Monday, 26 May 2014

Poverty discussion missing from campaign

For whatever reason, there are several issues in our election campaign that no one is talking about.

I spoke of one, recently, that of aboriginal rights. Here is another.


It’s not about jobs or opportunity or cutting waste and spending.

It’s about poverty.

Now let me introduce you to one voice of poverty, the Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition or ISARC. ISARC is a group that crosses all faiths from Christians of all denominations, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, Hindus to Baha’i.

They have been at anti-poverty work since 1986. Their primary principle is simple.

"When anyone is hungry while others have too much to eat, when anyone has no shelter while others live in luxury, or when anyone lives in poverty while others enjoy affluence, justice is not present. Where justice is not present, the quality of all our lives and communities disappears."

This working for justice and fairness in community is central to their work. When elections happen, ISARC asks questions of all our political parties.

"We are perplexed that the Opposition parties were able to support an austerity budget in 2012, yet were unwilling to support a progressive budget in 2014 that raised social assistance rates, indexed the minimum wage, increased the Ontario Child Benefit, provided affordable housing funds, and raised wages for many low-income workers," says the Rev. Susan Eagle, the coalition’s Chair. "We challenge both Opposition parties to tell us, the people of Ontario, what exactly they oppose in the 2014 budget and how they plan to reduce poverty."

ISARC suggests that we ask candidates in this election a series of questions and consider the answers carefully.

The questions are:

Does your party support raising the minimum wage above the poverty line? A minimum wage of $14/hour would lift full-time workers 10% above that line.

Will your party raise social assistance rates for single individuals on Ontario Works by $100 per month? Will your party increase rates by 5% for other social assistance recipients?

Emergency dental care for low-income adults costs Ontarians $30 million a year. Will your party provide preventive dental care for low-income adults?

Will your party match federal funding for new affordable housing? Will your party invest in the Community Homelessness Prevention Initiative?

Will your party support indexation of the Ontario Child Benefit to help low-income families?

Will your party raise taxes on affluent Ontarians and corporations to provide the revenue needed for these and other measures to help low-income Ontarians?

The response from all political parties has so far been a deafening silence.


All the political parties are trying to solicit votes based on what they think voters want.

But what about the rest of the people?

What about people in precarious work or working two or three jobs?

What about people on social assistance because of disability who have seen their entitlements frozen for years, eroded by inflation, with no chance to get ahead, much less keep their heads above water.

People in this province and our community are struggling, not because they don’t have a job, but because the job they have doesn’t pay a living wage.

People are struggling, not because they don’t have a place to live, but because they don’t have a safe and affordable place to live.

Children are hurting because they don’t have enough to eat; not because their mother or father made bad choices but because there simply isn’t enough in their home.

Ask election candidates what they intend to do to bring justice to our communities so that people can have safe homes, food to eat and a reasonable life.

It’s the least we can do.

Rev. David Shearman is the minister of Central Westside United Church, Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County, Cable 53.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Questions for Candidates

It is somewhat of a truism that religion and politics aren’t supposed to mix. Yet churches participate in many aspects of the civil society we call Ontario and Canada.
We do not have a perceived doctrine of separation of church and state, as it is understood in the United States. Church and state have often been partners in the building of common society, and in the case of residential schools, partners in atrocity.
Recently a group of people who belong to the United Church, who form a community together called Common Life community, developed some questions for candidates in our provincial election.
  Common Life communities are groups of Christians who covenant together ro engage in faith actions such as the study of scripture, prayer, to learn, to pray, to give and receive spiritual direction and growth and to act for justice.
There are about one hundred Christians engaged in Common Life communities across Canada.
The questions which Common Life communities are asking in the current Ontario elections are not the kind of questions politicians are used to answering. At one point, long before the election was called, the questions were put to a member of cabinet. That politician responded that in all their years of campaigning they had never been asked any of these questions.
I think we have a good opportunity to ask them now, to all our candidates from all political parties, in the midst of a provincial election campaign. That’s why I want to share them with you.
Because the United Church has made a strong commitment to right relations between aboriginal and non-aboriginal peoples, the questions focus on that area of interest. But they could just as easily lead candidates and voters into other areas of conversation.
The five questions are:
How would your government broaden the school curriculum to make mandatory the inclusion of more aboriginal history; the contributions of indigenous peoples, and the history of residential schools from an indigenous perspective?
How does funding for indigenous peoples work in your party's platform?
What is your response to the "Idle No More" movement?
What kind of fair and informed consultation and legislation would your party put in place regarding resource development on First Nations and indigenous lands?
What steps might be taken to address attitudes of racism in provincial policies?
I recognize that these are questions which have particular relevance to our community. We have two First Nations in Grey and Bruce, as well as First Nations peoples who live outside of those communities. But what steps have we taken to address the matters of those communities in our broader public life?  Are our politicians committed to a respectful conversation with First Nations?
I would not expect any politician to give comprehensive or complex answers to any of the questions Common Life has asked. I think answers require research, thought, consideration and care. Just the same things we would expect from any person running for any political office. I’d even accept an “I’ll get back to you on that.” But I would hold that person, if elected, accountable for both a response and action.
If any candidates would care to respond, I’d love to hear from them. I am sure this newspaper would accept candidates’ letters, too. I only hope the questions which Common Life has asked won’t be met by silence.

