Canadian senate latest to call for action on poverty

  • December 18, 2009
{mosimage}A behemoth, 300-page report with 78 recommendations, the result of two years study and testimony from more than 175 witnesses, has anti-poverty activists hoping Canadians may start thinking and talking about poverty and how to solve it.

In From the Margins: A Call to Action on Poverty, Housing and Homelessness was tabled in the Senate Dec. 8. The government will have 150 days to respond to its findings and recommendations once Senators finish commenting on it in January.

“The system that is intended to lift people out of poverty is substantially broken, often entraps people in poverty and needs an overhaul,” Senators write.

In From the Margins ( will have been a success if it can get Canadians, not just the government, talking about poverty and how to solve it, said the Liberal co-chair of the committee responsible for the report.

“Poverty issues are a tough sell in the country. When it comes to public opinion polls, they don’t rate very high,” Art Eggleton told The Catholic Register.

Eggleton vowed he and Conservative co-chair, Senator Hugh Segal, would travel the country trying to stir up interest in the report and the underlying problem.

Canada’s Catholic bishops have already set themselves the task of thinking theologically about the economic and social systems that create poverty in light of Pope Benedict XVI’s latest encyclical, said Archbishop Brendan O’Brien, chair of the bishops’ Justice and Peace Commission.

“We’re doing a reflection on the economic situation in the country in light of (Pope Benedict’s encyclical) Caritatis in Veritate,” O’Brien said. “That’s our focus right now.”

Church bodies may not be in any condition to pick up the gauntlet of the report, said Jesuit Father Bill Ryan of the Jesuit Centre for Social Faith and Justice.

“Whether it’s Development and Peace or it’s KAIROS or it’s the bishops’ conference, they’re preoccupied or else they don’t have any money, or they don’t have staff,” Ryan said.

Pope Benedict nailed the underlying problem in Caritas in Veritate, said Ryan.

“The Pope is saying this culture, this neo-liberal culture, cannot seem to focus on a corporate thing,” said the Jesuit economist and theologian. “We still think that economic growth and profit are the two key instruments — and they’ve failed us.”

For any veteran of the faith-based fight for the poor, the strange thing about reading the report is seeing so many activists’ words and ideas staring back from the pages, said Citizens for Public Justice executive director Joe Gunn.

“It’s confirming some of the things we’ve been saying for some time,” Gunn said.

Many of the ideas in the Senate report read as if they were cribbed from the Dignity for All Campaign (, which has now been endorsed by 4,000 individuals and organizations, including the bishops, said Gunn.

But the report is also notable for what it lacks. Unlike most of the seven provincial and territorial poverty reduction plans, it says nothing about timetables, targets or objective measures of poverty, said Gunn.

“All of the momentum right now is at the level of provinces. We have seven provinces right now that have plans and the federal government doesn’t.”

A federal plan would make provincial efforts more effective, said a spokesperson for Ontario’s Minister of Children and Youth Services Lauren Broten. Broten has taken over responsibility for co-ordinating Ontario’s 2008-to-2013 poverty reduction plan, which promises to reduce child poverty by 25 per cent over five years.

“If we’re going to make progress on our goals the way we need to make progress, we need all hands on deck — and that includes the federal government,” said Paris Meilleur.

Child care is the most critical area where Ontario lacks a federal partner, Meilleur said.

“We have looming a $63.5-million gap coming up on federal funding on child care after the federal government cancelled the child care agreement,” she said. “We won’t be able to sustain the progress we’ve made on child care unless we have some help from the feds.”

“There should be a national child care system in place and a national housing strategy,” said Campaign 2000 spokesperson Jacquie Maund. “The federal government has a clear role to play.”

Campaign 2000 has spent nearly 20 years lobbying for a federal strategy on child poverty based on Parliament’s 1989 pledge to eliminate child poverty by the year 2000. On the Nov. 24 20th anniversary of that non-binding motion, Parliament passed another motion on child poverty, this time committing to come up with a plan.

While 78 recommendations covering everything from housing to the tax code may look scattershot, nobody should expect simple, easy answers to such a complex issue, said Brice Balmer, director of Ontario’s Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition.

If there’s anything the churches can and should be doing, it might be to get people talking about the issue, said Balmer.

If people aren’t persuaded by a moral argument for ending poverty, they ought to look at the economics of giving people just enough money to keep them poor, Eggleton said.

“There’s an economic imperative here. This is costing us — poverty is costing us billions of dollars every year and it’s not getting us results. It’s not lifting people out of poverty,” he said. “We’re not getting a return on the taxpayers’ investment.”

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