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By Sid Ryan

This past week I was at Queen’s Park making a presentation to a government committee on long-term care legislation.

As I sat twiddling my thumbs in the crowded committee room, I was reminded of my childhood days back in Dublin, sitting in the pews outside the confessional box, awaiting my turn with the dreaded parish priest. Only now, instead of overhearing Mrs. McCauley’s litany of venial sins in the adjacent box, I heard advocates for the frail and elderly pour out their hearts to strangers on a government committee.

The sense of deja vu was overwhelming; not because of the pastoral emotions that had been stirred within me, but because this was the third time in little more than a decade that long-term care residents have faced significant changes in their daily lives brought on by successive governments.

Each and every government has left its mark on our lives in a profound and sometimes insidious way by the manner in which they legislate.

I would argue that the Conservatives are far more effective at leaving their mark in ways that fundamentally change society and sometimes even the way we view ourselves. When Conservatives get into power, they not only scrap the previous government’s legislative agenda but, they implement new laws that stand the test of time and in some cases are practically impossible to undo.

Take minimum standards in the long-term care sector. In the early ’90s, the NDP government brought in 2.25 hours of daily nursing care for every resident in a nursing home. The Harris Tories, elected in 1995, scrapped that minimum standard to appease their business friends in the for-profit nursing homes. Today, almost 12 long years later, advocates for the elderly are still fighting to bring back minimum standards of care. The Liberals promised them in the last election; however, the elderly are still waiting.

How about that 407 highway built by the NDP government using taxpayers’ money and promptly given away by the Harrisites to a foreign multinational corporation for a song? The Liberals promised to scrap the Tory sweetheart deal only to find out the Conservative legislation was impossible to undo. Over the next 100 years, motorists will continue to pay to drive on a highway they built with their taxes. Talk about a Conservative legacy.

I think the Conservative attack on the unemployed and the working poor was the cruelest of policies and it fundamentally changed the way Ontarians looked at poverty. When I came to Canada in 1975, this city was nicknamed “Toronto the Good.” The phrase may have referred to the uptight nature of the city, but it seemed to me as a newcomer that Toronto — and by extension Ontario — had earned this reputation because of the humane manner in which the less well-off were treated.

The Conservatives made it acceptable to heap scorn upon the unemployed and those on welfare, denigrating them as drug users who shoot their welfare cheques up their arm, to use the words of John Baird, now a federal cabinet minister. Cabinet minister after cabinet minister spread the urban myths about single mothers on welfare using baby bonus money to buy beer. In this climate of fear mongering and scapegoating, the Tories moved to slash welfare payments by 22%.

Almost 12 years later, the poor in this province have not recovered. Those on welfare today are actually worse off because of inflation and an entire generation of mainly women and children has been consigned to a life of abject poverty.

Today, we still look askance at the poor and the homeless teeming in our streets and doorways. We don’t have that same empathy we had back in 1975 for the less well-off.

We have been brainwashed into believing a tax cut is more important than a fresh, clean diaper for an incontinent senior in a nursing home. We curse every time we get a bill for driving a highway we already paid for and then we turn around and vote in Jim Flaherty, John Baird and Tony Clement, the chief architects of the past decade of misery.

Life was simpler when all I had to listen to was Mrs. McCauley. At least she understood it was a sin not to love thy neighbour.