Project Genesis challenges government to act on the increasing cost of
electricity on behalf of families straddling the poverty line
April 1st was a day of unpleasant surprises for many people across Quebec. On this day Hydro Quebec started cutting electricity to households that have not been able to keep up with their electricity bills. It is also the day when hydro will hike its rates 0.7 percent for residential consumers. This increase is not trivial for the dramatically increasing numbers of households that have fallen behind on their bill payments.
While wages and government benefits have stagnated, the prices of food, rent, and other necessities have skyrocketed. That the cost of electricity, an essential service under the responsibility of a crown corporation, should have also outpaced inflation is outrageous and shameful.
The original mandate of Hydro Quebec was to provide cheap electricity to Quebecers. The people of Quebec financed Hydro Quebec’s dams in the north, dams that flooded indigenous land and caused widespread mercury poisoning. This was done with a promise to the people that the hydroelectricity generated by these dams would be for the benefit of all Quebecers. Those dams are now long paid off and the cost to Hydro Quebec is minimal. Our hydro bills should be decreasing every year now that those dams have been paid off and the cost to Hydro Quebec to keep them running is minimal. However, successive Parti Quebecois and Liberal governments have, through legislative reform, created a system where Hydro Quebec continues to plead for higher electricity tariffs before the Energy Board, claiming significant losses, while overall the company just posted 2.86 billion dollars in profit.
How can this situation continue? In our northern climate, with five months of winter, the capacity to adequately heat your living quarters is essential. Given the inadequate number of social housing units available, many low-income households are forced to try their luck on the private market, where unscrupulous landlords take advantage of their financial precarity to rent them housing that is impossible to heat due to poor insulation. Putting plastic up on your windows and blankets over your exterior doors does little to keep the cold out if there are major problems with the brick work and the structure of the walls.
Those who live in apartments where the heating is supposedly included frequently find that their apartment is so cold that they can’t easily rest in their own home. On the other hand, those who opt to pay for their own heating may be confronted with bills of 500 dollars every two months to heat a one bedroom apartment. Once people have paid their hydro bill there is nothing left. What happens if someone needs to buy medication, get new glasses, or fix their teeth?
It seems strange to us that the government would let this situation continue. Don’t they know how many people in Quebec live below the poverty line? How many people rely on an old-age pension or social assistance to survive? Do they know that when Hydro Quebec is getting ready to cut you off a machine calls you, not even a real person? What happens to the many people in our society that can’t even afford to put any minutes on their phone?
Unfortunately, we can only assume that our government leaders have never been in this situation, fearing that every phone call or visit from the mail carrier might mean that the end is near.
The government is not an innocent bystander in this calamity that is confronting us. It was very clever for the government to split off Hydro Production, the money making part of Hydro Quebec, and place this company beyond the purview of the Energy Board. The Quebec government pockets the lion’s share of Hydro Quebec’s profits, making our hydro bills a blatant tax grab.
Given the Quebec Governments inaction on fiscal evasion in the last budget, it appears that it is against the ideology of this government to reform the fiscal system so as to ensure a real redistribution of wealth. Instead they are choosing to finance tax cuts for corporations on the backs of the most vulnerable people in our society.
We call upon Minister of Natural Resources, Pierre Arcand, to take action on this issue. Will you allow more and more households to fall into debt while Hydro Quebec makes record profits, or will you do something to remedy this egregious situation?
By Debbie Byer, Iocent Crammer, Aissatou Diallo, Maria Ines Garduno, Cathy Inouye, Nouman Jabur, and Kurt John