By: Charles Lammam and Milagros Palacios in Vancouver 

With home prices rising across the country, many of us would likely assume that housing costs (including rent and mortgage payments) are the most expensive budget item for the average Canadian family.

In reality, however, the average Canadian household spends more on taxes than any other expense—including housing. Specifically, in 2016 the average Canadian family (including single Canadians) earned $83,105 in income and paid $35,283 in total taxes. That’s 42.5 per cent of income going to taxes.

Surprised? You’re not alone.

For most of us, the income and payroll tax deductions on our paycheques do not total anything close to this percentage. But to understand the full cost of taxation, you must consider all the taxes—both visible and hidden—that we pay throughout the year to federal, provincial and municipal governments including sales taxes, property taxes, fuel taxes, carbon taxes, import taxes, alcohol taxes and much more. All these taxes add up and make our overall tax bill expensive.
So how does the overall tax bill compare to housing costs?

The average Canadian family spends 22.1 per cent of its income on housing—only about half as much as it spends on taxes (again, 42.5 per cent).

In fact, taxes consume more of the average family’s income than all the basic necessities of life combined. If you add up the average family’s spending on housing, food and clothing in a year, it comes to 37.4 per cent of its income—still quite a bit less than what we pay in taxes.

With 42.5 per cent of income going to taxes, Canadian families may rightfully wonder whether they get good value for their tax dollars. Of course, taxes fund important government services. But we shouldn’t simply assume that higher taxes always provide better government services.

While it’s ultimately up to individual Canadians and their families to decide if they’re getting the best bang for their money, you must know how much you pay in total taxes to make an informed assessment. That’s where our annual calculations help. They estimate the cost of government for the average family. Armed with this knowledge, Canadians can then determine if they think they’re getting good value in return.

Some perspective might help.

In most provinces, more than 50 per cent of our tax dollars finance generous pay for government employees. In fact, government employees, on average, receive 10.6 per cent higher wages than comparable private-sector workers doing similar work. And that’s on top of the much more generous non-wage benefits (pension coverage, job security, early retirement) the government sector also enjoys. Of course, we need qualified and well-paid government workers, but is this pay and benefit premium the best use of our tax dollars?

In the case of health care, which consumes around 40 per cent of most provincial budgets and is a fast-growing expense, international comparisons show that, despite high levels of spending, Canadians have comparatively poor access to technology and doctors, and endure longer wait times for surgery. It’s hard to see how we get good value for our money in public health care when measured against other countries that also offer universal access.

Most troubling is when our tax dollars are outright wasted on boondoggles and failed government programs. A recent study documented more than 600 cases where the federal government failed to meet its own objectives over a 25-year period, resulting in up to $197 billion of wasted tax money.

Bottom line—if Canadians are more informed about the true cost of government, they will be better equipped to hold government accountable for how it spends our tax dollars. And that leads to a more robust public debate about the overall tax burden and whether we’re getting our money’s worth.

Charles Lammam is the Director, Fiscal Studies, at the Fraser Institute and Milagros Palacios is the Senior Research Economist at the Fraser Institute. This piece was republished under arrangement with the Asian Pacific Post.

Published in Economy
Thursday, 17 March 2016 15:24

Breaking Silence Around Elder Abuse

by Beatrice Paez in Toronto

Asking seniors subtle questions about their daily routines opens up dialogue – and can point to signs of elder abuse, which rarely reveals itself in obvious ways.

Nirpal Bhangoo-Sekhon often asks seniors she meets about what they’ve been eating, who handles their finances and if their basic needs are being met. It is her job as case manager of the Punjabi Community Health Services (PCHS) to be curious.

“Unfortunately, if we don't ask those questions, we wouldn't know what's happening,” she says. “It gives you a better picture of what goes on at home.”

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Abuse isn't limited to physical violence; it can extend to the withholding of financial resources, verbal threats and isolation from the household.[/quote]

In a 2009 report, Statistics Canada found that two-thirds of seniors who experienced family violence – physical force or threats – didn't sustain injuries. Seniors most at risk, based on reports to the police, are between 65 and 74.  

During her one-on-one meetings with seniors, Bhangoo-Sekhon will also illustrate scenarios to raise awareness of how common an issue elder abuse is. Holding such conversations regularly helps ease reservations about breaking their silence, which can take months, if not longer, she says. 

Reluctance to speak up

While elder abuse cuts across different cultural groups, they may contend with different obstacles. 

Language barriers and distrust in the police – mostly worries about being deported – aren't the only concerns stacked heavily against the decision to come forward, says Kripa Sekhar, the executive director of the South Asian Women's Centre (SAWC) in Toronto.

There's the perception that speaking out would fracture family ties and bring shame on the community. 

“I don't think they want to be seen as a community that's going to expose their families or seen as betraying their families," says Sekhar. "They've almost accepted that ‘this is what's meant for me.’”

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Cultural groups have different attitudes about what constitutes abuse.[/quote]

Burial customs can also play a role in the struggle to come forward for seniors of certain faiths.  

With funeral rites traditionally being the responsibility of the son or a male family member, some express concern that their spiritual needs will not be looked after if they speak out, says Sekhar. “They're not worried about today. They're worried about the afterlife. It's hard to understand that – you're struggling in this life, but it's such a part of who they are.”

Abuse isn't limited to physical violence; it can extend to the withholding of financial resources, verbal threats and isolation from the household, she explains. 

Statistical profiles on elder abuse as it relates to the South Asian community aren't traced by front-line agencies such as the police and social services. Statistics Canada instead analyzes the prevalence of family violence along gender lines, while acknowledging that cultural groups have different attitudes about what constitutes abuse.

Possibilities for intervention

The immediate response to cases of physical abuse might be to find alternative housing, but in other instances, intervention through education is crucial, says Bhangoo-Sekhon.  

"If we can go in and educate the families – that, in the end, would be much more helpful and useful for the community than just pulling seniors out [of the home] and placing them in shelters," she says. 

Finding subsidized housing or placing elders in shelters isn't always the most feasible solution in cases of neglect or isolation, particularly if they're not used to living independently and are in need of a personal support worker, she says. 

PCHS has a caregiver support program, an extension of its efforts to address elder abuse, which is offered to those who are caring for family members. It is intended to relieve the strain of household demands. The program attempts to engender a culture of empathy, recognizing that the caregiver may be stressed, while getting him or her to understand the vulnerabilities that seniors face. 

"We help them understand the aging process," says Bhangoo-Sekhon, adding that changes in a senior's behaviour may create friction within the family if it's not recognized as a health issue.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]"Housing for seniors should be guaranteed. They need enough funding to live in dignity."[/quote]

"[It's to help] them understand what's happening to their body, their brain, and that's out of their control."

Networks for seniors living alone

SAWC, through its community network, tries to locate housing for seniors so they can live independently, but finding affordable housing can take an average of seven years, according to the Ontario Non-Profit Housing Association. Thirty per cent of seniors make up the wait list, as cited by the Toronto Star from the organization's 2015 report.

Sekhar communicates regularly with seniors who live independently and tries to ensure that their landlords are responsive to building safety issues. "Many say they do that, but their concerns aren't always attended to," she says. 

SAWC holds a seniors’ workshop every Thursday where they can gather to discuss health and safety issues, along with abuse. It's a support network for seniors who live on their own, where they feel comfortable conversing in their mother tongue, says Sekhar. 

"Housing for seniors should be guaranteed," says Sekhar. "They need enough funding to live in dignity."

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Published in Health

by Tazeen Inam in Mississauga

Canada’s falling loonie has added extra dollars to the pockets of residents who rely on financial assistance from abroad. 

Foreign investors in real estate and local exporters are also enjoying benefits from the dip in our dollar, which is at its lowest level since the spring of 2003, and expected to go lower, as analysts forecast the loonie could lose another 10 cents. 

The loonie dropped just under $0.70 U.S. at the beginning of the year, reaching 69.9 cents on January 12. 

Added cash in hand 

Azra Riffat, a retired officer from Pakistan, lives in Toronto and is enjoying the benefits of the low dollar. 

Riffat immigrated to Canada 10 years ago. Unable to work because of her responsibilities at home, caring for her 80-year-old mother, Riffat receives support from her siblings who transfer money to her account for their mother’s medical and household expenses. 

“My sister is in the UK and brother in the U.S.,” says Riffat. “They cannot physically take care of our mother, so they send in money.” 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“The lower Canadian dollar only benefits wealthier individuals who have resources to transfer [funds] to Canada."[/quote]

Over the past 12 months, the Canadian dollar has lost 15 per cent of its value against the U.S. Because the majority of the funds transferred to Canada are in U.S. dollars, this means up to an additional $45 for every $100 US converted to Canadian currency. 

“Last month when I checked the quote on an exchange rate of selling $100 US to buy Canadian dollars, it was 144.50,” says Riffat. 

Immigrants often come to Canada as families, but men sometimes return to their countries of origin because they are unable to find work. In other cases, men with high-paying positions in other countries move their families to Canada to give their children a more promising future. These are some of the families who are benefiting from the current exchange rate. 

“The lower Canadian dollar only benefits wealthier individuals who have resources to transfer [funds] to Canada, provided that [the funds come from] countries where the local currency is also in high value,” says Mustafa Koc, professor of sociology at Ryerson University in Toronto. 

Similarly, new immigrants who relocated to Canada during the past year have the added advantage of being able to stretch their savings for a longer period, compared to those who settled before, adds Majid Kazmi, a banker and immigrant from the Middle East. 

Good for real estate 

The low currency this year, complemented by low interest rates, creates an optimal situation for immigrants buying homes and foreign investors alike, as their buying power in the Canadian housing market has increased, particularly in Vancouver and Toronto, says Wayne Ryan, Managing Broker at Remax-Vancouver. 

