The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

A Policy for All


THIS IS THE LAST IN A SERIES OF THREE POSTS on how we as citizens should address the poverty problem in Canada and in our communities. In the first, we referred to the need of all the charitable efforts in our cities to work more collaboratively in an effort to get our fellow citizens to become more aware of the gripping effects of poverty. In the second post we talked about how charity alone can never fully deal with the problem and that, at some point, governments at all levels must take the problem more seriously.

Now is the time for citizens and governments alike to realize that times have changed and the desire to more effectively deal with the ramifications of poverty has now emerged. Maybe we have arrived at a point where we are willing to repair the moral and ethical damage we permitted to develop over decades, and which marginalized more people and families than we cared to notice. As Canadians, we share an awareness that poverty is wrong and it seems that we are gradually getting past the point where we blame its presence on the poor themselves. We are evolving in our understanding that the very systems we created over time not only left people mired in poverty, but also maintained an inequitable pay ratio between men and women, that left our aboriginal populations at the fringe of our concerns, and that tolerated a high child poverty rate for decades. We are slowly arriving at the conclusion that we must redress the imbalances we have tolerated over decades.

This isn’t some mere exercise in reallocating funds, but in realigning our moral sensitivities. We have perhaps chased material wealth to such an excessive degree that we left many behind and we believe the time has come to repair the damage. We have slowly dismantled the codes of collective consciousness that once had us believing in the “fair society.” And, like the Tragically Hip’s Gord Downie, we are ready to “go public” with our desire not only to help the marginalized but to realign ourselves with the better angels of our natures – to walk our own Secret Path to personal and collective recovery.

And it’s also time we conceded that solutions do exist – have for years – but we collectively chose not to support them politically, socially, or economically. The effects of our distractions are now apparent to us and we appear increasingly inclined to deal with our unintended oversights.

At local, provincial, and federal levels of government new initiatives have arisen that are partially fuelled by this new awareness among citizens. Following years of little policy shift on the poverty file, a plethora of new ideas and initiatives are spreading across the country. Whether or not a Basic Income Guarantee, as an example, is the best way ahead for poverty alleviation, it is, at last, getting a fair hearing.

Numerous provinces have discussed the possibility of effective poverty reduction efforts, including pilot initiatives in certain areas. And following decades of stagnation, governing forces at the federal level have begun seriously considering floating a national anti-poverty plan following years of civil society pressure from key groups and individuals. The federal minister in charge of families, children, and social development has expressed a willingness to launch poverty reduction initiatives in six areas across the country. In numerous conversations taking place in Ottawa these days, the subject of a national anti-poverty plan is consistently raised, supported, and seeks multi-party support.

Many of us have supported the efforts of NDP Member of Parliament, Brigitte Sansoucy, who has introduced a Private Member’s Bill – Bill C-245 – to provide for the development of a National Poverty Reduction Strategy. Considering that every day some three million people live in poverty, the timing of Ms. Sansoucy’s effort is revealing and deserving of all our support.

American President Woodrow Wilson gave a speech in which he challenged average citizens to get into the policy-building process. He wrapped up his thoughts by saying:

“The whole purpose of democracy is that we may hold counsel with one another. For only then can the general interests of a great people be compounded in a policy suitable for all.”

 That’s us – the people. It’s time we got back into the process in significant enough numbers that the most marginalized among us become truly one with us. In an age where the public dialogue is being taken more seriously by the political class, reducing, or even ending, poverty becomes not merely a noble action but a signal of a public renaissance whose time has come and a people willing to be accountable.

Want to Defeat Poverty? Take Time.


ASKED BACK IN 2012 WHY POVERTY WAS SO ENTRENCHED in affluent societies around the world, President Barack Obama provided an answer that, while infuriating some social activists, actually gave hope to others. He simply said that it was time to apply “two-generation solutions.” He meant developing initiatives that affected both parents and their children as opposed to isolated programs that helped one but not the other. And such policies would take time to develop to be effective, he believed.

We don’t really want to hear this because those enduring grinding poverty require quick alleviation of their distressing circumstances. We want to believe that through good-hearted actions that we create paths to escape from poverty’s hold. I wrote a blog post last week concerning how communities must bring their various anti-poverty initiatives together in order to begin this process, but we must come to terms with the reality that they will never be enough. They are vital efforts at galvanizing a community around the challenges of low-income, mental illness, the gender bias of poverty, hunger, and early development. Without them, every community would lose focus on those struggling to make ends meet.

