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Quakers oppose social service cutbacks

The cuts to social services in Canada and the United States are beginning to move Quakers to action. More than 40 Quakers from the United States and Canada shared stories of their social activism in an evening workshop on at Friends General Conference Gathering at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, on July 2.

"We have seen the profits of the five major Canadian chartered banks rise to record heights in 1995," said Frank Showler of Toronto Monthly Meeting in Toronto, Ontario. "At the same time, these banks have reduced their work force by an estimated 28,000 jobs."

The convenor of the workshop was Gordon McClure of Toronto Monthly Meeting, who is also the Co-Clerk of the Gathering's Programme Committee. He said the proposed tax cut by the Conservative Government of Premier Mike Harris of Ontario posed a moral dilemma for him.

"We have a personal problem. What are we going to do with our tax cut? I don't need a tax cut," he said. "My choice on what to do with it will be between giving it to charities (to make up for some of the cuts) or giving it to political action to oppose the spirit of meanness of the cuts."

In Toronto, Quakers have participated in a vigil every Wednesday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. in front of the Ontario Legislature. "One of our signs reads, `The biggest deficit the Harris Government has is a deficit of compassion'." Gordon McClure said, "And the silence of many Ontarians in response to these cuts is evidence of the manufacturing of consent."

"Government finances are not the same as family finances," he said.

American Quakers at the workshop told of the end of affirmative action programs, and the ending of school desegregation in the U.S. as part of the mentality that deficits should be reduced at the expense of the poor.

"The Governor of New York cut education for prisoners," said one woman from Poughkeepsie, New York. "The books were there, the classrooms were there, the professors were there, but there was no funding." The cuts were not only from New York State financing, but a withdrawal by the U.S. Congress of the so-called "Pell Grants", which had allowed prisoners access to college courses. In New York State, all education above Grade 8 was set to be cut.

After negotiation, churches and agencies were allowed to pay for prisoner education as a way for prisoners eager to do so to continue their studies. "Our Meeting gave $1200 for one course at the local prison," she said.

In Ontario, the Government had brought in an Omnibus Bill (dubbed the "Ominous Bill" by its critics) which made 143 changes in laws, and gave Ontario Government Ministers the power to make changes in programs without going to the Legislature.

Frank Showler was one of 10 who were arrested as a result of civil disobedience against the Ontario government's cutbacks.

"We decided to do this on January 15, because that was Martin Luther King's birthday," he said. "Three people had died, frozen to death on the streets of Toronto, and another had committed suicide as a result of the cutbacks," he said. "We went over the barricades (at the Ontario Legislative Assembly Building at Queen's Park in Toronto). We had imitation blood which we poured over the steps, and we read a statement from Martin Luther King that said we have to raise tension, but to be nonviolent in going about it."

"We went over the barricades to get into the Legislature to have a prayer meeting, but the doors were locked. All of us who did so were arrested."

The judge heard the statements of justification made by the demonstrators for their civil disobedience, but has reserved judgment until September, 1996.

Betty Peterson of Halifax Monthly Meeting in Nova Scotia told of economic crisis in her province. "I come from a part of the country where the fisheries have collapsed, and people from Nova Scotia and Newfoundland are fleeing their provinces. The government is charging inshore fishermen astronomical fees just to pull their boat up to the dock."

Betty Peterson told of being part of an occupation of a Canada Employment Center, in an African-Canadian community with the highest unemployment and the lowest income, which was abandoned by the Canadian Government. The occupiers had not been evicted, even after 100 days, because the landlady was in sympathy with their cause.

"The Canadian Labour Congress has had nonviolence training in Halifax," she said, "It's quite remarkable that the labour movement of the country had the insight to train people in ways to avoid violence"

One woman from Pennsylvania told of moving from her comfortable suburban home to center city Philadelphia as a gesture of solidarity with the poor people she worked with.

Margaret Ford of Hamilton Monthly Meeting in Ontario said that she had been back to her native England in recent years and found the situation there troubling.

"England instituted all these policies some years ago, and now it has the weakest economy in Europe, so these policies do not work."

One American Quaker told of a massive protest in Washington, DC, on behalf of American children. "On June 1, in Washington, DC, we had one-quarter million people march for the children of America," she said. The marchers were addressed by Marian Wright Edelman, who called on everyone "to commit ourselves to putting our children first, to building a just America that leaves no child behind, and to ensuring all our children a healthy and safe passage to adulthood."

Members of the workshop were invited to join in the Interfaith Vigil in downtown Hamilton at noon on July 5, during the Gathering, as a show of solidarity with those affected by social service spending cuts.

Peace and Social Concerns Committee, Ottawa Monthly Meeting, Canada - CS, 4 July 1996