Rev. David Shearman is the minister of Central Westside United Church, Owen Sound and host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County

Monday, 12 May 2014

New City Transit Proposal Worth Studying

You have to love small town democracy. It’s messy and it’s edgy, but in the end, people are heard and usually the decisions which are made are good ones.

I attended a public meeting last week, which was an excellent example of small town democracy at work. It was a joint meeting of the City of Owen Sound’s Joint Operations Advisory Committee and the Accessibility Advisory Committee, which met to receive and review the consultants report on the three route transit system and to review the proposed buses for the three route system.

You didn’t read about it or hear about it because no media were present. I checked with several media outlets and no one received any announcement of the meeting. I could only find one mention from the city on social media outlet Twitter, posted the day before.

I was there because I was asked to attend by a couple of people concerned with transit and accessibility.

You can read the report in full on the city’s web site, but it is not easy to find. Our city does tend to bury reports several levels deep, making looking for something a bit of a treasure hunt, but it is there.

The key points around the three route system are that it will meet the 30 minute service requirement, will connect almost all areas of the city and will have a common transfer point.

The thirty minute service level is important, but there is only a three minute leeway. Expect delays, especially in winter.

All areas of the city are covered, with one exception. It was pointed out by both the Accessibility Committee and the consultant that the area around Ordinance Park, on 6th Ave East, will see a significant decrease in accessibility to transit. Indeed, Ordinance Park will be more than 400 metres from the route.

A member of the Accessibility Committee said that might as well be forty miles for someone who has a disability and especially in winter.

The really important piece, at least from my perspective, is that there will be a common transfer point somewhere along 3rd Ave East, between 8th and 9th Streets East. If you want a visual reference, think of the block where the Dairy Queen and Central Place are. That’s where some kind of shelter will be.

I wonder about the wisdom of that idea. Yes, I know the city has said it will close the current bus terminal. I know the economics of why, too. But would it not make sense to have buses meet at the current terminal, just a block and a half to the north of the proposed common transfer point? The building is fully accessible, heated and has washrooms. Safe space for transfer is also available.

I am not sure how the business people feel on 3rd Ave. East having a common transfer point out front. There was no indication that anyone had ever consulted them.

The other major part of the afternoon was a consultation around the type of vehicle we need for transit.

The technical pluses and minuses are all in the report. The Accessibility Committee had some helpful comments and questions to the contractor, First Student.

There will be another public meeting, according to the Chair, Councillor Bill Twaddle, to refine the discussion further before making a recommendation to City Council.

Transportation is a huge issue across Grey and Bruce. If you are interested, make sure you watch for the announcement of the next meeting, likely within a couple of weeks. This deserves our attention.

Monday, 5 May 2014

Many face ethical concerns when accepting funds

What do you do if you know that money you receive as a gift is from an ethically questionable source?

When I was studying theology at the United Church’s Emmanuel College, Toronto, I had to face that kind of decision.

Students from the United Church’s Hamilton Conference qualified for bursary assistance from the Emily Lucy Eccles Trust Fund. The fund assisted in paying your tuition, especially in your final year of study.

Part of qualifying was an interview with one of the fund trustees. Having never heard of the fund before, I asked where the money had come from

It seems that it was the entire estate of Mr. Gib Eccles, a Toronto stockbroker, who had died and will everything he had, which was a considerable amount of money, to a United Church congregation, for the purpose of assisting those studying for ministry.

The fund trustee also asked me if it was a problem for me to know that the money had come from brewery, distillery and tobacco stocks, which were considered prime investments in that day.

Knowing the state of my bank account, I said that it did not trouble me, although I could hear the sound of my Methodist forebearers spinning in their graves.

Many churches, charities and non-profits face the same kind of decision today when thinking about applying for grants from the Ontario Trillium Foundation.

Founded in 1982 to disperse the profits of provincial lotteries to the community, The Ontario Trillium Foundation has supported a lot of good work and community development.

But the source of the funds has always been problematic.

As recently as 2009 my own denomination advised congregations seeking funds from it for building restoration or community access and to exercise extreme caution.

In that same time period the government made a huge change in how the Ontario Trillium Foundation was funded.

Instead of acknowledging that the money came from lotteries, the government directed all lottery and gambling proceeds to the general coffers, along with all other tax revenue. The Ontario Trillium Foundation now received grant funding from the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport. That money comes from the general revenue of the province, including sales tax, fuel tax, tobacco and alcohol taxes and profits, as well as lotteries and gaming revenue.

Just as any other government ministry such as health is funded, so is the Ministry and the Ontario Trillium Foundation.

The Ontario Trillium Foundation is no more funded from lottery money than our hospitals, medical care or highways are. There should no be no fear of using money derived from lotteries and gambling if any organization chooses to apply for a Trillium Foundation grant.

If anyone believes that they are touching somehow defiled by lottery money, then I suggest they stop driving on provincial highways or using hospitals and other medical care facilities. The connections are about the same.

While I don’t agree, on principle, with lotteries and gambling, I also recognize that I can not keep myself "pure" from their engagement in our community.

Purity laws really have no purpose other than to differentiate people from the larger society. But when we refuse to apply for grant money because of a fear of becoming impure, then we really do have to take at the impact of our attitude to keep ourselves "pure".

I won’t buy lottery tickets, but if asked, I would not refuse money from the Trillium Foundation. It’s no longer money from gambling and lotteries. It’s another government grant from the big pot we all pay into. And that’s a critical difference.

Rev. David Shearman is the minister of Central Westside United Church, Owen Sound and host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County