In April 2016, my friend Jim Mulvale and I debated Margot Young of the University of British Columbia and Mike Moffatt of the University of Western Ontario on basic income.

You can watch a trailer of the event here or the full debate here.

Work isn’t working for an increasing number of people in our modern economy.  Between rising precarity, growing income inequality, and loss of control over time, work is leaving people feeling dissatisfied and powerless.  At the same time, we seem to be increasingly apathetic about civic engagement.  Voter turnout is dropping and citizens are tuning out political debates.  Could these problems be related?  And is basic income the solution that could help us to regain some control over our work and rekindle our interest in democratic debates?

In September 2014, I gave the keynote speech at the first annual Social Justice Symposium of the Cooper Institute in Prince Edward Island. My presentation addressed the relationship between work and democracy, and offered some reflections on how basic income could help to create change.

You can watch the video of my presentation here or read the transcript in the Cooper Institute’s report.

It happens every time there’s a news story or a blog post on poverty. The comments section fills with attacks on the poor: they’re lazy, they’re entitled, they lack responsibility. Or their poverty is challenged: if you own an iPhone or a colour TV, if you’ve ever taken a trip anywhere, you’re not really poor. The Poor Police come out in full force.

For example, following federal cabinet minister James Moore’s dismissal of child poverty this week, my Facebook feed lit up with comments defending the minister, arguing things like “It’s time that people start to take responsibility for their own lives, decisions, and children, and do whatever they need to do in order to take care of themselves.”

Similarly, a CBC news story generated over 4000 comments (with the majority scolding the minister) which included such gems as “Children are expensive and time consuming to raise. If you are not in great financial shape, you should not be having children,” and “When you look around at some people with their French manicured nails, well-coiffed hair and designer everything, you wonder if the money could have been better spent on warm clothes for their children or food.”

Class Warfare

Something is seriously wrong with our culture. When people comment on the unfairness of extreme income inequality or complain about the behaviour of the wealthy, it is immediately derided as “class warfare” or the “politics of envy.” Yet punching down – at those who are less fortunate and more vulnerable – is perfectly acceptable and is sometimes even applauded.

People feel free to denigrate poor people in the worst terms for daring to speak up about their experience – even if they’re merely telling their story and not asking for help. When Eric Girard wrote about his experience of being poor at the University of Ottawa law school in the Globe and Mail, he was attacked for his choice of university degrees, for trips he had taken, his student jobs and his credit rating. Nothing was off limits to these poverty police. 

And these comments are often couched in the context of the commenter’s own virtue. He or she has inevitably worked hard, made wise choices, depended on no one and succeeded thanks to their own merits.

The substance of the attacks is easy enough to debunk. Poverty is the result of multiple factors, and personal choices are usually only one small part of a complex web of social and economic causes. When poor people do make choices that don’t make sense to the privileged, they’re often perfectly logical by the torturous, twisted logic of poverty. (For more on this, check out “This is Why Poor People’s Bad Decisions Make Perfect Sense by Linda Tirado in The Huffington Post or The Persistence of Poverty by Charles Karelis.) If that weren’t enough, the complicated system of support we’ve set up contains all kinds of perverse incentives. For example, the maze of rules pertaining to people on welfare can mean that earning one dollar through employment can result in the loss of more than a dollar in benefits. This makes it very difficult for people to climb out of poverty.

Furthermore, those “luxury goods” the poverty police love to deride might not be the luxuries they seem at first glance. That iPhone might simply be the phone that came with the cheapest contract, and serves as both the phone used to contact potential employers and the internet connection used to search for job opportunities. And as Tressie McMillan Cottom has pointed out, lack of status goods can actually hold the poor back. Showing up for a job interview in a thrift store suit can convince the employer “You’re not my kind and you don’t have the right kind of image to work here.”

Motivations

So if they’re light on facts, what motivates these persistent attacks on the poor?

One theory is that people realize how vulnerable they themselves are to poverty – one missed paycheque, one serious illness away – and therefore they lash out to reassure themselves of their own security because of their own virtue. They are convinced their own hard work, their own wise choices, separate them from the possibility of being poor, providing a safety net that will never let them fall into that perilous gap that lies waiting beneath them.

Many middle class Canadians are extremely vulnerable to poverty, but I’m not convinced that this is what motivates the Poor Police. In my experience, many of them have no idea how easily they could find themselves in poverty. Instead, I think there are two key elements: the status anxiety created by extreme income inequality and the values narrative successfully peddled by small-c conservatives.

As Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett have effectively documented in their book, The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone, inequality is so insidious for human well-being because it exacerbates the status competition side of human nature, rather than our cooperative side. Everyone feels worse off as a result – even the wealthy. (Even billionaires fall prey to status anxiety.) Unless you’re at the very top of the income scale, there’s always somebody better off than you. So how do you make yourself feel better in this uncertain, unfair world? You kick those below you.

This culture of social anxiety has also been promoted by a conservative narrative of values. In an essay on “The Corrosive Politics of Virtue,” James Malone highlighted the way in which the values narrative creates a neat and tidy storyline of us versus them: “The lazy, self-indulgent, criminal poor are responsible for their own troubles, the growth of liberal welfare government, and the dwindling opportunities for the hard-working, moral us.” The anxiety and outrage this narrative fosters then make it easy to convince people to adopt the conservative agenda as the prescription for what ails society. We have to punish these people into making good choices, not reward them with social programs that provide economic security.

The trouble with this approach is that there’s no space left for community, for social solidarity, for cooperation and generosity, and that results in a situation where everyone is worse off. It might feel good to feel self-righteous, but it would probably feel better to be socially connected and economically secure. So enough with the Poor Police already. This Christmas, let’s give empathy and generosity full reign instead.

This month, The Banner published a response to an article I wrote last year about income inequality, Abundance in a Covenant Economy. I thought about sending a rebuttal to The Banner, but given that it took them a year to publish this response, I thought mine might not appear until next September, and the whole conversation might not wrap up for another ten years.

The response by Joel Penner was an exercise in missing the point, although I’ll give Penner the benefit of the doubt, since after a year even I had to go back to the magazine to remember what I’d written. But while he fails to refute any of my arguments, he makes a number of problematic assertions himself in arguing that God is actually opposed to economic equality. That is what I want to address here.

As I understand him (and I appreciate the challenges of making a cogent argument in 600 words!), Penner’s arguments are as follows:

  • Pursuing greater equality is the pursuit of materialism;
  • Jubilee and Sabbath as they were practiced in Israel did not lead to greater equality; and
  • Income equality=outcome equality=procedural equality and thereby treats people unfairly by failing to distinguish special needs.

Let me deal with each of these in turn.

Pursuing equality=materialism

Penner starts his rebuttal by stating “The problem with worshiping at the altar of equality is that materialism makes a poor idol.” It’s interesting that he immediately equates advocating for greater equality with worshiping equality, but let’s set that aside for the moment to focus on the more glaring problem.

In linking equality with materialism, Penner has constructed a false equivalency. The real concern about income inequality is not that people at the bottom lack “stuff,” but its impact on a wide range of social issues. As I wrote in my original Banner article, “[Richard] Wilkinson’s and [Kate] Pickett’s research shows that unequal societies suffer from more health problems, higher mortality rates, more crime, more drug abuse, more teen pregnancies, and worse educational outcomes at every income level when compared with a more equal society. So even those with plenty of money are worse off when they live in an unequal society.”

This is because while there are very concrete negative consequences associated with being poor (such as being unable to access nutritious food or pay for medications), most of the impact of income inequality happens at a psychosocial  level. People fare worse when they feel unfavourably compared to others, no matter how good their own situation is. This is how we end up with billionaires suing Forbes for allegedly understating their net worth on the list of the world’s richest people. It doesn’t matter that they’re in the top 0.00001%; they still feel diminished compared to others who are wealthier.*

In fact, reducing income inequality might mean less materialism, not more. People embrace consumerism and materialism for a variety of reasons, but one of them is certainly status competition in a hierarchical society. When everyone is judging you for not wearing trendy clothes, driving a new car, having a big house, and acquiring all of the latest technology, it takes enormous strength of character to resist the pressure to consume, and few people manage it. Toning down the social competition and focusing on caring relationships would allow everyone to consume less and still feel good about themselves.

This is one of several false equivalences Penner makes throughout the article. One, which we’ll deal with below, is that talking about income inequality is the same as “outcome equality.” Another is that reducing income inequality is “Marxist-style wealth redistribution with its attendant class warfare.” Never mind the fact that nearly all developed countries in the world today practice income redistribution through progressive income tax systems, nor that the Nordic countries, which practice the highest degree of redistribution, are among the most happiest countries in the world, according to self-reported indicators of well-being. It’s easier to argue against a straw man than to tackle the issue head on.

