Their Crisis, Our Misery: OCAP Versus the G20

On June 26th, the G20 meetings will bring together the leaders of the world’s richest 20 states in Toronto, following right on meetings of the G8 in Huntsville, in Northern Ontario. The G20 wants to talk about stabilizing the global economy and Harper wants to celebrate Canada as an economic success story. However, poor communities show the reality of what that ‘success’ has meant: during the economic crisis, the government has detained and deported more migrants, and their policies have meant more evictions, more unemployment, and more poverty. While the rich may celebrate their success in managing the crisis, this ‘success’ has been paid for by poor people in Canada.

It is because the poor are paying for the economic crisis that the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) is mobilizing our communities against the G20 meetings. With allied community organizations, we will be rallying on June 25th at 2:30pm in Allan Gardens, marching through the streets of Toronto and setting up a Tent City. As the Business Summit meets and on the eve of the G20 Summit, we will be bringing the demands of our communities and the anger at the conditions that people are forced to live in every single day to the G20 circus. We ask you to join us.

The G20 and Capitalism

The G20 represents the global economic system of capitalism. Specifically, the G20 celebrates the neoliberal model that has surfaced and spread in the last thirty years. Neoliberal policies are reflected in Federal, Provincial and Municipal governments in Canada, and the decisions that they make today. Like other parts of the world, in Canada we have seen a shift toward for-profit models of housing, healthcare, and social services. For twenty years, one government after another has gutted the gains that people fought for and won – such as social assistance, unemployment benefits, healthcare, and childcare. For example, when it comes to Ontario Welfare (OW) and the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) rates, we are faced with disgustingly low social assistance payments that people are forced to try to survive on. This is due, in large measure, to the cuts by the Ontario Tory government of Mike Harris in the 1990s, combining huge tax breaks for the rich and devastating cuts to social services for poor people. As a result, these policy changes involved a massive transfer of wealth from the rich to the poor. For example, in Toronto, about $1-million a month shifted from the poor neighborhood of Regent Park to the rich neighborhood of Rosedale.

[Cartoon by Mike Constable]
Harris’s Tories represented the nastiest form of neoliberal capitalism. But the policies of the Harris government have, in fact, found support in all three major parties in Ontario, and been continued by the Liberals in government. Indeed, since 2003, this same model of policies has been moved forward by the Liberal government of Dalton McGuinty. Under McGuinty, only lip service has been paid to reversing the Harris cuts. In fact, poor people today are worse off than they were in 1995 as the Liberals have allowed the steady erosion of income supports for the poor. Today, social assistance rates are 55 per cent below where they were prior to Harris’ cuts. The base amount for a single person on welfare in Ontario is a shameful $585/month.

It is clear that the role of welfare in today’s economy is to push people toward low wage work and to drive down wages for all workers. One in six workers lives on a ‘poverty wage,’ meaning they earn minimum wage or within $1 of the minimum wage. Wages are typically far worse for non-status workers – most of whom don’t have access to welfare and are commonly paid under the table at less than the minimum wage.

Bailouts and Austerity Measures

At the same time as they put the squeeze on poor families, the G20 leaders have paid massive bailouts to large corporations to deal with the recent capitalist crisis. Now, to pay for these bailouts, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) (an international financial institution that plays a key role in co-ordinating the policies of members of the G20) is recommending 20 years of austerity measures. In doing so, the IMF and G20 countries are arguing that the vicious cuts to housing, welfare, education and healthcare that occurred in Canada in the 1990s should be a model for the world! Austerity measures involve cuts to public spending that fall disproportionately on the poor and the most marginalized. They increase poverty, hit hardest by women, people of colour, First Nations people and disabled people. Two current examples in Ontario illustrate the negative impact of austerity on social inequalities and public services.

In Ontario, austerity measures in the recent Provincial budget led to the cut of the Special Diet benefit for welfare recipients. This $200-million program gave people on welfare and disability up to an extra $250 a month on their cheques. The Special Diet is the last thing that people on social assistance have left to try to pay the rent and put food on the table when the rates are as despicably low as they are. People who have fought for access to this benefit have been dragged through the mud, and baselessly called ‘frauds’ and ‘cheats’ by the Province.

Similarly, austerity measures are adding to the ongoing cuts to public transit funds in Toronto. One of the first things to be cut was physical accessibility. Rather than make the transit system wheelchair accessible by 2015, as had previously been promised, the city now says it will take another 10 years (which curiously corresponds with the date prescribed by provincial accessibility legislation that will come into effect in 2025). At the same time, Toronto Transit Commission fares have risen, making the system even less accessible. Because of these austerity measures, Toronto’s public transit is increasingly less of a public good or more and more just another commercialized commodity as riders pay 70 per cent of the cost of transit directly, the highest in North America. The consequence of neglect and perpetual austerity is the worst traffic gridlock in North America, and increasingly one of the least accessible transit systems for poor people.

Refusing to Tax the Rich

One proposal that has been floated by some G20 countries is a ‘financial transaction tax’ (FTT) that would tax transactions on stock, derivative and currency trading. This tax is at extremely low levels, would hardly disrupt financialization, and would completely fail to deal with income inequalities. Yet, as it would specifically target financial institutions and corporations (and the wealthy that control them), the very people who caused the financial crisis in the first place, the Federal government of Stephen Harper is against the tax, with the support of the provincial governments in Canada.

