Down and Out in Canada’s Capital

There’s no help that works for those at the bottom
November 7, 2020 Updated: November 10, 2020


Is Canada really a rich and caring country? Meet Sandra Lillie, who became homeless just as a snowstorm was moving in on Oct. 30, 2020. With threats of violence, two thugs evicted her from her basement apartment on Shillington Avenue in Ottawa in relation to a disturbance she had caused in September.

Sandra slept through the snowstorm and the next two nights in the nearby park—on a mattress from her apartment and with a tarpaulin for cover. She told me she’s been barred from the homeless shelters because of disturbances, although the most recent incident was some years ago.

In any case, all the shelters are full, as they usually are. Even at the least bad of times, and although staff do their best, shelters are hellholes. There’s overcrowding, and troubled clients bother each other. Anything worth stealing disappears. For many, the lesser of two evils, especially in winter, is to commit a crime and go to jail. They’re also hellholes, but there’s a warm bed and free food and it’s safer than living on the street.

So what’s Sandra all about? Now aged 40, she spent her early childhood in Arnprior, near Ottawa. Speaking freely about her troubled life, she said her childhood was abusive and at age 13 she moved into a group home in Ottawa. At 15 she moved out and lived by prostitution, drug-dealing, and stealing. She became addicted to alcohol and hard drugs. Men constantly raped her and that was an everyday part of life.

For successive criminal offences, Sandra has spent time in every women’s prison in Ontario. She says none of those institutions helped her to prepare for life outside, so for her, jail has been a revolving door.

Two years ago, a man jumped Sandra and stabbed her in the head. That put her in intensive care in hospital. She knows who did it, but such is life at the bottom that the last thing she would do is to tell the police. Apart from anything else, that could invite retribution. After her release from hospital, she settled down a bit. She’s off hard drugs but she likes her alcohol and marijuana. She’s enrolled in the Ontario Disability Assistance Program and gets some support from the Canadian Mental Health Association. Between them, they were paying her rent directly, and she gets $780 paid into her bank account each month.

Almost all adults in trouble, like Sandra, were once children who needed help and didn’t get it. Many people in the underclass replicate aspects of Sandra’s life. They’re largely but by no means exclusively indigenous. Support systems are fragmented, underfunded, overloaded, and largely ineffectual. Outreach for street people provides only soup and condoms that don’t get used. I spent hours on the telephone getting the runaround when trying to help Sandra.

The galling thing is that if Sandra were an uninvited border-crosser, things would be different. She’d get free transportation to the upscale Radisson Hotel Toronto East or to the government’s ATCO trailer park north of the Roxham Road unofficial crossing in Quebec. She’d get a warm bed and free meals and clothing, as well as mentoring for an independent life.

As it is, Sandra may never pay taxes, yet she and others like her cost taxpayers millions over time. How can Canadians tolerate lives not seen to matter? How can taxpayers justify the costs associated with such a life without a plan for remediation?

In Sandra’s case, after the disturbance at the house where she lived, the landlord cajoled her—obviously without informed and willing consent—to sign a document undertaking to move out. Evidently, the landlord then assumed he had the right to kick her out even though a lawful eviction requires action through the Landlord and Tenant Board (LTB). But she’d never heard of the LTB, the Human Rights Commission, or the free legal clinic at Ottawa University.

Ironically, Canada spent tens of millions of dollars on the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls; Sandra says she’s part indigenous. The inquiry’s mandate was to deliver recommendations for “concrete and effective action to remove systemic causes of violence and to increase the safety of Indigenous women and girls.” They needed to talk to women at risk, like Sandra, to find out what goes wrong. Then they needed to deliver an implementation plan—one based on the many templates around the world for turning around dysfunctional societies. That didn’t happen.

Charity doesn’t begin at home for Canada’s underclass. It’s mainly for show on the international stage.

Colin Alexander was publisher of the Yellowknife News of the North and the adviser on education for Ontario’s Royal Commission on the Northern Environment.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.