House of Commons, Monday September 17, 2012
Mr. Speaker, as you know, I am a relatively new member here, representing the people of Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, which also happens to be the birthplace of Canada. I believe we live in one of the best countries in the world, and yet, something is wrong in Canada today.
Today we are speaking on a bill that would increase fines given to convicted criminals, the so-called “victims of crime surcharge”. As with many of the crime bills tabled in the House of Commons, it is a bill that on its face seems easy to accept. However, it is not acceptable. The politicization of the Criminal Code is in full swing, and I suppose that is the point in this day and age.
In today’s Conservative Canada we now have a permanent political campaign. What was once thought of as an American political trait has now been imported into Canada. No longer will we have a justice system that is just and fair; the Conservative approach is not balanced or proportional. We now find ourselves in a situation where good public policy is traded for political marketing.
owever, today I want to speak about poverty in Canada. I want to speak about the widening gap between those of us who have and those who have not. I want to speak about the intersection between poverty and crime.
As I mentioned previously, we know crime rates, particularly rates of serious crimes, have come down over the past several decades. Those facts are not in dispute among those who respect and value evidence. It is therefore a massive moral failure on our part to de-link crime from poverty.
Allow me to take a few moments to explain what I mean.
Poverty is a very serious social, economic and political problem in Canada. It is a problem that calls for us to take action that is worthy of our country and our strong moral tradition.
As Canadians, we are all concerned, as we also are about the fact that poverty persists in Canada. Poverty, and the widening income gap, are a serious threat to social cohesion in Canada. Combating and eradicating poverty calls for an effective approach to be taken, to make Canada a better, more egalitarian and more just society.
Let us compare this with what we see in Canada today. These days, politics dominates everything. Division and extreme partisanship are the watchword in our political discourse now. We have a government that sees only one solution when it encounters a complex social problem like poverty and its links with crime: put more people in prison.
Those of us who respect the past know that history has lessons to teach us. In the past, when Canada encountered a serious, nation-wide problem, we did what Canadians often do: we investigated the facts and looked for the truth. We were not afraid of the facts, because we used them to shape public policy, not vice versa.
Poverty is one of those problems, and it should transcend political and jurisdictional divisions
I will give a few examples of Canadians coming together to tackle tough issues. When Canadians faced and confronted terrorism in the Air India bombing, we acted. We established an inquiry led by the hon. member for Toronto Centre. We sought answers, reasons, remedies and solutions, and we sought to bring closure to those families affected by that tragedy.
When we as a country began struggling in the 1980s with implications of new and emerging technology on reproduction, we struck a royal commission to assess the moral, ethical and legislative implications of those new technologies.
When Canadians were confronted with the tainted blood scandal that affected to many Canadians, we struck an inquiry to discover what happened and find remedies and solutions.
When Canadians were confronted with the decision to have economic ties with the United States, we created a free trade inquiry called the Macdonald Royal Commission. We did so to get the facts, to hear from people and to use those facts to guide our decisions.
In times past, we confronted great challenges, not with slogans and silly appellations for parliamentary bills but by deploying our best and brightest in search of facts that would lead to meaningful and realistic solutions.
The growing gap between those who have and those who have not, the persistence of poverty and its relation to crime are real and present dangers to social cohesiveness in Canada.
We cannot afford to stand aside and do what we are doing, which is little. We cannot dismissively say that poverty is a provincial matter, as the Prime Minister said in 1995, while at the same time suggest with one eye closed that the only solution to the consequence of poverty is to incarcerate more people. It is immoral to give any credibility to that approach. In fact, we should consider a royal commission on poverty in Canada.
It is astonishing to me that with all of our successes, for all of our difficulties, for all of our wealth, for all of our modernity, a country with a first world economy and a country whose heart is as big as the land it inhabits, is still a place where poverty exists and at levels that are unworthy of us all. It requires us to be bold, to do what is right and to bring all Canadians together to fight poverty.
With the greatest respect to my colleagues on the other side, it is not right or just for any prime minister from any political party to suggest, as our current Prime Minister has, that poverty is a provincial problem, end of story. That is not who we are. That is not the Canadian way.
The world is big and yet we are more and more connected and interdependent than in any other period in history. This is not only true of the world but here in Canada. We can ill-afford to put ourselves in jurisdictional straitjackets and say that it is someone else’s issue. Poverty is a problem that we all have a responsibility to combat.
