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Solidarity and paying my dues

By: | April 20, 2016

If you can afford to look at this budget in the abstract, you’re well off enough that you can pay a bigger share.

Michelle Keep
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The author (front) marches in an April 16 anti-austerity demonstration downtown St. John's. Photo by Matt Barter.

Fourteen years ago, when I first came to Newfoundland, job prospects weren’t great. My partner was attending university — on scholarships and loans — and we always intended to leave after he graduated. After all, we knew there would be no jobs, no future for us here.

I struggled, making $5.75 an hour. I didn’t go to the dentist, and I cut my own hair. I found thrift store clothing to be too expensive, and didn’t buy clothes. My doctor gave me samples of pills because he knew I couldn’t afford them.

It was a harsh life. I had no family support, and was on my own outside of my partner. I eventually went to college, with a partial payment from Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) — formerly Employment and Social Development Canada and Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (HRSDC) — and a $10,000 loan. I graduated 16 months later and continued to struggle. Paying off my loan had a bigger impact than anticipated, and by 2006 Newfoundland had started to change.

No longer was it the jobless wasteland of the past, still injured by the cod moratorium. There were jobs starting to come into the province, and housing prices started to reflect that. My partner and I scrimped and saved to continue living in our apartment, to continue with our bargain haircuts and public transportation. We’d wait three months in between paying bills, not because we didn’t want to pay, but because we couldn’t.

We’d wait for those glorious months with five Fridays — and five paychecks — to pay back our debts. Our home heating rebate would immediately go toward our heat bill, our piddling birthday money immediately went to bills.

I remember that one year my partner took his birthday money that his mom gave him and bought me the last book in the Harry Potter series because he didn’t want it to be spoiled for me before I could afford a copy. I wept.

A drab-looking Port Union in 2002, the year the author arrived in Newfoundland. Photo by Michelle Keep.

A drab-looking Port Union in 2002, ahead of the oil boom and the year the author arrived in Newfoundland. Photo by Michelle Keep.

But a decade is a long, long time. And in that time a lot has changed with us. I got a unionized job, and secured a comfortable pension and lifestyle. I started a savings account! I had a hair stylist who understood curly hair! I had clothes that fit and were comfortable. I bought books to my heart’s content.

My depression — something I’ve lived with since I was a child — lessened. It didn’t disappear, but I was able to afford therapy again. After all, I had an amazing health care plan and employee assistance plan to support me.

I was then offered a job in the dynamic oil and gas industry and I tentatively took the step from public sector to private, and I felt like I was on top of the world. I was respected, making a good living, and could afford things without budgeting for them.

Now I’m self-employed as a full-time romance author. I’m living my dream life, and making a wonderful living doing it. My partner and I still live frugally — we don’t have a house or a car, we don’t vacation often, if at all, and we don’t have children — but we’re exceptionally comfortable. Anything we want, we can afford. Anything we wish to do, we can.

We’re not in the highest bracket of earners, but we’re comfortable and we want to do our part.

Paying my fair share

Our hearts break at the stories coming out after this budget that are just like our beginnings, filled with bleak uncertainty, hopelessness and despair. With the safety net eroded, the power of unions decreased, and job prospects almost nil. With young families struggling to feed their children, people with disabilities pushed into the cold, and seniors having to work well past retirement age so they don’t starve to death.

I believe this budget is morally bankrupt, and the people who supported it should be called out of office for betrayal of the very people who put them in power.

I can afford to pay my fair share in taxes. I can afford the levy with a sigh and a roll of my eyes. I can afford the HST with a shrug of my shoulders. I can afford the extra couple percent of income tax with some well-intentioned grumbles and a knowing smile, like when someone complains about all the gorgeous days and being stuck inside.

 I’m willing to pay more because a healthy and happy society benefits all of Newfoundland and Labrador.

I’m willing to pay more so that my community doesn’t rot and die. I’m willing to pay more because I’m able to pay more. I’m willing to pay more because a healthy and happy society benefits all of Newfoundland and Labrador. I’m willing to pay more, because I don’t want to go back to the Newfoundland of 2002, when I first moved here, which had so little hope for a future.

And I think that those of us who can afford to pay a larger share need to speak up for those who can’t. Those who are comfortable need to take a stand and let our government know that we’re not in support of their morally bankrupt budget.

At the core, none of us wants to part with money we’ve earned. For me, money is stability and security. Having money in my savings account means I won’t go back to the life I used to live, struggling from paycheck to paycheck. But so does a strong safety net and a strong economy. So does knowing that there are jobs available for the willing, and government services for those who can’t secure a job immediately.

The Progressive Conservative Party spent as if there were no tomorrow, but the Liberals are cutting as if they don’t want there to be a tomorrow.

If we want to make a change, and to bring about a safer, happier, and more prosperous Newfoundland and Labrador, then we need solidarity. Not just between the poor and the struggling, but from those of us who have benefitted from the prosperity of the last decade. The public and private sectors, those of us who can live comfortably and buy groceries without looking at the price tag — we need to unite.

Because if someone has to pay for this mess, it needs to be us who benefited from the boom years.

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