Canada is one of the world’s richest countries, yet millions of Canadians are poor. We meet three of them, looking at the measures they must take to survive and at the roots of poverty in Canada.
In an apartment in New Westminster, B.C., Lee Down taps his fingers anxiously.
The 58-year-old has a knack for helping people and is employed part-time as a peer support worker, guiding others through their mental health struggles.
But Lee has struggles of his own.
Between employment income and disability assistance payments, he earns around $1,500 monthly, leaving him with only a couple hundred dollars after rent is paid.
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Unsurprisingly, his margins are tight.
He skips breakfast and lunch, eating one meal a day to save what he can.
To cut costs on soap and laundry, showers and changes of underwear are a once-a-week occurrence.
And instead of enjoying nights out, he holes up alone in his apartment, partly due to exhaustion, partly due to necessity.
It may sound over the top, but these are rational calculations for a man living in poverty.
It is not a position Lee ever thought he would be in.
A former management analyst who excelled in his career, he arrived in Vancouver with high hopes to start a new position.
But his job didn’t pan out as expected and other work was tough to find, low-paying, and short-term.
As his bills grew and his savings shrunk, he became desperate and, unable to pay rent in one of the world’s most expensive cities, he headed to a government office to apply for social assistance.
The memory still unnerves him.
“It was an awful experience. The woman at the counter admonished and shamed me, and I went home crying.”
The impact poverty and financial stress have on well-being is devastating, contributing to depression, anxiety and psychosis, and Lee felt the effects.
His physical and mental health declined rapidly while on social assistance. He became ill and entered a major depressive episode, landing him in hospital.
While his condition eventually improved, the impact was long-lasting, leaving him unable to work full-time.
Today, he teeters on the edge of financial survival, constrained by poverty and the conditions imposed on him by a system that barely keeps him afloat.
“It feels like I'm always under scrutiny. Living under tight rules. Being a ward of the state and not having freedom of choice.”
After reflecting on his life, he stares out the window — snow falls heavily and blue Christmas lights glow softly from across the street. As a kid, he loved the holidays, but now they make him feel ashamed about how little he has to give his loved ones.
His hope is that he will get off the BC Housing waitlist, which he has been on for seven years, and into subsidized housing that will help him cut rent by roughly $700.
But he is not holding his breath.
“It has been so overwhelming for so many years. Who knows if I will make it that long.”
Over in Medicine Hat, Les Landry looks wistfully at a picture of his service dog Annie.
An affable German shepherd, she was his constant companion and best friend until her recent death, but now he is alone — and barely surviving.
The 65-year-old, readily identified by his Grizzly Adams beard and boonie hat, once made a good living doing what he loved: driving trucks across Alberta.
But a hernia took him off the job, and what he thought would be a temporary setback dragged on as his surgery was continually delayed.
And that wasn’t the worst part.
When surgery time finally came, complications left him with major blood pressure issues, seizures, headaches and cognitive impairments that made once-easy tasks impossible to complete.
Les would never drive a truck again, and now relied on AISH — Alberta’s disability assistance program.
Although his AISH income was well below the poverty line, Les was able to make good use of the benefits he received and scraped out a difficult but manageable existence.
But things changed when he turned 65.
While his monthly income remained about the same, as a senior now receiving the Canada Pension Plan, his benefits were cut.
The plan includes specific disability benefits, but only for those under 65.
He no longer receives funding to travel to Lethbridge for treatments to ease his excruciating back pain.
His supplement to care for Annie before her death was cut, and the government no longer funds repairs or batteries for his power wheelchair.
“When you turn 65, you’re no longer a person with a disability; they cut you off just as you need the most help.”
With that layer of support removed, Les either depletes his meagre income trying to pay these expenses on his own, or goes without them.
He is now constantly in pain and struggles to get around.
It is Tuesday and he has not eaten since Sunday — many days he just loses the energy and desire to go on.
He is a strong, tough man who has seen a lot, but his voice starts to shake as he reflects on his life today.
“I feel worthless.
“I am a strong believer that everyone needs a purpose in life, and right now … right now, I have nothing.”
That nothingness, along with his ongoing pain, has driven Les to formally apply for MAID — medical assistance in dying.
And he’s not alone.
Over 10,000 Canadians ended their lives via assisted suicide in 2021. The number of medically assisted suicides has increased every year since they started being recorded in 2016, and has doubled since 2019.
Les is pessimistic about the government’s motivations for the program.
“They specifically target people with disabilities and people in pain. They normalize assisted suicide with a caring name like MAID and do more to help us die than to expand our quality of life.”
He has not become a MAID statistic yet, but who knows how long that will last. With Annie gone, he is empty, and now plays the waiting game.
“I don’t have any hope left. None. I am ready for it.”
Across the country from Lee and Les, in a small town outside Ottawa, Sandra Pritchard sits in the dining room of her boyfriend’s parents, hands on head.
