For many marginalized Canadians, the former provincial and federal politician will be associated with neglect and lost opportunities.
When former federal finance minister Jim Flaherty died suddenly last week, his stunned colleagues and many political observers reacted with sadness but also with high praise. Those who had known and worked with Flaherty, even as political opponents, remembered him as an effective, personable, loyal, and dedicated public servant.
Many others, though, remember the legacy of a man whose administrations—the Mike Harris government in Ontario, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s federal Conservatives—made a point of accommodating certain Canadians while leaving others behind. The soaring tributes to Flaherty simply don’t ring true for many, particularly those who experienced poverty and marginalization during his 20 years of governance. Flaherty often espoused the view that those struggling to survive in Ontario and across Canada had only themselves to blame.
After Mike Harris was elected premier of Ontario in 1995, he cut welfare rates by 21 per cent, froze disability support, and tightened eligibility requirements for social assistance. At the same time, the government eliminated rent controls and stopped building social housing. Rents across the province skyrocketed, shelter use increased dramatically, and many poor Ontarians struggled to survive. Yet Harris and company focused excessive attention on so-called welfare fraud, even though its incidence was extremely low (about 0.1 per cent of cases in 2001–02). The government even pre-emptively mailed warnings to all welfare recipients indicating that their benefits would be cut off if they broke the rules.
Flaherty, who served as finance minister and deputy premier under Harris, characterized cuts affecting marginalized people as necessary, tough choices. “Am I going to say to the people of Ontario that it’s all gloom and doom?” Flaherty asked as he spoke in the legislature in 2001. “No, I’m not, because since 1995, Premier Harris and our team have made the difficult decisions, resulting in lower taxes, resulting in lower inflation, prudent fiscal management and three balanced budgets in a row.”
As federal finance minister, Flaherty and the Harper government restricted Employment Insurance benefits for political gain. Flaherty said surpluses in the EI program meant previous governments had been taking too much money from Canadians. But when the surpluses continued under his watch, Flaherty responded by toughening the eligibility requirements for EI recipients, and again launching investigations into alleged abuses of the system. Payouts declined despite the surplus, and unemployed Canadians who paid into the safety net were increasingly unable to access it.
Many remember Flaherty most for an infamous pledge—made during his 2002 Ontario PC party leadership bid—to force homeless people into hostels and shelters or, if they refused, to send them to jail. “There is nothing compassionate about allowing people to live on the streets,” Flaherty commented at the time. But those critical of the housing and social assistance policies Flaherty had supported found this proposal to be doubly cruel. Homeless advocate Cathy Crowe said the plan amounted to a criminalization of poverty whereby “certain people are made illegal and removed.”
It’s possible Flaherty meant well when he cut housing, raised eligibility for social safety net programs, and mused about jailing the homeless—but that’s beside the point. Flaherty passed on few opportunities to moralize about and scrutinize those in need, to raise the bar for government support on the assumption that too many Canadians seek it in bad faith. This assumption runs contrary to the experience of many Canadians, and for many of them, Flaherty’s legacy has been, and will continue to be, one of neglect and lost opportunities.