Anti-poverty activists lead major protest over Quebec’s “empty action plan”

Par Beryl Wajsman le 3 décembre 2009

Hundreds of anti-poverty and social advocacy leaders and activists turned out recently to protest the opening of the Quebec government’s third phase of consultations on the formulation of a concerted provincial plan to significantly reduce poverty over the next ten years. Their complaints, which were first heard in the summer at the time of earlier phases of the consultation process, center around their perception that the government does not really want input from  fontline groups and that these meetings are just so much window dressing. The hearings are taking place under the name “Le Rendez-vous de la solidarité 2009.”

The significance of this protest was that it included almost all social service groups that serve Montreal’s poor. The regional breadth represented was from the east end of the island to the west. Among the groups participating were the Regroupement intersectoriel des organismes communautaires de Montréal (RIOCM), the TROVEP de Montréal, the Table régionale des centres de femmes de Montréal/Laval, the Regroupement des organismes communautaires familles de Montréal(ROCFM), FRAPRU, Project Genesis,the Collectif Montréalais 

de lutte à la pauvreté, the Table Régionale des Organismes Volontaires d'Education Populaire, Le Collectif pour un Québec sans Pauvreté and Federation CJA’s social advocacy committee The groups had the support of the Conseil intersyndical du Montréal métropolitain, a grouping of the Montreal area’s major labour unions.

This was not the first show of frustration at the government’s consultative process. Back in June, eleven leaders of major organizations walked out of the first phase. The hearings are being conducted under the aegis of the Ministry of Employment and Social Solidarity. The Minister responsible  is Sam Hamad.

Among the complaints of the protesting organizations was that they were not really public and that there was a severe limit on who could talk. The hearings were by invitation only. One per organization. There was nothing inherently “consultative” in the structure of the hearings because there was only an atelier, formal presentations, no opportunity to ask questions and no room for individual victims of the poverty cycle to tell their stories and suggestions. 

In addition, there were no formal allocation of briefs. The prepared agenda was filled with government representatives and bureaucrats speaking about their views and positions. What is particularly troubling to these leaders of frontline social service organizations is that this “benign neglect” is coming at a time when the province  is seeking to download more and more responsibility to community groups and individuals. Yet there is no indication of what support can be expected. The province seeks to download other responsibilities to the city. Yet  though anti-poverty initiatives are a provincial responsibility, the activists point out that the city has been  given little direction and less indication of where funding will be coming from and for what. These key questions the leaders say, are not being addressed in these consultations making the process moot.

In short, the community groups are disheartened by what they have called “ an empty plan.” The groups are demanding that the government create a real plan, through a dynamic process, which attacks the structural and root causes of poverty. “Minister Hamad’s vision as he proposes it in the consultation’s planning documents evacuates the central role that government needs to take in attacking poverty and downloads this responsibility to local communities without the necessary resources,” said demonstration spokesperson David Faguy.

Even after the adoption of the first action plan to combat poverty and social exclusion in 2004, poverty rates have continued to grow. Amongst Montrealers aged 15 and over, 31.2% are living below the low-income cut off (before taxes) while the provincial average is 17.2%. More than 185,000 households living in rental housing spend more than 30% of their income on rent. Social aid payments add up to only $588.92 per month.

“The poverty and social exclusion which prevails in Montreal are a direct assault upon the right of people to live in dignity. The economic and social rights that the government of Quebec has undertaken to respect require a commitment to provide appropriate and sufficient resources for its accomplishment,” said Lyse Cloutier of the Centres des femmes.

The groups believe that in order to be effective, any plan by the government needs to include across the board increases in welfare rates, increases in the minimum wage, long-term financing for building new social housing units to keep up with demand, and an end to deductions on child support payments.

Leah Berger, Coordinator of the FEDERATION CJA Social Advocacy Committee said that, “The FEDERATION CJA Social Advocacy Committee is preoccupied by the lack of acknowledgement and concrete action included in the government’s consultation document towards ensuring the right of all Quebecers to live in dignity. In practical terms, this translates into guaranteeing that all Quebecers have the basic means to pay for lodging, food and transportation. Instead, we continue to witness a constant downloading of provincial responsibilities onto municipalities, community organizations, families and individuals who do not necessarily have the means to provide this assistance. Issues such as welfare, minimum wage and employment programs fall within the specific jurisdiction and mandate of the provincial government. In addition, the provincial government should be acting to reduce social inequalities, especially given that it is a key means in fighting poverty. There is an inherent contradiction between the government’s commitment to support the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which deems the right to a decent wage as a human right, and the absence of sufficient concrete action to fight poverty.” 

On the problems with the consultation process itself Berger said,  “After reviewing the proposed schedule for the Montreal regional consultations, we are concerned about the lack of direct exchange between the government and community groups and coalitions. Panel presentations by government representatives, for example, do not encourage the type of dialogue necessary for organizations and frontline community workers to impart their knowledge and experience to help create a constructive policy that will significantly reduce poverty in Quebec.”

The problem Berger underlines has been voiced before, but now seems to have reached a crisis point. In the summer the spokesperson the the Front d'action populaire en réaménagement urbain (FRAPRU), François Saillant,  declared that the very words in the rulebook of the consultation process demonstrates taht the government wants to shut out community groups like his from effective participation.                                                                              

For his part Minister Hamad affirms that the consultations are open to receiving all briefs and ideas and that none have been rejected. He said, “We are in the process of taking in all ideas and we will evaluate them all later.” Hamad has consistenly stated that in no way or form will the Quebec government “neglect its responsibilities in the fight against poverty.” He has said that, “We recognize that poverty exists, that it is persistent and far too present in Quebec. Even with all that has been done, we recognize that the problems have not been solved and that there remains work to do to reach our objectives.”


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