Cutbacks anger activists

Children who grow up in poverty have a higher risk of heart disease than other people, even if their economic status gets better later in life.

Anti-poverty activists in Toronto say the Ontario provincial government must restore the special diet supplement for people on social assistance, or face the consequences of chronic health problems for those living in poverty.

The special diet supplement is a specific monetary portion of social assistance in Ontario, which was created by the provincial government to increase subsidies for those who had additional dietary needs that could not be covered by regular social assistance cheques.

Over the past year, anti-poverty organizations, including the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, have been organizing clinics to sign up additional people for the extra monthly sum — usually totalling $250 per month.

Last Saturday, over 300 people marched down the snowy streets of Toronto to the Sutton Place Hotel, home of Sandra Pupatello, Minister of Community and Social Services for Ontario.

Once the group arrived at the hotel, about 30 demonstrators rushed into the lush, polished lobby with police officers close behind.

“(Pupatello) said she would be the first to stand up and say single moms can't live on welfare, but she is the first to stand up and say we, who are getting the special diet, are cheating. So she took it away,” yelled one protester inside the hotel.

Fourteen police officers closed in on the chanting protesters and they left without incident to join the crowd outside.

OCAP argues that the current amount given to those on welfare without the special diet supplement is not enough to pay the rent and eat — so, nearly everyone on social assistance should qualify.

There are many nurses and doctors who agree.

“Chronic health problems are the sentence you get for the crime of being poor,” says Kathy Hardill, a member of Health Providers Against Poverty.

She says that children who grow up in poverty have a higher risk of heart disease than other people, even if their economic status gets better later in life.

Women are also at risk of bone diseases, such as osteoporosis, if they don't get a healthy diet, she says.

That's why Hardill and other health providers have been prescribing the special diet to people on social assistance who would not necessarily qualify under the government's stringent criteria.

On November 4, the Ontario government announced that it will no longer be allowing average Ontario Works and Ontario Disability recipients to claim the supplemental grant.

New application forms have been created that force those on social assistance to specify their disease or ailment to the government in order to receive additional money for food.

“Our organization is in no way...reconciled to this vicious and appalling cutback,” John Clark, an OCAP organizer told the demonstrators on Saturday.

“We didn't come out here to register a protest; we came out here to initiate a war against this government.”

The target of the protest was Pupatello's apartment, because according to OCAP, she receives a $20,000 housing allowance per year from the province.

Once a critic of the faltering provincial welfare system, Pupatello has surprised many activists by further diminishing funds available to the poor.

Ten years ago, Ontario suffered a stinging blow to social assistance when the Conservative government, led by then-Premier Mike Harris, cut welfare rates by 21.6 per cent.

Since coming to power, the Dalton McGuinty Liberals have increased that rate by three per cent.

Saturday's protesters say that isn't good enough for them.

They say that with inflation and cost of living increases, the rates should be raised to about 40 per cent.

Marguerite, a special diet recipient from El Salvador, said when she came to Canada people praised the country for its human rights, but the country hasn't lived up to its reputation.

“As a poor person, I am still a human being. I deserve respect,” she told the crowd.

“This is the last time we will send a message (to the government). When people stand up there are no police, army or government that can stop us.”

Over the past year, OCAP has helped to sign up over 8,000 people on the special diet in Toronto.

Other groups in the province have taken up the campaign as well.

The Tenant Action Group in Belleville, Ont. signed up 900 people in that city, claiming that one mother received $1,800 extra one month.

Living up to OCAP's promise to fight until the special diet was re-instated, on Tuesday, November 29, women activists arrived at a domestic violence conference where Pupatello was speaking.

According to a press release from two of the delegates at the conference, OCAP members were turned away and Pupatello quietly left through a rear-exit. Women from OCAP were later invited into the conference by participants, where they informed the audience of the necessity of the special diet for single mothers on assistance.

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