Report on Alliance Against Poverty's Community Forum on Free Transit

     Report on the AAP Transit Forum of June 3, 2017 (by Richard Walsh, AAP member) 
               The AAP Free-Transit Forum was held on June 3
rd in the accessible church hall of Historic St. Paul’s Lutheran Church on Queen St. So., Kitchener. The purpose was to launch a political strategy to establish free public transit for low-income individuals in Waterloo Region. Approximately 50 people participated in the event beyond AAP members and volunteers.

 After some brief introductory remarks from AAP member Richard Walsh as the event moderator, two speakers set the moral tone for the Forum: AAP member Regan Brussé shared her personal experience as a mother of three in trying to manage transportation for necessities. By way of precedents, she noted at least two Canadian cities have introduced drastically reduced (Calgary) or free public transit (Kingston). Then Joe Mancini of the Working Centre in Kitchener underscored the importance of affordable public transit for all in the Region.

Next, in five groups participants first discussed what they thought of the AAP proposal to make public transit free for low-income people. Each group then elected a member to report to the whole group what their group had discussed before moving to the second issue, namely, their views on what political action should be taken to achieve this goal.

Views on the Proposal for Free Transit

Some participants reported that given the escalating cost of living and the low rates of public assistance, transit costs make it difficult to get out into the community and to “access social amenities.” Many agreed that this is a common experience that worsens individuals’ mental health. Some said the reverse is also true: Affordable transit enhances social inclusion, which makes people feel part of the community.

Others noted that, with many of the social agencies in the region being located outside of core areas, affordable transit is a necessity. In fact, two groups stressed that affordable transit is a human right. As a matter of social justice, other participants added, the Region has already invested billions in the LRT, so it’s only right that everyone, regardless of income, can use it and the buses. In addition, some people noted the environmental benefits of free transit: Increased reliance on public transit that is made much more affordable by reducing or eliminating fares also reduces per capita pollutants and carbon emissions.

Many participants noted the practical benefits to the Region of introducing free public transit. Some said that ultimately the cost of providing the service will decrease for several reasons: [1] Free transit will fill up half empty buses, which are running anyway. [2] It will enable people to access downtown businesses more easily and will reduce traffic congestion by taking cars off the streets. [3] Increased ridership could increase the frequency of transit service.

Some suggested instituting free transit in two steps: free for people living below the poverty line, then free for everyone. Others said a nominal fee for each trip should be charged, because a social stigma would be associated with “free” transit for just one group. Practically, one participant recommended GRT should use fare boxes that receive reloadable transit cards.

Views on What Political Action to Take

In the second discussion, participants addressed what a Political Action Group should do to press for free public transit politically so that everyone trying to survive on low income can access the community. Again, each group elected a member to report to the whole group what their group discussed regarding this second question. Although participants were also asked to consider how willing they were to join such a campaign for free transit, no group addressed this matter. Rather, at the end of the Forum roughly a dozen people, including two AAP members, gathered informally to exchange contact points so they could arrange an initial meeting.

            The groups urged making the struggle for free transit a social movement in cooperation with the bus drivers’ union, anti-poverty groups, faith communities, environmental groups, health and mental health providers and agencies, social service agencies, local businesses, and the general public. Some suggested researching and publicizing what the cost of introducing free transit is against not doing it, identifying the “plusses” and “minuses.” Other participants recommended working on shifting the language used to support the idea of free transit from costs vs. benefits to a moral issue: accessible public transit is a human right, therefore an essential social service. In addition, groups stressed that a campaign for free transit should secure as much support as possible from city and Regional councilors, mayors, and MPPs as well as GRT staff, inasmuch as the Region looks to them for guidance.

            Practically, participants suggested the following actions (organized in progression):

[1] Research and publicize what the cost of introducing free transit is against not doing it, identifying the “plusses” and “minuses.”

[2] Obtain specific information on what other jurisdictions (e.g., Calgary and Kingston) are doing to make transit affordable or free.

 [3] Tell the personal stories of riders directly affected by costly transit in letters-to-editors to socially engage the community and the public in supporting a local campaign for free transit.

[4] Employ social media to also build public support.

[5] Form an alliance with the bus drivers’ union, anti-poverty groups, faith communities, environmental groups, health and mental health providers and agencies, social service agencies, and local businesses to support the campaign.

[6] High school students seeking volunteer placements could serve as campaign advocates.

[7] Target individual Regional councillors with a calling campaign.


             As of this writing [July 7th], the Political Action Group has held one meeting and will launch its campaign in the coming weeks. If you wish to join this group, please notify us and we’ll notify the contact persons to get you involved.

