Sunday, June 9, 2013

Speaking out against Ontario Works

My curriculum vitae, which I’ve written as a narrative rather than a list of dates and jobs, ends with the words: “I believe people are more important than institutions.” Not a sentence to warm the hearts of employers, but one that is true and belongs in my CV. Anyone wishing to employ my services should know what they’re getting: I don’t take kindly to institutional bullying. I have, or had, a history of standing up for fellow workers. The talented magazine artist named Linda, browbeaten into timid mediocrity; the single mother with a son named Carl required to work long nights and weekends. That sort of thing.

I’ve even compared salaries, especially with female co-workers. I realize that’s cause for being fired, even though freedom of expression is protected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. I don’t like lies, and I don’t like expedient silence. It goes against my nature. It goes against my conscience.

Did you know freedom of conscience is also protected under the Canadian Charter? Probably not. Most Canadians, like most Americans with their Constitution, have no idea what’s really in the Charter. Former Prime Minister Jean Chretien wanted to have the article removed. So, no doubt, would have Mike Harris, former premier of Ontario and instigator of Ontario Works.

My recent yelling match with Claudette Gamache, the OW worker responsible for my file, has left me in a state of fear for the past few days. Anxiety has dogged my every waking hour. I’m uneasy all the time, unable to concentrate on the simplest of tasks. I’ve started doubting myself, even in areas where I know myself to be competent. I dread the ringing of the phone, the arrival of the mailman. I feel threatened, watched, under suspicion. I find myself defending myself to myself in order to shore up a demoralized sense of self-confidence. I feel attacked. I feel powerless.

All this because I dared be honest. Ms. Gamache chose to make my continued eligibility for OW benefits contingent on attending two interviews in widely-spaced locations, one of which meetings was clearly superfluous. So blatant was the duplication that I assumed an error and took steps to correct it. When it turned out to be deliberate, I smelled “jumping through hoops” and said so, adding that I would, of course, attend the interview on the other side of the city if that was what was required.

It wasn’t the right thing to say. I know. Neither is finishing my CV with a perfectly honest statement that, in a better world, would be self-evident.

I cannot help but notice that in this post and in my last, I’ve quite unconsciously repeated the phrase, “It wasn’t the right thing to say.” What would have been the right thing to say? Why, nothing, of course, just submissive, compliant silence. To speak up, to speak out—to speak at all—is to invite reprisals, and everyone receiving OW benefits knows it.

We all live under the fear that at any moment, we'll be called upon to justify our lives, our actions. A caseworker happens upon your file after a period of "inactivity" and calls you in. Sometimes the periods are a few months. Sometimes, they're a few years. The point is, you never know, but when the call comes, you know you're in for a rough ride. You will be interrogated, castigated, made to feel guilty, humiliated, and trivialized. You will know that the only way to ensure the arrival of your next cheque is to bow, scrape, kow-tow, agree to everything, and lie. Yes, lie. No one can live on the $7,000 a year provided by OW. The caseworkers know this, which makes the lying even worse because you're being made to do it as an exercise in power. It is nothing more than sanctioned, institutionalized oppression of a disadvantaged group.

It’s funny how long one can go feeling something without recognizing it for what it is. Depression, for example. Many people suffering depression know they’re feeling helpless, know that joy has vanished from their lives, know they’re not attending to the simplest life-affirming tasks, but never connect the dots. It’s the same thing with op-pression. You can go a very long time knuckling under to it without realizing it’s the reason why you’re fearful all the time, the reason you feel guilty when you've done nothing wrong, the reason you're defensive about things that need no defending. You’re scared because it feels as if at any moment someone’s going to pounce. You’re the Jew in Nazi Germany waiting for the knock on the door, the Alabama sharecropper fearing the arrival of the Night Riders.

For the record, and because I’ve spoken of honesty and conscience, I am not looking for “...whatever work I can find” (Ms. Gamache, verbatim). It is a lie I’ve been coerced to tell. The truth, which I’m afraid to speak lest I be punished, is this:

I have chosen to be on OW (“Welfare”) in order to be of service to others and to contribute, to the world, from my unusual combination of skills. It is an unconventional sacrifice, but not one made out of narcissism or mental illness. Conscience demands it.