Jubilee and Sabbath didn’t create greater equality

Next, Penner argues that as they were practiced, Jubilee and Sabbath did not create greater equality because knowing that an end date was coming, land sales actually represented leases and slavery was really indentured servitude**  and because women and illegitimate children were excluded from inheriting land.

However, I think this line of reasoning overlooks several crucial factors. First of all, it is true that in Israel, as opposed to other ancient states where occasional debt remission occurred, there were clear end dates set for any debt, indentured servitude, or land transaction. Thus, anyone offering a loan to someone else and accepting indentured servitude or land in exchange knew that the transaction was temporary, and could price it according to the amount of time they would benefit. However, to argue that Jubilee and Sabbath therefore played no role in periodically resetting social hierarchies is ignoring the evidence of what happened when Sabbath and Jubilee were not practiced. (I should note that scholars are quite divided on the extent to which they were ever practiced.) During the lifetime of the prophets Isaiah, Amos and Micah, the rich accumulated wealth without limits while oppressing the poor, leading to multiple denouncements from the prophets and this warning from Isaiah:  “Woe to you who add house to house and join field to field till no space is left and you live alone in the land.” (Isaiah 5: 8, NIV)

(It’s also interesting to note that the Bible offers strict guidelines for pricing sales, depending on the length of time to the next Jubilee. This suggests an economic principle more concerned with fairness than with supply and demand.)

Second, this argument utterly ignores the context for Jubilee and Sabbath, which is plainly laid out in the Torah. With regard to Jubilee, God reminds Israel that the Promised Land belongs to him and he is offering it to them as a gift:  “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants.”  (Leviticus 25:23) Land, which in an agrarian society like Israel represented not only wealth but livelihood, was not something to be hoarded by the powerful, but a gift from God to be shared equally by all of God’s chosen people.

Deuteronomy makes it plain that Sabbath is primarily about addressing the needs of the poor: “There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be open-handed toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.” (Deuteronomy 15:11) Not only were indentured servants to be released, they were to be given generous gifts to allow them to re-establish themselves in the community: “And when you release them, do not send them away empty-handed.  Supply them liberally from your flock, your threshing floor and your winepress. Give to them as the Lord your God has blessed you.” (Deuteronomy 15:13-14) In addition to releasing people from their debts, the passage calls for people to not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted with those who are in need, but to be open-handed and lend freely.  (Deuteronomy 15:7-8)

So it’s a bit rich to pretend that Sabbath and Jubilee were merely rules about collateral for loans and had nothing to do with wealth and poverty. They were primarily about wealth and poverty. As Dr. Gary Hauch notes, “If the commandments in Deuteronomy 15 are carefully followed, together with the other commandments that God has given, then as part of God’s blessing announced in verse 4, “there will be no one in need among you.” Astonishing! Equally astonishing is when the early believers in Acts 4 responded to the Spirit’s prompting and shared their possessions with each other (an act that mirrors the compassionate generosity Deuteronomy 15 calls for), “God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them.” (see Acts 4:32-35). But new needs arose in the early church as they did in ancient Israel. And because of this, the practice of radical generosity that informs the commands in Deuteronomy 15 and the Spirit’s leading in Acts 4 must be enacted again and again.”

However, as Penner accurately notes, two groups of people born into the covenant community of Israel were excluded from inheriting land, leaving them on the margins: women and the fatherless. The Bible also specifically excludes foreigners from the remission of debts and liberation from slavery. This is a difficult part of the passage for us today. God did provide specific measures to allow those excluded from the economic system to put food on their table – the practice of gleaning, for instance – and the Old Testament prophets frequently admonished people to defend the rights of and provide justice to widows and orphans. But if God was so concerned about the poor and the powerless, then why allow Israel to have a patriarchal, xenophobic economic system that emphasized being male, being Israelite, and being born in the right circumstances?

This isn’t a question that there are easy or flippant answers to, but I think that it helps to think of redemption (or sanctification) in ever-expanding circles, rather than as one moment in time. Out of a patriarchal society that still practices slavery comes the promise “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:28) In a nation where only men are allowed to inherit land, five daughters petition Moses to be able to receive their father’s land and God rules in their favour, changing the laws to allow daughters to inherit. (Numbers 27:1-11) This might make us stop and think about who we are excluding today, no matter what legal justification we might be using, that should also be included in God’s covenant circle.

