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A look back

My early ideas on Social Services were shaped by the Devine Tories.  As some of you know, the first campaign I worked on was the 1986 provincial election campaign that saw Grant Devine and the Progressive Conservatives re-elected.  Devine was confronted with a large budget deficit, an extremely effective NDP opposition party, an ongoing drought and low grain prices, declining poll numbers, as well as his own conservative ideology.  With the NDP controlling Regina and most of Saskatoon, the 1986 election split the province between urban and rural voters and Social Services became a wedge issue that was supposed to motivate Tories across the land.

Saskatchewan made some big cuts to Social Services and as Janice MacKinnon later discovered and wrote about, made Social Services into a very politicized department.  I think history will see Grant Devine as a good man who believed in Saskatchewan but was a horrible judge of character in those he appointed.  MacKinnon agreed

imageIn appointing the hyper partisan Grant Schmidt to be Minister of Social Services in his second term, the Progressive Conservatives made no effort in hiding their dislike of the “socialist” Ministry of Social Services.  The Conservatives had a weekly (or monthly… it was long time ago) fundraiser called Tory Tuesdays where a cabinet minister would come to Saskatoon and speak to the (dwindling) party faithful.  I remember listening to Deputy Premier Pat Smith and then Social Services minister Grant Schmidt rail against people on Social Services and the Ministry itself.  Janice MacKinnon quotes him in her book as saying the Ministry of Social Services spent money like a drunken sailor and said that out of “2,200 employees in the department, 1,500 were his political enemies”.  I don’t think it was a stretch to say that the Tories saw Social Services as a ministry that served an urban NDP core constituency where the Tories saw no chance for growth.  By attacking them, they also appealed to their base.

Later I was at a fundraiser for newly appointed Social Services Minister Bill Neudorf.  He joked about while he was excited to be in cabinet, how Social Services was the worst ministry in the province to have to take over in his public comments but at least he was in cabinet.

I never thought too much about it from a philosophical point of view.  Like a lot of you, I believed that Social Services should be for those that really needed the funding and was (and am) disgusted by those who are taking advantage of the system.  Our neighbour growing up was a masterful user of the system and despite being on Social Services had a much higher standard of living then we did.  The fact that she was brazen about her fraud made it a lot worse to take.  At the same time, I had no idea how hard it was on Social Services for those who are unwilling or unable to scam the system and to be honest, I had no reason to look into it.  Growing up in Lawson Heights, crime wasn’t really on anyone’s radar.  I used to walk our dog Misty along Spadina Crescent late at night through River Heights.  It was before there was street lights along the river and it was pitch dark.  Not only did I feel no fear along the walk, neither did any of the people we met.  Actually most of them carried dog treats with them (which is really odd considering who goes out with dog treats on the off chance they meet a pleasant dog while walking along a darkened part of the Meewasin Trail?).  In addition to spoiling my dog, they had no apprehension about chatting with a large college student they met.  Crime and personal safety wasn’t on any of our minds.

As far as homelessness went, my first apartment was a downtown apartment for $250/month.  I am not sure was Social Services was allowing back then but you could find $350/month apartments all over downtown.  When I look back at old documents for the Salvation Army from the 90s, the issue was not too many guys in the dorms at work but there was concerns about too few men in the facility.

When I started to work in the church, social issues were not high on my theological agenda.  The Free Methodist Church has never really engaged in social justice issues in North America, the church I had attended growing up was on the edge of McNabb Park but yet struggled to engage it consistently (although flooding it’s parking lot one winter for a skating rink was a cool idea).  While we touched on issues of poverty in ethics classes in college, it was never a local issue.  Evangelical theology is inherently individualistic and that crossed the line to me to how I saw the world (as many of you have told me over the years, I have libertarian leanings).

The first I was really challenged in this area was by Methodist theologian, Leonard Sweet in his book, A Cup of Coffee at the Soul Cafe when it talked about what it meant for kids to go school hungry.  The amount he quoted in the book was quite a bit less than I had blown at McDonald’s on my way home from work that night and for the first time, issues of poverty started to make some sense to me.  While I still saw it as an individual generosity issue, I started to question it a lot more, even though I wasn’t seeing as a societal issue.

