Household debt soars

Rising debt levels are putting Canadian households under growing financial strain while job losses mount, incomes stagnate and personal wealth declines.

The Bank of Canada’s bi-annual Financial System Review, released on June 15, said that households are increasingly vulnerable to “adverse shocks” such as an even bigger jump in the unemployment rate, which officially rose to 8.4 per cent in May and is expected to hit double digits this year. (Typically, these figures understate the situation because they do not count ‘discouraged workers’, those awaiting recall from a layoff, and the under-employed).

“Income growth has slowed, and personal wealth levels have been eroded by lower house prices in some regions; credit growth has continued to outpace income growth, contributing to higher debt levels”, stated the Bank’s report.

“At the same time, sharp increases in unemployment are raising the incidence of financial stress among households.”

Although the extent to which Canadians are in debt is less than that of Americans or the British, Canadians’ debt-to-income ratio hit a “new high” in the final quarter of 2008, meaning the average household has borrowed the equivalent of 1.38 years of disposable income.

Commercial banks, meanwhile, are setting aside more money to cover bad loans. Some analysts predict that loan losses are unlikely to peak before the industry’s 2010 financial year. -Barry Weisleder

The War comes Home

The foreign war of occupation in Afghanistan is coming home with a stunningly high incidence of spousal abuse, suicide attempts, assaults in bars and drunk driving by Canadian soldiers who survive one or more tours of duty.

From privates to warrant officers, light-armoured-vehicle drivers to snipers, those with physical injuries and those without, the proportion suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is skyrocketing.

According to a Toronto Star study, at the Phoenix Centre for Children and Families, near Canadian Forces Base Petawawa, 170 km north-west of Ottawa, the military family caseload has soared from 12 in 2005 to 85 today, with 20 on the waiting list. The Centre is grappling with issues from bed wetting and aggression, to domestic violence, depression and marital breakdown. Conflict and depression often lead to substance abuse, assault with a weapon, impaired driving and confinement.

“More deployments actually compound the stress on many of our soldiers,” says the Centre’s Director Greg Lubimiv.

Since 2006, the proportion of military family clients at Phoenix who have experienced the stress of multiple deployments has risen from 33 per cent to higher than 60 per cent.

In the seven years the Canadian state has been part of the imperialist occupation of the mineral-rich, oil and gas cross-roads of Afghanistan, 26,800 Canadians have been deployed and 120 have died. This is the most of any Canadian intervention since the Korean War. More than 400 have been injured by improvised explosive devices (IEDs), mines, rocket attacks and direct combat. At least 1000 have suffered severe psychological trauma.

More than one in five Canadian soldiers and police officers who spend time in Afghanistan leave the force with psychiatric problems, a number that has rapidly risen in the last 12 months.

And this is to say nothing about the devastation caused to Afghanistan and its people. Nearly eight thousand Afghan civilians have died from insurgent and foreign military action, 50 to 60 per cent killed directly by NATO forces. In addition, up to 20,000 Afghan civilians died as a consequence of displacement, starvation, disease, exposure, lack of medical treatment, crime and lawlessness resulting from the war.

By all accounts, the situation is only getting worse. The time has come to demand: Canada Out of NATO. NATO Out of Afghanistan. Now! – Barry Weisleder

Rally Shows Need to Step Up Labour Action against the Crisis

While CBC-TV fatuously reported that only 500 demonstrated, in fact nearly 2000 people rallied and marched on June 13 in downtown Toronto at the call of the regional labour council to demand “Good Jobs For All” and to Fix E.I., Protect Pensions, Strengthen Public Services and Put People Before Banks. After a selection of labour activists addressed the crowd at Metro Hall, the assembly paraded through the financial district, rallied briefly at the corner midst the tallest bank towers, and continued up Bay Street for a concluding rally outside the Delta Chelsea Hotel on Gerrard Street, the scene of a bitter labour dispute with hotel management.

Participants carried the flags and banners of many different unions, that of the NDP, and those of a handful of small political organizations.

The only party banner that expressed political slogans directed specifically to the current economic crisis and which offered socialist solutions to it was that of Socialist Action. The SA banner read: “No Corporate Bail-out! Make Capital Pay for the Crisis. Nationalize Auto, Steel & Big Banks — Under Workers’ Control!”

A core of 14 comrades and supporters consistently walked with this banner, joined intermittently by scores of labour activists who identified with the message inscribed on it. Although quite modest, this was the largest SA demo contingent in a long time and is representative of the recent growth of the group locally. Members and supporters augmented the presence of the organization by selling 37 copies of SA newspaper, and distributing hundreds of copies of a leaflet for Socialism 101 (a weekly Toronto SA study group that began on June 23), along with free copies of Turn Left, the tabloid publication of the NDP Socialist Caucus.

