What if the little old ladies who run the neighborhood church food pantry rebelled? What if they said “we’re 70 years old, we’ve been feeding people for 20 years, and hell if we want to do it for another 20?” What if they demanded that the government reduce the incidence of poverty so that food pantries don’t need to exist in the first place?

Hard to imagine? Well, that’s exactly what has happened in the province of Ontario. With the support of an experienced community organizer, volunteers from emergency meal programs, and food banks (what we call a food pantry in the U.S.) have decided to form a “union.” They’re calling it Freedom 90, a spoof on the “Freedom 55” financial planning advertisements that promise the good life to Canadians who work hard and invest their savings wisely, so they can retire by 55.

Ontario’s best hope of creating a modern, humane social assistance system has expired.

Thursday’s provincial budget was its last gasp. Premier Kathleen Wynne wanted to do the right thing. She was prepared to take a political risk for the 850,000 Ontarians struggling to get by on subsistence-level welfare payments. But three months into the job, she realized there was no realistic prospect of “charting a new course on social assistance” as a far-sighted provincial commission proposed. Even the people she aimed to help were balking.

So the premier took the safe, conventional route. She made a couple of minor changes to the existing program. They won’t break the bank or ruffle many feathers. In fact, most Ontarians won’t notice them at all. It was exactly the same strategy her predecessor, Dalton McGuinty, had followed.

At this point the economic case for austerity — for slashing government spending even in the face of a weak economy — has collapsed. Claims that spending cuts would actually boost employment by promoting confidence have fallen apart. Claims that there is some kind of red line of debt that countries dare not cross have turned out to rest on fuzzy and to some extent just plain erroneous math. Predictions of fiscal crisis keep not coming true; predictions of disaster from harsh austerity policies have proved all too accurate.

Yet calls for a reversal of the destructive turn toward austerity are still having a hard time getting through. Partly that reflects vested interests, for austerity policies serve the interests of wealthy creditors; partly it reflects the unwillingness of influential people to admit being wrong. But there is, I believe, a further obstacle to change: widespread, deep-seated cynicism about the ability of democratic governments, once engaged in stimulus, to change course in the future.

Looking for affordable accommodations in York Region?

Don’t make plans for the next 10 years or so.

The waiting list for rent-geared-to-income units is about 9,500 families long, meaning some of those families will wait a decade or more for subsidized housing, depending on the size of unit they seek and their desired location, community and health services commissioner Adelina Urbanski said.

Part of the reason the waiting list has grown by leaps and bounds is because there’s just no supply out there, Ms Urbanski said, adding thing worsened when the economic downturn hit.

And while the region would like to build more affordable housing to meet the growing need, funding — or lack thereof — limits how much help it can provide at any given time.

Kathleen Wynne’s first budget provides concrete progress on social assistance reforms; but there are also missed opportunities to address increasing inequality in Ontario.

The budget delivered best on social assistance reforms. In contrast to the cutbacks to Community Start-Up and Maintenance Benefits in last year’s budget, this year’s budget showed concrete progress in three areas. First, it moved forward in eliminating a number of “stupid rules” that were punitive and made life for people living on social assistance difficult and unaffordable. Second, it increased social assistance rates and acknowledged the desperate situation for single people living on Ontario Works by providing them with a larger increase (however, rates still remain so low that they continue to endanger health; people will still have to choose between rent and food). Last, it outlined next steps in the development of the poverty reduction strategy, including consultation with affected communities.

As I have said before, the government must consider a national food strategy to combat the growing issue of food insecurity. At the time of my question, the UN rapporteur on the right to food finished his visit to Canada and expressed concern that we were not meeting our obligations under the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which we signed in 2010, by the way. He has since delivered his report to the UN Human Rights Council with a similar message.

The inaccessibility of nutritious, culturally appropriate and sustainably developed food is a problem that disproportionately affects aboriginal and northern communities in Canada. There are a number of factors that limit one’s ability to acquire this food. One of the major factors is income. We know that more than 20% of aboriginal people fall below the Statistics Canada low-income cutoff rate. By way of comparison, only 11% of the rest of our population shares this circumstance.

Volunteers at food banks and meal programs earn their angel wings. They beat the bushes for funds, do a loaves-and-fishes routine with scarce resources, and keep hunger at bay for thousands.

And they get tired. Not of the work but of the grinding poverty that keeps so many showing up month after month and constantly sends new people through their doors. So volunteers in Ontario have formed a union. They call it the Freedom 90 Union “because we want to retire from volunteering at food banks or emergency meal programs—before we are 90 years old!”

They have three demands for the Government of Ontario …