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Mission Statement

Alliance Against Poverty Mission Statement:

We are an alliance of individuals from a variety of economic and social situations who strive to end poverty within our society by:

  • practicing solidarity between those who have enough and those who do not have enough
  • learning from one another through experience, reflection, and action
  • applying direct political pressure to all three levels of government
  • a personal commitment to group values and actions

    Read more: Mission Statement

Speech to Waterloo Regional Council at the 2013 Budget Hearing

Chairman, Councillors, fellow citizens:

Two years ago, when you were a newly re-elected Council, and our Alliance Against Poverty was a relatively new community group, I spoke to you here about the Region’s budget for 2011.

The Alliance Against Poverty, you’ll recall, is a grassroots group that engages in political action for the eradication of poverty.  We do not seek or accept any form of government funding.

At that time we urged you to give priority to improving the lives of the one-in-ten residents of Waterloo Region – approximately 50,000 people – who live below the poverty line.  It was the year the province started uploading the cost of social assistance, which was a boon to this Region of – was it approximately $10 million?  We said to you that an obligation existed to use this new money for the needs of the poorest people – such as supportive housing.

Well, today our faces are more stern.  The same provincial government that gave with one hand has taken away with the other – and you and we and every agency in town are feeling shocked and even betrayed.

I understand that the net loss to Waterloo Region will be about $3.5 million from the capping of the Discretionary Benefits, and about $2 million from the cancellation of the CSUMB  – for a total of $5.5 million.  A huge loss from services that are ESSENTIAL.  Not one of them could afford to be cut – they were less than adequate already.

You people and your staff are wringing your hands, trying to decide: do we cut food hampers or dental care?  How do we keep the number of homeless from going up if we can no longer provide last month’s rent in advance so folks coming out of shelters can get a room or apartment?  These problems should not have been dumped on municipalities, and you have a right to feel helpless and angry.

Now I refuse to parse these benefits, and say let’s keep that one and get rid of this one and see where we can trim another.  They are all necessary, and none of them should be cut.  Whatever we do with our money, the people who lack basic necessities have got to come first.

But I’d like to suggest that we are not at all as helpless as we feel right now.  You as a Regional government are not helpless, and you don’t have to go through this agonizing over detailed benefits.  What you need to do is offer bold leadership.

 You are not helpless politically.  And you are not helpless financially.


 - Has the Region lodged any complaint with Minister Milloy and Premier McGuinty?  I was glad to see in the paper the other day that Mayor Zehr and Berry Vrbanovic in Kitchener are spearheading a call by cities across Canada for federal funds for infrastructure.  Good on them; it’s long overdue.  We can do the same with the province.  The Region of Waterloo should be in the lead.

 - The city of Hamilton, the district of Nippissing, and Chatham-Kent and Lambton Counties, for example, have all sent letters of protest to Ontario leaders.  Why is Waterloo not even in the parade?

 - The people will support you, if you set the case before them.  Especially at the Christmas season.  What do you think would happen if 47 municipalities with one voice demanded that Ontario take back these unjust cuts, and if they all told their people plainly what’s going on?  What might happen?

 - Have you ever even passed a resolution calling on Ontario to RAISE the social assistance rates, so that so many discretionary benefits wouldn’t be sorely needed in the first place?  You are not helpless.

 - There’s still time to convince Ontario to restore these 2 benefits.  We shouldn’t lie down in resignation.  The people will respect you if you show some spine over something that’s so clearly a just cause.

 You are not helpless politically and you are not alone – we are all here.


 - Suppose we do have to adapt to the loss of the CSUMB and the slashing of the Discretionary Benefits.

 - The figures mentioned above seem huge:  a loss of $3.5 million from the Discretionary Benefit and $2 million from the CSUMB – a total loss of $5.5 million.

 - Let’s try looking at this another way.  I believe the Region’s total budget is in the neighbourhood of $1.2 billion a year?  If we scale these numbers down to what’s comprehensible to ordinary people, it’s like saying: I have $1200 in the bank and a thief makes off with my wallet containing $5.50.  I was planning to buy bread and milk on the way home with that $5.50.  And the $1200 is needed to pay bills.  What would I do?  Am I going to stop buying bread and milk?  Of course not.  I’m indignant about the money being taken, but I’ll adjust something else to keep the essentials on the table.  It’s only a CRISIS if you think that all the other budget items are unyielding.

 - There must be other areas where a little can be saved.  2 people around my table at Opportunities Waterloo yesterday mentioned that needless road work had been done on their streets.  Are we holding up every expenditure to the light of the needs of the hungry and homeless?  This has to become central to all of our thinking.  Could some expenditures be spread over more years, for example, so that there’s enough each year to replace the money for the poor that’s been taken away?