“Vancouver’s high-end properties are not flying off the shelf,” says Ryan, but explains that detached homes, which can cost anywhere between $3 and $5 million, are popular among foreign investors. 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Canada is seen as a “safe-haven” for foreign capital and the falling currency helps to further encourage it.[/quote]

Some potential buyers are able to take advantage of liquidating their assets in their countries of origin and investing in the Canadian real estate market. Analysts like Eytan Lasry, who teaches in the business department at Toronto’s York University, suggest that Canada is seen as a “safe-haven” for foreign capital and the falling currency helps to further encourage it. 

Lasry adds that the best thing for both home buyers and investors is the low interest rates – which may sink even lower – as they make debt manageable. 

“It’s a global economy,” he explains. “When money goes low, you attract more, topped with low interest rates makes the debt servicing easy.” 

Exporters tap gains 

Canadian businesses, including those in food and consumer product industries, that export to the U.S. are also enjoying the extra profit because of the lower exchange rate. 

In a 2014 report, Moody’s Investors Service stated that the Canadian dollar depreciation is a positive for many Canadian industries, such as pulp and wood products. 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“Their costs are in Canadian dollars and their revenues are coming from abroad in currencies that are better off.”[/quote]

Also, small businesses that export services, like catering and trucking to the U.S. and Mexico, tend to gain from the falling loonie. 

“Their costs are in Canadian dollars and their revenues are coming from abroad in currencies that are better off,” explains Kazmi. 

Fuzail Ata Pirzada, who migrated from the UK 16 years ago, runs a catering business in Mississauga. He provides service to Asian-themed functions and festivals in the U.S. too, close to the border. 

“I am paid in U.S. dollars, but the cost of the vegetables and meat has also increased in Canada, which offsets my profits,” he says. He adds that during winter, business slows down, but he is hoping to reap the benefit of the low dollar when spring arrives, and the wedding season begins. 

“It’s a good time to invest in the Canadian export industry, with a controlled cost of production on manufacturing and producing goods, and enjoy the pricing advantage later,” Kazmi suggests. 

As the Bank of Canada Governor, Stephen Poloz, has said repeatedly, the loonie is a casualty of the falling price of oil. He says it could take three years for Canada to work through the economic issues that are currently driving its dollar down.

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Published in Economy

Commentary by Don Curry in North Bay

Like a Northern Ontario lake in January, the cracks are starting to show in the Syrian refugee housing strategy.

It was to be expected, given the federal government’s desire to act swiftly, but there are lessons to be learned.

Vancouver, Ottawa and Toronto have run out of housing, temporarily, for Government Assisted Refugees (GARs). Immigrant serving agencies in these three cities have asked the government to stop sending families until they can clear the housing backlog. 

Meanwhile, sponsorship groups in cities across the nation have homes ready to go and no refugee families in sight.

Refugees arrivals lag in smaller cities

In a previous commentary I took Chris Friesen, Director of Settlement Services with the Immigrant Services Society of B.C., to task for saying small cities can’t handle refugees. His view is it should be left to the big boys: Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa.

Well, as everyone knows, those cities are congested and housing is way too expensive. 

So why is the federal government not redirecting refugee families to where homes are ready to go and sponsorship groups are eager to help?

The government should be quickly readjusting the numbers in the three refugee programs: GARs, private sponsorships and blended sponsorships. 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Sponsorship groups in cities across the nation have homes ready to go and no refugee families in sight.[/quote]

The blended program has hit some snags. Our group in North Bay Ontario has been ready to go since November and the first family we were matched with through the Mennonite Central Committee of Ontario, a mother and nine children, has yet to arrive. 

We don’t know why and no one will say. We have signed on for a second family, but there’s still no trace of the first one. 

The same is true for other sponsorship groups. Former Toronto Mayor John Sewell was quoted in the Toronto media as saying the sponsorship group he chairs has been ready to go since mid-December but has not received an offer of a refugee family to sponsor.

He said his group is one of 18 affiliated with Rosedale United Church and none are receiving referrals.

Issues with the selection process

The problem is the federal government chooses its refugee families first. The remaining qualified families are then put in a pool of profiles that are shared with the 100 faith and community groups that have sponsorship agreements with Ottawa. 

The GARs are funded 100 per cent by the taxpayers for the first year while the taxpayers cover only about 40 per cent in the blended program. In the private sponsorship program they cover nothing. 

So why not change the selection system to put the private and blended sponsorships at the front of the queue?

Brian Dyck, chair of the Sponsorship Agreement Holders’ Association, was quoted saying 300 Syrian refugee profiles have been posted since the beginning of January and they were quickly snapped up. 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]We have signed on for a second family, but there’s still no trace of the first one.[/quote]

“The matching system was designed for small-scale sponsorship interest. To adapt it to the current public interest is a big challenge,” he said.

It doesn’t appear that big to me. The Syrian refugee families don’t care what category they're in. They just want to leave.

How difficult can it be to redirect enough GARs to where there are willing sponsorship groups?