Income equality=outcome equality=procedural equality

Finally, Penner concludes that “I cannot believe that the Old Testament could be a model of outcome equality.” I totally agree with him, one hundred percent. One small problem though: who said anything about outcome equality? This is a common trope of those opposed to greater equality – you want to make everyone the same. This then usually leads to histrionics about hard work going unrewarded while laziness spreads like cancer. But I don’t know of anyone who actually advocates for outcome equality. Even communist countries, which often get accused of this sin, didn’t really pursue outcome equality – they had (have) hierarchies that divided party members and politicians from everyone else. I’m not sure outcome equality is even strictly possible on this side of Eden. It’s in human nature to create hierarchies, just as it’s in our nature to want to hoard possessions and opportunities that benefit us, even if it’s at the expense of others.

What advocates of greater equality want is less inequality. Between the rampant inequality that exists in North America today and strict outcome equality, there is a wide swath of territory. All the best evidence suggests that moving away from the extreme end of the spectrum where we are now will benefit everyone, rich, and poor, and everyone in between.

And while Penner goes one step further and equates outcome equality with procedural equality,*** what we actually need to reduce income inequality is to treat people differently according to their circumstances. Obviously, this requires some moderation and it’s not always easy to get the balance right, but democratic countries that actively engage this debate usually do a pretty good job of muddling through. Countries that don’t engage this debate risk ending up with a system that favours those who are already wealthy and powerful over those who are poor and powerless.

An alternative economy

Penner concludes by arguing that the Old Testament highlights forgiveness, restoration, and understanding, contrasting these with Marxist-style wealth redistribution with class warfare. I would note that there are multiple ways to reduce income inequality (government redistribution through progressive income taxation, social or cultural ethics that diminish market income inequality, fair wage laws, investments in training and education, anti-poverty programs, etc.) some of which fit better than others with these three concepts. None of the proposals to address income inequality today go so far as to advocate wiping out all debts or liberating those who labour for poverty wages. As I noted in my original article, “Our modern economy is very different from that of ancient Israel, but that doesn’t mean that an economy of care is out of our reach.”

What are the principles that we can draw from Sabbath and Jubilee as we think about how to create an economy of care for today? I’d start with forgiveness, restoration and understanding. Prioritizing the poor and the powerless, and putting their needs front and centre. Radical generosity. Remembering that the land is God’s and we are but aliens and tenants. None of these principles are compatible with policies and practices that promote and encourage rampant income inequality.

Penner can’t believe the God of the Old Testament would have us pursue economic equality. I can’t believe the God of the Old Testament would support unbridled capitalism that favours the rich and powerful and tramples the poor and the powerless.

———————————————————————————————————————————————————————–

*As an aside, there were comments on the web version of my article last year saying that the problem isn’t inequality per se, it’s the attitude of the rich towards the rest of us. So all we need is a kinder, gentler elite, and there’s no more problem with inequality. The trouble with this approach is that it ignores emerging evidence that being wealthier than others tends to generate attitudes of superiority and a freedom from the rules that constrain others.  There are always exceptions of course, but we need more than a few kindly billionaires to avoid the social problems that accompany high income inequality.

** Michael Harbin makes this argument a lot more clearly, although to be fair, he had a lot more than 600 words to do it.

***Out of all of Penner’s false equivalencies, this one is the most head-spinning, since by definition, treating everyone the same regardless of circumstances will not result in outcome equality.

This column was published in the February 25, 2013 Christian Courier and is reprinted here with the permission of the Christian Courier

The Idle No More movement has focused attention on Canada’s First Nations, highlighting the difficult circumstances in which too many of them live. While the grassroots protests have provoked sympathy and a genuine desire for reconciliation and healing in some Canadians, in others it seems to have given cover for deeply held negative beliefs and stereotypes about First Nations peoples.

In a modern liberal democracy such as Canada, racism seldom rears its ugly head in the form of overt discrimination against people. Instead, it is far more likely to be couched in generalizations about an entire group or class of people based on so-called objective evidence. Many of these stereotypes and myths about First Nations are now circulating, and can make it difficult for a simple observer to know who is right and who is wrong. But with a closer look, many of these myths and accusations can also be debunked for what they are – harmful stereotypes that arise from an inability or lack of desire to love and care for our Aboriginal neighbours.

