Canada's poor face 'emergency': UNEverything is relative, of course, and it's much worse in many places (as my recent travels can attest), but that's little comfort to Canadians who live in poverty. Canada has a lot of work to do.
Welfare benefits in most provinces have dropped in value in the past 10 years and often amount to less than half of basic living costs, a UN watchdog group charged yesterday.
The employment insurance program needs to be more accessible, minimum wages don't meet basic needs, and homelessness and inadequate housing amount to a "national emergency," says the UN body's report from Geneva.
The watchdog committee is formally called the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. It last examined Canada's performance in 1998, and sat for three weeks this month taking submissions on five countries including Monaco, Liechtenstein, Morocco and Mexico.
Its sharp criticism of Canada on poverty issues echoes that voiced last week by a special Toronto task force of experts ranging from bankers to community advocates, particularly on questions of employment insurance and help for the working poor.
On employment insurance, the UN body reported: "In 2001, only 39 per cent of unemployed Canadians were eligible for benefits ... (and in) Ontario eligibility rates were even lower."
In Toronto, the local task force said the eligibility figure stands at 22 per cent.
"Minimum wages in all provinces," the UN report said, "are insufficient to enable workers and their families to enjoy a decent standard of living." About 51 per cent of people using food banks, it also said, are receiving inadequate social insurance benefits.
In the same vein, the Toronto task force said hundreds of thousands of working-age Ontarians are living in poverty and it would take $4.6 billion a year in overhauled government programs to lift them out of it.
"Having been present at the review, I can tell you that the committee was dismayed to find that social assistance rates in Canada bear no resemblance to the actual cost of living," said Emily Paradis of the Feminist Organization for Women's Advancement of Rights, or Forward, a group concerned with homelessness.
The UN body had much to say about aboriginal rights, singling out the Lubicon Lake Cree of northern Alberta for special mention.
Using the uncommonly forceful diplomatic term "strongly recommends," the committee called on Canada to reopen land-rights talks and consult the Lubicon "prior to the grant of licences for economic purposes on disputed land."
On the positive side, the UN committee acknowledged progress in Canada in certain areas. Fewer people live below the federal goverment's poverty line, maternity and partental benefits have been extended, foreign aid has increased slightly, and disparities between aboriginal people and the rest of the population narrowed in two important areas, infant mortality and high school enrolment.
Toronto Star story here.