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Food bank usage across Canada hit all-time high, nearly 1.5M visits in March: report



The number of people using food banks across the country surged to an all-time high earlier this year, with high inflation and low social assistance rates cited as key factors in the rise, a new report from Food Banks Canada indicates.

The annual report released Thursday said there were nearly 1.5 million visits to food banks in March, a figure that was 15 percent higher than the number of visits in the same month last year and 35 percent higher than visits in March 2019, before the pandemic hit.

The report, which looked at data from more than 4,750 food banks and community organizations, said the skyrocketing cost of food and housing, as well as high inflation and low social assistance rates, have contributed to the rise in food bank usage.

Kirstin Beardsley, the CEO of Food Banks Canada, called the numbers “devastating.”

“What we are seeing is the combination of long-term effects to a broken social safety net combined with the effects of inflation and high costs driving more people to use food banks than ever before in Canadian history,” she said in a phone interview.

“Behind each one of these numbers is a person who is struggling too much to get by.”

Fixed-income groups like seniors and employed but low-income people such as students have been hit harder because their paycheques can’t keep up with inflation, Beardsley said.

“We have got people like seniors, who have been able to afford to live, suddenly having to turn to the food bank for the first time in their lives because it doesn’t all add up,” Beardsley said.

“And students are the same, often they are on a very limited income, and so when the costs go up, the way we have seen, you just can’t stretch the dollar.”

The report said around 500,000 food bank clients – about one-third – are children, who make up around 20 percent of the country’s total population.

Hunger among children is an issue that can have a lasting impact, Beardsley said.

“This is the future of our country, this is who is going to be our future leaders, scientists, artists,” she said. “When you’re going to school hungry, you’re not learning, you’re not focusing, you’re not setting yourself up to thrive.”

Food Banks Canada said food insecurity is especially dire in Northern Canada, calling for the development of community-based approaches in those areas to address the issue.

Beardsley called the report a “wake-up call” that should trigger moves to tackle food insecurity and the issues that contribute to it.

The report suggests long-term and short-term solutions, including creating a universal minimum income floor for lower-income Canadians and providing more affordable and rent-assisted housing.

It also suggests reforms are needed to employment insurance and the Canada Workers Benefit programs.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 27, 2022.


Sharif Hassan, The Canadian Press


10,000 unionized employees return to work, stores to reopen Tuesday: LCBO



TORONTO – Workers are back on the job today at Ontario’s main liquor retailer, but the Liquor Control Board of Ontario says stores won’t be open for business until Tuesday.

The union representing 10,000 of its workers announced Sunday members had ratified a new deal with the liquor retailer to end a strike that had closed its stores for two weeks.

The ratification came after the deal seemed to be up in the air on Friday.

Both OPSEU and the LCBO had announced a tentative agreement had been reached but the union said the strike would continue after the employer refused to sign a return-to-work protocol.

The retailer said the union had introduced new monetary demands and the employer would file an unfair labour practice complaint.

But the LCBO issued a statement on Saturday saying reopening plans were back underway, and a return-to-work protocol signed by both parties does not include any “new monetary items.”

OPSEU had said they believed Premier Doug Ford’s plan to expand alcohol sales to convenience and grocery stores would threaten union jobs and the public revenue the LCBO provides to the province.

Ford has sped up those plans since the strike began on July 5, allowing grocery stores already licensed to sell beer and wine to also sell ready-to-drink cocktail beverages as of Thursday.

The Canadian Press. All rights reserved.

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Markets bet on second Bank of Canada interest rate cut coming this week



Economists and market watchers are betting the Bank of Canada will deliver another interest rate cut this week amid mounting evidence that inflation issustainably easing.

Expectations that the bank will lower its overnight lending rate when it makes its scheduled announcement Wednesday have been high since last week’s release of the latest Statistics Canada inflation report, which showed annual inflation cooled to 2.7 per cent in June.

The inflation reading was less than the 2.8 per cent that markets had been expecting and has helped to build market confidence that the Bank of Canada may be poised for a second rate cut, on top of the 25-basis-point cut it announced last month.

“I think it’s very likely the Bank of Canada cuts rates again next week. It wouldn’t really make sense from a strategic point of view to only cut rates 25 basis points and then leave them there and see how the economy responds, because that wouldn’t really cause a lot of change in the trajectory of the economy or inflation,” said Royce Mendes, managing director and head of macro strategy at Desjardins.

“So it always made sense that the Bank of Canada was likely going to do at least two rate cuts in a row before pausing. And now recent data has reinforced that view.”

