Poverty activist needs to be heard by county

It is not easy to be critical of public institutions these days. If the neo-conservatives don’t marginalize you by slapping some mean-spirited label on the cause, politicians won’t give you the time of day unless you can sway the vote. While money saving changes seem to get everyone’s attention, some criticism in the news recently deserves equal attention.
Richard Shapcott, a Hamilton Township poverty-activist with Northumberland Up From The Ashes, came before county council asking for a series of changes. He provided the new county councillors with several accounts from his work as a lay advocate for people trying to get assistance from the OntarioWorks program.

He told councillors some people are having trouble. The reasons vary from ignorance of the welfare system to illiteracy to mental illness. Shapcott attends meetings with the applicants to assist. He is not professionally trained nor does he have any legal authority, but he acts as support for these people.

From his experience recently, he offered six suggestions that will be given to county staff for consideration.

This presentation fell on the heels of protest by Northumberland Services for Women a week earlier. It registered its disapproval with the Cobourg Police Service for recently hiring seven, white, male officers as part of its expansion of service into Hamilton Township.

Ann Dobby, chair of the board of directors of the organization dealing with violence against women and their children, said she was concerned about the number of female officers available to deal with domestic abuse. These officers are often better able to identify with women in most cases.

It is too easy to dismiss these concerns out of hand.

Shapcott is well known to many politicians and bureaucrats. He is a community activist with broad interests and will speak out on a range of social justice issues. To those who don’t know him, he could be described as an eccentric. There are those who use his unusual perspective to reject his arguments. In this case, he deserves to be heard.

While many jobs have been created by the growing economy, that doesn’t mean those who continue to struggle should be punished or not treated properly. This will become even more important as the economy slows down and layoffs become more common place. Those people will need a system that is fair, compassionate and provides sufficient support to allow them not to starve or be homeless.

Overriding all those considerations, people should be able to get help when they need it and not be forced to wait unnecessarily.

Saying all that, the entire social service department in Northumberland County should not be unfairly portrayed as heartless and uncaring. Social Services Director Carolyn Campbell has far too much integrity to allow that to happen. But, Shapcott has provided an opportunity for reflection and review. No system is perfect and, if there is a chance for improvement, county councillors should welcome it.

And, since the county is preparing for the provincial municipal report cards, there is already some kind of review taking place. So it should not be a big deal.

The same attitude needs to be adopted by the Cobourg Police force. It was only a decade ago when police forces across Ontario were being asked to hire more minorities and women in an effort to better reflect the community. The women currently serving on the force were part of that effort. But certainly there needs to be a higher percentage of women officers if it is to reflect that portion of our community.

It would be an oversimplification of the situation to hire someone because of their gender or ethnicity. But Police Chief John Kay’s response, when he says the women and native people who applied did not have the experience or meet the criteria, is an equally weak justification. Nobody will argue the force should not hire “the best” officers. But that doesn’t hide the force’s bias.

It was easy for Kay to recently sign a protocol with Northumberland Services for Women and appear to be supporting the organization. This hiring would have been a clear message to all women that his commitment is more than a signature.

The Cobourg Police force, like many across the province, can draw from private companies who pre-screen candidates. They have done so in the past. These companies administer the necessary physical and other tests to save local forces time and resources. If the candidates were drawn from this pool, it is hard to imagine why they would not meet the basic criteria to become police officers. While he may have wanted more experienced officers, Cobourg has an aging police force. It seems this expansion was an excellent opportunity to hire some young officers.

And this point is not beyond Kay. He has enough sense to know the importance of visibility. He parades officers through the downtown, has two police dogs, officers on bicycles and a host of other initiatives that are as much about public relations as policing.

Port Hope and Hope Township should take notes, since they may be hiring officers in the near future.

Both the county and the Cobourg Police force need to make public the subsequent reports and the media needs to make this public. Our community needs assurances that our system is accountable and responsive to all members.

First published: January 17, 2001

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