Shaping the Conversation on Poverty Reduction in Ontario


It was about five years ago that then Premier McGuinty announced Ontario's 25 in 5 campaign. The pledge was to reduce poverty by 25% in 5 years. Well the time has come and gone and depending on what social research you read or who you talk to, the growing consensus is that poverty is more entrenched than ever.
While our governments and some of our economists trumpet the end of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s, congratulating themselves for Canada's relative downturn compared to the rest of the G8 Countries, those of us working on the ground in communities know that the struggle to make ends meet, to find good jobs continue to be a challenge for many individuals and communities.
In particular young people are finding it increasingly difficult to find work, regardless of education attainment. We know from the recent United Way of Toronto and McMaster University report that a significant percentage of workers are employed in precarious work - this includes those who are self-employed, as well as those working in factories, in the service industry, as cleaners, in the skilled trades and other industries. At the same time access to Employment Insurance is increasingly limited particularly for workers in Ontario, and we are seeing a tightening of once-universal social programs such as the Child Benefit (provincial and federal).
The discussion then undertaken by the Province is timely. Fifteen Cabinet Ministers have been charged with leading this consultation process, a mish-mash of evaluation of the past five years of the province's strategy (which was focused on children) and a gathering of ideas about what the next phase should include. The MPPs have been fanning out across the province in the past few weeks meeting with community organizations, individuals and (I assume) business and other thought leaders. The session I attended, intended for those working with and concerned about immigrants, migrant workers, refugees and the undocumented turned out to be a far broader group of folks. This enriched the table discussions.
From the beginning of the discussion many present made it clear that we could not speak to issues of poverty without doing so within an equity lens. That we had to look at the differential impact of the economic downturn on racialized communities, on women and other socially and economically vulnerable groups. It was made clear (and there was a growing consensus on this) that no anti-poverty strategy can be developed outside of an intersectional analytic framework. In other words, we had to fully understand the level and depth of poverty by looking at those who were most impacted, and the way to do this was to create data tools that would disaggregate information. It was also stressed that policies being developed must respond to the specificity of the experience of poverty for those who are racialized (immigrants and Canadian born; First Peoples and People of Colour); women and People living with (dis)abilities.
Participants were unanimous on the need to focus on employment strategies (while ensuring a fulsome social benefits program for those unable to work) with a particular focus on mandatory Employment Equity modeled on the Federal Employment Equity Act. The time could not be better for this discussion to be elevated by the Premier and cabinet ministers leading this anti-poverty strategy.  Research from academics and from community continues to eloquently tell the story of the deepening of poverty amongst Canada's historically disadvantaged groups. We know from experience that generic policy and program responses do not adequately address the widening economic and social gap. We know that immigrants (as their demographic have shifted and the economy changes) are doing worse than earlier arrivals although they are far more educated.
Something new (or not so new) must be done. There's some support for smart employer incentives (conditions such as hiring and retention targets, training, etc.) through the tax system or even through wage subsidies, but the broadest consensus was on the introduction of mandatory Employment Equity. We know from the federal program that it works. We hear from industries that have embraced diversity in hiring that it is good for their bottom line. But we also know that more important than financial profits are the human and community benefits that comes along when there is equitable opportunity, a sense of belonging and full social, political and economic participation by all to their potential.
The review and renewal of the Ontario's anti-poverty strategy offers an opportunity for our political leaders to shift the paradigm; to change the conversation. Let's help them do this by participating in these consultations and saying with one voice that Employment Equity is long overdue in Canada's largest and most diverse province.