Poverty in Rural BC Needs Attention

A recent poll conducted by the BC Healthy Living Alliance highlighted the fact that 78% of British Columbians feel that it is “important or very important” for the government to address poverty in the province.  In fact, one of the most popular responses was for the government to implement a provincial poverty strategy with targets and timelines, and 80% believe social assistance rates should be increased to accurately reflect the cost of living.

It is clear that public sentiment is on board with the call for a provincial plan, and yet the government refuses to implement a plan. BC remains one of only two provinces without a plan to address poverty and consistently has the highest poverty and child poverty rates in the country.  According to 2010 federal government statistics, 11.5% of British Columbians are in poverty, which equates to 510,000 people.  This includes 87,000 children.

Poverty is costing BC between $8-9 billion annually, and yet it would only cost $4-5 billion to address it.  The choice seems obvious and public opinion is behind an anti-poverty initiative so what is the BC government doing?  Instead of dealing with poverty head-on the government announced in April of this year that seven it was working with seven municipalities on regional strategies.  The catch – no funding is attached, no targets have been set and the effort would reach perhaps 100 families total.

BC organizations have been critical of the ‘plans’ for the reasons listed above, and although it is a welcome partnership with the Union of BC Municipalities, it does not offer much hope to addressing the systemic causes of poverty in the province: low-income, brutal welfare rates, rising costs of living, barriers to higher education, and inadequate housing options.

At the end of September Canada Without Poverty travelled to northern BC in the hopes of learning more about poverty from a rural perspective. The first stop was Prince George – one of the seven cities working on a regional plan.  A government representative there explained that they are working to bring various community members and stakeholders to the table to look at needs for 10 – 15 families. The main goal was to connect families to services, which again doesn’t tackle the main issue of low-income.

Meeting various groups in four cities (Prince George, Vanderhoof, Smithers and Hazelton) brought to light the differences in poverty issues that northern rural communities are facing.  Repeatedly individuals we spoke with mentioned the same barriers:  affordable housing, employment opportunities and a lack of affordable/accessible transportation.

Fort St. James, a small community of around 5000 people that is a 40 minute drive from neighbouring Vanderhoof, doesn’t have a welfare office.  If a person in this community needs to access welfare, they must  pay for transport to travel to and from Vanderhoof. This is money that is just not available to someone receiving $610 per month if you are single, or $946 if you are a lone-parent with one child.  These rates have not been raised since 2007, but according to the Consumer Price Index, the cost of living has gone up 6.5% between 2007 and 2011.

Another transportation issue that was mentioned often was in connection to healthcare.  As there are limited health services in the north, people sometimes need to head south to Vancouver or a larger urban centre for medical treatment.  If they don’t own a car or can’t afford the flight, the Northern Health Authority organizes a bus for a lower cost (between $20 – $80 depending on the length of the trip). However, there are still substantial costs for someone who needs to stay in Vancouver to recover from surgery, or wait for a loved one.  The bus only offers part of the solution.

What was noticeable throughout the drive from one town to another was the ‘missing’ signs and billboards along the stretch of road known as the ‘Highway of Tears’.  On this highway a number of women, particularly of Indigenous ancestry, have gone missing and been murdered.  Speaking with Carol Seychuk at the Northern Domestic Peace Society, she brought up a chilling point – safety means something different for women up north.  The lack of reliable transportation and low income are major problems as many women are forced to hitchhike or accept rides from people they may not normally travel with.

Linda Locke, a lawyer in Hazelton, BC had the privilege of working on the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry that facilitated forums and brought in the community to discuss the 600 women who were missing and/or murdered along the Highway of Tears.  She wrote a report for Northwest consultations which outlined a number of recommendations including ensuring the safety of young women and preventing violence against Aboriginal and rural women.

Access to meaningful employment that pays decent wages is a challenge in the north even though a number of mines and resource industry jobs pay well.  Some of the people we spoke to mentioned that while the government boasts that thousands of jobs are creating with each mine, a large number of the good paying jobs are given to people coming into the area, not those already living there.

In Smithers, a ‘hub’ near Hazelton, there is almost a 0% vacancy rate, and the average cost of a one-bedroom was estimated at $750 – well above what people on welfare or in low-wage jobs can afford.  Throw in a lack of childcare on top if it all and you have a situation where people are stuck in poverty.  When asked about the government childcare subsidy of $100 monthly (the Universal Child Care Benefit), Catherine Olmstead, the Executive Director of Smithers Community Services equated it to, “giving everyone a book instead of building a library.”

Amidst the frustration, two programs stood out as good examples of how to directly assist people at the ground level, the Youth Employment Program (YEP) in Smithers and Storytellers in Hazelton.  YEP is helping vulnerable youth by offering art projects, employment training and support, and life skills.  In exchange for labour in their woodworking program, youth receive an income and are engaged in valuable job preparation.

Storytellers Foundation in Hazelton is facing a daunting task of offering hope to a community that was reported to have a poverty rate of 80%.  With a focus on community economic development, participatory action and public education, Storytellers is building community spirit and local pride.  In one set of workshops local Aboriginal women were encouraged to dream and use their imagination to think of the future they want.  It was surprising to see that some participants simply wanted good health or education. These are simple offerings that a country like Canada provides, although there are clear inequities.  These women aren’t dreaming of a yacht, or producing a hit song, or bike riding in Europe; they are still hoping to achieve the basics.  Sarah Panofsky, who works for Storytellers summed up the arrested creativity that many in poverty experience, “Hope has a ceiling.”

People are struggling in BC and in the rural regions there are more nuances to poverty.  Costs of living threaten to rise as more mines plan to open up, while communities are hoping to find security in good paying jobs, and strong support services. It is obvious that when examining poverty in Canada, the rural and Aboriginal perspectives of poverty require special attention.  The public is ready for action – so there is no reason not to take it.

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