Social assistance recipients on First Nations will be hit particularly hard, organizers say
A day before it was passed at Queen’s Park, hundreds of people rallied in Sudbury to protest Ontario’s new budget, which they say will have a devastating impact on the province’s poorest citizens.
The June 19 protest was organized by the North Shore Tribal Council, a group of several Ontario First Nations that has held similar protests in Sault Ste. Marie and Toronto. The crowd walked through downtown Sudbury all the way to MPP Rick Bartolucci’s office, where speakers took turns at the microphone denouncing the budget.
Patrick Madahbee, Grand Council Chief of Union of Ontario Indians, said most people aren’t aware of the cuts to Ontario Works, the government department that administers welfare and other social programs for the poor.
“We’ve been hearing from our frontline workers about the dramatic impact these cuts are going to cause,” Madahbee said. “This isn’t a situation that is just going to affect First Nations. This is going to affect anyone receiving social assistance.
“I don’t think people have really analyzed the hardships this is going to cause people who are already having a tough time making ends meet.”
The cuts will force some people to choose between eating, heating their home and paying their rent, he said. And supports to help people find work and improve their education will disappear.
The Ontario budget puts a cap on certain types of spending in Ontario Works, in an attempt to save about $50 million a year. That directly affects programs in communities where First Nations have taken over administrating social programs from the province.
They have been able to tailor the programs to meet the needs of people in their communities, in terms of both their basic needs and their efforts to find a way out of poverty.
For example, band administrators used to be able to help someone in a desperate situation pay their heating bill or buy food through Ontario Works. With the new budget, which was passed at Queen’s Park June 20, the amount that can be spent on such programs is limited. Once the pre-determined amount is spent, people used to relying on such supports will be cut off.
“Most of the people who receive this type of assistance don’t have access” to other forms of support, Madahbee said. “Some of these communities are quite remote. How do you expect them to cope?”
When combined with new rules making it tougher to get employment insurance benefits, and soaring hydro costs, he said the poor are being asked to pay a heavy burden for government deficits.
“So you’re going to see people getting desperate,” Madahbee said. “There’s going to be more crime, more child-care problems, more domestic violence. Is this really going to save money?”
Audrey McGraw, a social worker from Aundeck Omni Kaning First Nation near Little Current, gave an example of a client she works with. He receives $372 a month for shelter, even though his rent is more than $400.
“His hydro is $150 to $200 a month. In the wintertime, his oil bill is $300 a month.”
Under an existing program, the band was able to help him make ends meet each month. But with new caps on program spending, he’ll literally be left in the cold.
“He’s going to end up desperate,” she said. “I really don’t know what’s going to happen, because we have no other resources on our First Nation that can assist him to keep his house.
“I don’t know what he’s going to do.”
That’s what makes Steve Miller so angry. The chief of Whitefish Lake First Nation wonders why it’s the most vulnerable who will suffer the most because of a budget problem they had nothing to do with creating.
“They’re taking aim at the poorest of the poor,” Miller said. “I really don’t believe they’ll be saving anything … When you target the poor, you create more homelessness, mental-health issues, drug addiction. It just compounds problems, not eliminate them.”
Also joining the protest in Sudbury was members from the Sudbury Coalition Against Poverty, and a group protesting the province’s plans to sell Ontario Northland, which has a Sudbury office, but is based in North Bay.
Posted by Arron Pickard