When COVID-19 became a daily reality for Canadians, and many people lost their jobs, the Canadian government decided that it would implement the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) to anyone out of work. A $2000 cheque was issued to Canadians who filled out the relevant forms, per month, for up to a period of 4 months. Last week, the government announced it was extending that benefit up until the end of September, with a new set of benefits to replace it, along with rolling the existing benefits into a new form of EI.
However, for people living with disabilities (PWD), none of these benefits are available to them, and the existing top ups provided by the provincial governments (with the exception of BC) are set to run out at the end of the month. PWD also cannot access EI, as they have not worked the minimum required number of hours to qualify. To make matters worse, the ban on evictions has now been lifted in Ontario, with BC soon to follow at the end of next month. Many citizens and advocates have been pushing the governments at the provincial and federal levels for months now to do something about the situation, but their pleas have so far fallen on deaf ears.
Real Pocket Change
In recent days we have seen a number of funding announcements from provincial and federal governments, from CERB extensions to new forms of EI. We also found out this week that there is going to be $792 million set aside for PWD during the pandemic. But a deeper look at the numbers tells a much grimmer story - the money is for a one-time payment only, and amounts to about $600 per PWD 15 years of age or older. The last time I checked, for a resident of Vancouver or Toronto, that covers about 1/3rd the cost of one month's rent.
Now this is not a new issue for PWD, nor is it something that the provincial and federal governments are naive to. Advocates for PWD have been sounding the alarm for many years now, and have been calling for a more liveable income. In fact, even in BC where PWD have seen the most support since the pandemic began, disability shelter rates have been frozen for nearly 15 years now.
Given that there's more than 6 million disabled Canadians in this country, you would think by now that their government would have stepped in before this pandemic to give them the supports they need. But since COVID-19 began spreading in Canada, we have seen time and again that politicians don't seem willing to understand the plight of the most vulnerable citizens, and more often that not, view the disabled and impoverished with a certain level of contempt. The solutions proposed by many levels of government seem to imply that PWD are lazy, incompetent, or otherwise need to pull themselves up by their collective boostraps. Case in point: The comments made by Ontario Premier Doug Ford just a couple of weeks ago.
Meals On Wheelchairs
With schools opening in less than 2 weeks, parents of disabled kids are also concerned about the supports that will be in place for them. This week the provincial governments of Ontario and BC announced their updated plans for schools reopening, along with several other provinces. Class sizes continue to be a thorny issue, with seemingly no immediate plans to scale down to levels recommended by medical experts.
However, in many cases where college and university students are set to go back to class, PWD are still finding themselves unable to reconcile tuition and campus dorm costs. There is also the added risk of contracting COVID-19 for many PWD that are immuno-compromised, including students on campus. The situation also lays bare what PWD have been saying for years - that the money was always there, but the political will to spend it on vulnerable populations was not.
The situation has gotten so out of hand, Canadian PWD are being forced to send letters to their elected officials, go to the media with their plights, and even consider suicide as a way out of their predicament. One of the guests I interviewed for this episode (see below) has even gone to CBC's Ombudsman to ask for help, only to be stonewalled with a canned response.
Whether it's families struggling to care for disabled family members, or PWD not having the resources they need to live a rich and full life, something has to be done. The funds coming from all levels of government simply aren't enough, and are a patchwork of systems that are fundamentally flawed. It should come as no surprise, then, that the discussion around a Universal Basic Income (UBI) has been making the rounds again. And while previous forms of UBI have been rightly criticized for planning to replace existing support systems like the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) for seniors, and other health-related benefits, a new hybrid-style system has recently been proposed in Parliament by NDP MP Leah Gazan.
Dubbed the Guaranteed Livable Basic Income (GLBI), this benefit would be regionally applied, and would not replace any existing benefits currently provided to seniors, PWD or anyone living with serious illnesses. It is also adjusted for minimum levels of income, meaning that rich persons would not receive the benefit if their wages are above the income floor. The petition circulating right now has over 30,000 signatures, and has the support of Basic Income Manitoba as well as the Basic Income Canada Network.
When disabled folks can barely afford to eat, pay their bills, or keep a roof over their heads, it's a direct indictment of our systems in this country. Yet when PWD challenge those systems, or speak up about them, no one appears ready to listen, or even to acknowledge that there is an issue. It's almost like they're treated as second-class citizens. The standard of living cannot remain below poverty levels, especially while we are in the midst of a global pandemic. Our governments need to take care of everyone, including the most vulnerable, whether they want to or not.
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