All they want is money

One of the most prevalent myths circulating right now is that all First Nations people want is money. They want us to pay them billions of dollars while they contribute nothing.

Actually, what sparked the Idle No More protests is not money, but the federal government ignoring treaty rights and constitutional obligations to consult First Nations people on matters that affect them. The two budget implementation bills of 2012 played a big role, as the Conservative government made significant changes to resource development approval and protection of Canada’s waterways which will impact traditional Aboriginal lifestyles and could have a very harmful impact on the environment.

Essentially what First Nations people are demanding is that the government speak to them before making decisions that affect them. In a democracy, that shouldn’t be too much to ask.

If First Nations people were demanding more money, however, it would not be unreasonable. The federal government has jurisdiction over all programs and services for First Nations people, whereas the provinces hold jurisdiction in a number of areas for non-Aboriginal Canadians. When the total amount of spending on services to Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians is compared, Aboriginal Canadians come out significantly behind. And in fact, they are falling further behind, since the federal government has capped spending growth at two percent per year, regardless of inflation and population growth. In comparison, federal spending on social services for other Canadians is growing at three percent per year, while federal spending on health care for other Canadians is growing at six percent per year.

Bad governance

Another common argument is that First Nations are the source of their own problems – because their governance is so bad. This is to tar all 600 plus First Nations bands with the high-profile struggles of a few. But before we cast blame, we need to be clear that problems with governance and problems with programs and services on-reserve are not the same thing.

To be the chief of a small First Nations band in a rural or remote community is much like being a small-town mayor – with one major exception: in addition to typical municipal services, chiefs and councils are also responsible for delivery of education, health care, social services and infrastructure including housing, roads, water and wastewater. As if that list isn’t daunting enough, the funds for these services come from federal government contribution agreements that the Auditor-General of Canada has criticized as not being flexible enough and accompanied by a very heavy reporting burden.

But if a mayor in a small, rural or remote community was struggling with the expertise required to deliver all necessary services with limited funds and a significant paper burden, we would construct ways to provide support and training, through the Federation of Canadian Municipalities or through federal and provincial programs. First Nations communities currently receive that kind of support (although not as much as they need) from Tribal Councils, which provide a regional group of First Nations with professional expertise that may not be available at the local level. Unfortunately, the Conservative government has significantly slashed funding to these Tribal Councils.

All Canadians are equal

One common response to the Idle No More protests has been “What would happen if non-Aboriginal Canadians were blocking major highways, railways or border crossings?” One might equally ask “What if a non-Aboriginal town hadn’t had safe drinking water in over a decade?” Too many First Nations peoples have lived in Third World conditions despite our G8 economy. Instead of allowing racist assumptions to blame the victims, we need to start asking ourselves whether we truly believe all people are equal, and if so, why we allow such conditions to persist in a country blessed with such a wealthy economy.

This column was published in the May 28, 2012 Christian Courier and is reprinted here with the permission of the Christian Courier

“Where your treasure is, there your heart will also be,” says the Bible. This observation applies quite literally to governments: where they are willing to spend reveals what and who they value. It’s why budgets are so important; spending speaks louder than words.

Canada has a deficit at the federal level due to stimulus spending to counter the impacts of the 2008-09 recession. The Parliamentary Budget Officer, Kevin Page, has said that Canada’s economy is still weak enough that the government should not be cutting spending since it risks damaging the fragile economic recovery. However, rather than eliminating the deficit eventually through economic growth, the Conservative government has chosen to slash government spending by $5.6 billion.

Even after deciding in favour of spending cuts, the government had another important choice regarding who should pay for the spending cuts through lost programs and services. According to the government, the answer seems to be the most vulnerable among us: seniors, low income Canadians, First Nations and the environment.

And thus the government reveals where its heart is. It could have asked the rich to pay through higher taxes or through elimination of lucrative tax deductions that favour the rich. It could have asked the military to pay by cutting the purchase of F-35 fighter jets by five or six planes. It could have asked wealthy corporations to pay by clawing back billions in corporate tax cuts that have padded corporate coffers without creating new jobs. But the government chose to protect the rich and the well-off by asking the most vulnerable to pay instead.