Last month’s interest rate cut, which reduced the central bank’s key rate from five to 4.75 per cent, was the first in more than four years.

In addition to the latest inflation report, Mendes said, recent data showing rising unemployment as well as subdued expectations for growth by Canadian businesses all support the prospect of another cut.

While inflation remains higher than the Bank of Canada’s two per cent target, Mendes said he believes delaying any longer could have negative repercussions.

“The interest rates at the levels they are (currently) are actually very restrictive. You can see it in consumer spending trends. You can see it in the housing market,” Mendes said.

“I would say if (the Bank of Canada) didn’t cut next week, it would signal a much greater willingness to tip the economy into recession, just for the sake of getting inflation down a few tenths of a percentage point more.”

The latest Statistics Canada report on retail sales Friday showed Canadians reined in their spending in May as retail sales dropped 0.8 per cent to $66.1 billion.

Sales were lower in eight of the nine subsectors tracked, the agency said.

“What the Bank of Canada is trying to do is just reduce the amount of restraint it is placing on the economy. It’s not trying to stimulate the economy, it’s just trying to reduce the amount of headwinds it’s providing,” Mendes said, adding a second rate cut could make Canadian consumers begin to feel more confident about spending again.

The most recent data on the Canadian job market shows the economy stalling in June, losing 1,400 jobs while the unemployment rate rose to 6.4 per cent, from 6.2 per cent in May.

The June result was the highest reading for the unemployment rate since January 2022, another indication that raises the odds of the Bank of Canada lowering rates this week.

But while most market watchers believe an interest rate cut will come this week and be followed by additional cuts later in the year, that view is not unanimous.

Clay Jarvis, mortgage and real estate expert for NerdWallet Canada, said this week’s decision could go either way.

“Considering how cautious the bank is, reducing the overnight rate when inflation is still well over two per cent would be fairly uncharacteristic,” Jarvis said in a note.

If the cut does happen, shaving 25 basis points off of variable interest rates is unlikely to be enough to shake up Canada’s housing market significantly, Jarvis added, as buyers grapple with the prospect of higher mortgage payments.

A survey conducted by CPA Canada (an organization which represents professional accountants) and BDO Debt Solutions conducted shortly after the June rate cut found half of Canadians say interest rate hikes have negatively impacted their debt loads, with seven out of 10 saying the June cut had no impact on their financial outlook.

The survey also found 52 per cent of respondents believe continued interest rate cuts won’t go far enough to reduce the financial strain.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 22, 2024.

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A look at one year of strong mayor powers in Ontario



TORONTO – In the year since so-called strong mayor powers were granted to the heads of council in a swath of Ontario municipalities, most mayors have used them sparingly — if at all — though in some corners a sense of unease with the sweeping authority remains.

As of this month, nearly 30 mayors have had the ability for a year or more to propose bylaws and pass them with the support of one-third of councillors, veto bylaws and hire and fire department heads, among other powers.

Premier Doug Ford’s government later doled out the powers to many more mayors, even when they were not interested in receiving them, and Ontario now has a total of 46 strong mayors.

Many of them are in the province’s largest cities, and the chair of the Ontario Big City Mayors group said by and large the mayors have “exercised enormous restraint and responsibility” in exercising the powers.

“Where they’ve used some of those discretionary tools it’s been after careful thought and consideration of the best interest, long term, of the community,” said Marianne Meed Ward, mayor of Burlington.

Some of the higher-profile uses include Hamilton Mayor Andrea Horwath using the powers to advance an affordable housing development on two municipal parking lots, and then-Mississauga mayor Bonnie Crombie using them in favour of fourplexes.

In Caledon, Mayor Annette Groves recently rescinded her use of strong mayor powers to push forward 12 rezoning applications for 35,000 homes after the move caused pushback in her community. She said she will instead have the issue go through the regular council process, but defended the usage.

“I am not abusing the use of strong mayor powers,” she said in an interview. “I believe that I’ve used it only where it’s necessary to carry on … the priorities of the province to get housing built.”

The provincial government framed the powers as a set of tools in service of reaching the goal of building 1.5 million homes in Ontario by 2031. Time is ticking by, Groves said, and municipalities like Caledon need to meet current and future housing needs.

“If we don’t start planning, and we don’t start getting ahead of this growth, the growth is going to get ahead of us,” she said.

The strong mayor powers are broad, and only a few of them directly relate to housing, in law. The powers to propose and pass a bylaw with one-third of council support and to veto a bylaw must relate to building housing or related infrastructure.

