“You are making a difference.” That was the message from Carol Goar, a Toronto Star columnist who has written extensively on poverty, hunger and social policy issues, as she addressed Christians gathered for the diocese’s annual Outreach Networking Conference in October.
Ms. Goar believes churches and other non-governmental organizations working on issues of poverty, homelessness and the gulf between the rich and the poor have made incremental changes possible.
She cited the increase in the minimum wage, the creation of the Ontario Child Benefit and the increase in social assistance payments to single adults, as positive results of the social justice movement.
“These are small things, I acknowledge, but they have made a material improvement in people’s lives,” she said. “And they wouldn’t have happened if people like you hadn’t led by example and stood with those who couldn’t afford basic necessities in a rich, advanced nation.”
Ms. Goar’s keynote address at the conference, held in Richmond Hill, kicked off a day of discussions and workshops. Workshop topics included reconciliation with First Nations, Biblical storytelling, restorative justice, ethical investing and whether the Gospel is political.
The conference brought together clergy and lay people who are engaged in outreach work in the diocese. This year’s theme was “Repairing the Breach: Signs of Healing.” (Isaiah 58:12).
Despite the incremental changes, many challenges remain, said Ms. Goar. “The biggest, in my view, is that millions of Canadians – good people who help their neighbours, donate to charity and belong to your congregations – sincerely believe we can’t afford to do more than we’re doing for people in need.”
Over the past 20 years, she said, political leaders at all levels of government have systematically re-shaped public opinion, convincing Ontarians that increasing social assistance rates is dependent upon reducing the province’s deficit.
She said governments and special interest groups use different ways of measuring poverty to suit their own goals. These conflicting messages create confusion in the minds of people.
The third biggest challenge, she said, is the current political fixation on the middle class. She said the next federal election will be dominated by appeals to the middle class, leaving little room for others. “Unless voters demand it, poverty will be an afterthought – if that.”
She finished by saying that probably the toughest challenge is for people not to feel overwhelmed by the needs and complexities of those in poverty. “Most of us don’t feel equipped to deal with this daunting snarl of pathologies. Even if we could, it would be hard to bring others along. So what can one person or one church or one group do?”
She encouraged people to keep helping and advocating for those in need. “No matter what has gone wrong in a person’s life, he or she still needs a meal, a safe place to sleep and wash and the knowledge that they’ll be welcome somewhere.
“You can show it’s possible to treat everyone with dignity regardless of their mental health, addiction, appearance or behavior. You don’t have to know how to deal with their problems to listen respectfully. You don’t have to be a therapist to offer marginalized people the humanity that is usually missing from their lives.”
She said there are lots of ways that people can help the poor, from assisting them with paperwork to attending rallies. She said church groups can launch a speakers’ series, hold an all-candidates meeting, and produce easy-to-read facts on poverty. Individuals can urge their family members and friends to speak out and vote to send a message about the kind of province and country they want.
Group fights against ‘wage theft’
A group that worked on a recent campaign to increase the minimum wage to $14 an hour is broadening its effort to increase legal protection for low wage workers in Ontario.
Beixi Liu, an organizer for the Workers Action Centre, outlined the group’s efforts to convince the provincial government to strengthen Bill 18, the “Stronger Workplaces for a Stronger Economy Act” which is being studied by the legislature.
Mr. Liu, speaking at a workshop at the Outreach Networking Conference, said stronger measures are needed to address “wage theft,” when workers don’t get paid for the work they do. Wage theft happens in a number of ways, he said: not paying overtime or vacation pay, issuing bad cheques, denying access of CPP, EI, and worker’s health and safety compensation.
The Diocese of Toronto supported the drive to increase the minimum wage to $14 before the last election. Many vestry meetings last winter approved the call for the increase from $10.25. However, the government increased the minimum wage to $11.
Mr. Liu said his group still believes that minimum wage increases are necessary. A participant in the workshop noted the minimum wage in Australia is $17, which is above the poverty line, so it can be done.
Now the group’s focus is on a comprehensive bill that addresses working conditions and protections for non-unionized workers. Mr. Liu said Bill 18 needs strengthening in a number of ways. Deadlines for reporting wage theft need to be increased to two years. Government must take more responsibility for enforcing compliance, rather than waiting for complaints. Another challenge is dealing with temporary workers, hired by agencies, who are paid as much as 40 per cent less than other workers. “We need equal pay for equal work,” said Mr. Liu. He added that barriers that prevent temporary workers from being hired permanently need to be lowered. Also, documents outlining workers’ rights must be translated into other languages, for Ontario’s diverse work force.
Local pipeline for tar sands oil raises concerns
A pipeline that opened in 1975 to ship oil from Montreal to refineries in Sarnia has become a symbol of the potential dangers of climate change caused by the use of heavy oil from the Alberta Tar Sands.
Environmental activist Lynn Adamson told a workshop at the Outreach Networking Conference that Line 9, which passes through southern Ontario, is set to carry three million barrels a day of tar sands oil.
What worries environmental groups, local politicians and academics is that Enbridge, which is responsible for Line 9, has a record of 610 spills, including a massive oil spill in 2010 in Kalamazoo, Michigan, which was the largest in United States history.
The pipeline running through southern Ontario has about nine million people living within 15 km of it.
Participants viewed a film on the Line 9 controversy, which showed the efforts to stop the Enbridge plan, and how they have been ignored by governments and the petroleum industry. At this point, the pipeline change in direction, which will carry the tar sands oil from Sarnia to Montreal, is likely to be approved soon by the National Energy Board.
The Rev. Maggie Helwig, who is the priest-in-charge of St. Stephen in-the-Fields, Toronto, has been part of protests against line 9, chaining herself to heavy equipment. She has been present at “integrity digs” to inspect the pipeline.
Ms. Adamson says Line 9 crosses every river that feeds into Lake Ontario, so an oil spill would be devastating. She says 18 First Nations within 50 km of the pipeline have not been consulted.
The Line 9 issue is also linked to current climate change discussions. The heavy oil from the tar sands is more dangerous to ship, even by pipeline, and it is the same type of oil as was involved in the Lac Megantic train derailment. It takes 350 gallons of water to produce one barrel of heavy oil, or bitumen, and carbon emissions are huge.
Ms. Adamson said it is easy to “throw up our hands,” considering the immense implications of climate change. “But we have a prophetic mandate, because it is God’s creation we are talking about.”