While the government is at it, why doesn’t it re-examine its GAR system, which settles refugees in a few select cities across Canada, and open it up to many more cities? Spread the work, spread the housing challenges and send refugees to communities seeking to grow their populations.

Canada must capitalize on its capacity

Many military bases are at less than full capacity and could be used to house GARs temporarily in communities until more suitable housing is found. We have one in North Bay and we have a city that has raised a lot of money and is receptive to newcomers. We are but one of many similar communities across Canada.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada Minister John McCallum wants to bring in many more refugees. The government's new emphasis on refugees is evident in the word being placed in his title. 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]The Syrian refugee families don’t care what category they're in. They just want to leave.[/quote]

If we’re in for significantly increased numbers of refugees for the long term, it’s time to make some changes to the programs that were designed for much smaller numbers.

Let’s spread refugees across Canada to the many willing cities and towns. The big cities do not have a monopoly on settlement and integration expertise. 

If the federal government spent more resources on immigrant settlement agencies in the smaller centres, a settlement worker here and a settlement worker there, their capacity would increase and they could settle larger numbers of newcomers.

The hiccups in the present system present an opportunity for change.

Don Curry is the president of Curry Consulting, a company providing immigration solutions for rural and northern Canada. He was the founding executive director of the North Bay & District Multicultural Centre and served in that capacity for eight years. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. 

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Published in Commentary

by Tazeen Inam in Mississauga, Ontario

For most of the Syrian refugees arriving in Canada this month, their first challenge will be to find affordable housing as they transition into a new life in the country. 

Dominic Amann, an IT project manager, plans to offer two bedrooms in his home along with free food to a family of four or five members with the assistance of Wesley United Churches in Hamilton, Ontario.

Amman was born in England and came to Canada 25 years ago. As a child, he saw his father receive refugees from Uganda and Kenya during the 1970’s expulsion. He is Roman Catholic and wife is Jewish.  

The offer was made possible with extended resources from his network of friends, such as food, clothing and even employment for the refugee family. Amman is also willing to let them stay for longer than the standard 12 months if necessary.

“I am flexible,” Amann says. “We have to see what the need is, as well as my ability to continue as it cannot be unlimited.” 

Impact on low-income rental housing

Building developers are not worried that offering free or discounted rental units to Syrian refugees might impact the affordable housing market. 

“Twenty-five thousand refugees translates into seven to eight thousand households from Barrie all the way to Victoria,” says Bob Dhillon, president and CEO of Mainstreet Equity Corp, a rental apartment provider in Calgary. “It’s a drop in the ocean. I don’t think it’s going to impact in any sense.” 

Dhillon has offered 200 rental units in different cities for three months, either free or prorated (where three months’ rent is proportionally distributed over 12 months).  

Many Canadians are struggling to find affordable housing. This is particularly true in Ontario, where a 2014 report from the Ontario Non-Profit Housing Association suggests that the average family waits for rent-geared-to-income housing for 2.3 years. 

The province suffers from chronic homelessness, something the Ontario government has committed to eradicating in the next 10 years.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“It’s a drop in the ocean, I don’t think it’s going to impact in any sense.”[/quote]

Despite these large numbers, Daljit Thind, owner of THIND Properties Ltd., a new home builders company in Vancouver, agrees with Dhillon. He says offers made to refugees are on a humanitarian basis.

“Free or subsidized rentals offered to refugees is totally separate from low-income rental market,” he says.

Thind is offering a number of fully furnished townhouses to Syrian refugees in Vancouver without charging rent for few months.

For Amann, he says it would be harder for him to offer free or sponsored housing to homeless people in Canada because of the risks associated with it.

“[People who are] homeless in that situation are due to things like mental illness or addiction and can pose some level of risk to my family,” he says. “I know people coming as refugees have more external support from government and agencies.” 

The government’s role in housing

Debbie Douglas, executive director at Ontario Council for Agencies Serving Immigrants, says the government has not made any special arrangements for Syrian refugees in terms of housing. 

Like any other refugee group, only government-sponsored refugees get a housing supplement for a year; privately sponsored refugee are supported by their sponsors. 

“Even the social housing stock in Ontario is not being used for refugees,” she says.

However, with corporate donations, the government is looking to create a housing fund — separate from social housing — to help refugees transition to permanent housing. 

“I know that CN [Canadian National Railway Company] has given a $5 million donation that the government is looking to create a sort of housing fund [with],” Douglas explains.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]The government has not made any special arrangements for Syrian refugees in terms of housing.[/quote]

In a news report, Heng Chau, the housing co-ordinator for Maison Sophia, a reception house for refugees in Ottawa’s ByWard Market area, says that most refugees manage to pay their rent by scrimping on other expenses.

The report adds that government-sponsored refugees – families of four with two adults and two children – receive approximately $2,600 assistance a month from the federal government during their first year in Canada, to cover food, housing, transportation and child-tax benefits.  

According to Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation report, the vacancy rate amongst rental units in 35 of the country’s largest cities has increased to 3.3 per cent from 2.8 per cent in 2014, which means the arriving refugees should be easily accommodated in Canada’s housing market.

