Recently, I tabled a study in the Senate from the social affairs committee about social inclusion. We wanted to know how significant poverty, homelessness, a lack of affordable housing and income inequality in Canada have affected our cohesion as a society.
Inclusion and cohesion are vital to the national social fabric. They are vital to the everyday interactions among Canadians. They are vital to our interconnectedness and a shared experience of our nation.
We learned that despite the challenges many communities face, and thanks to our multicultural and integration policies, we have a broad sense of inclusion in Canada. The rising numbers of immigrants who own homes, who take out citizenship and who intermarry point to inclusion.
But everything is not perfect. We have fault lines. We have far too many people living on the margins. This has been made more challenging by rising income inequality in Canada, where 4 per cent of Canadian households control 67 per cent of total wealth, and where middle and low incomes have stagnated or decreased.
We can see this growing divide playing itself out in our urban areas. A report by University of Toronto professor David Hulchanski found that Toronto is now made up of three cities, not one. One part is wealthy; one is a huge area of poverty. And the portion once occupied by the middle class has shrunk from about 66 per cent in 1970 to just 29 per cent in 2005.
This widening gap between the rich and the rest is a looming crisis. A society in which a small group is benefiting unfairly can lead to dissension, increases in crime, loss of participation and isolation.
To deal with exclusion, first and foremost, we need collaboration among the federal government, the provinces and territories, local governments and community organizations. Together, we need to develop goals for social inclusion and cohesion. These goals should be used in the design and evaluation of policies, programs and activities. Then we need to measure them to determine if we are meeting our goals for inclusion.
Our study found that certain groups are far more likely to face exclusion. Recent immigrants, visible minorities, aboriginal people, people with disabilities, seniors, youth and sexual minorities all struggle with exclusion in Canada.
We offered ideas for how better to include these groups. For recent immigrants who are overrepresented in poverty, we need to better prepare immigrants before they arrive to Canada. We also need enhanced efforts to combat racism and other forms of intolerance for both immigrants and visible minorities by developing pan-Canadian educational programs.
In our aboriginal community, access to postsecondary education and training was identified as one of the best opportunities for social and economic inclusion.
For young Canadians, employment remains a big challenge, with 14-per-cent youth unemployment, making it difficult to pay for tuition, pay down debt or afford housing. Once out of school, they often experience underemployment, job insecurity, temp work, and rising costs for food and housing. We need programs to increase labour mobility, and tax incentives for companies that hire and invest in young Canadians.
To help stem income inequality, we recommended a review of the Income Tax Act to ensure progressivity and fairness, and to stimulate job creation.
These are just some of the 39 recommendations our cross-party committee put to the federal government. We hope it listens.
For 146 years we've built this country based on a simple premise, and a higher purpose: That helping our neighbour, looking out for one another and giving everyone a shot at success is the best way to build a society.
It is again time to focus on sharing our prosperity more widely – to make sure we continue on an inclusive path, where everyone feels they have a stake in their community and their country.
Art Eggleton is a former Toronto mayor and member of Parliament, and is currently a Canadian senator. He is deputy chair of the Senate standing committee on social affairs, science and technology.