The Recession Relief Coalition ignited fifteen months ago, fueled by an economic collapse that saw thousands of Canadians lose their jobs. Now, the Coalition is trying to push the federal government to provide much needed affordable housing and poverty relief.

Across the country, many businesses have gone bankrupt, some industries are in severe decline and permanent jobs have been replaced with part-time or temporary ones at a much lower rate of pay. A significant number remain unemployed as their EI benefits and personal savings dry up.

“While on the international stage the government paints a rosy picture of Canada and the minimal impacts of the recession,” said the Coalition in a statement. “Their self-congratulating rhetoric does not reflect the reality on Canada’s main streets nor in our communities.”

The Coalition is a diverse network of front-line social service agency workers, foundations, business people and activists powered by grass-roots anxiety about the economy and federal government inaction. As the recession deepened and agencies became increasingly stretched by growing demand and decreasing revenues, many Canadians lost their homes, their savings, their jobs and their hope.

In response, the Coalition issued a declaration urging the federal government to come to the aid of front-line agencies by maintaining budgets and investing in social infrastructure, including affordable housing. They documented personal stories so often overlooked by economists and politicians.

The Federal Town Hall Meeting on Tuesday at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Toronto drew representatives from the Liberal, NDP and Green Parties and a panel of housing, social planning and anti-poverty experts.

From the outset, the Coalition recognized the need to tell the “real story” of the recession as seen by social service agencies on the streets, in workplaces and communities. “What we were reading in the newspapers on the business pages was not reflecting what we were seeing on the streets,” said Ann Fitzpatrick of the Indicators Committee.

Almost 500,000 people, she added, will have exhausted their EI Benefits before they find a new permanent full-time job. Social assistance claims are spiking. Hard earned pensions were wiped out or seriously reduced by corporate bankruptcies.

Before the recession, the Coalition recognized a frayed safety net in Canada, especially in the areas of affordable housing and social assistance. But when the recession’s full impact was felt in this country, the non-profit sector was reeling too and unable to provide the kind of support it had in the past.

Last September, the Coalition sent a survey to all major Canadian political parties, who were asked to present their platforms on recession relief, housing and support for front-line agencies. The questions organizers had drawn up hinted at the issues important to Coalition members and their supporters.

Would you endorse the prevention of spending cuts to the non-profit sector? Will you support increased spending, a doubling of HPI (Homeless Partnerships Initiatives) funding, invest in social infrastructure and implement a fully funded National Housing Program? Each was asked whether they would implement EI and social assistance reforms?

Every party responded to the questionnaire except the Conservatives.

“My party will have a reasonably robust national housing strategy,” said Liberal MP Derek Lee. “We have always had one and we’re committed to it.”

Green Party representative Rebecca Harrison said, “Within the Green Party we believe that we need to have a better way of living that comes from having safe, affordable housing.”

“Without the federal government at the table providing leadership and giving resources they are limited in what they can do,” said NDP MP Tony Martin.

“But the provinces, the Senate, the Standing Committee on Human Resources in the House of Commons and others…are talking about poverty and raising the profile in a way that the government will no longer be able to ignore.”

John Bonnar

John Bonnar is an independent journalist producing print, photo, video and audio stories about social justice issues in and around Toronto.