In early October, one of our People’s Voice distributors in Toronto asked us for help with his pension. For some reason he’d been cut off and hadn’t received a nickel since August. A recipient of CPP, OAS and GIS, he was poor and the public pension was his only income. To make matters worse, his rent cheque to Toronto Community Housing had bounced, the bank had charged him an NSF fee of $45, and TCHC was demanding the rent. Billy was in a big jam.
When we finally got through to Service Canada’s CPP department, we were told that Billy had been cut off because he hadn’t answered a letter. Incredulous, we pointed out that the pension belonged to Billy. It was deferred wages. It was his, unconditionally. Service Canada had no right to stop the pension, and since he had no other income they had turned his life upside down with the flick of a pen: no food to eat, no groceries, no rent, no transit, no nothing.
Well that’s our policy, the man at Service Canada said. He should have answered the letter. How’s he supposed to do that, we asked: he has no phone, he has no email, and he had no money for envelopes and stamps. And who’s going to fix this mess he’s in, caused by your department’s decision to just cut him off?
We’re not in the habit of paying other people’s bills, he said.
They reinstated Billy’s benefits that day, though it would be two or three days before the funds arrived in the bank. Two days later Billy died on the street. He was in his usual spot on the Danforth selling People’s Voice. He suffered a heart attack, brought on by stress they said. No kidding.
Capitalism kills. Austerity kills.
Justice for Billy means an end to arbitrary cutoffs of pensions and assistance to vulnerable people. It means increasing pensions and incomes to livable levels. It means affordable housing that’s not on the edge of town. It means dignity and respect for human rights, and the enforcement of those economic and social rights. A million seniors in Canada are in the same vulnerable position that Billy was in. Just one cheque away from complete disaster. Billy died on the street; most die at home.
It’s time for the labour and peoples’ movements to demand real action on pensions and incomes now. Pensions need to rise substantially and the age needs to drop. And pensions need to be locked into defined benefit plans like the CPP, not jumped-up RRSP plans that leave people penniless soon after retirement. Governments jump when big corporations make their demands. No more cap in hand – the public must fight to force action on pensions and incomes. And labour must lead.
People’s needs, not corporate greed.