It is sensory hell for her anxiety: clangs, bangs, bright lights, people coming and going.
“This is home for me now.”
The 36-year-old comes from a middle-class family. Her mother was a government employee, her father a small business owner.
In high school, she danced, taught gymnastics and showed talent academically.
But she was battling an anxiety disorder and struggled to hold down work after graduation, going from position to position for over a decade.
She finally reached her limit in 2020, breaking down following an exhausting spell on the job.
Now $733-a-month of income assistance is all she has to live on, and even in a small town, it does not go far.
She cannot afford an apartment, so she bounces between living in a freezing trailer without running water or a bathroom and the dining room of her boyfriend’s parents.
She barely has enough to afford a phone, and even the smallest expense makes her stomach sink.
The medication she needs to control her condition is also far outside her price range, forcing her mother came back from retirement in her late-60s, working at Walmart to can buy medication for her daughter. Sandra feels guilty.
While she is on a waitlist for subsidized mental health services in the community, the wait has lasted years, and she cannot afford the private therapies that could get her back on track.
As she holds out for much-needed support, she passes the days trying to get better with the means available to her — reading all she can online about mindfulness and relaxation — and thinking of what could have been.
“I love books, learning and science. If I wasn't constantly struggling with poverty, I could be a researcher or writer or any number of highly educated skilled professions, but I cannot afford to thrive.
“I can barely afford to survive, either. Soon, I may not even be able to afford that.”
So what’s the problem?
Lee, Les, and Sandra are just three of the roughly three million Canadians living in poverty.
According to Rowan Burdge of the BC Poverty Reduction Coalition, it is the systems that are to blame, not the people.
“Poverty tends to be stigmatized and framed as individuals making poor choices, but that couldn't be further from the reality.
“Policy decisions and the lack of robust, public and accessible systems of care — such as education, health, access to digital literacy or access to sustainable healthy, culturally appropriate food — all contribute to experiences of poverty.”
As priorities, Burdge identifies major investments in sustainable food systems, affordable child care and greater access to medication and health-care for low-income families.
But there’s one area which stands above the others.
“The lack of accessible and affordable housing has really impacted so many families and communities. Building affordable housing immediately is so important, and is really at the heart of many challenges people are experiencing.”
Emilly Renaud of Canada Without Poverty agrees.
“One of the biggest causes of poverty today is the high costs of housing, particularly rent and lack of community housing supply. Providing people with an adequate and affordable home is an essential first step in providing safety and stability.”
But government has prioritized homeownership, and the creation of affordable rental housing has lagged far behind the need.
As a result, Canada is losing affordable rental units — those available to people making $30,000 yearly or less — much faster than new ones are being built, and wait times for subsidized housing can last nearly a decade.
Wait times for surgery and government services have also increased, as has the cost of food, gas and utilities, meaning people are receiving less timely services, spending more, and getting less in return.
Now, more than half of Canadians are struggling to pay their bills — up 10 points from 2015 — and 53 per cent are within $200 of insolvency.
“Things are getting worse,” Burdge says.
“The cost of living keeps going up, but the rates for income assistance and disability assistance have remained essentially the same. Then you also have environmental events like heat waves and atmospheric rivers disproportionately impacting those in poverty.”
She is calling on governments to raise disability and income assistance to the Market Basket Measure and tie them to inflation, noting that poverty levels temporarily dropped when people received emergency payments at the start of the pandemic.
Until then, the depth of poverty will keep growing worse, she argues, something Les Landry knows about all too well.
“I have nothing left. I’m exhausted, my back is killing me, and I haven’t eaten in days.
“You may think it could never happen to you, but I didn’t plan on this either.”
Spencer van Vloten is a community advocate, nationally published writer, and editor of BCDisability.com. B.C. recently awarded him the Medal of Good Citizenship. The Rick Hansen Foundation, which focuses on issues such as accessibility, named van Vloten the 2022 Difference Maker of the Year.
Shocking stories. We must
Shocking stories. We must keep up the pressure on our politicians to take action on poverty and create more affordable (subsidized) housing now. And since income inequality has steadily increased in Canada, we need a more equitable tax system.
Neoliberalism is destroying
Neoliberalism is destroying our society, impoverishing so many, it is hard to understand. And although this may be a blatant political observation, Neoliberalism is a Conservative goal! Make the rich richer and the profits higher, that is all that counts.
We are no longer citizens, just consumers! Can't consume or take care of yourself, well, try MAID. Even sadder is my father telling me a similar storey way back in 1957. The problem has grown since Reagan and Thatcher declared was on governments, instigated a privatizing plan to make governments and the attitude of taking care of those in need obsolete. Premier Smith in Alberta a declared libertarian. Premier Ford true blue take care of my donors colours now visible. And Pollievre promises to fix everything! Hah, inflation, energy, shortages, the supply chain all beyond federal control. Health care trying to be privatised in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario. Ultra conservative neoliberal governments.