There are similarities between the UK government’s attitude towards the poor and that in Canada. So said AJ, an active member of Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP), on a visit to Glasgow and Edinburgh in mid-September.
AJ told me how people in Britain have a tendency to look upon Canada with affection when actually it is an “a***-hole of a country”. Later, at a meeting in Edinburgh’s Drill Hall, AJ drew comparisons between the UK and the experience in Ontario.
Back in 1995, the new premier of Ontario encouraged myths of poor people being lazy, fraudulent welfare thieves to justify criminalisation of begging, reduction of benefits by 20% and the removal of caps on rent, leading to increases in poverty.
Since 1990, OCAP has organised assertively against homelessness and hunger, with an approach described as direct action advocacy. In other words, AJ said: “We do what we need to win”. This means a variety of tactics that go beyond protest to actually doing something about poverty.
OCAP organised legal support for tens of thousands of people charged with illegal begging and windscreen washing (panhandling and squeegeeing), preventing jail sentences of up to six months. Another success has been free medical advocacy available at “special diet clinics”, resulting in an increase in government payouts for “special food supplements” from $6 million to $250 million dollars a year.
OCAP has also campaigned against “workfare” (compulsory work for unemployment benefits), picketing organisations such as the YMCA in an attempt to stop them from taking on employees who get paid unemployment benefit instead of wages. This has helped to change the way that workfare is run in Ontario.
Here in Scotland, Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty (ECAP) is concerned that workfare might be brought in by the back door. People are already attending “work experience” as a prerequisite for receiving jobseekers’ allowance and this scheme could easily be expanded.
Inspired by the Ontario group, ECAP organises on a much smaller scale. They offer a non-judgemental advocacy service and have organised occupations to support individuals in debt to landlords or the local council, preventing evictions by successfully negotiating repayment plans.
On 13 September, ECAP held a protest outside A4E, one of the private companies that “helps” people into work. A4E has tried to prevent claimants from bringing advocates to interviews, as is their right.
OCAP is firmly committed to a direct action approach. Sometimes trade unions have contributed financially to its operations, showing that campaigners can work together.
This is good to know when it looks like the poor will be paying disproportionately for the banking crisis in the UK