The long march toward tipping points

Strains of Beaches Jazz are – or were – in the air but tipping points are on my mind. Recent announcements about the future of the CBC brought to mind the notion that we may be on the verge of a whole bunch of them. Some are more easily recognized than others, and we have a good sense of what lies on the other side. Others, not so much.

CBC’s is the clearest case in point. Since the Liberal government slashed CBC’s funding by $400 million or so through the 1990s, the public broadcaster has stood on the verge of being something else. By 2000, Friends of Canadian Broadcasting was already calling the corporation “a mere shadow of the public broadcaster it once was,” and declared it incapable of meeting its legislated mandate.

The Conservatives’ more recent cuts, though not nearly as large, have been enough to tip it over. The plan afoot, as recently announced, will have the CBC transform itself from a radio and TV broadcaster of its own content to a digital and mobile platform for the content of others. One thousand to 1,500 creative staff will lose their jobs to see that done.

On the issues of housing and seniors, the future is less clear. But we are surely headed to points beyond which something terribly ugly and shameful happens. On both issues, we once had proud histories. It was Canadian John Humphrey who incorporated housing into the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.

But by 2009, a UN Special Rapporteur was lamenting our dismal record of the past two decades. With the Liberal downloading of responsibility for housing to Mike Harris in 1996 – and from there to the city – federal funding has been dwindling, but for the $1.6 billion Jack Layton negotiated away from Paul Martin’s corporate tax cuts in 2005.

Today, Canada’s largest landlord, Toronto Community Housing, has at the same time a $1 billion repair backlog and a waiting list equivalent to the population of Saskatoon. For the 45 per cent of Toronto renters who can’t afford the homes they live in, there is nowhere to go. Only 650 affordable housing units are currently under construction in this city of 3,000,000. It’s a set of circumstances that grows increasingly precarious as we welcome 100,000 new residents to Toronto every year.

Similarly, for seniors … we are one of the very few developed countries with an increasing poverty rate among seniors. Since 1995, the rate of seniors living in poverty has been on the rise, tripling from under four to over 12 per cent. Then, from overseas at a conference of billionaires, Stephen Harper announced he’d make things worse by delaying eligibility for Old Age Security by two years – from 65 to 67.

Along this steady march, we don’t know when a tipping point will be reached for housing and seniors, much less what it looks like beyond that. But of course, the moral and political imperative is to stop short of that point and change course.

This is why I re-introduced in June the Climate Change Accountability Act – a bill that would have us start now to avoid what most agree to be “dangerous” levels of global warming. We’re not there yet, most agree, but the climb in greenhouse gas emissions has been steep and steady over the last 20 years, unaltered by Jean Chretien’s signature on the Kyoto Accord.

With our climate, as with so many other issues, we know that with every step in the same direction we flirt with tipping into a new, costly and unhappy reality. Surely we can see that it is time to stop this long march that we have been on and choose to do things differently before Canada becomes something that none of us want it to be.

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