But surely we can’t settle for the belief that donated food supplies are the ultimate answer for eradicating hunger, or that temporary shelters are the solution for the housing crisis, can we? Food banks, hostels, school breakfast programs, donated furniture or articles of clothing – examples like these are what keep citizens engaged, but they can never replace having a good job, a safe place to live, the income to purchase food for the family, or dedicated services to help someone through the difficult journey of mental illness. All the charity in the world will never be truly effective unless it leads to systems change. And for that, we require governments at all levels to up their game for poverty reduction – something that we’ll cover in the next post.

It remains vital to reform systems because those suffering in poverty or homelessness struggle far more against prevailing customs and system indifference than they do hunger, unemployment, or stigmatization. Virtually every person in poverty has had to learn to navigate economic, political, judicial, educational, and democratic system obstruction in order to survive and hopefully prevail. Hunger is real. The lack of shelter is real. Gender bias is real. But they became prevalent because systems couldn’t summon the courage to tackle them.

And if you want to reform systems, then be prepared to fight for a few decades – for perhaps two generations, as Obama notes. It will require healthy investments in early learning and childcare, post-secondary education, healthy communities, productive paths to employment, plenty of social capital, a democracy that includes all, roads to defeating endemic racism, secure housing, and all those facets of community life that lead to a productive future for all. There is just no way a single community, populated by remarkably generous citizens, can accomplish all this without proper policies, decisive decision-making, and resources that can only come from government levels.

Poverty didn’t suddenly arise because some people had money and others didn’t. Prevailing systems exacerbated the gap between the rich and the poor. They refused to close the gap between women and men for equal pay for equal work. They legislated decisions that saw those suffering a mental illness being taken care of in hospital emergency rooms instead of in dedicated facilities that provided the kind of wrap-around supports that guided patients through a journey that leads to independence and success.

It is time that we added democratic conviction to community compassion, and if we refuse to bring that about, then poverty will prevail over our neighbourhoods and cities for decades to come. We have to stop maintaining that we are “affluent” societies when we tolerate child poverty at such high rates. There’s nothing affluent about living on a street where citizens can’t afford their own food, or where able-bodied women and men can’t find a career path. There’s nothing affluent about living in a neighbourhood where the colour of a person’s skin determines their prospects for opportunity.

We are either all in this together, or we will slowly come apart – as we have been doing for the last few decades. Canadians are a good people and can be counted on to share of their bounty. But goodwill can never eradicate poverty. Only equal opportunity for all can do that. And for that, we require legislation, more inclusive policies, dedicated politicians, and a democratic system that will fight just as vigilantly for every person to gain prosperity as it does for every citizen to secure the right to vote.

Gandhi once said that poverty is the worst form of violence, and he was right. Supporting systems that keep people in poverty is equally as dispiriting as relegating them to chains. This is not the Canada we want, and if we want to change we must begin by listening to those who have survived the systems of diminishment and yet still strive for a better life. Let’s take the time to do it right by listening to them and build an equitable society that refuses to compromise the most vulnerable among us.

Poverty’s Problem is Division, Not Addition


IN ITS OWN WAY, THE LONDON FOOD BANK’S fall food drive turned out to be a remarkable initiative. With donations up significantly over last year’s effort, it was tempting to think that citizens were in a more generous mood than last year. It’s true, they were, but the real story was what it was that put them in such a mood.

While totals donated to food drives tend to decline over the years, yearly givings go up as citizens increasingly take advantage of dropping off their donations at grocery stores across the city. Food drives often have to compete with other interests when it comes to capturing media attention, but this Thanksgiving it was these other avenues that created the context for a terrific food drive.

Over the summer and into the fall, the Poverty Over London social media campaign has relentlessly reminded the community of poverty’s grip in our midst by putting out posts full of data and the personal stories of those fighting to make ends meet. It has been a remarkable campaign that has subtly entered into the community conversation because of its consistent presence online.

The opposite held true for the string of London Free Press stories by local reporter Jennifer O’Brien – articles that ran over the course of a couple of weeks and directly confronted Londoners. They didn’t settle comfortably into the background but brought the tragedy of poverty directly to the attention of readers. Written in a way that spoke directly to the situation, they were nevertheless drew the community into the personal stories that filled the columns.

And then there was the launch of the London Community Foundation’s Vital Signs report. These come out every two years and help to define the stark challenges confronting the city when it comes to helping those on the margins. For the next two years the foundation’s focus will be on the gaps that persistently plague mental health services in the community. A big part of the report talks about the link between mental illness and poverty. Statistics were released showing that in cities across the country, a range between 23% and 67% of those who were homeless report struggling with mental illness. And on any given week, at least 500,000 employed Canadians are unable to work due to mental health problems. For such struggling individuals, poverty is a constant companion.

