement gap. Kids from low income homes are having the most difficulty in our schools. The OSSTF has supported the raise the rates campaign,” Curtis said.
These kind of alliances are necessary for challenging neoliberalism.
“The labour movement needs to understand that these struggles are connected. It needs to understand more than anything as subjects of neoliberalism need to organzine together and recognize that these struggles require large mass movements of people. That means building institutional and organizational connections. It means building social connections. It means understanding one another and our struggles,” Shipley said.