Bleeding heart liberals like me have been inclined to blame the social ills and crime on a lack of educational opportunities combined with poverty among inner city children. Social workers, liberal politicians, and anti-poverty activists have used this argument for years to try to guarantee government funding for education and social assistance programs.
Unfortunately these arguments have been largely falling on deaf ears for the past decade or more, as politicians have become obsessive about cutting taxes. By creating a picture of honest working people having their pockets picked by the shiftless poor, they have justified a scorched earth policy of cuts to social spending in order to pursue their holy grail of a balanced budget and low taxes.
Ontario was one of the first regions in Canada to fall victim to the blandishments of such snake oil salesmen. In 1995, the Progressive Conservative party led by Mike Harris was elected based on the promises of their "Common Sense Revolution". This revolution included reducing the welfare allowance by 21%, standardising the public school curriculum so that every student in Ontario studied the exact same thing, eliminating municipalities' ability to collect property taxes for education without providing a significant alternative source of funding, and closing hospitals that were said to duplicate services offered by other facilities in the same geographic area.
His promises weren’t limited to social programming cuts. Every Ministry in the government was forced to slash costs, losing jobs and programming. Privatization and layoffs were favourite means of ensuring that tens of thousands of people either lost their jobs or benefits.
From the monitoring of water quality in municipalities to reductions in Legal Aid, no area of the public service was left unscathed. By the time Mike Harris' first term as Premier drew to a close, the face of Ontario was irrevocably changed. With Ontario riding an economic upswing, he was able to win a second term. He also had the support of affluent suburban neighbourhoods that had received short term benefits from his policies.
However, early in his second term the effects of the massive cuts started to show. Lay offs in the Ministry of the Environment allowed faked reports on the water quality in the town of Walkerton Ontario to go unnoticed. There was insufficient staff to double check test results. Because of this, a full scale outbreak of E. coli. occurred. Seven people died and hundreds more became seriously ill.
It's in the present, however, where we've really begun to reap the results of the Common Sense Revolution. That has been on the streets of our cities. Ten years ago Toronto, Ontario's capital, was considered the safest major city in North America. It was a big city without big city problems. It boasted an active, vital, racially diverse downtown core that was free of the usual tensions.
Of course reality wasn't as ideal as the reputation. There were pockets of trouble throughout the city. They were primarily confined to housing projects, so they were ignored or treated as isolated incidents. Even so, the murder rate and violent crime were incredibly low for a city of over three million.
In the last few years that has all begun to change. Rates of gun death and other violent crime have increased dramatically. The police say the majority of the problem stems from an increase in gang related violence. While politicians from all levels of government have blamed everything from lax American gun laws to video games, they seem to have missed a vital point.
That is: who are these young people in the gangs and where did they come from? Every generation for the past twenty or thirty years has been exposed to comparable levels of violence in the media, so why is this generation suddenly joining gangs?
Maybe they were the kids who grew up in the inner city when the education system was being gutted and the welfare rates were being rolled back dramatically. Inner city life had been only marginally tolerable before this, and any hope of breaking out of the cycle of poverty was taken away by low living standards and educational quality during their formative years.
There have been tonnes of material written about the sociological reasons for kids joining gangs. It gives them a sense of purpose, a place to belong, and feelings of importance. Sure, nobody's forcing them to become gang members. A lot of kids don't. But the fact remains that the conditions that increased gang membership were the result of Mike Harris' Common Sense Revolution.
It is said Native Americans, when they made a major decision, tried to work out its implications for the next seven generations. When Mike Harris proposed his Common Sense Revolution, nobody gave much thought to the long-term. Even when it became obvious that there were some serious problems developing, nobody thought to look beyond the individual department that was effected.
In the space of less than one generation – since Mike Harris first came to power in Ontario – life in Toronto has been changed for the worse. I'm sure there are those who will say it's only a coincidence that a decrease in the standard of living for the poorest people in the city ten years ago has resulted in an increase in the crime rate now. I'm not one of them.
I hate to think what other surprises are in store as legacy of the Common Sense Revolution.