Turning our back on the poor 
While the federal government has habitually ignored poverty in recent years, it is rare for the government to adopt a policy that will actually increase poverty. However, that is what Budget 2012 did in raising the age for receiving Old Age Security benefits to 67. Old Age Security and the Guaranteed Income Supplement which accompanies it keep many seniors out of poverty. For Canadians receiving social assistance benefits, turning 65 often represents the turning point at which they are able to exit poverty and enter a new life of dignity with a modest but sufficient income. Now as many as 25 percent of seniors could be living in poverty while they wait to turn 67.

The changes are also being phased in over such a long period that it is today’s youth who will receive the full impact of the changes – the same youth who are also finding it difficult to save for retirement, given high youth unemployment, growing education debt, unaffordable housing and stagnating wages. Meanwhile the budget failed to even mention affordable housing and offered only a pittance for youth employment.

The budget also eliminated an important voice for the poor: the National Council of Welfare (NCW). The NCW was an arms-length advisory body to the Minister that provided the only source of pan-Canadian information on welfare, in addition to conducting important research on poverty. The Conservatives justified the move by arguing that the NCW was duplicating work done by non-governmental organizations, but anti-poverty NGOs have protested that they depended on the data and research produced by the NCW. And the grand savings achieved by ending this 50-year-old institution that defended the rights and interests of the poor? $1.1 million a year.

Giving with one hand
At the Crown-First Nations summit in January, the government made a big deal out of announcing a new relationship with Canada’s First Nations. The budget appears to make a promising first step in resetting the relationship: despite the significant cuts in the budget, the government set aside $275 million over three years for First Nations education and $175 million to build and renovate schools on reserves. This is a good investment, however it falls far short of what the Assembly of First Nations has said is needed to bring funding for First Nations education to parity with non-Aboriginal Canadians.

What the government gave with one hand though, it took away with the other. Significant cuts have been made to Aboriginal health programs, including funding for the National Aboriginal Health Organization (which will now close its doors), the Assembly of First Nations, the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, the Native Women’s Association of Canada, the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatam, Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada, and the Métis Nation of Canada. These organizations provided research, policy development, public education and health programs for First Nations, Métis and Inuit Canadians, who have some of the worst health outcomes in the country. Aboriginal Canadians have lower life expectancy, higher infant mortality rates, and higher rates of disability, injury, and chronic and infectious diseases. So why are we cutting their health programs? Shouldn’t we be investing more?

The budget also eliminated the First Nations Statistical Institute and the National Centre for First Nations Governance. There will therefore now be significant gaps in the data available regarding First Nations and big holes in the supports available to First Nations communities.

War on the environment
Finally, the budget inflicts major cuts on environmental assessments and clamps down on charities that seek to protect the environment. Environment Canada is being cut by $88.2 million while Natural Resources Canada is losing $108.3 million. Among the work to be sacrificed is the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy, which studies climate change and the economy. Meanwhile, the review process for major projects will be gutted, with reviews limited to two years regardless of the size of the project and a new patchwork system of assessments to be created through the adoption of a “one project, one review” approach. At the end of these reviews, cabinet will have the right to approve a project regardless of the review’s outcome.

The budget also sets aside $8 million to investigate charities that are suspected of undertaking political activities. Many see this move as a response to what the government has complained are “radical groups” trying to “hijack” environmental assessments, rather than acknowledging the legitimate role of civil society groups in defending and protecting the environment.

Budget 2012 sets the tone for a government agenda that erodes the foundations of a caring society that looks after the most vulnerable among us. Instead of everyone contributing as they can to promote the common good, the budget offers a scenario in which the poor, the marginalized and the environment pay the costs of political choices that marginalize them even further. The government has revealed that its treasure, and therefore its heart, lies with the rich and the powerful, not with the least among us.

Chandra Pasma is an Ottawa-based policy analyst.

This column was published in the February 13, 2012 Christian Courier and is reprinted here with the permission of the Christian Courier

Before Christmas, Canadians were shocked to see the living conditions in Attawapiskat, a First Nation community in Northern Ontario. In -20 C weather, families were living in tents and plywood shacks with no insulation, heated only by a single wood stove. Children suffered from rashes, respiratory infections and burns from the wood stoves. Sewage was being dumped in a ditch. The Canadian Red Cross moved in to help – this was a humanitarian crisis in our own back yard.

