May 31, 1996 Halifax Herald

Politicians' lack of foresight ripped holes in safety net

During the Great Depression, because of the depth of human suffering caused by mass unemployment, the need for an effective social safety-net became starkly apparent. Thus, the visionaries of that day promoted the establishment of a safety net which would have the capability of providing impoverished citizens with basic services: housing, food, clothing, health care, etc.

From this noble sentiment sprang such basic programs as old age security, unemployment insurance, family allowances, health services, and so on. But from day one, the net's creators laid the groundwork for undermining its intended purpose by building universality into it. Thus, millionaires and other well off individuals were eligible to collect old age pensions, UI benefits, etc. This was absurd, because the idea behind the movement in the first place was to help people who were downtrodden and impoverished, not to provide social welfare to the well-off.

But even with this absurdity attached to them, these programs were affordable when first established. Then, in the 1960s, the latent seeds for endangering the basic safety net were fertilized. Political parties began to use enhancing the net as a means to secure re-election, or election. Thus, condescending, patronizing paternalism began to undermine the system with a vengeance.

With paternalism propelling the ambitions of political parties, costly frills were added to basic programs; and new, unneeded programs were added, which provided the need by governments to raise taxes ever higher and higher. And, coupled with tax hikes, governments began to mortgage the future of our children, and our children's children, by recklessly borrowing to try to sustain the unsustainable level of paternalistic socialism they had introduced into society. This vicious circle of spending the future by power hungry governments continued unabated throughout the 1960s, 70s, and most of the 80s, cumulating with credit agencies threatening to lower the boom in the late 1980s and 1990s.

At which time, many "innocent" members of political parties began to make comments such as: "if Canadians weren't so demanding in wanting new programs, we wouldn't be in the financial mess were in." This is where I get enraged. As sure as God has made little green apples, there is very little truth in such allegations. The true fact, when distributing blame, is this: As with the case of First Nations Peoples, Canadians did not demand paternalism. It was imposed as a means to satisfy the electoral and other ambitions of politicians, and nothing else. It is, therefore, the epitome of arrogance and hypocrisy for politicians to blame their victims.

Now, because of this careless disregard by politicians for the long term welfare of Canadians, Canada and the provinces are so indebted that if we were to experience a severe and long-term economic downturn, both levels of government would be hard-pressed to respond effectively to a crisis such a situation would create.

You might be curious to know why I feel so strongly about this issue. Its simple, human compassion. I, and most other "Registered Indians" of my age, don't have to visit the streets of Calcutta to know what third world poverty is all about; we have, in our youths, experienced it within this country. Residing in shacks and going several days without food, or barely enough, wasn't that unusual. Based upon my personal experiences with hunger and poverty, I would advise that this condition is something to be avoided with diligence, not inadvertently embraced by the lack of foresight.

I'll use this well-remembered personal experience with hunger to emphasize my point: It was late August of 1944 or 45. We had been without meat for several days, subsisting mainly on potatoes and a few other vegetables, when Dad said to Mom that he would go deer-jacking that night to try to get some meat. With an ancient shotgun and a weak flashlight in hand, he and I set off at dusk for an apple orchard on an old abandoned farm. When we arrived, because of the limited range of his shotgun, we set our blind as near to the apple orchard as possible. Then, after laying in wait for several uncomfortable hours, a deer finally appeared. When conditions were optimum, Dad downed it. With anticipation of having a decent meal, we went to dress the deer. We found, to heart-breaking disappointment, that someone had previously wounded the animal and it wasn't fit to eat!

I don't relish the thought of ever seeing a return to a stage where downtrodden citizens are forced to suffer the poverty we once knew. But if we don't force our politicians to put away forever the condescending, patronizing paternalism which has endangered our basic safety net and, in its place, give us accountable, responsible government, we may very well see it again. And, fittingly, besides us innocent bystanders, those who will suffer equally if such a situation should occur are the politicians who created the mess!

Daniel N. Paul


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