All this was transpiring as the London Food Bank worked through its ten-day drive. In effect, these efforts provided a context, a broader awareness, of poverty’s hold on our city. It was the confluence of all these efforts, informing Londoners all at the same time, which made the London Food Bank’s effort so successful. In previous years, the food drive often happened in isolation, fighting, as it often did, against bad weather, poor coverage, or the occasional election. But this year it all came together. Despite the fact that all these efforts occurred at the same time, each enforced the other, providing depth and context, presenting the face of poverty in different hues, and layers, and shades. The sum total became far greater than all the parts and the community responded by upping its game.

Often, community agencies focus their efforts on singular efforts to raise their totals of funds and resources. Generous citizens, businesses, and organizations respond, but the overall effort is diversified to the degree that the many complexities of poverty rarely appear in the same events. Citizens respond to homelessness, hunger, mental illness, addictions, violence against women, and many other dimensions that make up the depth of poverty, but which rarely get presented as a complete picture.

All too often we believe poverty’s solutions require more: more money, more housing, more understanding, more empathy, more food, more financing. All of this is true, but the greatest obstacle to defeating poverty is the various divisions in every community that all too often fail to come together in a universal effort to redefine a city, a province, a country. That means combining everything from the non-profit to the start-up sector, the Chamber of Commerce to the social agencies, the media to the hospital and educational institutions. For that to happen, however, it will take citizens demanding better of their institutions and themselves.

The recent food drive showed just how motivated citizens can become when they are stimulated and educated on multiple levels. As long as sectors manage poverty instead of coming together and defeating it, the story will continue to be the same. When they are combined, however, even to a certain degree, as they did last week in London, Ontario, and we discover that within our own generation, poverty can be defeated.

Yet it will take more than collaboration or charitable actions from our communities. The problem ultimately lies in one of the most divided of all sectors: government. Next time we will take a look at how all three levels of government can shift the dynamic and add policy to the compassion of communities to make it work.

Someone Buy Twitter – Please


THE RUMOURS HAVE BEEN CIRCULATING FOR WEEKS, all driven by one pressing question: who will buy Twitter? For a time, some were certain the Disney Corporation was making a bid. More serious seemed to be the talks with Salesforce. Then someone mentioned Google, but that seemed to be more wishful thinking that anything of substance. Ultimately, it appears that they all fell through, or weren’t serious offers anyway.

Intriguing in all of this is that the millions of Twitter users want it to survive – just not in its present shape. The company is currently valued at $20 billion (U.S.), but its user growth has flatlined and Twitter itself is talking about its willingness to sell. Sales have been off and some of its recent efforts at rebranding itself have proved lackluster at best. CEO, Jack Dorsey, has been able to reverse the company’s fortunes after a year of dedicated effort.

Underlying all of this has been the disenchantment with Twitter’s abuse policy. When the company launched, Dorsey believed that his policy of little to no censorship would create a vast open space of dialogue with a 140-character limit that would self-discipline itself and lead to a new way of civic engagement. It’s now apparent that his outlook was naïve – the weeds overgrew the garden. Abuse has run rampant. Stalkers and trolls have raged unfiltered and unguarded. Women have been shamelessly attacked and society contains more shadows than perhaps Dorsey or the rest of us figured.

And yet for those of us still using Twitter, there remains something of the innovative in it. It’s at its best when users openly, and respectfully, debate, cajole, inform, and perhaps even persuade. Yet our disenchantment over the last few years came with the realization that the worst of human nature was slowly creeping up and choking our more noble aspirations. When Dorsey refused to censor the abuse, users just started opting out of discussions because of the inevitable attacks from people only out to muckrake and never refine. Sadly, Twitter didn’t have our backs when the going got rough.

Technology correspondent Nick Bilson was asked what he thought about this last week and his insights more or less nailed it:

“I truly do believe that one of the reasons the company’s future is so uncertain is because Twitter is too nasty, or in some instances, too dangerous … I think if the company banned everyone who was mean on the platform, their numbers would vanish, the stock would fall even more, there’d be cats and dogs living together, mass hysteria! I mean this sincerely, but it’s really sad what happened to the service. I barely ever use it anymore, and precisely because—to quote Louis C.K. when he quit Twitter —it just doesn’t make me feel good.”

