"Winter can be harsh, especially for those not prepared, and it has felt long this year, but it is still beautiful."
“Winter can be harsh, especially for those not prepared, and it has felt long this year, but it is still beautiful.”

By: Korie Marshall

The NDP want to raise minimum wage across the country to $15 and the vote in parliament on Sept. 18th was close – 138-124. Tom Mulcair, federal leader of the NDP, says the Conservatives voted against it, “abandoning Canadians who work full time, yet still live below the poverty line.” If elected next term, the NDP is promising to reinstate a federal $15 min wage, saying “We’re facing levels of income inequality not seen since the Great Depression, and too many Canadian families are struggling just to get by.”

Elizabeth May, leader of the federal Green party and MP for Saanich-Gulf Islands, said she was voting for the NDP’s motion, although some have criticized that it would only apply to few hundred federally regulated workers, and that all workers are worth protecting.

She says that income inequality in Canada is rising steadily, and “countless organizations” are making the same urgent argument.

“Inequality is destabilizing, damaging to the whole economy, dangerous, and increasing at an unacceptable rate. Not to mention that it’s fundamentally unjust,” says May.

She says a $15 federal minimum wage will not solve inequality – but it could help, by pressuring provincial governments to raise their minimum wage.

Blogger Trish Hennessy says workers all over the US have been rallying for a $15 minimum wage for over a year, and their federal minimum wage is $7.25 right now – far less than provincial minimum wages in Canada, which sit around $10.25/hour. But she says the debate here in Canada has been stuck in a time warp. The federal minimum wage in Canada was abandoned in 1996, and it’s been up to the provinces to make the legislation.

“Any attempt to increase minimum wage on a steady basis has been overly cautious, muted by a loud and powerful business lobby,” says Hennessy.

She says a living wage was calculated to be $16.60 in Toronto in 2008, and would be higher now. The Living Wage for Families campaign calculates it at $16.90 right now in Prince George, $17.95 in Kamloops, and $15.77 in Williams Lake. (http://www.livingwageforfamilies.ca/about/living-wages-in-bc-canada/ )

Hennessy says this is the beginning of a national conversation about the inadequacy of the current minimum wage, of the discussion about the value of a living wage – one that actually helps a household pay all of its most basic bills, such as housing, transit to work, child care and food. She says it helps set a new tone for the value of decent work in Canada, and the issue of a living minimum wage is vital to any prime minister or premier who cares about income inequality in Canada’s labour market.

But I really wonder which prime minister or premier right now really cares about that.

Harper doesn’t seem to, because the Conservatives voted against it. It seems to me that Christy Clark doesn’t, as she can’t even give the teachers a raise in line with inflation. CBC reported that Canada’s consumer price index rose by 2.1 per cent in August this year, led by higher prices for housing and food. The consumer price index is a measure of inflation, and is often tied to a “cost of living” wage increase – as we saw Valemount Council receive this year. I would argue that most people don’t get a cost-of-living increase. The teachers certainly didn’t, because they haven’t gotten a raise in many years, and are only getting 7.25 per cent over the next five. That is far less than what is considered the average inflation – 2 per cent per year.

And the teachers had a fairly powerful union behind them. Most minimum-wage workers, or those making just slightly more, but still below a living wage, don’t.

Teachers voted 86 per cent to accept the agreement reached with the province two weeks ago, but I think that number belies the difficulty of the choice. There was debate about a “low turnout” for the vote, but it was still higher than the last provincial and federal elections, and I think some people may not have voted because they just couldn’t decide. Many of those that voted yes said it does not feel like a victory, but they were voting yes because it was time to get back to work and get the kids to school, and because they couldn’t see anything better coming from more picketing.

Their fight is not over, and it is our fight. Teachers have been standing up for fair working conditions and for investment in our children’s future. The fight is up to all of us right now, and what kind of a future will it be for some of those kids and families if they can’t earn enough money to live on when they finish school?

I hear people say it is different here in the Robson Valley, that the cost of living is less here. It is certainly less than in Vancouver – but a living wage there is over $20/hour. ¬¬ In Valemount and McBride, we are remote, and that makes things harder for low-income people, not cheaper. We usually can’t save money by buying in bulk here, and there are certain things we have to go out-of-town for. That means we need vehicles (because we all know bus service sucks, even if it might be getting better) and gas. And if we have to go out of town, might as well make it worth our money – go to the big box stores, try to get some deals, and take our community’s economy with us, if only for the day.

Hey, the people with the businesses are doing it too. People with lots of money will say “a penny saved is a penny earned,” or “watch your cents and the dollars will look after themselves.” And they go to the same big-box stores even more often. And they take their money to Alberta and the US to get even better deals.

A minimum wage that you can’t live off is affecting our communities deeply. All the systems we talk about that help communities thrive – community gardens, co-ops, processing facilities for local stuff – they need someone to champion them, someone with time, passion and knowledge. And that is not someone making less than a living wage because they are too busy trying to stay afloat.

I see this divide between employees and the business owners and managers around here – the business owners and managers have a hard time finding people to fill their jobs. Some of them seem to think it’s because local people are lazy, or have no work ethic, or they are somehow scamming the Employment Insurance system. I think it has a lot more to do with other factors, including the fact that minimum wage – and even those wages slightly above, like $12 or $13 – is just not enough to live on.

As Elizabeth May said, predictably, businesses don’t want to raise minimum wage, because it would cost them more. And certainly there would be some sort of ripple effect – stuff would probably become more expensive, and that is one really good reason to tie minimum wage to inflation. If we don’t, then this argument will just come up again and again.

I believe it is time for a bigger conversation about a living wage. The way I see it, teachers helped kick-start it here in BC. It’s up to the rest of us to keep that conversation going, and to really understand what that kind of change might mean. And for those of us who really want our small communities to thrive, it is vitally important.