Senate committee told to “get out of the way’ by group, provide services to rural poor by second


OTTAWANova Scotians delivered two dramatically different views of how best to tackle rural poverty when they appeared at Senate agriculture committee hearings in Ottawa on Thursday.

The best thing the government can do is “get out of the way,” Charles Cirtwill, acting president of the right-leaning Atlantic Institute of Market Studies, told the senators.

Government must do more, Ishbel Munro, executive director of the left-leaning Coastal Communities Network, told the senators.

As part of its study of rural poverty, the committee will travel to Nova Scotia next week for hearings in Annapolis Royal on Thursday and Debert on Friday.

Mr. Cirtwill told the senators that government’s efforts to help the rural poor, such as employment insurance, welfare and regional development programs, are often counterproductive because they encourage people to stay in unproductive situations. They also consume money that would be better used to help people who really can’t look after themselves.

He said the government should reform EI, as former prime minister Jean Chretien tried but failed to do, do more to help rural communities attract immigrants, set up programs to bring in Mexicans as guest workers and focus education efforts on trades and skills.

Atlantic Canada will soon face a shortage of workers, Mr. Cirtwill said, and that will inevitably be good news for the rural poor, who will have new employment opportunities. The trucking industry, for example, is reaching out to non-traditional sources for workers: women, aboriginals and ethnic minorities.

“A labour shortage is a poor worker’s best friend,” he said.

Liberal Senator Terry Mercer was unsympathetic to Mr. Cirtwill’s arguments.

“I’ll pass because my blood pressure can’t handle it,” he joked as he ended one series of questions.

Ms. Munro called on the government to do more to provide services to help the rural poor. She showed slides of tumbledown wharfs and complained that government has downloaded its responsibilities onto hard-pressed rural residents.

“If we asked people on Highway 401 in Toronto between Jane and Peel to manage their own highway . . . they wouldn’t like it, because that’s how they get to work,” she said. “Well, this is how we get to work, through our wharfs.”

Ms. Munro told stories of grim rural poverty: people living in unheated shacks with no running water, a husband pulling his wife’s tooth because they lacked money for a dentist.

She called on government to increase funding for wharfs and undertake a study of the effects of the “privatization” of the fishery.

Although the presentations of Mr. Cirtwill and Ms. Munro came from different perspectives, Conservative Senator Donald Oliver said, he learned from them both. He said government must do more to help people who can’t work and help those who can to do so.

“There are a number of others who can be taken out of poverty and given an opportunity,” he said.

Mr. Mercer said he liked Ms. Munro’s ideas, but not Mr. Cirtwill’s.

“I think the AIMS approach is certainly off target, if you don’t mind the pun,” he said. “If government got out of the way, we’d only be out of the way for a short time because somebody would have to come in to pick up the bodies.”