A man wearing a dark suit, white shirt and no tie speaks at a podium. In the background are four Nova Scotia flags, coloured blue, yellow and red.
Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston speaks to reporters in Halifax on Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021. — Photo: Zane Woodford

Why are we always talking about yet another “yesterday” issue long after that train should have jumped the tracks?

Consider the living wage… er, the minimum wage.

Last Thursday, there was a minor kerfuffle in the House of Assembly.

During Question Period, NDP leader Gary Burrill demanded to know why Premier Tim Houston was refusing to consider raising the province’s minimum wage to $15 an hour at a time when 40,000 Nova Scotians are trying — and failing — to make ends meet on the current, even more miserly $12.95 an hour minimum?

Houston didn’t exactly answer Burrill. Instead, he rambled on about how his government’s focus on increased training will help workers escape the shame of their minimum wage McJobs:

What I’m focused on is the economy of this province and making sure everyone has an opportunity and sees themselves as being able to thrive right here in Nova Scotia. And it’s not driven by the minimum wage. I don’t know many Nova Scotians that grow up thinking, ‘Boy, I hope I make minimum wage when I grow up.’ That’s not the way people think. They want real jobs.

Uh…

Houston wisely if indelicately quickly pirouetted, doing what he has become so adept at in his short time as premier — apologizing, walking back, making his own redemptive pilgrimage to the Twitter confessional:

Yesterday I misspoke on the floor of the House of Assembly.

I am sorry for those words and that I hurt people with them.

I have the greatest respect for the workers of NS, especially those making minimum wage.

I will do better and be more careful with my words in the future.

Good for him. Though such mea culpas will almost certainly become old soon enough — and perhaps already are — there is still something refreshing about a Nova Scotia politician acknowledging he isn’t always right.

And yet…

Even Burrill acknowledged that the bill he’d tabled — to eke up the minimum wage by $2.05 on April 1, 2022 — won’t begin to bridge the wage gap for Nova Scotia workers who are already failing to get by on $12.95 an hour in a suffocating real world of rent, food, clothing, transportation, child care and oh-god-please don’t let there be an emergency:

Fifteen dollars is not a living wage. What we need is a living wage. There has been a lot of research on this and what we know is [a living wage] is the area of $20 an hour. But what we need, and we are bringing forward legislation for, is an immediate move toward $15 on the road to setting a series of stages and steps that will get us to an actual living wage.

The latest “lot of research” Burrill mentions — a report from the Nova Scotia branch of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives entitled Living Wages in Nova Scotia 2021: Working for a Living, Not Living to Workwas also released last week.

Living wage? That, says the report, is simply the minimum amount it takes for a family of four — two parents working fulltime and raising two kids — to “cover all necessities and allow families to enjoy a decent quality of life.”

Decent, but far from extravagant.

In her introduction, the report’s author, Christine Saulnier, lays out the stark context for where we are now:

Workers have been running in place for a very long time, struggling to provide for themselves let alone support a family. This has been made worse by a lack of affordable housing, the high cost and lack of childcare, and by the high cost of food or other necessities. In addition, the gaps in health and social services leave people paying for out-of-pocket costs to cover basic needs including prescription drugs. Workers are left living to work instead of working to live.

Many continually seek ways to fill gaps left by inadequate income, whether by visiting food banks or community suppers, or seeking other community supports that provide discounted or free goods and services. Workers must work very long hours, often at multiple jobs, leaving little time to play with their children or to consider up-skilling through additional education or training.

When people live to work, they have no time for community activities, which impacts our collective vitality. Everyone deserves to have a decent job that supports them to live, have quality time with their friends and family, some leisure time, and time to recharge—which also allows them to be their best at work.

Drilling down to capture what is needed in actual dollars to achieve even a basic living level income in different geographic regions of the province, the report lays out real-dollar numbers we can then use to compare and contrast with our current minimum wage — and even with the NDP’s proposed $15 minimum:

Nova ScotiaLiving wageMinimum
wage
Difference
Halifax$22.05$12.95$9.10
Cape Breton$18.45$12.95

$5.50

Annapolis Valley$21.30$12.95$8.35
Southern$21.03$12.95$8.08
Northern$19.20$12.95$6.25
Nova ScotiaLiving wage$15 wageDifference
Halifax$22.05$15.00$7.05
Cape Breton$18.45$15.00$3.45
Annapolis Valley$21.30$15.00$6.30
Southern$21.03$15.00$6.03
Northern$19.20$15.00$4.20

Tim Houston was right to apologize for denigrating Nova Scotia’s minimum wage workers last week.

But if he really wants to demonstrate his “greatest respect for the workers of NS, especially those making minimum wage,” his government would take real action to ensure that our minimum wage is actually a living wage.


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Stephen Kimber

Stephen Kimber is an award-winning writer, editor, broadcaster, and educator. A journalist for more than 50 years whose work has appeared in most Canadian newspapers and magazines, he is the author of...

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  1. It remains stunning to me that the Premier’s apology was “accepted”

    His comments on minimum wage reveal a deep seated value of entitlement and will be attached to him in history and future research.

    There are already economists and academics reviewing the impact of such deep seated thwarted values as a result of a long suffering province government dedicated to corporate welfare. Its a national disgrace and embarassment.

    This is Nova Scotia, not Texas

    There are simply no excuses and no apologies accepted!

  2. Agreed this was a really stupid thing for Premier Houston to say …. but at least he apologized and let’s hope he learns something. As pointed out in the article, it is hard to picture any member of the former Liberal government making a similar apology.

  3. Mum and Dad working at Value Village for $22 per hour for 35 hrs x 52 weeks = Annual income – $80,080.
    What price an RN in the ER or a seniors residence ?