A few weeks ago, while touting her government’s commitment to fiscal austerity, Canada’s finance minister, Chrystia Freeland, suggested that her fellow citizens might adapt themselves to a more frugal climate by canceling their $13.99/month Disney Plus subscriptions: “I said to the kids, ‘You’re older now. You don’t watch Disney anymore. Let’s cut that Disney+ subscription. So, we cut it. It’s only $13.99 a month that we’re saving, but every little bit helps. . . . I believe that I need to take exactly the same approach with the federal government’s finances because that’s the money of Canadians.” Transparently out of touch and tone-deaf, the comment elicited a well-deserved backlash and was quickly retracted.
Nonetheless, the paternalistic subtext of Freeland’s remark was emblematic of the complacent attitude increasingly exhibited by governments across Canada while daily life for millions of Canadians becomes bleaker and more precarious. According to familiar metrics such as personal debt and monthly savings, data from recent months suggests that growing numbers are experiencing acute financial stress and economic hardship. Less typically considered — if even registered at all in a wealthy country like Canada — is the number of people who are going hungry as well.
But, as per a new report just released by Feed Ontario (a coalition of food banks and community organizations in Canada’s largest and most populous province), a record number of Ontarians are now being forced to rely on food banks — many of them fully employed. Within a population of roughly fifteen million, nearly six hundred thousand adults and children were compelled to visit a food bank between April 1st, 2021, to March 31st, 2022. According to Feed Ontario, which tracks the data on a rolling basis, that figure represents a 15 percent increase over the past three years.
If anything, however, those numbers understate things. That’s because the raw number of food bank visits — 4,353,000 over the same time period — actually represents an increase of 42 percent over the last three years. Strikingly, the number of employed people accessing food banks has also nearly doubled while one in three visits to a food bank have been from people using one for the first time.
Both the economic pressures of the pandemic and recent spikes in inflation — not to mention rampant price-gouging by corporate supermarket chains — are clearly a part of the story, but the findings suggest hunger was already a growing problem before the coronavirus struck in March of 2020. In the two years prior, food bank use among the employed was already up some 27 percent and has only been worsening since. Other recent data released by Food Banks Canada confirms this trend is national in scope, with food bank use across the country as a whole climbing to its highest level ever in 2022.
The unique circumstances of the past two years may have clearly made things worse, but there’s a difference between creating and merely intensifying a problem. Before the pandemic, Canada was already a deeply unequal society in the process of becoming more unequal with each passing year. Though Canadians often like to flatter themselves that multiculturalism and public health insurance make their country less prone to injustice than America, the truth is that institutions that promote equality have been crumbling for decades.
Under governments of the Right and nominal center-left alike, social assistance rates have been slashed, public housing programs have been eliminated, employment insurance has been made harder to access, and market forces have increasingly been allowed to rip and run regardless of the social consequences. The result can be seen in unaffordable cities planned for landlords and developers rather than residents, declining and underfunded public infrastructure, and a growing divide between the impossibly well-off and everybody else. As profit margins in major industries soar and the governing Liberals preach austerity gospel, life for the average person is becoming steadily coarser — and more Canadians than ever before are going hungry.