Canadian churches demand poverty-reduction strategy

By 
  • December 11, 2007

{mosimage}The 21 churches which collectively represent more than 80 per cent of Canada's Christians have unanimously called on Prime Minister Stephen Harper to define and implement a poverty reduction strategy for Canada within the next budget year.

“An effective national poverty reduction strategy in our view must include measurable goals and timelines, publicly comprehensible indicators that measure the poverty in Canada and a means for monitoring and evaluating progress,” said the Nov. 26 letter to Harper, which the Canadian Council of Churches made public Dec. 10.

The letter sets out minimum goals for a federal poverty reduction strategy, including: plans to alleviate poverty for 750,000 children; a plan to address the 42 per cent of native people in cities who are poor; easing the transition of immigrants so they do not remain ghettoized and poor a decade after coming to Canada.

“Canada is a prosperous country that can afford to do better,” the religious leaders told Harper.

Archbishop James Weisgerber of Winnipeg, president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, signed the letter on behalf of the Catholic bishops. Church volunteers are no substitute for a national policy to tackle poverty, Weisgerber told The Catholic Register.

“The government is very busy building an economic structure, and we need that to be an effective country,” said Weisgerber. “But I think it's a call to remember that there are other purposes of the economy – not just getting business stronger.”

Though the letter is addressed to Prime Minister Harper, Weisgerber hopes Christians across the country are taking note.

“We're also speaking to our people, asking them to become a little more aware,” he said.

The letter should help shape the debate going into the next federal election, widely expected before the snow melts, said KAIROS economic justice expert Michael Polyani.

“It's an important time right now because the Conservatives and other parties are figuring out what to put in their election platforms,” said Polyani of the national, ecumenical social justice organization. “It's looking like there will be an election, maybe sooner rather than later. I think it's a crucial time right now.”

The ecumenical letter took shape following the last federal election, when church leaders felt poverty had been ignored in the election debate, said Canadian Council of Churches general secretary Rev. Dr. Karen Hamilton.

“As Canadians, we're not taking the issue of poverty, at home or abroad, seriously,” said Hamilton.

Concern for the poor is so central to all churches and all forms of Christianity that it was relatively easy to engage all 21 members of the Canadian Council of Churches in drafting and signing the letter, said Hamilton. The consensus among churches made it possible for the letter to go deeper than an expression of general concern, she said.

“It talks about strategy. This is not just church leaders saying, 'Oh, you know, we're not living up to the biblical mandate.' This is church leaders saying we believe a major impact can be made and here are some numbers and strategies,” Hamilton said.

Though he signed the letter on behalf of Orthodox Christians, Bishop Seraphim of the Orthodox Church in America's archdiocese of Canada doesn't believe the government is likely to act on the churches' call.

“It's important to do it (send the letter) in case the government would do it,” Seraphim told The Catholic Register.“But I'm afraid I'm cynical because when it comes to anything Christians say, the government gives us a pat on the head and says, 'Go out and play.' ”

Canada will ultimately be judged by how it treats its poor citizens, said the letter to Harper.

“It is the nations of the world which are gathered for judgment. Thus we are called, as churches and as a nation, to address the social and economic structures which afflict the poor and keep them in the condition of poverty,” said the letter.

The complete text can be viewed at http://www.ccc-cce.ca/english/home/2007/nov26_2007.htm.

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