Interview with Yonah Martin
Your government takes a lot of criticism from the mainstream media for being supporters of big business, and being less concerned with the plight of homeless Canadians. How do you respond to these criticisms?
This is an unfair criticism. Our government has made larger federal transfers to provinces who in turn are responsible for providing health care, education and housing among other social services to Canadians. This federal provincial partnership is one that is based on the principle that due to distinct regional differences and needs, the provinces are best positioned to deliver such services to the people in need. As for keeping taxes low – not just for businesses but for families – is another principle which I support to foster a positive environment for businesses to thrive in order to keep the economy robust and growing. If businesses are healthy, more people are working and benefiting the broader society.The federal transfers do not specify where money should be spent – the provinces and territories make those decisions, but I am aware that through CMHC and other service providers that work with the homeless, there are very effective programs that specifically address the homelessness, poverty and housing issues. I sit on a Senate Committee which recently undertook a long-term study that allowed us to see best practices in various regions and assess what is being done in one region that could be transportable/transferred to other regions. There are several such best practices in BC which I had the chance to study and assess for its effectiveness. The recommendations were given to the respective Ministers and officials at both the federal and provincial levels for consideration. There is always room for improvement, and the federal government has a role to play.
What is your government’s current policy in regards to homelessness?
As I answered above, the role of the federal government is to ensure federal transfers are made to the provinces in a timely and responsible manner. There are some additional federal funding programs that support specific projects or services that are for tackling homelessness or providing essential services to those who are homeless. I am aware that each region has its own homelessness task force or council that bring together various stakeholders and thought leaders to strategize about how best to tackle homelessness in their region. Again, the role of the federal government is largely ensuring the transfer of federal funding to provinces and territories.
How much money does the Federal Government provide the Provincial Government, in order to address homelessness issues? Has this number increased or decreased over the past few years?
In 2011-12, the Government of British Columbia received $5.3 billion in major transfers – an increase of $731 million since 2005-06. Within that total, the Canada social transfer has also increased over the years ($1.52 billion in 2011-12 to $1.58 billion in 2012-13)
Does the Federal Government take into account that the mild climate of the West Coast attracts a great portion of Canada’s homeless population?
There is an equation that is used to calculate the amount that BC received compared to Alberta or other regions. It would be difficult for the federal government to precisely predict (then adjust) transfer payments based on numbers that aren’t predictable. This would be difficult to monitor and calculate, but this is an interesting question to ask federal officials to factor in.
Is this a factor in the amount of money, we as a Province, receive from the Federal Government? Is there any special consideration given to the fact that the West Coast has a significantly large homeless population due to our climate?
I would guess that it isn’t factored in. I’m not certain, but population and economic status (have-not vs have provinces based on other revenue sources) are used to calculate the federal transfer. As a comparison to BC, in 2011-12, the Government of Alberta received $3.4 billion in major transfers (an increase of $1.2 billion since 2005-06).
Do you think that B.C.’s minimum wage, of $10.25 per hour, should be increased to more accurately reflect the high cost of living on the West Coast, as opposed to the rest of Canada.
On a personal level, I see this debate of higher minimum wages from both sides. As a student or working parent, trying to make ends meet, of course I support higher wages. But for the employer, especially those that have small businesses where their profit margin is very low or minimal, even a small wage increase means their bottom line will be directly impacted. If employers can’t afford to pay the minimum wages, will they hire less people? Will that increase the unemployment rate? I’m not an employer of a small business nor am I a minimum wage earner, so that is why I see both sides of the debate and feel as though both sides are justified in their position.
I understand that you’re a member of the “Social Affairs, Science, and Technology Committee.” What recommendations has your committee made in regards to homelessness in Canada?
“In from the margins” was quite a substantive two-year cross country report that made all sorts of recommendations. An executive summary of the report can be viewed online at http://www.parl.gc.ca/Content/SEN/Committee/402/citi/subsite-dec09/execsum-e.htm . I learned much and realized that across Canada, there are caring staff and volunteers who are doing their best to lift people out of poverty and provide essential services to the most vulnerable of our society. I am humbled by their dedication and love of humanity.
How do you feel that your government’s new mortgage regulations have helped avoid more foreclosures, and thus more homeless Canadians?
I am proud of Canada for many reasons, including the fact that our banking system is the soundest in the world, and that in spite of the world economic turmoil (especially down in the United States), Canada has weathered the economic storm better than any other G8 country. However, as our Prime Minister and other Government officials have said many times, we must still be very vigilant and cautious as our recovery is still tenuous and the world’s economic struggles are still continuing and in many parts of the world, getting worse, not better. The Government must, therefore, continue to be fiscally prudent and act in the best interest of Canadians.
How will the results generated by your committee, in regards to homelessness, be put to practical use in the near future?
The report was sent to the federal and provincial/territorial leaders and officials that oversee homelessness, as well as to all key stakeholders that were interviewed or considered for the study.
Will your committee also be considering the recommendations made in Bill C – 400, a private member’s bill, which aims to secure, adequate, accessible, and affordable housing for low income Canadians? Which features of Bill C-400 are most likely to get traction?
It’s a private member’s bill which is still in the House, so I have not had a chance to examine it at this stage. I am certain it will be robustly debated if it reaches the Senate floor, so I will reserve my comments after I’ve had a chance to study the Bill.
As a resident of B.C., do you feel that enough is being done to support the low income inhabitants of our Province? Where do you think emphasis should be placed over the next 5 years?
As a member of the SAST committee and having had the opportunity to witness several programs and interview leaders of communities that work with the homeless, I am able to say with confidence that we are doing a lot in BC. Is it enough to solve the homelessness issue completely? Not completely, but I know there are passionate individuals, effective organizations and a web of services that are available in BC for the homeless and the disenfranchised of our province. It will be an on-going challenge.
One of the areas that I believe we must focus on is strengthening the mental health services. Many of the homeless suffer from mental health, and mental health can lead to homelessness – the two are inter-connected and must be part of the homelessness strategy.
By Kiana Martin