On an unseasonably warm October 3, the Queen's Park lawn is crackling with the energy of nearly a thousand people. Folks walk about, talking in small groups, lounge in the shade or lining up alongside the enormous spreads of free food prepared lovingly in cooking marathons the night before. Children happily ignore the yellow rope delineating the play area as they toss footballs around.
To the tourists, it must be an inspiring vision of Ontario - community at the provincial legislature. But they needn't look hard to find that this is not an expression of provincial generosity, but a protest against societal lack.
It's the mass hunger clinic organized by the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty. It's here that they hope to widen a loophole in social assistance laws enough that, by the end of the day, hundreds from across southern Ontario will have snuck through.
If we were to compare activism to a nurse with a needle looking for a vein, then OCAP has found a big fat one in the Special Diet Supplement (SDS). This $250 monthly allowance for Ontario Works or disability support recipients who can get a nurse, midwife, dietician or doctor to state that they require a special diet to treat illness has been quietly underused for years.
Or it was, until, owing to OCAP's campaign, between six and eight thousand recipients of social assistance were signed up over the last few months -- most at small OCAP-run clinics and some through private doctors. By July, Toronto social services - the municipal proxy through which locals receive provincial aid - announced it would start cutting off the SDS benefits of those who had applied during the campaign. It also disqualified any forms not filled out by an MD.
What could have been a lost cause became nothing more than temporarily mislaid. OCAP and its supporters were quick to mobilize, but the city backpedalled when the Registered Nurses' Association of Ontario stood firm. Various communiqués by medical workers have been sent lauding the SDS campaign and assailing the government for its lack of action on hunger as a determinant of health. Gary Bloch, a doctor at St. Michael's Hospital, sent out a letter just before the latest clinic. "Recognizing that the Special Diet provisions are not a long-term solution," it read, "we hope to persuade the... government to increase social assistance rates to a level where a simple nutritious diet is not considered a luxury."
The influx of support from outside OCAP's normal constituency is also clear at the park. It's evidenced by the scale of the numerous intake areas, based on area of residence, ready to sign up folks on assistance for the supplement. It's evidenced by the way some doctors make efforts to tolerate the organizers' acerbic political humour. And it's evidenced by the fact that here, unlike at most OCAP rallies, many people here haven't developed a taste for passionate speeches.
But passionate they are nonetheless. "Almost all of what I do is treat health problems caused by poverty," says community nurse-practitioner Kathy Hardill, addressing those lured by the loudspeaker. "Imagine that we are all infected with an imaginary virus, and the government had the antidote but refused to release it. We would call that unethical, even criminal. We are saying to the McGuinty government: release this antidote. Save the 700,000 people on assistance in this province from an early death."
"Are you sick of not having enough to eat?" shouts OCAP organizer Sarah Vance, who is quickly met with cheers. "Are you sick of seeing your children go without? Are you ready to force $3 million out of the government?" As the 200 or so listening roar their approval, Vance smiles, ending her speech with game-show aplomb: "Let's go make some money."
It's not surprising that anti-poverty activists are allowing themselves a bit of happiness on this day. In reasoning that not being able to afford food is qualification enough, OCAP has found a novel way to fund part of the 40 per cent increase they're seeking in order to restore social assistance rates to pre-Harris levels. But they've also managed to encourage frustrated medical workers to find each other and foment a movement that can be carried well beyond their modest resources.
Decentralized knowledge trumps centralized bureaucracy. Once informed of the loophole, communities can organize on their own. Apparently they have, considering how much of small-town Ontario is represented here. Incendiary rhetoric will get you fans, but $250 a month will get you a movement.
It's not hard to imagine that the government is more than a little anxious about the prospect of an outward flow measured in millions of dollars. As attendees file toward their region-specific clinics - folding chairs and tables behind makeshift wooden privacy enclosures - a man in a suit flanked by security officers films each station.
"We're going to be reviewing all the cases that are receiving [the supplement] right now," Stephanie Nadalin of the Ministry of Community and Social Services tells me later. "We'll [also] be looking at the medical criteria and revising [them] to include more precise medical criteria. The [supplement] is specifically for people who have a medical condition that requires a medical diet."
Of course, activists are fully aware they are bending the law. But in doing so, the campaign exposes some unsettling truths about our wealthy province. According to Toronto public health figures, 71 per cent of deaths in Ontario - including over one-third of all deaths from cancer - have "strong associations with diet." One-third of Ontarians cannot afford a healthy diet.
Nadalin adds that the ministry is not unsympathetic. "The cost of fully implementing a $250 raise for the 760,000 people on assistance would certainly be daunting at $190 million a year.' But in contrast, the estimated cost of treating hunger-related cases of low birth weight in Ontario alone - just one example among many - is $254 million annually.
As an elementary school field trip streams out of Queen's Park, a slightly nervous teacher leads oblivious chattering kids past police and security guards and through the opening in the widely ignored barricades. Elsewhere, children who've come with their parents stage a playful march through the park, chanting, "We won't be quiet till we get our special diet," and waving adorable hand-painted OCAP flags.
Shouldn't a teacher encourage her wards to soak up the living civics class unfolding before them? It's certainly more instructive than anything they could learn by copying down the text mounted on the statues of George Brown and Sir James Pliny Whitney - a Reformer and a Tory respectively.
"The Mike Harris government was essentially a coalition of Reformers and Conservatives," OCAP's soft-spoken firebrand John Clarke tells a third-year nursing class from Ryerson as I wander over. "Cuts happened faster and harder under the Tories... but the prevailing neo-liberal agenda is something all the parties share. Assistance rate cuts started with the Rae NDP."
As the informal lesson - one of many occurring throughout the clinic-cum-festival - continues, most of the lines at the screening stations have miraculously disappeared. It's taking clinicians five minutes at the most per person to complete the forms.
One wonders whether bureaucracy exists to discourage assistance-seeking through official channels. One also wonders, however briefly, if we can convince OCAP to try their hand at a bus route or two.