Commentary  Building a stronger social safety net

Last Saturday, a coalition of 138 Canadian activist groups – known as le Front d’action populaire en réaménagement urbain (FRAPRU) – held a demonstration in Montreal demanding increased government investment in social housing.

Despite the over 100,000 social housing units in Quebec, 160,000 people in Quebec still have serious housing needs, according to FRAPRU, and they predict these needs will only swell in coming years if the underfunding of public housing is not addressed. Low income housing comprises the majority of social housing units in Quebec, and many buildings are in need of maintenance and renovation after decades of neglect.

It also appears that the necessary funding to repair crumbling units and fill in for receding federal funding will not be coming from the provincial government. For years, FRAPRU have asked the government to fund the construction of 50,000 new units over five years, but the provincial government has yet to fulfill this request.

A 2007 UN Special Report on Adequate Housing revealed that Canada has one of the smallest social housing sectors among developed countries. The provincial government is not only failing to maintain an inadequate program, it is cutting deeper into a vital lifeline for hundreds of thousands of Quebeckers.

A shortfall in funding for public housing is but one of a series of recent provincial budget cuts that threaten the social safety net that has supported Quebeckers for decades. In September Premier Jean Charest’s Liberal government announced plans to cut $800 million in spending in order to eliminate its deficit by 2014. Since March, the government has cut $466 million in health care. The education sector has already seen $110 million in cuts, with a further $180 million expected by next March.

Quebec is facing a severe fiscal deficit, but the programs that support the least fortunate among us should not be the first to get cut. These cuts threaten the basic needs of hundreds of thousands of Quebeckers.

As members of the Montreal community, we should speak out in defense of these fundamental rights and pressure the government to seek alternates means of eliminating its deficit. This Saturday thousands of people will join similar demonstrations around the world for the Occupy Montreal rally in Victoria Square, many protesting the provincial government’s severe austerity measures. If you care about government cuts to already insufficient social services, join them, and help turn around an alarming trend in the government’s abandonment of its constituents.