I cook and clean and shop for a household of three. I spend long hours nearly every day teaching one of my roommmates to sing (if you read my blog, you know I have a degree in music), affording him an opportunity denied by his Children’s Aid Society group-home upbringing. He doesn’t know his father. His mother drank herself to sleep with a lit cigarette and burned to death. He suffers from ADHD. He was spat out by an insensitive, underfunded public education system. Music is healing him, in a very real way, but teaching the unteachable (no education, ADHD) requires an enormous investment of time. I make it willingly, without thought of remuneration, because I see his self-confidence growing, his anger softening, his ability to trust improving daily. And his voice developing in a “oh my god we've hit a motherlode” kind of way.

Cooking, cleaning, shopping, teaching... These aren’t the activities of a lazy man, which is how OW, in the guise of Ms. Gamache, characterizes me. But let’s add to the list of activities. I’m a writer, and not just of novels. I help friends without jobs, or a penny to spare, prepare their resumes. I write extensively-researched and well-respected tutorials for open-source software, most recently for a music-engraving program called MuseScore. (Open-source software is free, written by volunteer developers. Approximately 2/3 of Internet servers run on open-source software. Android, which powers smart phones and iPads, is also open-source.)

In 2002, I released my own software to the world, a text-processing tool that runs on another piece of open-source software derived from the Unix operating system (you know, the one used at universities and research facilities). It’s over 18,000 lines of commented code with well over a megabyte of documentation and took several years to write. Since then, I have been responsible for maintaining the program, providing support to users from all over the world, dealing with bug reports, and updating my work to reflect current technologies. Last summer alone, I spent over three months reworking the program into what is now one of the best PDF authoring tools available.

Lest you imagine writing open-source software is fun, or merely for the hobbyist, know that it frequently involves 18-hour days, and that non-availability to users is not an option. It is not paid, but it is necessary, demanding work in our networked age. I have the skills to do it, within my specialized field of expertise (typesetting and typography; I am neither a hacker nor a trained programmer), and conscience—a moral life— demands of me that I do it.

I’m also a musician, primarily a composer. With extensive training in classical music, the music I write will never be commercially viable, even when it approaches the popular song form. There are a number of examples of my work on YouTube, fully-realized symphonic scores and arrangements that took months to prepare, from composing the music to professionally engraving the scores to note-by-note rendering of the scores into computer-generated performances. I go to the trouble, again at a huge cost in time, not in the expectation of making money, not to trot out my creative efforts for the vanity of recognition, but because of my need to contribute to the unbroken tradition of classical music. It is one of mankind’s most magnificent accomplishments, but one which is seriously at risk of vanishing in the face of overwhelming commercial and corporate interests. My scores are online so that others can study and learn from them, as well, one hopes, to be moved by them.

So no, I am not “...out there, all day, every day, looking for whatever work I can find.” I’m at home, working hard at what I’m good at. Of course I’d like to get paid. But in the trade-off between giving to the world of one’s talents versus wasting one’s life in meaningless labour, I chose the former. That’s meant a life of poverty, but I’ve embraced it because I’m driven to be productive. I cannot otherwise hold my head up high.

Welfare exists to assist those who, for whatever reason, are in financial need. It is not OW’s place to judge. It is not OW’s place to frighten me into unsuitable labour. It is not their place to sit me down with a “specialist” who has no resources whatsoever to help me find work appropriate to my skills, but rather to acknowledge that paid work in my fields is exceptionally difficult to come by, especially now that I am fifty-six years old. It is not their place to demand an accounting of my “job search”, but rather to trust that, like any normal human being, I'll jump at any suitable opportunity that presents itself.

In terms of the social contract which used to be Canada’s pride, Ontario Works is a thuggish perversion that oppresses and demeans its clients, coercing them into a failing job market by means of threats and intimidation. Those responsible for setting it up and those responsible for its continuance have corrupted the war on poverty into a war on the poor. My case is unusual, I acknowledge, as are my life choices, but my treatment at the hands of OW is not. I am far from unique. As a province, Ontario to be ashamed of itself.

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