Austerity is a Fiction

  • Seán Amir Hayes’s parents (second from left and first from right) lost their jobs at the Ontario Welcome House during the Common Sense Revolution. Here they are photographed during a workers’ strike. Courtesy of Seán Amir Hayes

We are told that we are living in tough times.

Times that require governments to be responsible stewards and make difficult choices. Cuts to our social services are absolutely necessary, they tell us. As the Couillard government here in Quebec announces another round of austerity measures, most recently the slashing of $74 million from this year’s childcare budget, I cannot help but think of a narrative familiar to me. It’s the story of my family that exposes the disingenuous realities of how austerity is sold to us.

1995 marked the beginning of Ontario’s Harris government’s self-styled Common Sense Revolution, targeting almost every form of government spending in order to aggressively eliminate the province’s debt. This slashed welfare benefits, gutted the education system, shut down hospital beds and caused mass layoffs of public-sector employees, including much-needed nurses whom Harris infamously and absurdly referred to as fads, similar to working in a hula-hoop factory.

It’s in the setting of the Thatcherite Common Sense Revolution that my parents were civil-service workers, both aiding immigrants front-line in their settlement in Toronto at the Ontario Welcome House: an organization originally established to assist expelled Asian-Ugandans under Idi Amin’s rule and later expanded to serve all newcomers. They found themselves picketing as a part of the 1996 general public-sector employees strike, a five-week walk-out of 60,000 government employees, unsure of what the future would make of them.

Eventually, the Common Sense Revolution crept up on them. My parents both lost their jobs on the same day. They were sent home pink-slipped, defeated and at a complete loss at how they were going to provide for their two sons, then aged 3 and 9. The middle-class dream they so carefully built for us had been shattered by one man’s determination of common sense.

That day my parents’ livelihoods were jeopardized in the name of austerity. But just as importantly, a valuable and efficient service for Ontario immigrants was shuttered.

The utilitarian language of “reorganization” and “efficiencies” reveals itself as a myth at the expense of essential services.

What ensued across Ontario was the ballooning of school class sizes and the slashing of teacher prep-time which precipitated the largest teacher walk-out in North American history. The privatization of water-quality monitoring resulted in over 2,000 illnesses and seven deaths in what became known as the Walkerton Tragedy.

Welfare rates were reduced by nearly a quarter and continued to fall for the next decade. Rigid restrictions to accessing welfare were put in place, a key factor in the death of Kimberly Rogers, who died eight-months pregnant in 2001. Rogers was unable to pay her student loans back and was placed under house arrest while being given only 18 dollars a month to live on.

Twenty-two hospitals were closed, totalling a loss of 10,000 beds. History allows us to view austerity measures for what they are, in their aggregate form, as attacks on middle and working class people. The Common Sense Revolution dominated Ontario as its defining policy from 1995 to 2002, continuing its assaults on public services one after another.

Austerity will always claim to be efficient, whether in our hospitals, daycares or universities. And time and time again this fiction becomes evident way too late. The utilitarian language of “reorganization” and “efficiencies” reveals itself as a myth at the expense of essential services.

People’s livelihoods shouldn’t be up for debate, especially when we know all too well that austerity isn’t belt-tightening at every level of the economic pyramid as it so claims. The rich are escaping tough times better than ever. We live in a reality where the 86 richest Canadians hold the same wealth as the 11 million poorest.

I don’t want to suffer—or prosper—under the auspices of a society that organizes itself around such gross inequality. It’s true that when we live between a rock and a hard place, trying to lay the foundation for social and economic equity within a capitalist society isn’t easy. But let’s not give up and solidify our apathy towards a cruelly unfair system by letting austerity continue to hold our collective well-being hostage.

Our government, our community, our economy, they all exist in service to each and every one of us, and there’s no need to apologize for such idealism. When we lose sight of these convictions it becomes so easy to internalize and cede to neoliberal austerity measures as fact, rather than the fiction that they really are.

Friends, don’t let anyone tell you that austerity is common sense, because it isn’t. Common sense is an equitable distribution of wealth, services and opportunities. Let’s not let them peddle it to us any other way.

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