But it was a humanitarian crisis that had been going on for awhile, and one that is not limited to Attawapiskat. Attawapiskat declared a state of emergency – its third in three years – at the end of October, but it took a month before federal and provincial governments responded to the cry for help. Meanwhile, other First Nations communities are also confronting severe housing and infrastructure crises, without the high profile attention being paid to Attawapiskat.

In many northern communities, housing quality is an issue, with homes that are too small, poorly constructed or contaminated by toxic mould. For example, in the Sandy Bay Nation of Northern Manitoba, 300 families in a com-munity of 3,200 people are on a waiting list for housing. Willard Beaulieu, who lives in a house with mould, cockroaches and a sinking floor, told CBC News he had to “try to make the best of it.”

The Assembly of First Nations estimates that 85,000 new homes are required to meet the housing shortage confronting First Nations. And 41.5 percent of existing homes need repairs, compared to only seven percent of non-Aboriginal homes.

Safe drinking water is also an issue for First Nations. In October 2011, more than 20 percent of First Nations communities had a drinking water advisory. Of these, 70 percent had been in place for two years or more, with 38 percent in place for five years or more. In 2005, more than 800 members of the Kashechewan community, which neighbours Attawapiskat, had to be evacuated due to E.coli in their water. Much like with Attawapiskat, both the federal and provincial governments dragged their heels before finally taking action in response to the crisis.

A flawed relationship
There is a tendency in the rest of Canada to respond with bewilderment to such crises in our First Nations communities. Why don’t they just build adequate housing and infrastructure, we wonder. Why don’t they move somewhere else, where there is adequate housing and infrastructure? The answer is three-fold.

First, our colonialist system is ultimately responsible for the state of affairs today. First Nations communities live where they do because we put them there. We restricted each community to a tiny sliver of its traditional land, cut off from the resources around them, with many of their rights as Aboriginal people tied to the reserves upon which they live. In addition to the loss of certain rights as status Indians, Aboriginal people who move to the city (as they have in large number, particularly in Western Canada) can face marginalization and poverty without the resources of a family network and familiar culture which they have on the reserves.

While natural resources around their reserves are exploited by private companies, First Nations communities often struggle to make adequate deals that will secure at least some employment for their people. Economic development is a bleak prospect for many reserves dealing with distance, difficult transportation, inadequate infrastructure and culturally inappropriate education. For northern communities especially, the cost of living is very high as everything needs to be flown in or trucked in over ice roads. This is one reason for inadequate housing as it makes the cost of building a home very high and makes it more likely that inadequate materials will be used.

Second, the amount of government support that First Nations communities receive is less than the support other Canadians receive. While the Prime Minister made a big deal of $90 million for Attawapiskat over the last five years, he neglected to mention that that $90 million needed to cover every government service provided to Attawapiskat. $50,000 per man, woman and child over five years is not a lot of money to provide education, health care, housing, roads, safe drinking water and social services. Lorraine Land calculates that every Torontonian receives roughly $24,000 every year in government spending. Yet Stephen Harper isn’t out there telling Toronto he wants his money back.

The federal government provides almost all services to First Nations communities, including health, education and social services that are normally covered by the provinces. Yet while the Canadian Social Transfer, which the federal government gives the provinces to help with the costs of social services, increases by three percent a year, transfers to Aboriginal communities are capped at two percent increases per year. Because inflation and population growth account for more than two percent a year, First Nations are receiving less money from the federal government every year, even as they are falling further and further behind the standard received by the provinces.

Finally, Canadians have a tendency to blame the victim when it comes to Aboriginal crises. Instead of acknowledging our history of colonialism and many of the problems it has caused, we make insinuations of corruption and mismanagement, we trade in stereotypes of greedy but lazy Indians, and we make racist inferences about the ability of First Nations to govern themselves. Attawapiskat has been a perfect example of this. After delaying support and acknowledgement to the community, the government responded to the crisis with a third-party manager and allegations of Attawapiskat being a black hole for government money.

Reconciliation
It is not acceptable that our First Nations communities live in poverty, squalor and oblivion while we live in comfort and luxury on the land that we agreed to share. We need a reset on the relationship between our communities. We must do more than pay lip-service to the rights of Canada’s Aboriginal peoples.

The Crown-First Nations summit held on Jan. 24 may have been a start. But the federal government needs to stop blaming the victim and needs to provide accountability for the promises we have made to Canada’s First Nations.