The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) was joined by its allies at a Raise the Rates rally at Nathan Phillips Square on Friday at noon -- on the day that cuts to the Ontario Special Diet program were set to take effect.
You can view a photo spread of the march here -- taken by (me) Krystalline Kraus.
I want to note first that it was refreshing to see students from City View High School who had taken an important field trip down to join the march of 300. They preformed a short play regarding Ontario's treatment of the poor over the past decade. I wish I had such dedicated teachers when I was in elementary school.
At issue was the recent cut and re-invention of the Special Diet supplement that was announced in Ontario Premier McGuinty's 2010 budget.
You can read about the McGuinty government's decision to gut the Special Diet supplement here: McGuinty's axing of the Special Diet program is a catastrophe to poor and sick Ontarians.
Essentially, the Ontario government announced in its 2010 budget on March 25 that it would cancel and re-invent the Special Diet Allowance it provides to people on Ontario Works (OW) or Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP).
Changes include: "Revising the list of eligible medical conditions. Allowances for some medical conditions have increased, others have decreased. Also, medical conditions that the Special Diets Expert Review Committee found to not require a special diet that involves additional costs were removed. This means some people will stop getting an allowance at the end of the transition period, July 31, 2011."
You can read about the new "Special Diet" Allowance program and the list of changes made here.
This social assistance provision, used by 20 per cent of welfare and disability recipients, provided people with up to $250 extra a month to help buy fresh fruits and vegetables and other medically necessary dietary items. OCAP's campaign to sign people up to the program began in 2005.
To offset the loss, the McGuinty government raised social assistance rates by one per cent though OCAP believes that it will in fact take a fifty-five per cent increase in welfare rates to put Ontarians receiving OW or ODSP benefits back to levels they were before the Mike Harris cuts a decade ago.
Upon rallying at the Square, the march first stopped in front of the Sheraton Hotel where John Clarke (organizer, OCAP) noted that, "People are poorer under McGuinty than under Mike Harris."
This reality eliminates the myth that poor people fared/fare better after Mike Harris' Conservative government was defeated by McGuinty's Liberals in 2003.
In front of Toronto's Sheraton Hotel -- where OCAP organizers during the march announced that Ontario Finance Minister DuGuid was speaking at a $1,000 a plate lunch -- Clarke noted that while the Ontario government did throw social assistance recipients a one per cent-bone increase, that increase still left social assistance recipients, "below the rate of inflation, digging people deeper and deeper into poverty."
Regarding the Special Diet Allowance, he said, "Today, April 1, the new, revised and gutted version of the Special Diet comes into effect...which is a refined mechanism designed to cut tens of thousands of people off of the only benefit that has made a difference in filling in the gaps of income lost in this province [to the Harris cuts]."
The allowance was a little known and accessed provision until OCAP and its allies decided to start a public education campaign and provide access to doctors through public health clinics in its 2005 Raise the Rates campaign.
From the Sheraton Hotel, the march wound its way up University Avenue before finally stopping at the offices of the Ministry of Community and Social Services at Wellesley and Bay Street, where the building was surrounded by a cordon of police officers and a unit of mounted officers stationed at the front entrance.
This in itself indicated the stance the Ministry took regarding hearing its clients' concerns about inadequate Ontario Works (OW) or Ontario Disability Support Payments (ODSP).
At the rally, dis/ability rights advocate and artist Ann Abbot stated her demands for the dis/abled regarding the Special Diet including not being "forced to choose between paying the rent and eating, the right to have enough money to buy nutritious food so we can remain healthy and thrive and most importantly, then right to receive enough respect from the government to be assured that the money that is vital to our very existence will never suddenly be cut."
In solidarity with Toronto's rally, the Kitchener office of John Milloy (MPP; Kitchener Centre) was occupied by members of April 1ST Coalition -- Poverty Makes Us Sick (PMUS), the Alliance Against Poverty (AAP), the Spot Collective, and AW@L.
What poor people in Ontario need is not a 1 per cent hike in welfare rates nor another severely restrictive hand out like the new "Special Diet" Allowance. What they really need is a whole systems change regarding how the Ontario government provides for the health and welfare of its poorest citizens and their families.
By cutting off the Special Diet, the government is essentially stealing food off poor people's plates.
OCAP's Raise the Rates Campaign has two main demands:
1: Reverse the Cuts, Raise the Rates!
In 1995 the Tory government cut welfare rates by 21.6 % and froze disability. Since the Liberals came to power in 2003, they have not only failed to reverse the Harris cuts, but have actually perpetuated a further decline in rates. As a result of that initial 21.6% cut coupled with inflation for the last 16 years, welfare rates are approximately 55% below where they should be.
WE DEMAND an immediate increase in OW and ODSP rates to bring them back to pre-Harris levels. 55% NOW -- raise the rates to where people can live with health and dignity!
WE DEMAND the minimum wage freeze be lifted immediately and that minimum wage be increased to a living wage for everyone in Ontario.
2: Restore the Special Diet!
In the 2010 provincial budget last March, the Liberal government announced that the special diet would be slashed completely. The special diet has been a vital benefit that has put money in the pockets of communities forced to live in poverty on social assistance rates that are entirely inadequate. Due to community outrage and mobilization, the Liberal government have now backtracked and said that they will keep part of the Special Diet, however the program is being completely gutted.
The new system excludes numerous health conditions and reduces the benefits received for many other conditions. In addition applicants will have to release medical information and face other intrusive measures designed to prevent access to the benefit. Within the Liberals' own statement about this measure, they refer to the fact that 'many will not be eligible'. The new Special Diet comes in to affect on April 1st and all those who are not eligible under the new program will be cut off by July 31st.
WE DEMAND the full restoration of the Special Diet to a benefit of up to $250 for food and complete reversal of all intrusive measures.