At the same time, the governments of Canada and Ontario have been shifting the proportion of taxes which fall on workers, while cutting progressive income taxes and corporate taxes. Such changes in how taxation is distributed disproportionately affect the working classes and, more specifically the poor.

Within Canada, Treaty Rights are still being violated and land claims remain unsettled. Yet, the Harmonized Sales Tax (HST) was set to eliminate the point of sale exemptions for First Nations people, a direct violation of treaty rights. First Nations people are also among the poorest in the country, a legacy of centuries of racist colonial policy, which unilateral changes in tax policy continue to reflect. Only 10 days before the G8 meetings and under threat First Nations people would “shut down the country” did the Federal government announce that it would continue the point of sale exemption for First Nations people.

The rejection of the FTT, and the continuance of tax cuts and tax shifting onto the poor and working people in Canada, are perfect examples of how neoliberal policies continue to set the agenda of current fiscal policies in Canada. The austerity policies that the G20 will end up calling for at its meetings in Toronto are likely to follow the pattern of the ‘Canadian model,’ and operate to benefit the rich at the direct expense of the poor.

Attacking the Poor

Perhaps the most immediate and despicable attack on the poor by the G20 is occurring as part of the Summit preparations: the clearing of the streets in Toronto of people considered to be ‘undesirable,’ five minutes away from where the G20 Summit is taking place at Front Street around the CN Tower, the Skydome and the Convention Centre, there is one of the highest concentrations of homeless people in Canada at Dundas Street East and Sherbourne Street.

City police have begun to clear the streets of homeless people leading up to the Summit. The spokesperson for Toronto police, Meaghan Gray, confirmed that: “Those who do not move will be escorted out by police and shelter officials.” This forcibly removes people from the streets that they have every right to be on, and that is in fact their everyday residence. Moreover, a significant problem is created in that the shelter system has been gutted by the long-term impact of budgetary cuts for housing provisions for the poor. There are few, if any, housing spaces left. So, where will they take people – to the mega-jails that is one of the few areas where Canadian governments are expanding their funding? To the new ‘temporary’ detention centres that are being built for G20 security?

Toronto’s homeless population is exploding because of the lack of jobs, because welfare and disability rates are so low, because this government refuses to build affordable housing, and because there are no services for migrants (the fastest growing population on the streets). In order to help promote the mythology of Canada’s economic model of ‘success,’ any visible signs of poverty such as panhandlers, squeegee workers, and homeless people will be removed. The G20 delegates will not have to be confronted with the ways their plans and policies for perpetual austerity will create intense and growing poverty.

To socially cleanse our neighborhoods and to police G8 and G20 protesters, the Canadian government is spending over $900-million on security, and over $1.2-billion on the Summits. That sums up neoliberal capitalism and the so-called exit strategy from the financial crisis: plans for government cuts and austerity, on the one hand, and socialization of bankers’ losses and massive spending for social cleansing and policing, on the other.

Where Could that Money have Gone?

The money that is available for Summit policing, but is apparently not available for the poor, could have been better used:

  • The money spent on the Summit could house everyone who is currently homeless in Toronto plus everyone on the waiting list for community housing – a total of 80,000 people – for over a year in one bedroom apartments at the average rent.
  • The money spent on the Summit could pay for five years of the Ontario Special Diet Program as it is being accessed right now. It could pay for every person on ODSP to get the full $250 a month for the next ten years.
  • The money spent on the Summit could buy a Metropass for public transit for every person in Toronto on welfare for about ten years.

When the governments of Canada choose to spend more than $1-billion on a conference instead of housing, food, or transportation, they send a message that is loud and clear about where their priorities lie. The Federal and Provincial governments are all gutting the money needed by women’s groups, First Nations peoples, immigrants, public transit, social assistance and healthcare. These same governments are increasing taxes for poor people but cutting corporate taxes. These same governments are spending enormous sums on the global circus that is the G8 and G20 Summits. The only way this will ever change is with the organized resistance of poor, working class, and marginalized people here and around the world.

In many parts of the world, similar austerity measures are being bravely fought by poor people and public sector workers, as in the public sector strikes in Greece. We are protesting in Toronto and Canada not only the ridiculous expenses of the G8/G20 Summits, but, more importantly, the very existence of the G8/G20 as forums for the most powerful capitalist states, and the rich elites they support and protect, to pursue their own private agendas. We protest the fact that the leaders of the richest and most powerful countries, the people who cause wars, poverty and devastation across the planet, come together to discuss how to further concentrate power in their hands. And in the case of these Summits, agree on plans for austerity that will protect and enhance the financial industries while having the poor pay for the very financial crisis they caused.

We are not protesting the G20 because it is coming to Toronto. We are protesting the G20 because it represents capitalism, and the worst features of its brand of neoliberal capitalism that has been in Toronto and Canada, hurting our communities, for years. We are protesting as a part of a global anti-capitalist movement for social justice and global solidarity. We fight the G20 in this spirit, not only to register our dissent. We fight to win; we will fight until we win; and we will win. •

Liisa Schofield is a documentary filmmaker, an anti-poverty activist and an activist for Palestinian rights. She is also the Volunteer and Programming Coordinator at OPIRG Toronto.

A.J. Withers is a longtime community organizer, artist and scholar, and an organizer with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty. A.J. maintains a blog at