It can be easy to get discouraged. We’re being governed by a precarious minority parliament, the economy is still in the tank, and despite a 20-year-old commitment to change, almost one child out of every 10 still lives in poverty in Canada today. All that, and the short, dark days of winter are upon us.
A theme that often comes up in public discussions on the Dignity for All campaign, whether they be in church basements, community halls, or around boardroom tables, is the tremendous challenge of achieving federal action on poverty in the current political climate. By and large, issues of social development, promoting human rights, and addressing the challenges of poverty and marginalization are not obvious priorities for the federal government. Many therefore question the effectiveness of presenting the message of a poverty-free Canada to elected officials and the civil service.
Hope in this situation may stem in part from an interest in self-preservation – nobody wants to believe that their work is in vain – but even more powerful than that is a genuine belief, spurred on by a steady stream of small successes, that change is possible.
News of the record-setting Stand Up number (see box) came around the same time as an update on an initiative by MP Tony Martin to develop a federal Poverty Elimination Act. This legislation is one of the three goals of the Dignity for All campaign. Back in June, Mr. Martin convened a roundtable of primarily NGO representatives to consider the scope and framing of a potential Act. Over the summer a draft text was prepared and Mr. Martin presented it for feedback at the BIEN Canada Conference on October 2. The proposed legislation, which is rooted in a human rights framework and takes a comprehensive view of poverty, is now working its way through the NDP caucus and political processes with hopes that sometime over the next six months it will make it to the House of Commons for consideration.
Important and compelling work to move the yardstick forward is also being done by the National Liberal Women’s Caucus. On October 21, this group of Liberal MPs, chaired by Ms. Maria Minna, unveiled The Pink Book, Volume III: An Action Plan for Canadian Women. In it they explore critical issues facing Canadian women, many related to inequality and social exclusion, and present a series of recommendations, not least of which is the adoption of “a federal poverty reduction strategy to deal with the persistent problem of poverty among women.” They acknowledge the particular needs of Aboriginal women, and present concrete proposals for advancements in early learning and childcare, as well as critical changes to Employment Insurance.
As we approach November 24, the date with the dubious distinction of marking 20 years since parliamentarians unanimously declared they would end child poverty by the year 2000, several MPs from across party lines are working hard to encourage their colleagues on the Hill to take concrete steps towards remedying the situation of poverty in Canada. A sub-committee of the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities (better known as the HUMA committee) is currently discussing a motion that would recognize the 1989 commitment, acknowledge the limited progress made to date, and recommend that Parliament undertake clear measures with interim targets and timelines that would not only address the poverty experienced by children, but that of all Canadians.
It is worth noting that all of the MPs involved in all of the initiatives outlined above are members of the HUMA committee – the parliamentary committee that is currently studying the federal role in poverty reduction. And that there too we are likely to witness another small victory. Travel plans to consult with individuals and organizations in Canada’s western provinces that had been cancelled this past spring are now scheduled for late November, giving committee members an opportunity to develop a more complete picture of the situation of poverty in Canada and what needs to be done.
Admittedly, the “successes” outlined here are all small steps: studies, recommendations, drafts, discussions. But behind each of these initiatives is a least one MP – sometimes several – who believes that poverty in Canada must be addressed. With every motion, conversation, and recommendation, these champions have the potential to move the yardstick forward. By asking questions and sharing information, they are encouraging people – both in positions of power and in the general public – to consider action on poverty from a fresh perspective. And that on its own makes it all worthwhile.