Dispatches on poverty from northern Ontario

Where a cab ride to pick up food can cost you $908.

At the beginning of July I spent 10 days travelling in communities between Thunder Bay and Red Lake in northwestern Ontario. I was there on the invitation of Kathy Campbell, executive director for New Starts for Women, an emergency women’s shelter in Red Lake. I met with people at meetings organized by friendship centres, health centres and public health units. Here are some of the things I learned about poverty and how it’s different for people living in the province’s northern reaches:

Distance is measured in driving time Gull Bay, 200 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, doesn’t have a grocery store. If you don’t have a car you either have to pool your money or hire a cab for the two-hour trip to Thunder Bay to buy the month’s worth of groceries. Round-trip cab fare is $908.

Boomtown and bust There are two classes of people in Red Lake. Those who toil in the local gold mines who can earn $150K a year (they’re mostly from out of town). And the rest: people in low-wage jobs or receiving social assistance.

Fruit for thought Fruit bought from the local store must be eaten the same day because it’s usually overripe by the time it even reaches the community.

Poor people face terrible choices Hydro can cost $1,000 a month, and even more in winter for poorly insulated homes with electric heat. Ontario Works will pay these electricity bills for social assistance recipients but only by reimbursement. People whose family or friends can’t front the cash risk having their hydro shut off and even eviction. Others have to take out loans.

If you don’t have a car… The community health centre on the main highway in Ignace receives coupons for free milk from the local grocery store from time to time. But the trailer park where many of the poor live is three kilometres from the health centre. If you don’t have a car, you can walk – at least during the 12 weeks of the year that Ignace enjoys good enough weather – or take a cab. Round trip fare to pick up free milk coupons: $17.50.

Food banks starved Some food banks are so starved of donations that at least in Ignace one local judge directs U.S. fishermen who break the rules to pay their fines to the food bank.

“Mom, why are we so poor?” This is the question the young son of Sasha, a woman I met in Atikokan, asked when she couldn’t buy a $3 toy he wanted. Sasha’s son is asking a profound question. Ontario is a prosperous province. Why are so many people poor?

Abject poverty and conspicuous summer wealth In rural Ontario, homelessness is next to invisible. Unstable housing – couch surfing, camping and sleeping in trailers or sheds in the woods – is not unusual. During summer months, when tourists flock in to enjoy the nature, many merchants raise prices leaving locals without enough money to cover the basics.

Social mobility on the outs In some communities more than one in five men leaves home to work in Alberta or Saskatchewan.

For people who need food banks, policy discussions on reducing poverty are sterile debates far removed from their realities.

In Premier Kathleen Wynne’s first budget last year, the Liberals announced a $14-a-month increase in Ontario Works rates for single people. The $30-a-month increase proposed in the government’s most recent budget is a pittance when you consider that under Wynne’s predecessor Dalton McGuinty social assistance rates actually lost ground to inflation.

We must demand more. A good first step would be for the government to immediately raise social assistance rates and the minimum wage.

Mike Balkwill is provincial organizer for the Put Food in the Budget campaign.

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