Despite challenges faced by many communities, there is a broad sense of inclusion in Canada
By Art Eggleton Senator: What effect has poverty, homelessness, a lack of affordable housing and income inequality had on our national social fabric?
I recently tabled a study in the Senate from the Social Affairs Committee looking at just that question.
Inclusion and cohesion are vital to the national social fabric. They are vital to the everyday interactions amongst Canadians. They are vital to our interconnectedness and a shared experience of our nation.
So what were the results of our study? Are we inclusive? Do citizens feel they are a vital part of our communities? Do they feel like they have a voice?
We learned that, despite the challenges many communities face and thanks to our multicultural and integration policies, we have a broad sense of inclusion in Canada. The rising numbers of immigrants who own homes, who take out citizenship and who intermarry point to inclusion.
But everything is not perfect. We have fault lines. We have far too many people living on the margins. This has been made more challenging by rising income inequality in Canada, where 4 per cent of Canadian households control 67 per cent of total wealth, and where middle and low incomes have stagnated or decreased.
We can see this growing divide playing itself out in our urban areas as well. A report by University of Toronto professor David Hulchanski found that Toronto is now made up of three cities, not one. One part is wealthy; one is a huge area of poverty. And the portion once occupied by the middle class has shrunk from about 66 per cent, in 1970, to just 29 per cent in 2005.
This widening gap between the rich and the rest is a looming crisis. A society in which a small group is benefiting unfairly can lead to dissension, increases in crime, loss of participation, and isolation.
Dealing with exclusion requires, first and foremost, collaboration between the federal government, the provinces and territories, local governments and community organizations to develop goals for social inclusion and cohesion. These goals should be used in the design and evaluation of policies, programs and activities. They then must be measured to determine if the goals for inclusion are being met.
Our study found that, more specifically, certain groups are far more likely to face exclusion. Recent immigrants, visible minorities, aboriginal people, people with disabilities, seniors, youth and sexual minorities all struggle with exclusion in Canada.
We offered ideas on how better to include these groups. For recent immigrants who are overrepresented in poverty, we need to better prepare ithem before they arrive to Canada. We also need enhanced efforts to combat racism and other forms of intolerance for both immigrants and visible minorities by developing pan-Canadian educational programs.
In our Aboriginal community, access to post-secondary education and training was identified as one of the best opportunities for social and economic inclusion.
For young Canadians, employment remains a big challenge with 14 per cent youth unemployment, making it difficult to pay for tuition, pay down debt or afford housing. Once out of school they often experience underemployment, job insecurity, temp work, rising costs for food and housing. We need programs to increase labour mobility and also tax incentives for companies that hire and invest in young Canadians.
To help stem income inequality, we recommended a review of the Income Tax Act to ensure progressivity and fairness and to stimulate job creation.
These are just some of the 39 total recommendations our cross-party committee put to the federal government. We hope they listen.
For 146 years we’ve built this country based on a simple premise – and a higher purpose: that helping our neighbour, looking out for one another and giving everyone a shot at success is the best way to build a society.
It is once again time to focus on sharing our prosperity more widely – to make sure we continue on an inclusive path, where everyone feels they have a stake in their community and their country. And where they will participate and know that their voices will be heard.
Senator Art Eggleton is a former Toronto mayor and Member of Parliament. He is currently Deputy Chair of the Senate Standing Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology.
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