I will now address the link between poverty and crime. I believe poverty is the engine that drives crime in Canada. Poverty limits hope, poverty limits an individual’s full potential and poverty at its core ghettoizes communities. It is poverty that forces women who, in attempting to raise a child with no money or no hope, to turn to prostitution. It is poverty that causes a young man who comes from nothing to turn to drugs to find solace and to escape reality. Poverty is a vicious circle and one that must be broken.
All of us here today have our own story but we are here today not only because of our own doing but with the help and support of family, friends and our communities. However, our stories are so much different than the millions of Canadians confined to a state of poverty that in most instances goes back generations. We cannot turn a blind eye to poverty and say that it is not our problem.
The 18-year-old who woke up this morning and who has lived a life of abuse, has mental health issues, comes from a broken family and whose life has been wrapped up in poverty will not be making plans as many of us will here today deciding on which restaurant we will go to this evening. That 18-year-old does not have that choice.
It is they, the poor, the marginalized, those on the periphery of success and opportunity, who see the world not as we see it but something quite different. It is poverty that is the engine that is driving crime.
In a recent article in one of our leading newspapers, anti-poverty advocate and Conservative senator Hugh Segal said the following:
|While all those Canadians who live beneath the poverty line are by no means associated with criminal activity, almost all those in Canada’s prisons come from beneath the poverty line. Less than 10 per cent of Canadians live beneath the poverty line but almost 100 per cent of our prison inmates come from that 10 per cent. There is no political ideology, on the right or left, that would make the case that people living in poverty belong in jail. (EMPHASIS ADDED)|
Can we honestly say with unburdened hearts that the only solution to these difficult and complex issues is to find more ways to put them in jail. Is that the best we can do? Is that what Canada has become?
Yet, today, we are contemplating a bill that would increase monetary penalties and remove the ability of a convicted criminal to seek relief from those financial penalties. Why? It is because for most of them they simply do not have the money. The vast majority of people convicted of a crime in Canada can trace their circumstances to poverty. Under this bill, they would be required to pay even more, even though they can ill-afford to do so.
We should never condone or excuse criminal behaviour but we should also be open to explaining it. Again, it is poverty that drives crime.
How can we, as parliamentarians claiming a conscience, stand idly by when we know that aboriginals, who make up just 4% of our population, represent 20% of our prison population? That percentage would increase with the new crime measures imposed by the government. It is the lifting of people out of poverty that will further reduce crime rates.
I will take a few moments to highlight some statistics. If I am unable to convince colleagues of the social justice implications here, perhaps I can convince people that it makes economic sense to lift people out of the cycle of poverty.
The cost of poverty to Canada has been estimated at $72 billion to $86 billion per year, or about 5% to 6% of GDP. Almost 900,000 Canadians used food banks each month in 2010 and 38% of them were children. Three point one million households pay more than 30% of their income on housing, making them housing insecure. There are 150,000 to 300,000 visible homeless.
A recent study found a 21-year difference in life expectancy between some of the poorest neighbourhoods and the wealthiest neighbourhoods in some parts of Canada.
Poverty costs Canada’s health care system $7.6 billion per year, according to the Ontario Association of Food Banks.
One in three, or 33%, of low-income children had at least one parent who worked full time through the year in 2008 and still lived in poverty.
In 2010, 59% of Canadian workers lived paycheque to paycheque and indicated that they would be in financial difficulty if their cheque were delayed by a week.
In 2009, per capita household debt in Canada was $41,740, which is two and a half times higher than it was in 1989.
In 2009, the average annual income, $6.6 million, of Canada’s best paid CEOs was 155 times higher than the average worker’s income.
A third of all income growth in Canada over the two past decades has gone to the richest 1% of Canadians, with 3.8% of households controlling 67% of total household wealth.
Those are staggering numbers. The correlation between poverty and crime is not fiction and it is not a Liberal idea.
A recent study conducted by the Toronto Star and referenced by Conservative Senator Segal found the following: More than 70% of those who enter prisons have not completed high school; 70% of offenders entering prisons have unstable job histories; and four of every five arrive with serious substance abuse problems. Sending more people to prison, appearing tough on crime, or enacting legislation that is punitive at its core will not solve the problem of crime in Canada. Poverty is at the root of crime in Canada.
I will close with this compelling quote, again from Conservative Senator Segal. He said:
|In a modern, competitive and compassionate society like ours, these numbers are unacceptable. If Canadians want to wage an effective war on crime we must first reshape the debate. If crime abatement is the goal, it is time for all Canadians and their governments to become tough on poverty. By doing so, the outcomes we all want — safer communities and diminishing prison populations — will follow.|