Next week, I will leave Halifax and head to Ontario to be employed in my first full-time, permanent job, ever. I will be a union member with a living wage and benefits. For the first time, I can dream of paying off my large student loan. I’ll get my teeth cleaned and get my eyes checked. I’ll save some money. While these might seem like very minimal successes, they are out of reach for many, if not most, of my peers.
I have been working part-time, precariously, on contract, and/or freelance since I was 15. Still, I am a lucky one. Having just turned 25, I spent all of my time in the demographic from 15 to 24, albeit about 8 months while in my first year of university, employed or being paid enough employment insurance to get by. In Nova Scotia, where I live, unemployment, including involuntary part-time employment, for youth age 15 to 24 was 31.9 per cent this June, up from just 17.2 per cent in June 2008.
Most of my friends work freelance. They’re writers, editors, researchers, designers, illustrators, photographers, even university employees. But none of them have consistent, secure work. And while the right would have you believe that the BA is a bee-line to being a barista, it’s more about what our society has come to value. There are increasingly fewer secure jobs for teachers, artists, designers, writers, journalists, social workers, youth workers, and librarians. This is not because we have a lesser need for quality education, research and ideas, cultural projects and institutions, critical media, or social services – it’s because current governments, the corporate elite, and the growing right in Canada is ideologically opposed to these elements of our society.
This attack is not only an attack on the middle class, or on those of us who are university educated. For people like me, who come from low income families it means that social mobility is a myth. In Nova Scotia, many low income folks have university educations because of more substantial assistance programs that existed for people in rural communities, single parents, and people with disabilities. The erosion of these programs along with massive tuition fee increases since the early nineties leave education out of reach of many Nova Scotians. For workers not looking for more education, but simply a job that offers a decent wage and benefits, the contracting out of services, and the union busting practices of corporations have meant that it is difficult for those with a high school diploma or less to get decent, well-paying jobs. When a hospital outsources its laundry or its food services, the labour cost savings comes on the backs of low income people.
Governments (even Nova Scotia’s supposed social democratic government) have also been unwilling to take a stand against the corporate agenda. Creating a fair tax system, where corporations pay their fair share would create revenue for our social programs, including expanding medicare, instituting fully-funded post-secondary education, and ensuring all families have access to high quality childcare. Instituting card check, so that it is easier for workers to organize unions in their workplace would help workers fight for better and safer working conditions, decent wages, and benefits for them and their families. These changes would vastly improve the lives of all working people, including those precariously employed in the service sector.
Also, despite anti-poor rhetoric and stereotypes held by people on the right and left alike, poor people like art and culture too. Publicly-funded art, music, theatre, and sport programs in our schools and in our communities are the ones that kids from low income families have access to. The rich will always be able to put their kids in private programs, in private schools with the best of this or that, but the rest of us rely on public funding to access facilities to learn everything from ceramics to swimming, cooking to woodworking. We should be sharing our collective resources for programs and spaces for people, no matter their income, to share and learn skills, build relationships, and spend time with people from their communities. We should dedicate resources to museums and art galleries, and we should provide the time and space for teachers to take their students to them, and the resources to eliminate admission costs (let’s start with once a week) and programs that get seniors and people living with disabilities to these important institutions to look at art, to learn about history, to hang out with people.
If we built schools, community centres, libraries, and community health centres, expanded public transportation across the province, created better community services for people living with mental health issues and addictions, and funded more museums, public art, and art galleries, we wouldn’t just create jobs for artists or teachers or social workers, but also for construction workers, cleaners, clerical staff, aid workers, kitchen workers, drivers, and more. All the while, creating healthier, more vibrant, and stronger communities.
If I could, I’d stay in Halifax. I’ve lived in Nova Scotia 7 years, and I love the place. I haven’t moved apartments in 5 years. I have a collection of political projects I love here, I have great friends. I like being able to ride my bike for a half hour and get to a lake. I love being next to the ocean. I wasn’t really looking to leave, but I’ll trek the 1800 km back to Toronto, where I grew up, because a job is there. People in Nova Scotia understand the pull of work. People throughout this province migrate west for work. Unemployment in some regions of the province is 15 per cent. I have been travelling between Toronto and Halifax over the past 7 years for a bunch of reasons, and these days, every plane I get on westward is Halifax-Toronto-Calgary. But don’t think for a moment that there can’t be strong public institutions, better community supports, and well-paying jobs with benefits here in Nova Scotia and everywhere. Jobs that don’t put our families at risk of death or dismemberment; services that are supportive and empower people to be able to make decisions about their own bodies and their own lives; vibrant arts and cultural institutions and programs, and communities filled with happier, healthier people; these are all things worth fighting for.