A homeless person on the streets of downtown Toronto. Photo by Michael Swan

Joe Gunn: Strategy to eradicate Canadian poverty needs an action plan

By  Joe Gunn
  • November 12, 2018

The world commemorated the United Nations’ International Day for the Eradication of Poverty on Oct. 17, but you could be forgiven for not noticing. 

Canadian media were not paying attention to poverty concerns that day. They were swamping readers and viewers with an avalanche of reporting about cannabis. For some bizarre reason, the federal government decided to mark the internationally themed day for the poor by legalizing marijuana.

If no one in Canada were poor, we wouldn’t need to care. But according to Statistics Canada’s latest reporting (2016), some 5.8 million people live in poverty. That’s 16.8 per cent of your neighbours, or one in six people. 

During that same mid-October week in the nation’s capital, the Ottawa Mission had to lay 20 mats on the chapel floor because its shelter’s beds were full.

In Catholic parishes, there is a chance to change this. Pope Francis has asked that we recognize Nov. 18 as the second World Day of the Poor. He wrote: “Sadly … the poor hear voices scolding them, telling them to be quiet and to put up with their lot. ...We tend to create a distance between them and us, without realizing that in this way we are distancing ourselves from the Lord Jesus.”

Although the reality of poverty has been hidden from Canadians, there is some good news. On Aug. 21, the federal government announced the country’s first-ever poverty reduction strategy. Minister of Families, Children and Social Development, Jean-Yves Duclos, unfortunately announced the long-awaited strategy in Vancouver, on a summer day when the House was not in session. The response from opposition parties was muted.

But the 109-page “Opportunity for All” document is worthy of note. It sets poverty reduction targets for Canada at the same level as the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (which Canada and 192 countries backed in 2015.) The commitment is to reduce global poverty by 20 per cent by 2020 and 50 per cent by 2030. 

In Canada, an official poverty line will be established for the first time. A “dashboard of indicators” will also be developed and available online to measure aspects like food security, housing and health. A National Advisory Council on Poverty will be created to provide regular reports to Parliament and the public. 

However, “Opportunity for All” came with no new program announcements nor a penny in new spending. Critics were quick to point out that if it is “business as usual,” Canada will only be left with the status quo.

For “Opportunity for All” to become more than aspirational, an implementation plan is required. That means Parliament must pass a poverty act that guarantees longevity for all these elements of the strategy. With a federal election coming next fall, this must become a priority before the House rises in June. As well, the 2019 federal budget must make investments in priority areas where progress toward poverty reduction goals can be first felt. Kicking the heavy lifting down the road to future years or future whims of government could doom the strategy. 

On Oct. 17, close to 100 events took place across the country. Events called Chew On This! were organized in food banks, community centres, workplaces and schools where bags, fridge magnets and perhaps an apple were distributed — along with a mail-in card asking the Prime Minister to make the poverty reduction strategy a reality.

On Parliament Hill, politicians met a delegation that included the Moderator of the United Church, General Secretary of the Canadian Council of Churches, the Special Advisor for Government Relations of the Anglican Church of Canada, and Rev. James Dekker, Chair of the Board of Citizens for Public Justice. 

Faith communities need to continue serving the poor, but even more important, let’s remain vigilant to ensure that political promises to reduce poverty do not simply go up in smoke.

(Gunn is Executive Director of Citizens for Public Justice, www.cpj.ca. A version of this article appeared previously on hilltimes.com.)

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