Op-Ed: Welcome to Canada. We lied about the opportunities

marcel lauziere-HSBy MARCEL LAUZIÈRE
Published by the Globe and Mail (May 26, 2003)

The census figures, released earlier this month, offer a disturbing snapshot of Canadian society. It's not the more egalitarian society we hoped for -- rather, a Dickensian social order where the rich get richer and many of the hard-working poor stay poor. Perhaps it's time for the leadership aspirants in the Liberal Party who once talked about the "Just Society" to stop debating weapons in space and start addressing problems here on Earth, like the growing chasm between the haves and have-nots, and the diminishing prospects for our new immigrant class to ever attain the Canadian dream.

There was good news for only a minority of Canadians in the latest statistics (Census 2001). For those at the top rung of the ladder -- where families bring home upward of $100,000 a year -- incomes boomed over the past decade. For the rest, the past decade saw, at best, modest advances, at worst, slippage. Incomes for those in the $28,000-to-$46,000 range slipped downward by roughly $350 a year. Canada's bottom 10 per cent, with incomes of less than $19,000, saw an annual increase of about $81 in a decade -- less than what most CEOs spend on a round of golf.

For Canada's latest wave of immigrants, the news couldn't be bleaker. Not only did they start off making less than their counterparts of earlier generations, but they kept losing ground. After 10 years, they're still well behind other Canadians, and behind where previous generations of immigrants were after living here a decade. And their children are more likely to be living in poverty.

We seem to be drifting ever closer to emulating America's high-risk society. This shouldn't be a surprise. After all, Paul Martin pledged to defeat the deficit "come hell or high water." We got both. Cuts to welfare, education, social housing and voluntary services led to the loss of supports that helped level the playing field for low-income people struggling to make ends meet.

What can be done? A key tool that could help us moderate these disturbing trends is the multibillion-dollar Canada Health and Social Transfer (CHST), money that goes from Ottawa to the provinces and territories to cover social assistance and social services, postsecondary education and health care.

As a result of the new bilateral accord on health spending, agreed to after the Romanow report, the health part of the CHST is about to be split off from the social transfer. We will now know where the $23-billion-plus in health money is going. But what will happen to the more than $14.5-billion targeted for social spending and higher education in 2004-2005?

The provinces spend the social transfer money as they see fit -- no receipts required. Why should the public tolerate this lack of accountability for expenditures that are critical to correcting the social imbalance in our communities? And why only $14.5-billion? Ottawa has moved to ameliorate the damage it did to health care; isn't it time it did the same for social programs? Now, while the legislation to split the CHST is being written, is the time to debate the funding levels and introduce monitoring and evaluation of social spending -- and to insist on a transparent, effective use of tax dollars.

Programs must be interrelated: Public health and the hospital system, for example, cannot not be planned for and run independently, as SARS has shown. The same rule applies to social policy. To pay for welfare, but to stop building social housing, is an ineffective way to support low-income Canadians. To demand that mothers on welfare get job training, but to refuse to fund affordable daycare, is nonsensical. So is inviting immigrants to help build our country and then denying them the means to succeed.

We should treat the census results as a wake-up call. They show that the 1990s was a lost decade on the social development front. Canada is not a more just, equal and fair society. We're a little meaner, greedier and less caring. Canadians need to think seriously about what kind of a country they want to leave their children and what kind of social architecture is required to support it. It's important to all of us, not just the poor.

What happens to a society when so many of its citizens simply can't afford safe housing, good nutrition, decent child care -- in other words, what citizens of a rich country like Canada should take for granted? If these trends continue unabated, we may find out -- to our regret.

Marcel Lauzière is president of the Canadian Council on Social Development.

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