Lower Income Canadians

Lower Income Canadians

Between August and October 2011, Samara spoke to disengaged Canadians across the country in a series of focus groups. The complete findings from this study are published in Samara’s report, The Real Outsiders: Politically Disengaged Views on Politics and Democracy. These briefs are designed to augment The Real Outsiders, by providing greater detail and insight about the conversations in each focus group.

English Speaking Women in Quebec | Lower Income Canadians | Urban Aboriginal Peoples | Francophone Women in Quebec | New Canadians | Less Educated Youth | Rural Canadians

The Frustrated and Governed

Focus Group Profile: In Hamilton, Ontario, Samara sat down with six Canadians, aged 35 to 50, who were of a lower socio-economic status. The most common household income of the participants was between $35,000 and $40,000; none had an income of more than $50,000 while one was less than $15,000 annually. They represented a wide variety of educational and occupational backgrounds. Three had completed high school, while one had some college studies, another had completed their college studies, and a final participant had graduated from university. One participant was unemployed, for example, while others worked in trades or sales.

Canadians from the lower income focus group are paying attention to politics, but they don’t like what they see. They put a great deal of value on keeping a promise, and are very aware of the consequences they face in their own lives when they fail to meet their commitments.  Thus, when promises are broken by politicians – regardless of their political party - they are left frustrated. But when there is also a failure in accountability, many felt particularly vexed: “You say you’re going to do something, you should do it. [If] you have a job somewhere and the boss tells you to do twenty things and you don’t do them, you don’t have a job when he comes back…. [politicians] screw up a lot of stuff, [and] they still have a job at the end of the day.” The lack of consequences, in turn, drives Canadians in this group away from the ballot box: “I don’t feel I have a role in politics because [politicians] just lie. By the time four years is up – I just can’t be bothered”. 

Part of the problem, according to this group, is how politics is covered in the media. In the words of one woman:

I think we are getting the wrong transparency.  We are hearing where they went on trips, where they stayed in hotels and where they are in their jobs.  That’s what we hear about. That’s what we are paying them for.  We are not paying for their social activities.  We couldn’t care less.  Just like they don’t want to hear what I am doing.

Participants saw a very limited role for themselves within politics and democracy of which voting is not a prominent responsibility. When asked directly about their role, there was a strong sense of their inability to do more. Instead, they just “pay taxes” and “follow the rules”.  Reinforcing this idea, another man said, “I am just a small fish in a small pond. It does not matter what I say or do. You need several people to go – everybody has to agree on the same thing – that’s the problem. Nobody ever does.” By and large, the absence of belief in their own ability to change things resulted in a withdrawal from political engagement.  Instead, this group is passively governed by their political system: “Well, I give them money and they [politicians/government] do what they want with it,” added a man, illustrating this idea. 

Nonetheless, some participants still held the view that they had a responsibility to participate in democracy to some degree. Yet, this sense of responsibility did not translate to actually voting.  Instead, participants simply said that, “we all have a responsibility to teach [our] children about world affairs as well, and to make sure that they have to follow the rules,” said one woman. Only one participant suggested that, “maybe there’s room for us,” within the political system. But to make room, would require her to “push it,” implying the system’s tendency to marginalize people if there is little resistance.  In other words, without pushing, one can quickly become an outsider.  

A few participants indicated they had been more active at the local level – often with parent councils at their kids’ schools. This was viewed as a necessity, “because my kids basically ran my life at that time,” said one woman. Even though these parents were prepared to go to the school board superintendent on specific issues, they did not see themselves engaged beyond such extraordinary circumstances. 

While the lower income group valued democratic freedoms, calling Canada a “paradise” in this respect, on the whole they had developed a reticence to be more actively involved – at least until the political system demonstrated greater accountability and responsiveness to their needs – whether it was lower gas prices, shorter wait times in hospitals, or growing inequality. Participants remained open to participation, but wanted to know it would be worth their effort.