During this time Wendy and I bought our home in Mayfair.  Mayfair was and is a core neighbourhood but like most home owners, I only saw what was happening in our neighbourhood in terms of housing values, not what was going on in the homes that call Mayfair home but even then as I saw a drug dealer selling drugs right on my street corner (the same corner my house is located on), something was going on and it wasn’t all good.

A couple of years later I was in Fullerton, lecturing at Hope International University.  I was flying out of LAX on a Sunday morning and after being trapped in Los Angeles traffic many times over the week, I left really, really early on a Sunday morning without realizing soon that I was the only one on Interstate 5.  I got to the LAX area really early and decided that I had some time to tour Watts.  It was the first time that I started to see neighbourhoods as societal narratives and my first thought was “What the hell is going on here?”.  How does one of the richest cities in the world allow Watts to happen and Watts isn’t even the worst part of Los Angeles.  I came home and started to read about Watts, Skid Row, East Hastings, and other urban areas gone wrong and started to really wonder what was happening, both in Los Angeles and in other large urban settings.  The more I realized that Saskatoon was no longer isolated from that.  Poverty, crime, violence, and life in Saskatoon were a series of interconnected issues that were becoming interconnected with my life.

Around this time I had read Thomas Homer-Dixon’s book, The Ingenuity Gap at my friend’s Karen’s insistence.  While his story is a global one, Homer-Dixon tells a story of interconnected and complex systems that are evolving in a global world.  While Thomas Friedman tells the economic version, Thomas Homer-Dixon adds environmental and complex socio-political factors to the equation.  Each one of these factors require their own specialized experts and the problem is that as the world becomes more connected, the variables overwhelm even the experts which is kind of what is happening in many cities right now.  So a new Super Wal-Mart comes to Saskatoon and increases the number of jobs by 100.  That’s a good thing right?  Well what about job losses and hour cutbacks at Confederation Mall because the anchor store isn’t there?  Well not so good right?  On the other hand there are people who are shopping locally because they can’t get to Wal-Mart on bus.  That’s good for local store owners, except now the consumers have less discretionary income.

As I later took a job at the Salvation Army Community Services in Saskatoon, I saw a complex series of factors manifesting in some pretty horrific behavior.  On my first shift I saw some very young prostitutes shooting themselves up after a night of working on the street, the next day I saw my first dial-a-dope transaction at a nearby flophouse.  A week later as I was walking home, a women started to hit me with a stick on the street as I was “her enemy”.  I was quite happy to see a beat cop as she started to hit him and I kept walking.  I started to question what I was seeing like almost every staff I have later hired.  What causes this behaviour, how do you change it, why can’t more be done?  Yet at the end of the day, I felt like I was working inside The Ingenuity Gap as the contributing interrelated factors overwhelm my (and others) ability to understand them.

As I am writing this, I am up at the lake and last night Wendy and I had coffee at our friends the Rigby’s.  John is on the board here and was talking about the decision to shut down Kinney Memorial Lodge for the winter and whether or not that was a good one.  Without giving a conclusion he mentioned a bunch of factors to consider and it made me chuckle because here you have a pretty simple question, did it make sense to close a retreat centre down when business is slowest (and probably expenses are higher) and even that has all of these variables and factors affecting the decision.  How much more complicated is what is happening to Riversdale, Pleasant, and Mayfair?

Over the next several weeks I am going to try to look at some of these factors in Saskatoon.  I needed a framework to work through this so I am going to use the programs where I work as a starting point to start the discussion and branch off from there.  I welcome your comments and if you don’t want to say anything publically, feel free to e-mail me as I don’t publish any e-mails publically here.

2 Comments

  1. Bert Lang says:

    Isn’t it sad that it is always those least likely to be in need that are empowered to decide for those most likely to be in need?

  2. [...] ago, I planned to write a series of articles on life in the inner city for this blog.  I wrote a background piece to why I care about the topic and I had hoped to publish an article every week or so.  What I [...]

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