Canada's growing gap between rich and poor


CANADA — Canada has topped the United Nations' Human Development Index for the past five years. However, a new report, released by the UN on December 4, condemns Canada's federal and provincial governments for exacerbating poverty and homelessness "during a time of strong economic growth and increasing affluence", and has placed Canada 10th in the Human Poverty Index.

As one of 137 signatories to the UN covenant on economic, social and cultural rights, Canada must report to the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights every five years on progress it is making to ensure that citizens have the right to work and form labour unions, to adequate living conditions and to the highest attainable standards of physical and mental health.

The release of the committee's report coincided with the big Canadian banks announcing record-breaking annual profits. It also came as finance minister Paul Martin was accepting accolades from business for eliminating an annual deficit of more than $40 billion, most of which went for interest rate payments on the accumulated debt, a debt which itself mostly resulted from tax breaks to corporations and the rich.

The report is a scathing attack on Canada's treatment of its women, poor and aboriginals. In relation to aboriginal Canadians it identifies inadequate housing, high unemployment, a high suicide rate, lack of safe drinking water and dispossession of aboriginal lands. Almost a quarter of Aboriginal households lack basic amenities and Aboriginal women living on reserves do not enjoy the same rights as women living off reserves, the report said.

According to the committee, Canada has not ensured that its citizens enjoy the economic and social rights guaranteed by the UN covenant. It made 21 recommendations, calling the need for low-income housing to be treated as "a national emergency", for national standards for welfare, for reform of the employment insurance program so more workers are covered, and for more money from all levels of government to combat poverty among women and children.

The report states that poor Canadians, especially women and children, are being denied their basic human right to food, clothing and shelter. It condemns cuts to unemployment insurance programs and social assistance, and criticises the government's repeal of the Canada Assistance Program, which ensured national standards for education, health and social assistance.

Homelessness has been declared a national disaster in Canada's 10 largest cities. The committee states that cuts in provincial social assistance rates and other income assistance make the payments inadequate to cover rental costs. In the last five years, the number of tenants paying more than 50% of income in rent has increased by 43%.

The Ontario and Québec governments have legislated to redirect social assistance payments directly to landlords without the consent of recipients.

The significant reductions in social assistance programs, the unavailability of affordable and appropriate housing and widespread discrimination with respect to housing create obstacles to women escaping domestic violence, the committee said. It added that there is inadequate legal protection of women's rights such as the pay equity, restricted access to civil legal aid and inadequate protection from gender discrimination.

Unemployment insurance cuts have resulted, in the last five years, in a roughly 50% drop in the proportion of unemployed workers receiving benefits, the lowering of benefit rates, reductions in the length of time for which benefits are paid, and increasingly restricted access to benefits for part-time workers.

The report also condemns "workfare" programs, instituted by six provinces, which either submit the right to social assistance to compulsory employment schemes or reduce the benefit of social assistance for recipients. It highlights Bill 22 in Ontario which denies workfare recipients the right to join a trade union, to bargain collectively and to strike.

The report says that the number of food banks has doubled in the last five years, that the minimum wage is not sufficient for a worker to have an adequate standard of living, and that more than 90% of single mothers under the age of 25 now live in poverty.

It also criticises cuts to or tightened eligibility rules for services for people with disabilities; the fact that thousands of refugees in Canada cannot be given permanent resident status and cannot be reunited with their families before a period of five years; and that 20% of Canadian adults are functionally illiterate, while tuition fees for university education have dramatically increased.

The report on Canada will not please the federal government, which regularly boasts Canada has, for five years, topped the UN's list of best countries to live in. But it was music to the ears of organisations challenging the government's record.

[Abridged from Flipside, a "muckraking alternative web weekly" at <>.]

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