There are almost as many people in Sudbury living in deep poverty, with household incomes of less than $10,000 a year, than there are households earning between $80,000-$99,999, according to 2006 census data on income distribution.
In Greater Sudbury, 4.62 per cent of the population earns less than $10,000 a year, considered deep poverty. Meanwhile, 5.89 per cent and 4.33 per cent of the population earns between $80,000-$89,000 and $90,000-$99,999, respectively.
In contrast, 11 per cent of the population earns $100,000 or more. Across the entire province, 15 per cent of the population earns more than $100,000.
“We have fewer people in Northern Ontario earning in the upper-income classification, which is a little different than the rest of the province, but it's still one of inequality, and it's increasing as more and more people are falling down the scale,” said Janet Gasparini, executive director of the Social Planning Council of Sudbury.
Income inequality was the topic of the day at the first-ever The Rich and the Rest of Us forum on Dec. 8. The forum was designed to set the tone for Canadians to talk about income inequality, the “No. 1 economic story of our time,” said James Clancy, president of the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE).
“Yet, with few exceptions, our politicians and business leaders are either making it worse or ignoring it altogether,” he said.
The forum set the stage for a live and interactive event where those participating discussed the growing gap between high-income earners and all other Canadians.
“Income inequality, we believe, is the most serious problem facing Ontarians, indeed Canadians, today,” he said.
“It continues to grow, and everyone should be concerned about that, whether they are middle income or upper-middle income. When income inequality increases, it means a lot more problems for society, including a break down in the social cohesion, the ability for people to work together and get along together.”
Union members packed the Steelworkers Hall for the forum. They were joined via teleconference by more than 2,000 people interested in the topic.
Income inequality is basically the result of 30 years of policy changes that have eroded programs like Ontario Works, said Gasparini.
“Twenty years ago, a person on social assistance could go back to school and be supported as they turned their lives around,” she said.
"As a country, we decided we would build an equitable economy and we put in place programs to support people. These are things that, in my father's time, we did to make sure everyone had a good start. But we've stopped doing that slowly and surely over the past 30 years, and now we're feeling the effects of it.”
While there are still some opportunities, they are very limited, and when people are left with so little money for necessities like rent and food, it's difficult for them to think about rebuilding a future when they are hungry and worrying about paying rent, she said.
If they have this kind of turnout in 10 communities across the province, we'd have a 250,000-person movement in no time.
executive director of the Social Planning Council of Sudbury
“It has left a lot of people more desperate.”
Likewise, Clancy said making changes to such programs only results in greater income inequality. Public services like Ontario Works are what give people “a shot in life,” he said.
“It doesn't guarantee an outcome, but it certainly gives them a chance.”
Meanwhile, corporations are making big profits and enjoying corporate tax cuts, but they aren't sharing the wealth, Gasparini said.
There are three areas the Rich and the Rest of Us campaign needs to be centred on, Clancy said.
The first is the attack on labour rights over the past 30 years; the second is to look at developing a modern industrial strategy for Canada; the third is that, without tax fairness, the government can't provide quality public services.
Generations ago, there used to be elections and debates over what Canada should be manufacturing, he said. Successful economies make things, but Canada doesn't make anything, despite the country being blessed with natural resources.
“Surely we can figure out a strategy whereby we harvest those resources in a responsible way while ensuring there are good jobs created here before those resources are shipped offshore,” he said. “Our governments need to stand up and discuss such a strategy with all Canadians, but that discussion is no longer taking place in this country.”
Canadians no longer have confidence in the tax system, he said. Many believe that it doesn't treat everyone fairly. He said it's a “corrosive” situation, because it eats away at people's trust in both the government and taxation.
The Rich and the Rest of Us campaign is calling for a Royal Commission into Canada's tax system, to determine who pays what, why and whether the system favours some over others, Clancy said.
The turnout for the forum is encouraging, said both Gasparini and Clancy.
“If they have this kind of turnout in 10 communities across the province, we'd have a 250,000-person movement in no time,” she said. “I think people are ready. We're fed up, and we understand the inequity.
“We all know there will always be a system where there will be people with more money and people with less money, but it doesn't have to be like this. There are many countries around the world where the system is much more equitable.”
There is an interest, it seems, to carry forward this conversation, Clancy said. He expects similar forums to take place in other communities, the next one likely taking place in northwestern Ontario.
“We wanted to see how it would work and whether there was any interest, and from tonight's result, it seems like there is a huge amount of interest,” he said. “I'm not sure we have all the answers, but based on history and what we've been studying, we think we have some of the answers and we want to engage Canadians in this discussion.”