Is Brad Wall’s Saskatchewan going down Klein’s Alberta path?

PROVINCE by Paul Dechene


The news broke on March 8 that the social services office in North Battleford refused to fund two homeless men so they could stay in a shelter, and instead issued them vouchers for one-way bus tickets to Vancouver. Not exactly the kind of story a reigning provincial party would want to see making national headlines a month before an election.

And for the Saskatchewan Party, which has avoided getting slapped with the “callous conservative” label attached to many of their ideological allies (see: all our federal political coverage during the Harper years), it’s the kind of story that can really tarnish their brand.

Fortunately for Brad Wall and crew, this story looks more like an isolated incident than the tip of an iceberg. Despite considerable coverage across the province and in the national press, no one has uncovered bags full of Greyhound ticket stubs paid for by Saskatchewan taxpayers.

And the story may even be concluding on a happy (-ish) note: the two men, Charles Neil-Curly, 23, and Jeremy Roy, 21, arrived safely in Vancouver. Roy is already receiving medical care for his seizures and significant mental health issues, both men have found shelter at the Union Gospel Mission, and, thanks to all the media attention, have even received job offers from two local businesses.

Meanwhile, Sask-side, Donna Harpauer, who was the province’s social services minister until the election call, issued a statement saying a re-elected Sask Party government would re-evaluate their policies around sending people on social assistance out of province.

All in all, a bus-ticket tempest in a teacup? Maybe.

There was considerable public interest in the story, which seems to suggest a bit of anxiety that under Brad Wall’s leadership our humble Saskatchewan might be turning into big, bad Alberta. Have you noticed all his posturing on the national stage over pipelines and carbon pricing? Sure seems like he’s taking it upon himself to fill the void left by the collapse of the Progressive Conservative Party next door.

And then to get caught out possibly employing the same bus-ticket trick that Ralph Klein’s government used to cut welfare spending in the early nineties? Maybe that was a one-off — or an accident.

But it still looks like somebody’s taking the Alberta policy cosplay a step too far.

It really isn’t something we want to see resurrected here.

Jason Foster, an Athabasca University professor in human resources and labour relations, remembers the bus-ticket policy pretty well. He worked for the Edmonton Social Planning Council at the time, a non-profit that advocates for policies to help low-income and vulnerable populations in the province.*

“It really feels that there’s an element of mean-spiritedness to it,” says Foster. “They had that at the time. The Klein government was rife with this anti-social assistance mentality.

“That was the time when they cut social assistance rates. It really was a war on the poor. It was this, ‘It’s illegitimate to receive provincial government money and not be working’ [perspective]. There was just this ideology of the lazy, no-good welfare bum,” he says.

That Alberta government policy to fund social assistance recipients’ relocation costs ended up slashing the province’s welfare rolls by 23,000 between 1992 and 1993. It also touched off a war of words between Klein and BC’s NDP premier, Mike Harcourt, during which Klein encouraged Albertans to cancel their west-coast vacations by saying, “Don’t go to B.C. They aren’t generous enough to accept our welfare recipients who want to go there.”

The case of Saskatchewan’s Neil-Curly and Roy did inspire one Vancouver city councillor to remark angrily to the media, “They put somebody who clearly has medical issues on a bus and said, good luck to you. That’s inhumane.” But the situation hasn’t yet reached the degree of animosity that grew between Klein and Harcourt 23 years ago.

So maybe we aren’t dumping entire busloads of homeless people on the west coast. Yet.

But that doesn’t mean Saskatchewan is actually serving the needs of our vulnerable populations well.

For instance, as Peter Gilmer of Regina’s Anti-Poverty Network points out, the Saskatchewan Party’s much-ballyhooed Taking Action On Poverty Report proposes almost nothing to help struggling shelters in the province. Instead, it merely touts the things the government already has in place.

“It was our hope that an actual anti-poverty strategy would have a plan to immediately expand social and affordable housing initiatives. You would expect that at times when shelters are in such a crunch, when it’s so hard for them to keep their doors open, that would be something that should be moved on yesterday rather than just in the future,” says Gilmer.

“Really, the Taking Action On Poverty Report from the province — what they’re referring to as Saskatchewan’s poverty reduction strategy — is just a rehashing of what they’ve done and very little of what they will do,” he says.

Overall, Gilmer is less than impressed with the government’s current response to poverty in the province. And the case of Neil-Curly and Roy is emblematic of that impoverished action.

“I guess the concern that we have is it’s an example of really mistreating some of the most vulnerable citizens of the province,” says Gilmer. “This doesn’t make Saskatchewan look good on a national stage. And ultimately, societies are judged by how they treat their most vulnerable citizens and how they make sure the basic needs of citizens are met. And this is an example of how far we have to go to be the society that Saskatchewan people believe we are and that we want to be.”

*HILARIOUS FOOTNOTE And, as it turns out, he also writes Prairie Dog’s Pints columns. Here’s how that happens. I contacted a friend in Alberta saying I was looking for someone, preferably an academic, who worked in social justice issues in the ’90s and might remember details of the Klein government’s social policies. My friend e-mails back, saying Jason Foster would be perfect: not only did he do anti-poverty work in Edmonton in the ’90s but, ha-ha, he might sound familiar because Prairie Dog already runs his columns. That’s how deep the Prairie Dog bench is. Even the freelance beer columnist has a PhD and is actively researching social justice issues.

The Drunk Double Standard

Charles Neil-Curly and Jeremy Roy had been staying at the Lighthouse Shelter in North Battleford, and it turns out that much of that facility’s funding crunch stems from the province dictating stricter enforcement of criteria on who gets funding to stay at the shelter. Last January, Lighthouse received funding for 70 per cent of the people who stayed there. As of this January, Lighthouse only receives funds for about 11 per cent of residents.

That’s obviously a huge difference.

And what are the criteria the Saskatchewan government is so strict about? For one, the province won’t fund shelter stays for aboriginals as, they claim, housing for First Nations is a federal responsibility. And second, intoxicated individuals will also not be funded to stay in shelters.

But why does the province feel free to cut off housing funds to homeless people when they’re intoxicated?

Athabasca University professor Jason Foster suspects it comes down to moralizing.

“If you’re poor, your foibles become the public’s business,” says Foster. “If you’re poor, we get to make moral statements about your lifestyle and the decisions that you make.

“If you have money, well then, it’s nobody’s business,” he says.

Funny you should say that, Jason. Because while social services is busy withholding shelter funding to homeless people due to their drunkenness, a campaigning Brad Wall just this week was defending three Saskatchewan Party candidates with Driving Under the Influence convictions.

The take-away: if you’re not poor, the premier has a duty to protect your right to run for office despite your history of publicly operating a car while intoxicated.

But if you’re poor and drunk? He has no duty to you at all. /Paul Dechene