The law also allows mayors to direct staff to conduct research and write reports, as well as appoint the chief administrative officer, department heads, chairs and vice-chairs of local boards, and establish and dissolve committees, though they can delegate those powers to council.

The majority of items on municipalities’ websites listing uses of the powers are the mayor “approving” a bylaw — in other words, indicating they will not veto it.

Mayors are required under the law to prepare and propose a budget, though some say they are in effect still working collaboratively with their council. Other mayors have used the strong mayor budgetary powers to impose a cap on property tax increases, institute a property tax deferral for seniors, reopen the document to add millions in new spending to revitalize a downtown, and add funding to put “Aurora” in capital letters outside that community’s town hall, similar to what is seen in Toronto.

Rachel Gilliland, a councillor in Aurora, said there is too much grey area in what the strong mayor powers can be used for.

“Strong mayor powers to me, really (do) attack democracy,” she said. “It certainly has not, in my opinion, done what it’s supposed to be doing, at least in Aurora.”

Aurora’s council received a legal opinion that the decisions are not reviewable or appealable, and the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing has said it is up to the municipalities to determine if the uses of the powers are in accordance with the law.

“(That) just really opens up Pandora’s box,” Gilliland, said. “It doesn’t matter what the mayor vetoes or what the mayor decides. The mayor has the sole discretion and control to do whatever they so choose.”

Ajax Mayor Shaun Collier, who has used the powers for housing projects involving more than 4,000 units, suggested the accountability mechanism for the strong mayor powers is the election cycle.

“People ask me, ‘Did you consult on certain things?'” he said. “Well, our consultation is every four years. It’s called an election. And if you don’t like what we’re doing, then that’s your opportunity to change.”

Collier said the powers have been “incredibly helpful” in speeding up the creation of housing in Ajax. In one case he used them to approve up to 62 storeys for two residential towers near a GO Transit station even though the town’s official plan has 25 storeys as the maximum. In another case a multi-residential development made design changes that resulted in the loss of some parking spaces and Collier used the powers to ensure the project didn’t have to go back through a committee of adjustment.

St. Catharines Mayor Mat Siscoe, who has used the powers a few times including directing staff to prioritize development applications, said the reception to the powers has been largely positive, though he understands some people’s hesitation.

“When the powers came in there was a lot of confusion as to what exactly they could be,” he said.

“I had folks in the development industry coming forward and saying, ‘Well, you know, I’m running into this problem. I need you to use your strong mayor powers to get me past this point.’ It’s like, ‘No, your issue, sir, (is) building code related, and you actually have to meet the building code. I can’t waive that.'”

Leanne Caron, a councillor in Guelph, is among those uneasy with the process. Guelph Mayor Cam Guthrie has used the powers a number of times, including to direct staff to research establishing a structured encampments site – which would involve tiny homes – and Caron said she supports what he has used them for, just not the actual use of the powers.

“Nothing that the mayor has done using strong mayor powers, in my opinion, is anything that wouldn’t have happened with the full support of council,” she said.

“We were all elected to have a voice in the direction our community goes and that’s what the Municipal Act was designed to do, was to put the power in the collective, and not the power of one.”

Guthrie said in the case of the encampments report, his directive does bypass the step of council debating whether they want the report to be done, but at the end of the day the council and community still debate the issue after the report is submitted.

“If we wanted to look at getting tiny homes, there was, in my mind, a very big issue of timing,” he said. “We needed to order them and/or build them much prior to the winter coming.”

Guthrie also noted that he delegated the personnel-related powers, saying it’s important to have a divide between the administrative and political sides of city hall.

The Association of Municipal Managers, Clerks and Treasurers of Ontario, which represents municipal professionals, said that a little more than half of the strong mayors have retained the power to appoint the chief administrative officer and about 35 per cent of them retained the power to appoint department heads.

“Right from the outset, we were very concerned with the opportunity to essentially politicize the municipal public service and we remain concerned,” said executive director Dave Arbuckle.

“Say a CAO is hired directly by a mayor. That staff is wondering where potentially that individual’s loyalties lie. Is it to the municipality as a whole? Is it to council? Is it to just the mayor?”

Innisfil Mayor Lynn Dollin is among the mayors who were not interested in getting the powers and have not used them beyond what the law requires, such as taking responsibility for the budget. She delegated everything she could.

“I’ve always been one of those people that think if you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together,” she said.

“I just simply believe you can only go so far by using those powers because you’re going to run into obstacles. So I’m convinced that if it’s a good idea, I’m going to be able to convince five of nine of my council that it’s a good idea.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 22, 2024.

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