Shipping in refugees, shipping out the homeless in Saskatchewan

Saskatchewan "refugees" and First Nation members Charles Neil-Curly and Jeremy Roy were given one-way bus tickets to Vancouver


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RED DEER, Alta. March 14, 2016/ Troy Media/ – In the old days in Alberta, when oil prices fell and government revenue dropped, part of the solution was to cut the welfare cheques for single mothers and buy single unemployed males one-way bus tickets to B.C.

I couldn’t find out how many tickets were issued under then-premier Ralph Klein, but it was enough for the B.C. government to pass a law saying any newcomers arriving there needed to establish residency for 90 days before they could access social services.

For the females (mostly), the 20 per cent cut in welfare payments and the increased barriers to application for Aids to Daily Living dropped Alberta’s roster of 3.1 million cases to around two million between 1994 and 2000.

On paper, both policies were a great success. They were not so successful for the poor and homeless, but the Progressive Conservative base loved it.

It appears that the Saskatchewan government has learned a thing or two from the Alberta experience, at least as far as shipping homeless people to B.C. is concerned.

Not with the same result, one would hope.

Once the story broke, it took scant hours for the whole nation to learn that at least two homeless men, Charles Neil-Curly, 23, and Jeremy Roy, 21, were put on a Greyhound with one-way tickets to Vancouver.

Neil-Curly was staying at the Lighthouse homeless shelter in North Battleford, but his provincial funding was cut so he had to find someplace else to go. So he accepted a ticket to ride along with Roy, who had also lived at the shelter.

Neither had any supports waiting for them once they stepped off the bus. One of them had never been outside Saskatchewan before. That’s the rub.

Governments often buy poor and homeless people bus tickets to somewhere else in Canada. But there are supposed to be case plans set up for family, friends or other agencies to meet them. Getting a new start in a new place is not always a bad idea, under the right circumstances.

Shipping your problems out of town is not. Vancouver city Coun. Kerry Jang correctly calls it “inhumane.” “It’s not good health policy. It’s not good public policy,” he said in an interview with CBC News.

There are always multiple views of a news story. The Lighthouse shelter is in a funding dispute with the province. A Social Services Department employee bought the tickets, as far as is known, contrary to official policy.

Saskatchewan Social Services Minister Donna Harpauer says there will be a review of the bus-ticket policy – if the Saskatchewan Party is re-elected next month.

Oh, and both the bus riders are First Nations (as if that should make any difference – but it does).

As much as social agencies and government agencies seem reluctant to go public when problems arise, something good did arise from this mess.

Jason Stennes is the CEO of a construction company, 360 Crane Services, in Vancouver. When he heard of the men’s plight, he immediately offered them jobs.

Stennes said after growing up without much himself, he’s in a position to help. “I’m one of those guys that if I’m at a red light and there’s somebody begging for change and he’s 20 years old, I offer him a job. I give people a chance. It’s just what I do.”

A new start, indeed. Not enough of that can be found in Canada, that’s for sure.

But here’s the real sticking point: Saskatchewan has pledged to take in 2,000 Syrian refugees. They will be fully funded for a year and housed in the province’s four largest cities.

Nobody needs reminding that those four largest cities also house (or fail to house) large First Nations populations, with a myriad of social problems. A persistent homeless contingent is but one symptom of the cultural and cross-generational problems they face.

These two men are only the ones we’ve heard about, because somebody went public. But it would appear they are as much displaced off their land – refugees, if you want to use the term – as the people who once lived in the now-bombed-out homes in any number of other countries who are now coming to our shores.

It’s a sad irony that I’m sure will be lost in the tumble of Saskatchewan’s election campaign.

Greg Neiman is a freelance editor, columnist and blogger living in Red Deer, Alta. Greg is also included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.

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