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Ontario bishops push poverty on to election radar

The Ontario Catholic bishops, as part of the Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition, are throwing their support behind the Faith to End Poverty Campaign.

When Jesus predicted His disciples would always have the poor with them, He didn’t mention they would be invisible — unseen, unheard and unthinkable in the political arena.

Ontario’s bishops have again identified poverty as an essential issue facing voters as they go to the polls Oct. 6.

“Jesus directly connects our salvation to how we have tended to the needs of the poor, the hungry, the naked, the sick, the least among us,” wrote the Assembly of Catholic Bishops in its pre-election message. “We face that judgment personally and also as a society.”

In “Your Right to Be Heard: A Guide to the Ontario Election — 2011” (download the full statement here), the bishops urge Catholics to ask candidates about poverty reduction strategies, homelessness, unemployment and “basic income that is sufficient for food and housing.” They also remind Catholics of their duty to vote. “It is inconceivable that people would consciously decide not to vote,” the guide said.

Despite the bishops’ earnest wishes, poverty is not the issue defining this provincial election campaign.

“All four (parties) are not really giving proper attention to this,” said Peter Clutterbuck, research and community planning co-ordinator for the Social Planning Network of Ontario.

Social planning councils across Ontario are sponsoring a “sign blitz” and going door-to-door in a “reverse canvassing” campaign, trying to force media and political parties to pay attention to the 13.1 per cent of Ontarians living in poverty.

“It’s all middle-class focussed,” said Clutterbuck. “Which are legitimate concerns, but there’s more of those people who will wind up poor if we don’t do something about poverty reduction.”

As part of the Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition, Ontario’s bishops have thrown their weight behind the Faith to End Poverty Campaign.

In London, Bishop Ron Fabbro ordered 125 Faith to End Poverty lawn signs from ISARC that read “Let’s vote for a poverty free Ontario.” Fabbro has written to his deaneries and to every pastor urging them to erect the signs outside their churches. The diocese will also erect seven additional larger signs in strategic locations around London and Windsor.

“In our own area, with the economic downturn and the loss of jobs and the loss of manufacturing, it’s hit us in a particular way, not that we weren’t hit before,” said Connie Paré, the diocese of London’s director of pastoral planning. “This has been a particularly serious and poignant time for us, so it has caused us to grow in awareness. We’re trying to keep this at the forefront.”

There are other issues on the bishops’ agenda, including publicly funded Catholic education, union rights and the environment. Nor do the bishops miss the opportunity to remind voters of the central place of life issues.

“Governments must support life,” they write. “The human dignity of every person, from conception to natural death, must be respected.”

The early mention of life issues in the bishops’  two-page election guide pleased Campaign Life Coalition Ontario president Mary Ellen Douglas.

“At least this time the life issues have gone up on the agenda,” she told The Catholic Register. “This time it’s rated higher on the scale.”

Douglas acknowledges that the central questions around legal access to abortion throughout nine months of pregnancy, without regard to medical factors, is a federal issue. But that doesn’t mean there are no life issues facing provincial governments.

A campaign called Conceivable Dreams, founded by infertility patients, is using this election to push for full funding of in vitro fertilization. Campaign Life wants provincial politicians to think twice before using everybody’s tax dollars to fund procedures people find morally objectionable.

“We usually hear that it’s a federal issue. Well, yes it’s federal. But we pay for it here in Ontario,” Douglas said.

Chances that a cash-strapped province is about to start funding expensive, unproven fertility treatments are remote. Despite Campaign Life’s dogged efforts to categorize every candidate as either pro-life or pro-abortion, it’s unlikely abortion, euthanasia, etc. will play a large role in the Oct. 6 vote.

The biggest challenge Campaign Life Ontario faces is a refusal by many candidates to answer questionnaires seeking their opinions on life issues, Douglas said. Its web site categorizes candidates as either pro-life, pro-abortion or unknown based on voting records and questionnaire responses.

After former leader John Tory torpedoed Progressive Conservative chances in the last provincial election by proposing expanded religious education for Muslims, Jews and Protestants, none of the parties are saying anything about schools and religion this time out.

Even the Green Party has backed off its previous promise to sweep aside Catholic education rights and form a single, secular public school system. Now the Greens want to study the issue.

“We’re proposing a citizens’ assembly to study Ontario’s school system and to get feedback,” said Green Party leader Mike Schreiner. “Let’s study this. Our goal is just to have a fair, equitable school system that serves the needs of all students.”

On poverty, Schreiner would back legislation allowing municipalities to require affordable housing in every new housing development. The Greens also believe community gardens, cooking classes and an agricultural policy that would make local food more available would benefit the poor.

The NDP’s Toronto Centre candidate Cathy Crowe wants the next provincial government to expand its focus. Where the Liberals passed a Poverty Reduction Act in 2009 along with a plan to reduce child poverty by 25 per cent over five years, Crowe wants a plan that includes more than children.

“The notion is not to talk about child poverty, but to talk about family poverty,” she said.

In particular the lack of affordable day care is keeping women out of the work force and keeping many families poor, said Crowe.

Letting family poverty fester for four years has knock-on effects for the rest of the provincial budget, said Crowe.

“The health care system will have to respond to it (entrenched poverty). We will see more homeless deaths. We will see more people falling into homelessness or into crisis. Poor mental health and addictions — we will see that affect the economy,” she said.

Liberal Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities John Milloy, running again in Kitchener Centre, rejects the idea his party is ignoring poverty.

“We’ve tried everything possible to make this an important plank in our platform and an important part of our role in government,” he said.

Liberals aren’t afraid of attacking poverty because of a record $14-billion deficit, according to Milloy.

“The downturn in the economy makes this discussion even more important. It hurts those in need the most.”

The Liberals are promising to raise the Ontario Child Tax Benefit to $1,310 by 2013. They are also looking at a housing benefit.

Many of the platform promises labelled as vote bait for the middle class — including a 30-per-cent tuition subsidy and expanded home care for seniors — would also benefit the poor, said Milloy.

The Family Coalition Party of Ontario is in a rebuilding mode, running 23 candidates in this election compared with 83 four years ago. FCP candidates averaged 1.2 per cent of the vote in ridings where they ran last time.

Party leader Phil Lees acknowledges his party won’t form a government or elect any MPPs. His goal is to build up active riding associations and a party that has something to say about all the issues.

“It’s a broader platform than it has been in the past,” said Lees. “We take the life-respecting principles and we weave them through the other aspects of governance.”

Phone calls to the Progressive Conservative campaign and to various candidates went unanswered over a five-day period.

“What we’re finding across the province is that Conservative candidates are not showing up (for ISARC’s all-candidates meetings),” said ISARC executive director Michael Skaljin. “It makes us wonder what it is. If there was just one or two candidates here and there it wouldn’t be such a question. But I think it raises questions about the party’s position. They’ve definitely been absent on the poverty debate and poverty questions.”

Written by  Michael Swan, The Catholic Register



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