Anti-poverty activists rallied outside the New Brunswick legislature Tuesday as MLAs gathered for a new legislative session.
Social justice groups decried the high cost of living and low social assistance rates. They marched from Fredericton City Hall to the steps of the Legislative Assembly.
“Assistance rates need to grow as inflation continues to soar,” said Carly Dewitt to a cheering crowd.
Dewitt, a member of NB Coalition of Persons with Disabilities and NB ACORN, said inflation has made healthy food even more unaffordable for people who rely on social assistance.
Maytree, a Toronto-based think tank, recently published a study showing that New Brunswick has the lowest social assistance rates in the country, placing welfare recipients well below conventional measures of poverty in Canada.
The Higgs government has indexed welfare rates to inflation and raised the limit on how much recipients are allowed to earn in wages before those funds are subject to a “clawback.”
But with homelessness on the rise and a widespread affordability crisis, groups like Common Front have called for higher welfare rates.
In a statement, they said people are subject to “systemic ableism” in New Brunswick, with welfare for single people with disabilities reaching less than $11,000 annually last year.
At the protest, June Patterson, a renter and supporter of the Common Front, told the NB Media Co-op that a rent cap would be a band-aid for the housing crisis but a “step in the right direction.”
The Higgs government has resisted calls for a permanent rent cap, after implementing the policy temporarily last year. The 3.8 per cent limit, introduced in the March 2022 budget, expired on Dec. 31 last year.
The government has introduced a “phase-in” mechanism for some rent increases that surpass the Consumer Price Index, but critics say the complaint-driven system is ineffective. And a rent cap wasn’t part of the housing strategy the province introduced in June.
The association representing landlords has opposed demands for rent control, saying it will constrain the rental supply by driving away private investment.
But tenants’ rights advocates have demanded a stronger cap as they witness steep rent hikes in the community driven by private investment, calling instead for massive new investment in public and co-operative housing.
“We are here to give our message loud and clear, that enough is enough,” said Nichola Taylor, chair of NB ACORN, a group that advocates for tenants.
The rally included speeches by groups including the NB Common Front for Social Justice, NB ACORN, the NB Coalition of Persons with Disabilities, the Canadian Union of Public Employees, and the Madhu Verma Migrant Justice Centre.
The throne speech reflected a much rosier assessment of the economy, emphasizing the Higgs government’s business-friendly “pro-growth agenda.”
Delivered by Lt.-Gov. Brenda Murphy on behalf of the government, the speech acknowledged the housing crisis but stopped short of new rent control measures or higher welfare rates.
The speech did, however, pledge to introduce “legislated spike protection,” limiting the growth of property assessments at 10 per cent annually to protect homeowners from tax hikes.
And amid frequent reports of labour shortages — and renewed activity in organized labour — the government took credit for wage growth, and stated that its market-oriented approach was working.
“This strategy is delivering significant improvements in population growth, private investment, employment levels, exports, and productivity gains,” the speech stated.
MLAs are expected to vote on the throne speech on Oct. 27. If the speech is defeated, it will result in a snap election.
Reporting by David Gordon Koch and Chris Thompson. This reporting has been made possible in part by the Government of Canada, administered by the Canadian Association of Community Television Stations and Users (CACTUS).