The report further adds that in October 2015, the average rent for a two-bedroom unit in new and existing buildings in those 35 cities was $960 a month.

Settlement process needs time

Some critics suggest that the hunt for affordable housing will get harder as more refugees arrive, while others believe that refugees who have lived in camps and tents often are comfortable in smaller living spaces or shared housing. 

As Thind suggests for the town houses he is offering, “They have four bedrooms and can accommodate two families easily.”

With a language barrier, finding cheap affordable housing in the long-run for these refugees could be a challenge. However, Douglas says that while they get help from settlement counsellors, they are expected to move out on their own too, just like the other 100,000 or so immigrants who settle in Ontario every year.

“With access to language training and employment support, they will able to find entry level jobs in the beginning to support themselves,” she concludes.

Journalist Priya Ramanujam mentored the writer of this article through the NCM Mentoring Program. 

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Published in Economy

by Florence Hwang in Regina, Saskatchewan

While the Liberal government announced this week that there would be 10,000 Syrians admitted to Canada by the end of 2015 and 15,000 by the end of February 2016, Minister of Citizenship and Immigration John McCallum failed to offer many specifics regarding housing the refugees.

The ad-hoc committee did mention that 36 cities were slated to receive refugees and that the military was prepared to house up to 6,000 refugees on a temporary basis if necessary.

“We don’t know what our provincial numbers will be either. We don’t know which of our cities is of that 36. Those are all fairly critical pieces,” says Brett Loney, Communications Director for the Nova Scotia Immigration Department.

In the coming weeks, Loney hopes to have more specifics regarding plans for accommodating the Syrians in Nova Scotia.

"Our partners are going out there, beating bushes like they routinely do,” he says. “Now that we have a clear sense of more [of] the details of the federal approach, it will help them in their work.”

Preparations underway across the country

Jean McRae is the Executive Director of the Inter-Cultural Association of Greater Victoria (ICA) and works with the Greater Victoria Housing Society, BC Housing Authority and other organizations that are offering places for the refugees to stay. She says the response from the community has been tremendous. 

Despite them not knowing too many of the details, many have offered to help with the Syrian refugees by donating, volunteering and offering places in their homes.

“We’ve had people say we’ve got a suite in my house or we had someone come say they have a house they have on the market that they’re willing to pull off the market for a year to help,” she says. “We’ve had people who may not have had suites, but have rooms in their houses.”

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Many have offered to help with the Syrian refugees by donating and volunteering.[/quote]

Until further information is available, McRae says that it’s a bit of a waiting game. “At this point, we’re just gathering all this information because until we actually know what’s going on, it’s very difficult to say what we’re going to need.”

Getachew Woldyesus is similarly focused on preparing for the arrival of the Syrians in Regina, Saskatchewan. He has served with the Regina Open Door Society (RODS) for 30 years.

“We are working with the community to support the newcomers regarding housing, school registration, whatever they need for their settlement.” says Woldyesus who is currently the Settlement & Family & Community Services Manager for RODS. “We have volunteers who would be willing to support newcomers.”

Scale is different from previous undertakings

According to Debbie Douglas, the executive director of the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI), the Syrian refugee influx is different from other waves of immigrants that have come to Canada because of the sheer number of applicants and the tight timeline.

“What is different is that we’re looking at 25,000 in a very short period of time. Compared with the Kosovars in 1999, we brought in 5,000 over 60 or 90 days, but certainly it was the same process for bringing in large amounts of people all at the same time,” says Douglas.

However, she feels that public institutions like schools and hospitals are much more prepared to handle the newcomers than in the past. 

“I think what’s different [from past immigration waves] is that we have a very robust, sophisticated immigrant/refugee–serving infrastructure in place and so we’re able to hit the ground running when they get here,” she says.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Public institutions like schools and hospitals are much more prepared to handle the newcomers than in the past.[/quote]

She is still concerned about long-term housing, especially in a large urban centre such as Toronto. Housing prices have increased substantially in major centres such as Toronto and Vancouver and those who have homes are not looking to move anytime soon.

“We don’t have a significant vacancy rate, but I do believe our system will be responsive,” says Douglas. “That’s certainly going to be a challenge, but it’s a challenge anyways for most folks who live in Toronto, to be able to find adequate housing.”

She says they are also working on finding temporary and permanent housing for the refugees, whether they are government-sponsored or privately sponsored. 

Proceeding carefully when it comes to housing

While welcoming the newcomers is important, Loren Balisky, executive director with Kinbrace, says the housing situation, particularly the temporary side, should be handled with care. 

“I think we have to be careful we don’t warehouse. By necessity we’ll have to. They’re going to [be placed in] army barracks and those kinds of things. But as quickly as possible, they need to be connected to people,” he says. 

Kinbrace houses refugee claimants seeking asylum in Vancouver, aiming to foster dignity and respect by showing how refugees are contributing members of society. 