Event organizers urged participants to continue to press politicians for E.I. reform and to punish the Conservatives at the next federal election.

Meanwhile, the local labour scene is heating up. OPSEU activists appealed for support to Ontario Liquor Control Board workers who faced a showdown with management over job security concessions and achieved a tentative agreement just days later. Toronto is presently seized by a major civic workers’ strike, which includes the suspension of garbage collection, over management concession demands. A similar strike has been underway four hours south-west of Toronto in Windsor, Ontario, now going into its third month. Workers barricaded entrances to an auto parts manufacturing plant slated to close in Ajax, just 40 minutes east of Toronto, demanding severance pay and salaries owed. CAW members at Ford Motor Co. face another round of demands for roll backs to match the horrendous set backs at GM and Chrysler — which hopefully the Ford workers will spurn.

Clearly, we cannot afford to wait for the next federal election, or to limit workers’ solidarity action to important battles with individual bosses. The need to step up the struggle against the employers’ offensive on a wide scale, and indeed, to put the failed system of global capitalism on trial is sharply posed.

That is precisely what the NDP Socialist Caucus endeavors to do at the federal NDP convention in Halifax in mid-August. Support for SC resolutions is increasingly evident amongst NDP riding associations, youth clubs and affiliated unions across the six time zones that span this huge country. An important debate about the ruling economic order, and the socialist alternative, is taking shape.

B.C. NDP hands Campbell a victory

A lackluster, rather conservative campaign by the provincial New Democrats handed Liberal Premier Gordon Campbell a third consecutive majority government in the May 12 British Columbia election. The result was close to the one in 2005, except that voter turnout plunged from 62 per cent to only about 50 per cent this time.

The Liberals won 49 of the 85 seats in the B.C. Legislature, with 46 per cent of the votes cast. The NDP took 36 seats and 42 per cent support, and the Green Party won zero seats despite attracting eight per cent of the votes. In the second B.C. referendum on electoral reform, the complicated and undemocratic proposal for a Single Transferable Vote (STV) system was defeated by an overwhelming 61 per cent. Unfortunately, this may sideline the effort to win proportional representation for a long time to come.

Instead of fighting for socialist solutions to the economic crisis, the NDP, led by Carole James, posed as tough on crime and taxes, and took its distance from the labour movement in the west coast province. This cleared the path for Campbell’s right wing Liberals, an amalgam of staunchly conservative big business forces in B.C., to defend their cutbacks and their anti-labour, anti-aboriginal record – even their regressive, fake green, carbon tax.

Labour and the NDP converged visibly only on the demand for a $10/hour minimum wage, and that issue was soft-pedalled. The NDP opposed STV, and like the Liberals, advocated the electoral status quo. Campbell had a quiet, rather easy going time, in contrast to life on the usually volatile BC campaign trail, thanks to the NDP and labour tops who stifled militancy.

James led the BCNDP to a significant recovery from the 2001 election when it was reduced to only two seats, then winning 33 in 2005. But a decade of right wing drift, so clearly out of step with social needs in the current economic depression, took a serious toll on the NDP. The disastrous result, which weighs heavily on working people all across the country, underscores the need for a thorough re-examination of the course of the labour-based party. -Barry Weisleder

Bankruptcies skyrocket

Bankruptcies in Canada soared by over 50 per cent in March from a year earlier as the rising unemployment rate left more people unable to pay their bills, according to the Office of the Superintendent of Bankruptcy Canada.

Although business bankruptcies declined, the skyrocketing personal declarations of insolvency, 10,578 across the country in March alone, produced a staggering overall increase. In Ontario the rate jumped 60 per cent, but the biggest year-over-year rises came from the western provinces, with Alberta’s nearly doubling and British Columbia’s up by 78.4 per cent.

In March the jobless rate rose to 8 per cent, officially, its highest level in seven years. But when discouraged workers, those waiting for a recall to work, and the involuntarily part-time are included, the real rate of unemployment across Canada is closer to 12 per cent.

A 2008 report on the financial state of Canadian households, sponsored by the Vanier Institute of the Family, warned that ‘the current recession’ would be disastrous for debt-ridden consumers. It blamed financial institutions, retailers and governments for encouraging Canadians ‘to live beyond their means’. As for the profit system with its toxic cyclical crises, its growing income inequality, and the super-rich who run it all, the Institute had nothing to say. -Barry Weisleder

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