Greater Victoria MLAs and MPs have endorsed a plan to help reduce poverty and homelessness in the Capital Region

Politicos aim to place poverty on legislative radar

Victoria-area MPs, MLAs endorse social agency’s poverty reduction strategy

At the Olympic Vista apartments in Saanich, dozens of seniors once at risk of homelessness now live in a comfortable re-purposed building, originally used for the Vancouver Olympic Games.

Multiple levels of government co-operation helped establish this 36-unit site, and it’s in that spirit the Community Social Planning Council launched its campaign to raise the profile of its sweeping poverty reduction plan.

Federal and provincial politicians from across Greater Victoria, 10 in all and all in opposition roles, have pledged their support for the Community Action Plan on Poverty (CAPP), and vowed to press poverty relief initiatives in the B.C. legislature and the House of Commons.

“Residents in our community from all walks of life face affordability challenges. Fourteen per cent here live under the poverty line,” said Rupert Downing, executive director of the Community Social Planning Council. “The 2008-09 economic downturn continues to scar peoples’ lives.”

The CAPP outlines a framework to improve or expand affordable housing, food security, livable incomes and health outcomes for those living in poverty or struggling to get by. CAPP is touted as a non-partisan effort, and the opposition politicians kept rhetoric on low-boil.

Randall Garrison, MP for Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca (NDP), and Elizabeth May, MP for Saanich-Gulf Islands and leader of the Green Party of Canada, both suggested Ottawa could make relatively minor policy changes to improve the lives of the working poor.

Garrison said his party is pressing Ottawa to better regulate interest rates charged by credit card and payday loan companies as a means to help curb low income people caught in a cycle of expensive loans. “This would make a difference at the end of the month for working families,” he said.

May said Canada needs to have a conversation on providing a guaranteed livable income. The financial burden of people being homeless or with limited access to education is far more expensive than improving the social safety net, she said.

“The Conservatives characterize themselves as a fiscally responsible party, they should embrace these policies,” May said.

Andrew Weaver, MLA for Oak Bay-Gordon Head (Green), said there is money to be found for poverty initiatives in the existing tax system, if loopholes are closed. For one, Weaver said corporations and wealthy individuals avoid paying B.C.’s property transfer tax by using bare trusts, while homeowners pay a relatively high fee while purchasing a home.

“The government is losing tens of millions from this. We need to fix the property transfer tax and get funds in a way that is fair,” he said.

Carole James, MLA for Victoria-Beacon Hill (NDP), said her party tried to introduce bills for poverty initiatives three times, only to have them rejected by ruling Liberals.

“We need to make poverty reduction a priority for … all elected officials at all levels,” she said. “We will continue to push this when we go back to the legislature in February.”

As James noted, this could be the year a provincewide poverty reduction plan is adopted by the legislature. The bipartisan Select Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services included the need for a “comprehensive poverty reduction plan” among its 73 budget recommendations for 2014.

The Community Social Planning Council is also seeking endorsements from Don McRae, Minister of Social development and Social Innovation, and Stephanie Cadieux, the Minister of Children and Family Development.

“We are trying to demonstrate there is very broad community support for action on poverty,” Downing said “In B.C., which is traditionally so polarized … can we get all parties to support this in the legislature?”

The CAPP calls for changes to government policy – such as allowing people on disability to earn more extra income before losing benefits – but also seeks individuals to contribute in small ways, such as by donating or volunteering.

The Community Social Planning Council itself is creating financial literacy programs and a fund that supports affordable housing through ethical, local investments.

“The plan tries to be inclusive and it tries to be concrete, so it’s not just talk,” Downing said.  “We’ve tried to come up with innovations to make an impact, and not just wait for government to act.”

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