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A plea for the unemployed without insurance benefits

Written by Gilberte Côté-Mercier on Monday, 01 February 1960. Posted in Diverse Articles

Obliged to steal

In Sherbrooke, the fathers of two families were brought into court charged with stealing food; one to the amount of $7.00, the other to the amount of $9.00. The food was stolen in order to feed their children. These fathers were unemployed, without any unemployment insurance benefits. They had requested help from the St. Vincent de Paul society but their request was rejected on the grounds that they had not filled the condition of having lived in the parish for at least six months.

The judge did not sentence them, letting them off after they had promised not steal again.

From the point of view of the civil law these two fathers were certainly at fault. They had no right to steal — according to the civil law. And according to the law they should have been thrown in jail.

But let's consider the matter from the point of view of the fathers' consciences. Would you not say that they had not only the right but the obligation to steal? The great theologian, Thomas Aquinas has said that a man has the right to take, wheresoever he can find it, that which he needs in order to stay alive if he is unable to obtain it through strictly legal and honest means. This interpretation of justice by a great theologian applies to everyone. One has the right to "steal" in order to have the nourishment to stay alive when one cannot get food by any other means. If this is so then how much more has the father of a family not only the right but the obligation to "steal" to get food to feed his family, if he has exhausted every other possible means of obtaining food. For by conscience and by the natural law, every father is under the strictest obligation to feed his dependents, his children.

Then, the father should work, you will say. Work? Of course. But supposing there is no work to be had? We know that today in many parts of the country, despite the glowing words of politicians, unemployment is rampant and there are many fathers of large families who can find work nowhere. There just simply is no employment for many fathers of families.

And yet these fathers who have no hope of presently finding work are still faced with the elemental obligation of feeding their families.

Perhaps he had, when employed, paid over the course of many years, his unemployment insurance premiums. Once left without work, he had the right to collect unemployment insurance benefits. Thus he was able in part, at least, to fulfill his obligations towards his family.

But, behold, he is still without employment and his unemployment benefits, according to the unemployment insurance act, have run out. That's the law, you can be unemployed for a while, but not for too long, otherwise your unemployment benefits cease. And yet it is precisely those who have been out of work the longest who need help the most desperately, for they are the ones who have exhausted whatever meager resources they might have stored up prior to the time of being unemployed. This is a curious regulation, is it not? And yet not at all surprising since this type of proceeding is quite characteristic of any sort of government insurance!

So we see that the breadwinner of the family, if he is unemployed too long, loses the right to unemployment insurance payments. He now gets nothing, not a penny! No revenues are coming in — not the slightest! And yes he is still face to face with the duty, the obligation of finding food for his wife and children. And the system under which he lives now no longer provides any measures to help him cope with this desperate situation.

Now, who can deny that the father of a family, thus stripped of all means to provide for his dependents legally, has the right to "steal" in order to feed those hungry mouths?

In fact, since he is obliged to nourish them, can we deny that he is obliged to run the risk of jail for stealing in order to feed them?

And if he risks prison in order to feed his family, might he not be said to be in a sense, a hero? He certainly cannot be called a "thief" in the strict sense of the word. For he is a responsible man who has faced up to and fulfilled his obligations. Being in a situation where he could find no other means of caring for his family, he laid hold of that which belonged to others, an act which is commonly called "robbery", but which in this particular case would be better defined as "taking possession of" something. Colonists who come into a new country and take over the land from the native inhabitants are not said to be stealing but rather, "taking possession" of the land. And the history of the land which they have settled will eventually place them on the roll of heros for the arduous and difficult task which they accomplished. The same can be said for the unemployed father of a starving family; he has accomplished a difficult, hazardous task in the fulfillment of his duty. He is a hero.

Where is the anarchy

It is understandable then that a lot of practical souls are going to be tearing their hair and demanding where in the name of justice such social morality will finally lead us. They'll point out that we are being menaced by anarchy, because honest people will have no protection, even from the police, if every unemployed who has exhausted his unemployment benefits takes to seizing whatever he needs from wherever he can in order to keep his family alive.

Where in fact does this anarchy lie? Does it exist in the fact that an unemployed father, without any other means of subsistence, takes his food where he can? Or does it rather not lie in that system of society which permits a father to be burdened with a heavy obligation without giving him the revenue he needs to meet and fulfill this obligation. Where lies the anarchy and the disorder?

The father, in such a situation, is perfectly in accord with his conscience when he takes such steps which the law might call "illegal".

But society, which places such fathers in such desperate straits without any source of revenue, society which permits and even encourages a system breeding such injustices, that society can be said to be in state of grave disorder, in a state of anarchy, even. And our so-called "honest people" make up this unbalanced society.

This society is made up of people like you and me. So it is you and I, all of us who are responsible for this disordered society. And just as long as we do not take the necessary steps to restore society to its proper order, to see to it that the fathers of families can find in a normal and legal way the means to care for their families, just so long are we guilty of this disorder and anarchy.

Now, there is no question but what the person who is robbed by such a desperate father, is in turn injured in his goods and possessions. He has, in turn, become a victim; not a victim of the act of the father "stealing", for under the circumstances the father was justified, but a victim of that same social evil which has left the father to nourish his children without the necessary revenue to do so.

That is why those who have goods and means, should be made to understand that their own interests, as well as social obligation, binds them to the task of working actively through concrete measures to establish, without delay, a social and economic order which will be more humane and more in line with men's needs. Those who have, are in possession of more means to effect this change than the poor who have not. Those who refuse this obligation can no longer call themselves "honest people". Their refusal to act makes them accomplices in this perpetuation of a state of disorder and anarchy in society.

...As for those who govern

The wise men of the nation, the country's solons, are at present in session in the legislative chambers at Ottawa, Quebec and the other provinces of the land.

Without delaying one single day, they ought to legislate the necessary measures which will provide that the fathers of families and other workers who are bereft of salaries and no longer benefit from unemployment allowances, will have some form of revenue so that they may be able to provide for themselves and their families the necessaries of life at least.

There is no other legislation more pressing than this. To leave people without any source of revenue in the year 1960, in a country as rich as Canada, in the midst of incalculable abundance — and all because of a stupid financial system — is a SOCIAL CRIME OF THE FIRST ORDER. Our men of state cannot in justice or in conscience allow such a state of affairs to continue. And citizens who are jealous of their honesty and of their honesty as individuals, cannot support a do-nothing government or permit such a condition to persist.

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