“Rather than doing things for people, either do them with and accompany [them]. They’re not objects of our pity. They shouldn’t be objects of our charity either.” says Balisky, who has lived with refugee claimants at Kinbrace for the past 17 years. “There’s something we’ve learned here that can be of value to the wider Canadian population, [which] is to help and welcome.”

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Published in Politics

by Tazeen Inam in Mississauga, Ontario

Shahzad Shamim recently settled in Canada with his family – three school-aged children, a wife and a mother – after emigrating from the United Arab Emirates. Instead of renting an apartment or a condo, though, he bought a house in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). 

With interest rates at an all time low, this is the best time to buy a property in Canada, explains Shamim. 

“Why should I pay for someone else’s mortgage by renting a property, instead of paying my own?” asks Shamim, adding that he believes once his family is settled he will be better able to search for work. 

It’s widely believed that low interest rates make Canada’s housing market attractive for immigrants who bring with them a significant amount of capital when they arrive.

This in turn translates into an optimistic trend when it comes to prices, explains Adnan Bashir, vice president of Cityscape Real Estate agency. “Demand is escalating; it’s not taking a roller coaster ride, but it is there,” he says.

Demand is created by the growing influx of immigrants, but Shamim insists that low-interest rates don’t mean unlimited purchasing power for new Canadians. “If the interest rates are low, that doesn’t mean I am saving a lot [or buying] a luxury house. It only compels me to afford a reasonable house within my budget.”  

The perceived threat of foreign investors

As stated in a CIBC World Market Report released in June 2015, under the heading “The Many Faces of the Canadian Housing Market”, Canada’s housing market is multi-dimensional and cannot be characterized with a blanket statement.  

CIBC’s report estimated that roughly 70 per cent of pre-sales and 50 per cent of final sales go to investors. However, the share of foreign investors in this total activity is much smaller than perceived.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]This segment of the market is relatively safe from foreign investors.[/quote]

“The more significant portion is coming from a situation in which the money is coming from abroad, but the family lives in Canada,” indicates the report. “Now the question arises if this is foreign or domestic investment?” 

Whatever it is classified as, this kind of activity requires a much larger down payment and the family often lives in the house after purchasing, suggesting a much higher level of commitment than a typical foreign investor does. 

Therefore, in terms of risk, this segment of the market is relatively safe from foreign investors driving up housing prices, the report adds.

Today’s average immigrant buyer

Gurinder Sandhu, the Executive Vice President and Regional Director of Remax, says today’s immigrant buyer is quite different from that of years past.

“People are not buying houses for investment or renting them out and are [not living in Canada],” he says. “Now immigrants are buying to live in those [houses] and they buy for their families.” 

Sandhu says this is a result of the world recession. In other parts of the world, buyers are unable to grow their equity and their investments are deemed unsafe because of factors including corruption, poor economy, oil prices and war.

For over two and a half years, the global economy has been on the verge of uncertainty, whereas “Canada’s stable financial institutions and prudent fiscal policy have kept the housing market well intact,” Sandhu adds.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“Now immigrants are buying to live in those [houses] and they buy for their families.”[/quote]

Canada is also viewed as one of the best places to raise families, making it a preferred destination for immigrants.

Sandhu predicts the urban market across Canada will show a healthy single-digit annual ascent, with prices growing less than 10 per cent from the previous year.

Bashir added that this growth will be most significant in areas outside of the GTA. “We will see an increased growth in suburban markets like Hamilton, Pickering and others due to new development and affordability.”

Shamim is one such new immigrant who preferred the Hamilton area, as his eldest child will most likely opt to attend McMaster University after completing high school.

“It’s a nice neighbourhood with plazas, clinics and community centres within a close vicinity,” he says.

Rising prices and interest rates

Bashir says he believes that the biggest challenge faced by today’s immigrants is “money management”, which results in constant demand for smaller down payments. 

This is reflective of a market in which housing prices in provinces like Alberta, British Columbia and Ontario – where many immigrants have traditionally settled – are increasing to the point where homes are unaffordable to the working class.

The Bank of Canada indicates that rising home prices have increased household debt levels, but steps taken by regulators to tighten mortgage-lending rules have helped manage the associated risks.

The risk of becoming “house poor” – a situation that describes a person who spends a large proportion of his or her total income on home ownership including mortgage, property taxes, maintenance and utilities – is relatively high, Bashir says. 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“The real test will come when interest rates start to rise."[/quote]

However, Sandhu indicates that the demand for luxury houses among immigrants is not diminishing either. 

“A detached or semi-detached house might not be the first house of an immigrant, but it could be the real dream house. The investors are using their first buy (condo or town house) as a source of equity built up,” he comments.  

For the wider market, the CIBC report warns that “the real test will come when interest rates start to rise, whenever that may be.” 

Sandhu predicts this will happen, but not in the short term. “Rates may move up slowly, but not in [the] near future,” he says. 

He cautions, though, “Constant political and financial upheaval outside Canada reduces the interest rate stability.” However, like Sandhu he says there are no foreseen changes in the interest rates anytime soon.

