Protesters voiced their anger with recent Ontario provincial budget cuts to social assistance by marching through the streets of Toronto Thursday.
Organized by the Ontario Coalition against Poverty (OCAP), the rally drew hundreds of supporters from a number of community groups.
The protest wound through Toronto’s downtown core kicking off at Allan Gardens and marching to the provincial administrative buildings, with marchers calling for the return of the Special Diet Allowance and an increase in social assistance rates by 40 per cent.
According to John Clarke, head of OCAP, this is the beginning of a wider effort.
“We see the rally as a kick off to an ongoing campaign that we want to build around income adequacy for people on social assistance, said Clarke. “The demands will be restoration of the Special Diet Allowance, but also the raising of social assistance rates.”
People who suffer from specific medical conditions received the Special Diet Allowance so they could purchase food for nutritional or therapeutic reasons. In order to qualify, applicants had to be approved by a doctor. Funding for the program was cut in the recent Ontario budget, unveiled in March.
In Clarke’s opinion, the allowance made a critical difference in people’s lives. “An increase (in the assistance rates) of the magnitude we’re asking for would at least give some possibilities, which (is) what the Special Diet did,” he said.
“It created a situation where people were extremely poor, but at least there was a possibility of having food in the fridge at the end of the month and for rent to be paid.”
According to Charlotte Wilkinson, a spokesperson from the Ministry of Community and Social Services, the program failed to meet the needs of those it served. She also cites an Ontario Auditor General’s report which documented abuses within the system, leading to the government’s decision to cut the allowance.
“Over the past 10 years, the cost of the Special Diet Allowance has ballooned from $6 million to over $200 million,” Wilkinson said.
“The program is not sustainable and is not achieving the intended results. The Auditor General has noted that there has been misuse and it has been found to be discriminatory by the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario,” Wilkinson added.
Michael Hurley, president of the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions, believes removing the allowance will end up costing taxpayers more in the end.
“These are people with frail conditions and vulnerable immune systems,” he said.
“If they are not fed properly and don’t get a lot of money on social assistance they are going to wind up hospitalized and institutionalized. It’s going to end up costing more to society but I also think it’s also a very cruel thing to do.”
People with severe disabilities will be hardest hit by the loss of the allowance. Wilkinson says the provincial government has responded to these concerns by promising to introduce a new nutritional supplement program that will be implemented over the next several months.
Ann Abbott, who suffers from Cerebral Palsy, was receiving the full $250 of the allowance each month and even with that said she still barely gets by on what she receives from the Ontario Disability Assistance Program (ODSP).
“I feel humiliated, like they don’t care if we starve or have to leave our homes, and it’s not fair,” she said. “They bailed out big corporations so why not help the people who really need it?”