Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Bartolucci's Office Occupied

Earlier today, eighteen members and supporters of Sudbury's Hunger Clinic Organizing Committee occupied the constituency office of Rick Bartolucci, Ontario Minister of Northern Development. The group was demanding that he speak up in cabinet against proposed social assistance rule changes which would make it harder for people whose health is being affected by inadequate welfare rates to get the money they need. These rule changes could be enacted as early as today, though probably won't be made for at least another couple of weeks.

Here is the text of the media release for the event (largely written by me):

Bartolucci must help hungry people eat and not stand by as his government takes food out of their mouths.

October 19, 2005 -- Rick Bartolucci nees to decide: Will he help hungry people eat or will he stand by as his government takes food out of their mouths? The people of Sudbury need him to use his voice in cabinet to defend the Special Dietary Supplement provision of Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program, and make sure every single recipient gets the money they need to eat well and stay healthy.

Social assistance rates in Ontario are too low for people to live healthy lives. According to the Sudbury Board of Health, the cost of nutritious food for a family of four in Sudbury has shot up by 8.3% since 2004. In a recent Toronto Star editorial, Michael Oliphant, direct of research at the Daily Bread Food Bank in Toronto, was quoted as saying, "There is absolutely no question that people can't buy nutritious foods living on social assistance or if they are among the working poor."

If you can't eat well, you can't be healthy. This is common sense, and there is lots of medical research that backs up the fact that chronic poverty and food insecurity are harmful to your health.

The Special Dietary Supplement is based on providing extra income to recipients who have medical reasons for needing to improve their diet. Given the inadequacy of social assistance rates, everyone on OW or ODSP has valid reasons for receiving this money, and it is on this basis that the Ontario Common Front (OCF), including the Hunger Clinic Organizing Committee here in Sudbury, has been trying to sign up as many people as possible for the Supplement and get much needed food money directly into people's hands.

This has only been possible because more and more medical professionals are also recognizing and acting on this connection between chronic poverty and poor health. The Sudbury Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Penny Sutcliffe, recently co-signed a letter to the provincial government which argues, "As poverty is one of the strongest risk factors for serious illness, it constitutes a legitimate, and preventable, 'medical condition', justifying the prescription of the full supplement to every person on social assistance."

The campaign by the OCF has been endorsed by the Toronto Board of Health and many medical professionals across the province, as well as organizations like the Daily Bread Food Bank in Toronto, the Canadian Auto Workers, and the Social Planning Council and United Way in Peterborough.

But now the provincial government is set to take away the only hope that thousands of families have for being able to afford a healthy diet, by changing how the Supplement works. Under the new rules, medical need as decided by a qualified medical professional will no longer be enough. Instead, provincial bureaucrats will decide in advance what kinds of medical needs deserve to get met and what kinds will be ignored -- in other words, which people deserve a chance to eat healthy, and which people will have to continue living with lack of access to the amount and kinds of food they really need.

The Hunger Clinic Organizing Committee calls on Rick Bartolucci to stand up in public and in cabinet and demand the Special Dietary Supplement rules stay unchanged and that the Supplement be awarded to everyone on social assistance.

For more information about this campaign and about the Hunger Clinic Organizing Committee call XXX XXXXX at YYY-ZZZZ. We will also be holding a clinic to sign people up for the Supplement in Sudbury in the next few weeks.

L (age 26 months) and I attended the event, but until the last few minutes we were there we waited out on the street -- I kept watch for the arrival of police (who never came) and L pointed out passing trucks and trains. Both of us enjoyed some yummy rice cakes.

Inside, from what I understand, a statement very like the media release was read by an HCOC activist who is on Ontario Works and has been screwed around by the bureaucracy with respect to getting the level of Supplement a medical professional decided she needed to stay healthy. We successfully sought that our demands be personally received by Bartolucci. Statements were also made by representatives of Mine Mill/CAW Local 598 (this local has donated funds to support HCOC, and the CAW is supporting the campaign at the provincial level) and of the Students' General Association of Laurentian University.

Media presence included the local CTV television station, both English and French language CBC radio, the Laurentian student paper, and the Sudbury Star. We'll wait and see what the coverage looks like.

L and I left after the occupation had lasted close to an hour, and the event was winding down. Most participants were still in the office at this point, so it is possible that there have been further developments since then. I will post links to any published media accounts or action reports by other participants.

Other OCF groups have also been taking action around this issue -- on Monday, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty occupied the ministerial offices of Sandra Pupatello, the minister responsible for overseeing social assistance, and yesterday there was an action in Belleville.

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