Journalist Priya Ramanujam mentored the writer of this article, through the New Canadian Media mentorship program.

{module NCM Blurb}

Published in Economy
Tuesday, 22 September 2015 13:34

Saving Vancouver from Silo Culture

by Hadani Ditmars in Vancouver, British Columbia

A woman moves her hand in a delicate arabesque, as a Spanish guitar plays distinctive chords that can only be flamenco. A husky voiced alto sings heartfelt, serpentine melodies that express the very soul of Andalucía.
Where is this, you might ask? A church in Granada perhaps? A café in Seville? No, actually, it’s the opening night of the 25th Anniversary of the Vancouver International Flamenco Festival at the Playhouse Theatre. The legendary Andres Pena and Pilar Ogalla Company has come all the way from Spain to lend the Pacific city some duende.
Duende is that indefinable, spiritual essence that enters into one's being and comes out as impassioned dance, a flurry of fingers or a deep cante jondo. In his Theory and Play of the Duende, Garcia Lorca (whose right-wing, civil war-era assassins and burial place were recently revealed -- a fitting time to invoke his spirit) explains,
"The duende works on the dancer's body like wind on sand. It changes a girl, by magic power, into a lunar paralytic, or covers the cheeks of a broken old man, begging for alms in the wine-shops, with adolescent blushes: gives a woman's hair the odour of a midnight sea-port: and at every instant works the arms with gestures that are the mothers of the dances of all the ages."
Lorca speaks of the duende as "A mysterious force that everyone feels and no philosopher has explained.”
Our civic malaise
As the rainy season begins in a city the Economist  recently called “mind-numbingly boring”, I could use a little duende – and God knows Vancouver could. Like Garcia Lorca, the apparent soullessness of this city often has me asking, The duende... Where is the duende? Through the empty archway a wind of the spirit enters... in search of new landscapes and unknown accents: a wind with the odour of a child's saliva, crushed grass, and Medusa's veil, announcing the endless baptism of freshly created things.
I pondered this as the impassioned performance gave way to another bland, rainy night where everything shuts down early, as if narcolepsy were our civic malaise.
The spirit of flamenco was born after all from the unique fusion of cultures in Andalucía: gypsy, Jewish, Muslim, Christian traditions blended together harmoniously under Moorish rule, creating a unique musical, linguistic and architectural style and a society where scientists, poets and dancers set standards still admired centuries later.
While Vancouver sounds good on paper and would seem to have all the right ingredients to create our own unique brand of duende -- city by the sea, warmest place in Canada, huge Iranian, Chinese and Indian diasporas, rich First Nations tradition -- in reality it’s one of the most racially segregated cities in North America.
With a few notable exceptions – like say the two block stretch West of Davie on Denman that boasts the Iraqi Babylon Café next to a Persian kebab shop with a killer view of English Bay and palm trees that make it possible to pretend for a moment you’ve been transported to Beirut, or say, the area around 15th and Lonsdale in North Vancouver where the Yaas Café sells saffron rice across from Loblaws and newly arrived Iranians mingle with blond descendants of Glaswegians who arrived post-war to work in the shipyards -- much of Vancouver consists of ethnic solitudes.
Cliquey enclaves
While planners blame this on the suburban legacy of the CPR railway subdivisions that shaped the city, I think it has a lot to do with our colonial heritage.  In a weird way, my birth city reminds me of Nairobi in the 30’s – cliquey enclaves that never rub shoulders, and ghettoized suburbs where multiculturalism is more about criminal gangs than folk dancing (see Deepa Mehta’s Surrey inspired Beeba Boys).
While Toronto has atoned for its Presbyterian past with lively, multi-lingual neighbourhoods like King Street West, that make it one of the most multicultural cities in the world (according to the UN) and Montreal has always been, well, Montreal, Canada’s third largest city seems increasingly to be channeling silo culture.
Long before the damning description by the Economist, the Vancouver Foundation’s 2012 study showed that a sense of isolation was one of Vancouverites biggest complaints. Some of this mono-cultural, isolationist tendency can be blamed on the high cost of housing, but it’s deeper than that.
Social apartheid
Oddly for a city whose arts scene champions cultural mélange (the flamenco festival, for example, was founded by  Mexican-Lebanese dancer Rosario Ancer whose company features Japanese-Canadian performer Nanako Aramaki; the Vancouver International Film Festival offers impressive programs of Iranian and South African cinema, UBC’s Chan Centre is presenting the Buena Vista Social Club and Youssou N’Dour) Vancouver maintains a de facto social apartheid.
Audiences for “world music” festivals remain predominantly white; Iranian virtuosos play to mainly Farsi speaking crowds on the North Shore, and Asian film stars come to town, virtually unnoticed by half the city.
I haven’t given up on my birth city entirely. After all there’s so much potential here and perhaps it’s only a matter of time and critical cultural mass before it awakens from its silo-like sleepiness and embraces the genuine and organic cultural exchange that makes for truly “world-class” cities.
In the meantime, you can find me on that stretch of Denman Street, drinking Turkish coffee at the Babylon Café, and desperately chanting flamenco incantations in the hope that a little more duende will come to town.

