Chew on This! 2018 in Ottawa: Dignity for All on the Parliament Hill

Will the poor always be with us? (and would we notice?)

Originally published in The Hill Times.

By Joe Gunn

 On Oct. 17, the world commemorated the UN’s International Day for the Eradication of Poverty—but you could be forgiven for not noticing.

Canadian media were not paying attention to poverty concerns that day, but readers and viewers were being swamped with an avalanche of reporting about … cannabis. And not to blame journalists, because for some bizarre reason, the federal government decided to mark that internationally themed day with the legalization of marijuana.

Were it true that nobody in Canada is poor, we, therefore, might have no need to care. But according to 2016 data Statistics Canada, the latest available, some 5.8 million people in Canada live in poverty. That is 16.8 per cent of your neighbours, or one in six people.

During that same week in the nation’s capital, only steps from the Hill, the Ottawa Mission reported having to lay 20 mats on the chapel floor because the shelter’s beds were full.

Maybe Canada has been hiding from the reality of poverty. But there is, however, some good news that Canadians need to hear.

On Aug. 21, the federal government announced the country’s first-ever poverty reduction strategy. Such a strategy was recommended by the House Human Resources, Skills, and Development Committee committee as far back as 2010.

It was promised Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s mandate letter for Social Development Minister Jean-Yves Duclos. Perhaps unfortunately, Mr. Duclos 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 this country at the same level as the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, which Canada and 192 countries have backed in 2015.

The commitment is to reduce poverty by 20 per cent by 2020 and 50 per cent by 2030. An official poverty line for Canada will be established for the first time, based on the Market Basket Measure, but a “dashboard of indicators” will be developed and available online to measure other aspects like food security, housing, and health. A National Advisory Council on Poverty will be established to provide regular reporting to Parliament and the public on progress with poverty reduction. And finally, all these measures will be presented to Parliament in legislation—hopefully in a Poverty Reduction Act that guarantees longevity for all these elements of the strategy.

However, when the strategy was released, it was accompanied by no new program announcements or enhancements, and not a penny in new spending. Critics were quick to point out that “business as usual” will leave us only with the status quo.

For Opportunity for All to become more than aspirational, an implementation plan is required. Next steps must include the presentation, and then passage, of the legislation, before the House rises in June and the federal election campaign starts in earnest. As well, the 2019 federal budget must make investments in the priority areas where progress toward poverty reduction goals can be first felt. Kicking the heavy lifting down the road to future years or future government whims could doom the strategy to meaninglessness.

On Oct. 17, close to 100 events took place in towns across the country, reaching into the far north. For the sixth year now, Chew On This! events have been organized by Dignity for All: the Campaign for a Poverty-free Canada. Organizers in food banks, community centres, workplaces, and schools passed out bags, fridge magnets and perhaps an apple—along with a mail-in card asking the prime minister to make the poverty-reduction strategy a reality by swiftly passing the legislation and funding key aspects of it in the next budget.

Civil society organizations, having worked for over a decade to achieve a federal poverty reduction plan, will not allow this promise to be delayed. Once a plan is legislated, they will be there to ensure that political promises do not simply go up in smoke.

Joe Gunn is the executive director of Citizens for Public Justice.

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