Quebec’s poverty wall

Par Jessica Murphy le 5 février 2009

Quebec gets both top marks and failing grades when it comes to fighting poverty in the province.

First, the good news. 

Along with Newfoundland, we're the only province in Canada to have a comprehensive anti-poverty strategy backed by laws to combat extreme need and social exclusion. In 2004, Quebec's government announced a total of $2.5 billion to be allocated over five years to carry out the provisions of the Act against poverty and it seems, at least initially, that the measures are working: available data show the proportion of people living on low incomes in the province decreased steadily between 1997 and 2005.

In other positive news, our current minimum wage will be the second highest in Canada (after Nunavut, at $10,00 an hour) once the Liberal government bumps it up to $9 from the current $8.50 next May. There are also signs the government is beginning to look seriously at the province's homelessness problems after the National Assembly's committee on social affairs studied the issue last fall. (One of the committee members recently told The Metropolitain that previously, homelessness had not even been on the radar for any of the political parties.)

Finally, in December, the Quebec government upped funds transferred to Montreal for anti-poverty initiatives by $9 million over three years and Montreal mayor Gerald Tremblay announced that tackling poverty would be the priority for 2009.

But many Quebecers were, and remain, impoverished.

Eight years ago, the Canadian Council for Social Development named Montreal the poverty capital of Canada due to its whopping 41 per cent poverty rate. While that number had dropped to 34 per cent by 2007, the city still ranked first place for poverty in all major urban centres in Canada - including Toronto, Vancouver, and Winnipeg.

Some of the hardest hit are Quebec seniors, who have the highest rates of poverty in Canada (9.3 per cent, compared to the country's lowest in Saskatchewan at 1.9 per cent, according to 2004 statistics)and lone-parent families, almost 60 per cent of which live under the poverty line. Montreal also had the most neighbourhoods facing deep and persistent poverty. 

Ian Renaud-Lauze, the spokesman for Collectif pour un Québec sans pauvreté, a Quebec City-based organization that was instrumental in getting a comprehensive anti-poverty plan in the province, said that while the plan has been helpful in getting some Quebecers out of poverty, it has worsened the situation of others because the plan itself is biased towards families and low-income wage earners. 

"We're going in the right direction," he said, "Sadly - and this is the big concern - it's not an integrated vision into poverty.We've fallen into the idea that there's deserving and undeserving poor."

Single people and couples without children who fall under the poverty line, and those facing severe constraints to employment, actually have less revenue than they did five years ago. Many of them fall under the category of working poor. Labour laws that haven't been updated to protect the current freelance, contract, and part-time workers compound the problem.

The current economic downturn will push more Quebecers into poverty, Renaud-Lauze added, and so the government also needs to ensure strong public service programs to support the poor. He also wants to see a boost in welfare, a move that is supported by Denis Levesque, a coordinator with the anti-poverty group Project Genesis.

"For people who are receiving the lowest welfare benefits, it needs to be increased," he said, adding that 100 per cent of the money spent on welfare goes straight back into the economy.

Both men say that the government needs to focus on anti-poverty initiatives that aren't based solely around creating employment.

"They focus most of their efforts on employment," Levesque said. "But there will always be people who are rejected or excluded from the work force."

Many Quebecers, due to physical or psychological illnesses or disabilities, are unable to work, Renaud Lauze said.

"We need to look at the employable and the unemployable and we need to help them as a matter of human dignity," he said."We have to redefine the meaning for someone who contributes to not just mean they bring in a pay check. People that we abandon - it's a human debt."

But with all the economic doom-and-gloom hitting Quebecers daily, Renaud-Lauze has one positive message:

 "What we proved in Quebec is that when you want to improve the situation, you can."

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