By Michael Cooke
June Callwood called children “Canada’s invisible citizens.” In the last years of her life, she worked tirelessly and passionately to bring an end to child poverty in Canada. She believed that “to them we cannot answer ‘Tomorrow.’ Their name is ‘Today.’ ”
A Broken Promise
In November 1989, the members of the House of Commons unanimously passed a resolution promising to bring an end to child poverty in Canada by the year 2000. In 2009, they renewed that promise.
Yet today, one child in seven still live in poverty and among our Indigenous children, the numbers rise to a shocking four in ten. In fact, more children and their families lived in poverty in 2011 than in 1989. This is stark and disturbing evidence that we have not kept our promise to our children.
These facts inspired Keep The Promise, a two-year campaign that is using the 25th anniversary of the unanimous motion as a platform to re-ignite a public commitment to that 1989 promise. The campaign is designed with children and for children so they can learn about the impact of child poverty and give voice to their ideas and solutions to a problem that will have a profound impact on their future.
Keep the Promise is establishing programs in schools across the country that will involve children, their teachers, and their parents in projects to examine and address child poverty in their communities. On November 18 and 19, 2014, children from across the country participated in a national student summit in Ottawa. The summit included a town hall, meetings with MPs, and a range of educational activities. It enabled participants to share their experiences and projects and to decide what they can do to ensure that child poverty is part of the debate leading up to the 2015 federal election.
Poverty is Not Inevitable
Canada is among the richest countries in the world and yet child poverty is at an epidemic level here. Research demonstrates unequivocally that low-income children experience multiple barriers to success: a lack of safe and adequate housing, increased risk of hunger, low participation in extracurricular activities, compromised readiness to learn, poor educational attainment, and limited employment opportunities.
Despite the commonly held belief that the poor will always be with us, poverty is not inevitable. Child poverty rates within developed nations ranges from a low of 5 per cent in Iceland and Finland to a high of over 23 per cent in the United States and Romania. Governments in Canada have made progress in reducing poverty in Quebec, Newfoundland and Labrador, and some parts of Ontario.
Allowing children to live in poverty is wrong. It puts them at a learning disadvantage before kindergarten starts. Some grade 4 and 5 students describe poverty this way: "feeling ashamed when my dad can't get a job," "pretending that you forgot your lunch," "being afraid to tell your Mom you need gym shoes," and "not getting to go on school trips." Poverty burdens children with complex feelings of inadequacy and taints their attitude toward learning. Ultimately, poverty affects a child's brain. And a feeling of insecurity is passed on through generations.
How to Keep the Promise
Keep The Promise will give voice to Canada’s children. Participants will spend this year learning about child poverty in their communities. They will discuss the root causes and develop their ideas about what needs to be done. They will remind the adults they meet of the 1989 promise not yet fulfilled. And they will ask them what they intend to do. They will press for clear, concrete answers as only children can do.
Keep The Promise kids will ask that we commit to a federal action plan to eradicate poverty in consultation with provincial and territorial governments – a plan that includes an enhanced child benefit for low-income families, a strategy for affordable housing, and income security for all.
We have the fiscal capacity to act. The projected $10 billion surplus by 2018-19 shows that money is not lacking. What may be lacking is the willingness to act on the evidence. There is no better investment than to spend this on our children.
Citizens for Public Justice is a lead partner in Keep The Promise along with Campaign 2000, the Canadian Teachers’ Federation, Canada Without Poverty, First Nations’ Child and Family Caring Society, Toronto Children’s Aid Society, and Family Service Toronto. Learn more about the campaign at www.keepthepromise.ca.
Michael Cooke has five children and three grandchildren. He is also the President of the Carold Institute, the former Vice President Academic at George Brown College, and the Project Coordinator for Keep The Promise.