Thunder Bay

Activist finds poverty in northern Ontario different from the south

Anti-poverty group Put Food in the Budget tours northwestern Ontario to find out what poverty looks like in the north

Mike Balkwill of Put Food in the Budget finds out what poverty looks like in the northwest

Kathy Campbell, the executive director of a women's shelter in Red Lake, with Mike Balkwill, the provincial organizer of Put Food in the Budget campaign (Supplied photo)

What does poverty look like in your community?

That's the question Mike Balkwill asked people in Thunder Bay, Atikokan, Fort Frances, Kenora, Dryden, Sioux Lookout, Ignace and Red Lake.

Balkwill is the provincial organizer of Put Food in the Budget, a coalition of Ontarians living in poverty. Its campaign began in Toronto in 2009 to increase social assistance rates in the province. To date it has spread to 30 communities, but none of them north of Sudbury.

Balkwill said that Kathy Campbell, the executive director of a women's shelter in Red Lake, invited him to tour northwestern Ontario. She told him how poverty is different in the north.

On the tour, Balkwill heard from residents that distance is a big factor because travelling to access food increases the cost. "One of the first stories I wrote was discovering that people in Gull Bay pool their money together to rent a taxi once a month to drive to Thunder Bay to do their grocery shopping at a round-trip cost of 900 dollars. That's like someone in Toronto driving to London, Ontario to do their grocery shopping. That's astonishing."

Balkwill said people in Red Lake told him that fresh fruit needs to be eaten the same day it's purchased or else it goes rotten because of the distance the produce must travel.

He said all along the tour people asked him to carry their message to the politicians in southern Ontario, but Balkwill challenged the two Liberal cabinet ministers from Thunder Bay, Bill Mauro and Michael Gravelle, to repeat the tour he did and hear the issues around poverty firsthand.

As a result of his tour Balkwill said he has concluded the government needs to do three things, the first being to look at its own research about food prices. "The government mandates the public health units do research on something they call the nutritious food basket and the Northwestern Health Unit has the highest costs in Ontario but they don't pay attention to their own research. So they should raise (social assistance) rates to a level based on their own research which means that people could afford healthy food, in other words put food in the budget."

A second issue needing attention, Balkwill said, involves housing. He said people need more money for shelter, and that this is particularly true for women leaving violent partners.

Finally, Balkwill said,  he learned something new on his trip to northwestern Ontario about racism and poverty for First Nations peoples. "In every community people said racism is just below the surface, (in) some communities it's right out in the open, and I think again Bill Mauro and Michael Gravelle should start a public conversation about racism towards Aboriginal people as a systemic factor of poverty and bring it out from under the table."

Balkwill said four communities in the northwest agreed to be part of the Put Food in the Budget campaign.