 - I also want to return to the money that was saved when Ontario uploaded the cost of the disability program 2 years ago.  [Ask for answers from Councillors.] 
— Was it a gain of approximately $10 million? 
— Is this an ONGOING saving? 
— Most of it hasn’t been spent has it?  Just allocated for Light Rail Transit (LRT)-related costs?  It can be reallocated. 

You must wish you had this money now.  There was an implicit obligation to the people, to use this for poverty reduction.  If you took it away from the poor before, you can give it back to them now.  What if the LRT had to be rolled out over 5 years instead of 4?  Would it be a disaster?
We wouldn’t like it – I wouldn’t like it – but it wouldn’t be a disaster.  Not taking care of the hungry and homeless – that’s a disaster.

- We in the Alliance Against Poverty say, INCREASE funding for social welfare in times of restraint.  This would be bold and innovative.  Maintain the existing programmes and expand them to include bus passes and higher quality food hampers.  Extend dental benefits to the working poor.  Fly in the face of the austerity demon.  You know why?  Not only is the need greater during times of austerity, as we all know – BUT taking care of the base supports all of society.  It saves you on shelters, hospital beds, and policing, we all know this – and it also improves the quality of the whole community.  Businesses don’t want to locate where there’s a lot of homelessness and destitution.   They want consumers who can buy, and people they can hire who have stable lives.  Nothing destabilizes family life and mental health like poverty. 

So invest in the poor – it pays off.  Call it the trickle-up theory.  We’ve tried the trickle-down theory for 25 years, but food banks and church basements are only getting fuller.  It’s time for a bold new approach.

Don’t be helpless and don’t be resigned.  You do have choices.  You can BE more bold politically and join other regions in challenging the province’s policies.  You can be more bold financially and make a firm commitment that the poor come first,  because it helps everybody.

You can show the determination, the innovativeness, and the progressive values that Waterloo Region is known for.  You can be the leaders we elected you to be.

Eleanor Grant,
Alliance Against Poverty


Critique of 2013 Provincial Budget

A BUDGET OF CRUMBS by Eleanor Grant

A few days before Premier Kathleen Wynne's first budget came down, a family tragedy occurred in Ottawa Ontario.  The parents of a severely autistic 19-year-old took their son to a provincial developmental services office and left him there.  Faces covered with tears, they told a CBC reporter that they could no longer care for their son with so little support from the Ontario government.

In response to this story, a Kitchener activist, Cameron Dearlove, started a petition to Social Services Minister Ted McMeekin.  It demands that enough funding be provided to eliminate the years-long waiting lists and to ensure a seamless transition when children with developmental disabilities turn 18. 

But the May 2 budget allocated only a little money, and was vague about how it would be used.  Desperate families will be kept waiting a lot longer.

In similar fashion, backlogged needs across Ontario were severely shortchanged in this budget.  The Ontario Health Coalition points out that hospital funding is being held to a zero per cent increase, which will lead to bed closures in a province that already has the fewest hospital beds per capita in Canada.  Meanwhile not enough new funding is put into home care to take up the slack or even clear the existing waiting lists.

Perhaps most insulting of all, single adults on welfare will be given a top-up of $14 a month.  Every social agency in Ontario has been pleading for years that a $100 a month increase would be a bare minimum for shelter and food.  And even this would be far short of the $300 increase necessary to undo Mike Harris's crushing cuts of 1995.

Not a dollar was promised for affordable housing, even as the number of homeless keeps increasing.  The Region of Waterloo alone has a waiting list of 1500 people in need of supportive housing, the biggest gap in service of all. It took five years of citizen fund-raising and organizing to create one such building to house 30 people. At this rate, most individuals in need of supportive housing will not receive it in their lifetime. 

Meanwhile municipalities have to find new money out of property tax revenue, to replace an emergency housing fund that Ontario cancelled in last year's budget.

And if you were hoping that your minimum wage job would soon start paying more, well you'll have to wait for an "advisory panel" to report later this year, followed no doubt by further dithering.

The "social justice premier" hasn't done much to earn her designation yet!  The best that can be said is that she threw her handful of crumbs in the right directions.

The Ontario Health Coalition said it well:
"Ontario already ranks dead-last in funding all public services, from roads and transit to education, justice and health care. Why? Because we have the lowest corporate taxes and taxes for the wealthy of almost anywhere in North America.

"This budget will see Ontario fall further behind.  The result is a burgeoning array of user fees and out-of-pocket costs for residents. Ontario students already have the highest tuitions in the country and user fees are soaring for everything from parks to roads."

Ms Wynne, if you're still around in a year, you've got to do a helluva lot better than this.  Ontarians are tired of eating crumbs.


The petition on children with developmental disabilities can be signed at:

Should Andrea Horwath press for more changes to the Ont budget?  Such as improvement in minimum wage and welfare rates?
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Statement from OFL on the budget:

Statement from OCAP on the budget: