The changing face of poverty in northern Ontario

I travelled throughout northeastern Ontario for two weeks in July to learn more about the effects of poverty in northern communities. I was invited to make the trip by Nancy Bailey, a volunteer at a food bank in Sault Ste. Marie who had read my dispatches from the Put Food In The Budget campaign last summer. 

I met people at meetings organized by soup kitchens, drop-in programs, friendship centres and community legal clinics and health centres. Here are some of the new things I learned about how poverty is different for people living in the province’s northern reaches.

JULY 21: Surviving on $3.67 a day for food on Manitoulin Island

It’s an hour before the hockey banquet the Whitefish River First Nation band council has organized for the community’s children. And Chief Shining Turtle is telling me about the challenges faced by those on social assistance on First Nations reserves. 

The rates and the rules are generally the same as in southern municipalities: a single person receiving Ontario Works gets a $379 shelter allowance and $280 for personal needs per month. 

The good news is that band councils can receive funding from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation to build housing and rent it to members of the community at a reasonable cost. Rent for an 800-square-foot dwelling here is $300 a month, which leaves a single person with $79 a month for home insurance and maintenance. That’s not much – but it’s a lot compared to Espanola, the nearest town, where the cost of similar housing for a single person is between $800 and $1,100 a month.

The bad news? Hydro costs $100 a month before you even turn on the hot water or coffee-maker. That’s Hydro One’s minimum monthly distribution charge. Factor in the cost of a basic telephone line ($35 to $60 a month) and there’s very little left over, especially in the winter months because of the cost of heating. 

The other problem is that the nearest grocery store is in Espanola, a 60-kilometre round trip away. And most people in the community on social assistance do not have cars. Chief Shining Turtle says the band is looking into providing some kind of transportation option, but until then grocery shopping involves a $35 to $60 cab ride, which leaves about $110 a month for food for a single person. That’s $3.67 a day.

JULY 22: Greyhound therapy in Elliot Lake

At the Sally Ann lunch program and the Anti-Poverty Coalition dinner, I hear stories that are all too familiar. Here’s something new to me, though: welfare administrators in Toronto will buy bus tickets for people on social assistance so they can move to Elliot Lake. It’s called Greyhound therapy. 

Accommodation is very cheap here since the mines closed. You can rent a house for $500 a month. 

“But it’s a three-year cycle,” someone explains. “The first year, the person is full of hope, but by year three it’s a different story. People come because it’s less expensive, but they don’t have a social network. They have no one to turn to when they need help.”

JULY​ 24: Desperately seeking dignity in Sault Ste. Marie

It’s a slow day at the Soup Kitchen Community Centre founded by former NDP MPP Tony Martin 31 years ago. Staff say only 150 people are here for lunch. I ask permission to visit informally with people over their meal, along with local organizers Nancy Bailey and Allyson Schmidt, to ask what they’d tell Premier Kathleen Wynne if she were here today. I tell them they can hand-write their messages on a small sign and I’ll take their pictures and share them via social media (#tellWynne). “Give people on assistance back their dignity.” 

Later in the day I visit with Martin and his wife, Anna. Tony suffered a stroke three years ago and has not yet recovered his ability to speak, but he’s very keen to hear about the Put Food In The Budget tour of northern communities. We show Tony the pictures from the Soup Kitchen that is clearly still dear to him.

Tony is animated and smiles and nods, pumping his fist throughout our conversation.

JULY​ 27: Fool’s gold and food banks in Wawa

There are two gold mines in the Wawa area: Wesdome and Island Gold Mine and Mill, owned by Richmont Mines. 

I thought a gold mine would be, well, a gold mine for a town like Wawa. But it’s not. Wawa has the highest per capita food bank use in the country.

Mayor Ron Rody says the town receives no benefits from the mine in fact, house prices and rents are going up because of the influx of workers from out of town. 

If mining companies are located within municipal boundaries they’re required to pay property taxes. However, these two mines are in “unorganized townships” outside Wawa. This means they pay a royalty to the province but not to the municipality.

JULY​ 30: Local Crown does his part to feed the hungry in Kapuskasing 

About 700 people from the community of Kashechewan on the west coast of James Bay were evacuated to Kapuskasing (population 9,500) two years ago because of flooding. The floods have recurred, so they’ve been unable to return home. In fact, Kashechewan may need to be relocated. 

Housing and education for Kapuskasing’s new arrivals are funded by the reserve. However, that education must then be provided in a school of their own. This has had the benefit of keeping the evacuee community together but the disadvantage of keeping it separate from others in Kapuskasing. 

As parents see their stay in Kapuskasing prolonged, they may choose to have their children attend public schools in Kap so they’ll feel more integrated into the community. To do this, they must terminate the education aspect of their funding relationship with their reserve, reducing long-term funding for education on the reserve, which is already grossly underfunded.

The increased demand for housing caused by Kashechewan’s evacuation has sparked predatory behaviour by Kapuskasing landlords. 

Locals – and absentee landlords – now buy housing in Kap and charge high rents. These new landlords often refuse to make repairs, and their tenants have nowhere else to go. The local Crown Attorney is doing his part to help. When someone pays a fine to the court, he diverts the payment to the food bank run by the Kinsmen Club, to help those coping with high housing costs. But one of the five elderly men who have been running the food bank for 11 years announced during my visit that they’re “getting too old to sling groceries” and either someone else will have to take over or the bank will have to close.

JULY​ 30: Absentee landlords leave tenants freezing in Kirkland Lake

In every community I visited, I heard about absentee Toronto landlords who have bought investment properties in the north and are impossible to track down when there’s a problem. 

At a meeting in Kirkland Lake, I heard about one who stopped paying the hydro bills in the middle of winter when the temperature fell to between -30C and -40C. Some people moved out immediately to become instant couch surfers. Others wore winter clothes all day every day and heated themselves (a little) by turning on their ovens. In another case, when buildings were condemned by the health authorities, the Toronto-based landlords couldn’t be found to make repairs, so people had to move out and find accommodation elsewhere. 

Poverty in Ontario is an injustice.

Mike Balkwill is provincial organizer for the Put Food In The Budget campaign ( | @nowtoronto

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