Canada: Free Market Capitalism Is Good For Some, Not For Others

Tom Boland (
Mon, 22 Mar 1999 16:11:18 -0800 (PST)

The Calgary Herald

Free Market Capitalism Is Good For Some, Not So Good For Others

Robert Bragg

Every day on the streets of our cities it's plain to see that Canada's
experiment with free-market capitalism has backfired badly.

In Calgary you can see it on Stephen Avenue Mall, in the lineups at the
Mustard Seed, in the crowds of men waiting for the bus outside the Mayland
Heights emergency shelter.

The mayors of the country's largest cities know it personally and in their
budgets. In the '90s they've seen their local governments become the
repositories of the nation's social deficit; the destination of the
destitute; the final haven of hope for the homeless.

That's why, when they met in Winnipeg on Nov. 20, the mayors of the big
cities, including Calgary, agreed that homelessness is nothing less than a
national disaster.

They adopted a resolution from Toronto calling homelessness a manmade
national crisis and urging Ottawa to provide money to municipalities to
deal with it in the way a natural disaster would be handled.

Certainly a quick check of homeless data shows the mayors have a good case.

In Montreal in 1996, 28,000 people used that city's homeless shelters, soup
kitchens and drop-in centres. That's almost double from eight years earlier
when 15,000 shelter users were counted.

The problem has gotten worse since 1988, and exploded after 1995, according
to Montreal groups that work with the homeless.

In Toronto, the same kind of data turn up.

According to the Interim (July) Report of the Mayor's Homelessness Action
Task Force, in 1996 "almost 26,000 differenet people used the shelter
system in Toronto; over the last nine years, 170,000 differenet individuals
used shelters."

There are another 80,000 Torontonians "at risk of becoming homeless -
spending more than 50 per cent of their income on rent in
extremely precarious housing situations."

Most omniously, like Montreal, the situation in Toronto worsened since
1995, even though Canada is in the midst of a sustained economic recovery."

The point is that recovery is not helping, and may be hurting the poor and
working poor, driving many of them into more dire economic straits as rents
and other costs increase along with competition for dwindling social

To put it bluntly, governments have withdrawn and the "free" market has
failed to provide an adequate supply of safe, affordable housing, a stable
job market or a strong safety net for the disabled, mentally ill and the

The "system" now relies on shelters and jails to provide housing and health
care; food banks and soup kitchens to provide food and clothing.

That's why the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has
every reason to ask, as it did last Thursday, why Ottawa and the provinces
have let things slip so badly this decade.

Canada did, after all, sign the 1976 international covenant on economic,
social and cultural rights, pledging to respect citizens' rights to work,
social security, and an adequate standard of living - including housing and

All of these pledges have been systematically violated by neo-conservative
governments, including the Liberals in Ottawa.

The rationale has been to balance the books - a worthy goal - but the means
employed were, in a word, mean.

Alberta and Ontario kicked thousands of people off welfare and reduced
remaining programs which had provided basics such as damage deposits.
Ottawa cut eligibility requirements for employment insurance.

This last move led to a dramatic decrease in the percentage of unemployed
workers receiving employment insurance benefits from 83 per cent in 1990 to
43 per cent in 1997. It coincides with a 118-percent increase in food bank
use over the past 10 years.

In March of this year, for instance, 716,496 people - the equivalent of a
city the size of Edmonton - used one of the country's 2141 food banks,
according to the Canadian Association of Food Banks.

To give it a national flavour, the sharpest rise in food bank use was in
Nova Scotia where it went up 40.1 per cent in one year to 26,190 people.

Meanwhile, here in the city of no vacancies, the Calgary Housing Foundation
is making plans to try to help the homeless but won't have any sort of
solution until next spring at the earliest. Although the snow has not yet
come to stay, a long, cold winter looms for Canada's homeless.

The manmade disaster's plain enough to see except, perhaps in Ottawa.


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