Hadani Ditmars is the author of Dancing in the No Fly Zone and is working on a new book about ancient sites in Iraq. She has been reporting from the Middle East for two decades and is also a singer and musician. 

{module NCM Blurb}

Published in Commentary
Thursday, 17 September 2015 11:05

Youth Volunteers Support Chinatown Seniors

by Deanna Cheng in Vancouver

One outreach worker is creating a bilingual volunteer program because there's not enough support for Chinese seniors, especially those in Vancouver's Chinatown.

Chanel Ly, a 23-year-old outreach worker who is part of the Downtown Eastside SRO Collaborative, initiated the Youth for Chinese Seniors program because when she sees all these seniors – who are predominantly female – she thinks of her grandma. She cannot imagine not helping them out.

"I can't stand seeing seniors being neglected. It's disrespectful."

She points out that it's part of the Chinese cultural values to care for elders.

Ly will connect bilingual youth volunteers to seniors in the Strathcona area, the city's oldest neighbourhood.

Tasks for volunteers include translating legal documents, taking seniors to the doctor's office or the pharmacy, and informing seniors about their rights as tenants.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]The biggest problem for Strathcona seniors is affordable housing.[/quote]

One of the biggest challenges Ly faced while building this program from scratch was the amount of work required because there was no previous infrastructure, despite the demand for service that was culturally appropriate and in Chinese.

The program will run from this month to March next year, Ly says, because that's when grant funding ends.

"The goal is to improve the quality of life for Chinese seniors."

Addressing Chinese seniors’ challenges

The biggest problem for Strathcona seniors is affordable housing. With condo developments in the area, rents are going up and pushing out the original residents.

Vancouver activist Sid Chow Tan believes the Chinese benevolent and clan associations should contribute to Chinatown by providing their buildings and property for social housing. These associations, grouped either by provinces in China or last name "clans," were community centres.

Historically, most of the association buildings were community homes and bachelor suites for Chinese immigrants, a demographic regularly ignored by the government and institutions, Tan says. "It's sad to see space that used to house hundreds and hundreds of bachelors are now used for mahjong and ping-pong."

Another concern for seniors is health, says Ly. "Doctors are not always accessible. Drop-in clinics are not always available. Or opened only during certain hours."

Volunteers will help by accompanying seniors to the doctor's office and translate if needed.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]"We want to fill in the gaps between the generations." - Chanel Ly, Downtown Eastside SRO Collaborative[/quote]

Racism against Chinese seniors does happen at community centres, due to an unfounded belief that there's no such thing as poor Chinese people.

"There are poor Chinese," Tan said at a July event where bilingual volunteers and seniors met. "The Chinese poor doesn't want to be seen as poor. They just bear it."

Tan says they don't want to "lose face." In Chinese, the phrase means losing a combination of self-respect, honour and reputation.

Community survival

Despite the barriers they encounter, these seniors survive by banding together. "They're always self-sufficient and resourceful. They have their own networks," Ly says.

However, Mandarin-speaking seniors are even more marginalized, she says, because what little support there is, it's usually for Cantonese speakers.

Tan says the boomer generation couldn't leave Chinatown fast enough, but the "echo-boomers" came back. "They see something to save and protect. It's sacred ground to Chinese people.”

"It was where people organized to vote, worked to send money home," he says. "Now it's sullied by market forces, economic greed and political entitlement within the community."

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Three in five Canadians say their families are not in a good position, financially or otherwise, to care for older family members requiring long-term health care.[/quote]

Connecting generations

The program also promotes intergenerational interactions. Says Ly, "We want to fill in the gaps between the generations."

Ly started collecting volunteers before the summer and will have check-in meetings with youth once a month. At the moment, she has 15 dedicated volunteers lined up.

The online volunteer form is comprehensive, even asking for preferred pronouns. The program organizer says she wanted the volunteers to feel comfortable.

When asked if seniors – especially those with a traditional mindset – would be upset with transgender volunteers, Ly says the seniors might accept them.

She says they'll notice more that the volunteer is a young, Chinese-speaking person. They'll be grateful for the assistance, and would get to know them as human beings with good intentions.

Seniors’ health care: the numbers

A report titled "2015 National Report Card: Canadian Views on a National Seniors' Health Care Strategy" by Ipsos Reid Public Affairs for the Canadian Medical Association said seniors today represent 15 per cent of the population. In 1971, seniors only represented eight per cent of the population.

Three in five Canadians say their families are not in a good position, financially or otherwise, to care for older family members requiring long-term health care, the report said.

Respondents 55 years of age and older indicate they want more home care and community support to help seniors live at home longer as a key priority for the government.

Ninety per cent of Canadians surveyed believe we need a national strategy on seniors' health care that addresses the need for care provided at home and in hospitals, hospices and long-term care facilities, as well as end-of-life care.

{module NCM Blurb}

Published in Health

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