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GUEST COLUMN: Atlantic premiers must work on improving region’s economy, reducing poverty

Ryan Cleary has demanded that Mary Shortall, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour, immediately resign.
Mary Shortall, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour.

By Mary Shortall

Media releases tell us that the Atlantic premiers are meeting this week in Charlottetown, P.E.I. We don’t know what’s on their agenda, but we do know there are many issues facing working people in the Atlantic region that bear attention. Topping that list is poverty, housing and the minimum wage.

By all reports, poverty is getting worse in the Atlantic region. Perhaps the premiers might determine that now is the time to set a path to address rising poverty rates, set an Atlantic minimum wage that rapidly moves to $15, bring in universal public child care and Pharmacare programs, and build a low-income housing strategy. All of which we believe will not only help citizens in the Region, but will contribute significantly to a strong economy.

In their recently released annual international report, OXFAM tells us that the combined fortunes of the world’s 26 richest individuals reached $1.4 trillion last year. The same amount, as the total wealth of the 3.8 billion poorest people.

Things are better for the wealthy, as these reports point out year after year, as the income and gender gaps grow wider and wider.

Gender and income inequality creates poverty, which negatively impacts both families, and the overall economy in the Atlantic Region.

Too many Atlantic Canadians are living pay cheque to pay cheque. Too many working families are turning to food banks.

Here in Newfoundland and Labrador (N.L.), over a third of workers earn less than $15 an hour, the majority are women.

N.L. has the highest food bank usage in the country (4.9 per cent), double the Canadian average (2.4 per cent).

One in seven people in NL live in poverty, with just under 15 per cent living in low income housing.

That is almost 80,000 people struggling to buy food, clothing and other necessities, many who we call the working poor.

We have seen how higher wages in Ontario and Alberta, have helped boost those economies, and lift thousands of workers out of poverty.

We also hear lots about red tape reduction these days, among the premiers’ discussions - making the Region more competitive by harmonizing laws, policies and regulations. That sounds like a plan – no doubt it can be daunting for businesses operating in four provinces, with four distinct rules.

However, we urge the premiers and bureaucrats, as they deliberate on this issue, to ensure that this does not happen at the expense of workers’ rights or public safety.

We ask governments to ensure the wealthy pay their fair share of taxes, which fund our public services; and to develop policies and strategies that put money into workers’ pockets, thereby strengthening the economy.

An anti-poverty strategy, as well as commitments for quality public services, programs like public child-care, pharmacare, pay equity, and affordable post-secondary education; make a real difference in people’s lives, keep young families living and working in the Atlantic Region, and support new workers and families to settle here.

Governments can be more proactive in their efforts to eradicate poverty.

Newfoundland and Labrador, and Atlantic Canada, needs bold public policy investments in people, families, and children.

Families should not have to choose between paying rent, heat, getting food, or buying the medications they need.

Let’s hope that upon conclusion of these very important discussions, our Premiers will announce some solid plans based on sound economic evidence; that makes our region’s economy strong and competitive, while creating a more equal and fair society for all Atlantic Canadians.

Mary Shortall is the president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour. She writes from St. John’s.

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