When Mike Harris became premier of Ontario in 1995, everything changed. It was one of the first attempts at neoconservatism in the country and a province was blind-sided. Because instead of addressing social issues they scorned them, and instead of fighting poverty, they fought the impoverished. Poor bashing became a spectator sport.
There was no longer a social welfare state but a corporate welfare state, and it became clear that unless you were already very rich, this government had nothing for you but contempt.
Riot police were a normal scene around Queens Park, and were used vigorously to stifle dissent. But friends of Mike Harris needn't worry, because they had Julian Fantino in their corner, and he could fix anything. Allegedly, with his own version of the game show The Price is Right.
Given the new change in direction, and with the Common Sense Revolution drafted by Republican strategist Mike Murphy, it came as no surprise that Harris chose a corporate lobbyist to 'clean up' our social services.
And that corporate lobbyist would prove to be the most hyperpartisan politician the province had ever seen. His name: John Baird. And he was ruthless. He cut thousands off assistance and reduced benefits by 42%. All without notice.
But a multinational corporation got very rich off John. In his attempt to privatize social services, he paid them four to one what it would have cost to keep the civil servants he laid off. And while another Harris henchman, Tony Clement, earned the nickname "two-tier Tony" for trying to privatize our healthcare, John Baird became known as 'Enron John'.
When it was reported that many Ontario seniors had been eating catfood, the Harris government produced a meal plan of tuna and beans. And when Mike Harris was asked about the unprecedented need for foodbanks, he callously replied that the foodbanks were good and that he and his wife had just dropped off a bag of groceries.
Can you imagine the premier of a province suggesting that he had done his part to reduce poverty by dropping off a bag of groceries?
When it was brought to their attention that homelessness was also increasing at an alarming rate, another Harris boy, Jim Flaherty, came up with a solution. He would just throw them all in jail, as if being poor was a crime.
But there was something else happening In Ontario during those years, which is unthinkable in a developed country. There was a large segment of the population living in fear. Fear of speaking out against a government who had the ability to cut off their livelihood, or have them beaten for their efforts.
And human rights abuses became so bad that an interfaith group assisting the poor, was forced to adopt the United Nations Human Rapporteur" model, to conduct their investigations, and get help to those who needed it the most. This was a special mandate under the UN Commission on Human Rights, that allowed for "secret" interviews, for those suffering the effects of inhumane actions.
There is a new book, Persistent Poverty: Voices From the Margins, that speaks of those days in Ontario.
Back in 1998 the atmosphere in Ontario had been so poisoned by poor-bashing and punitive attitudes that many people were afraid to speak up at public hearings. In 2003 ISARC [Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition] decided that all future audits would use the "United Nations Human Rapporteur" model.' This is a model used in oppressive countries, with hearings generally held only in places in which people are accustomed to gather. The news media are not invited; governments are not notified. UN rapporteurs listen to participants' words and submit written reports. The process ensures safety, confidentiality, and truthfulness. (1)"A model used in oppressive countries" was having to be used in the largest province in Canada, so that human rights abuses could be heard.
With those same key players now planted in the federal government, and an even more callous and vindictive leader, we are all starting to feel the effects of oppression. The G-20 in Toronto was a perfect example of what happens to people who oppose the decisions made by the Harper regime.
And when a senate committee produced a report on how to address poverty, Stephen Harper barely gave it a glance before throwing it in the trash. But when one of the 'victims' of his corporate welfare state needs help, he's there with our cheque book.
And just as with Harris, people are terrified of speaking out. We saw this with KAIROS, another interfaith social justice group, who had their funding removed for speaking out against government policy. Public servants work in an atmosphere of distrust, and as one of them said, 'welcome to Harper's world'. But only on the promise of anonymity.
Do we need to create a "Human Rapporteur" model to address concerns of the victims of the corporate welfare state's economic meltdown? Those who would challenge the 'rosy' jobless figures? Who would describe their lives after losing good paying union jobs and now having to work two at minimum wage, and still not able to survive?
There is an atmosphere in this country now. The fear is palpable, but familiar to those living in Ontario under Mike Harris. And if you look at the roster of Conservative candidates for the next federal election, many have been handpicked by Jim Flaherty, Tony Clement and John Baird.
Heaven help us.
1. Persistent Poverty: Voices From the Margins, by Jamie Swift, Brice Balmer and Mira Dineen, Between the Lines Toronto, 2010, ISBN: 978-1-897071-73-1