Ultimately, for the democratic experiment, this is tragic. When Bilson is forced to conclude that, “I think, at the end of the day, that the grand experiment of everyone in the world having the opportunity to converse in the same chat room didn’t work out so well,” there’s something in his words that we can all identify with – the worst of us ruined the opportunity for the rest of us.

Do we want Twitter gone because of its idealistic view of human interaction? Hardly. But it would be good to see it improved. And since the present leadership remains willing provide cover for the illegitimate attackers, it’s time for something new and different that can still build on the strengths Twitter continues to maintains and develop. For that to happen there must be the selling of the company to new visionaries who understand intrinsically that you can’t successfully sell a social app that isn’t social.

Twitter was an experiment on how we would be together, and it hasn’t ended up pretty. It’s not just the company that failed; we too failed to have one another’s backs and opted for a kind of remote involvement instead. Twitter users have looked in the mirror and, for many of them, they haven’t liked what they have seen. But it is too useful a resource of citizen-to-citizen democracy to be tossed aside because of its willingness to harbour abuse. We can only hope that some civically responsible company will buy it and turn it to the better angels of our collective nature.

Food Insecure Canada


IT’S THANKSGIVING WEEK AND ACROSS THE COUNTRY food banks will be holding special food drives to help stock their supplies. For most, the challenges are high. At the London Food Bank, for instance, the demand has gone up 12% over the first eight months of this year over the same time last year. Many of the food banks are seeing their donations in both money and food decline in recent years, even as demand remains high.

All this just means that food security all across Canada remain a precarious thing. Canadians should have access to enough nutritious and safe food to ensure a healthy lifestyle. More than that, they should also be assured of a secure food system that gets quality and affordable food from field to table. The United Nations proclaims this access should be a universal right, but around the world governments and their people are having a tough time of it living up to such an ideal.

It’s troubling, for instance, when we hear from the Conference Board of Canada that 7.7% of Canadian households are “food insecure” – approximately 1.92 million people. That’s more than the population of Montreal. We all know instinctively that a poor diet for kids or adults leads to string of related problems, from diabetes to heart disease, and from poor attention spans to mental health disorders. Psychologically, being food insecure brings on depression, feelings of isolation, anxiety, and, tragically, entertaining thoughts about suicide.

And what of Canadian children in such situations? Currently, 228,500 kids aged 12 to 17 live in food-insecure dwellings. Aboriginal communities are especially challenged by food insecurity for younger generations.

A troubling finding is that food insecurity in households with children is 9.7%, in comparison with households without children (6.8%). The prevalence of food insecurity among households led by female lone parents is 25% – two times greater than among households led by male lone parents (11.2%), and four times that of households led by couples (6.3%).

Why are so many households food insecure? The reasons are many, beginning with incomes too low to afford the essentials of life. Stubbornly high unemployment, under-employment, or poor pay make affording quality food problematic. In addition to income are the high costs of food and non-food essentials. Geographic isolation, especially among Canada’s indigenous communities, makes access to quality foodstuffs difficult. Food illiteracy also has a lot to do with families being undernourished. Proper education around the preparation of foods remains one of the key building blocks for food security. And without access to transportation, at-risk families resort to places like convenience stores, which are woefully underequipped to provide proper nutrition.

It’s likely this is all known by those who read these words. What is less sure is what is occurring to tackle such problems. On this front is reason for some hope, especially at community levels. Food is bringing cities, town, and rural areas together in levels heretofore unseen. Urban gardens, community gardens, collective kitchens, and so many other initiatives are occurring in numbers sufficient to shift the policy preferences of governments. On a deeper scale, there has been a surge in food policy councils, farmer’s markets, food hubs, locally procured food supplies, and rural-urban cooperation mechanisms – initiatives that move food beyond simple charity models and towards a more secure food system overall. And nationally there is a growing movement to press the federal government to adopt a national food strategy.

Will these cumulatively be enough? Not likely. It’s a step to the next level, but to truly battle food insecurity in this country a confluence of initiatives must take place that will form a truly integrated, healthy, and secure food system.

Rises in food literacy, increased supplying of isolated regions, a national school nutrition program, affordable transportation access for low-income families – these and much more must be undertaken if we as a nation are to succeed. Ultimately there will have to occur a comprehensive collaboration between all three levels of government, the food industry, farmers, health departments, research, restaurants associations, and citizen action groups, for any effort to be truly successful.

Global hunger is one of our greatest challenges. To understand its scope, consider this observation from Paul Polman:

“Imagine all the food mankind has produced over the past 8,000 years. Now consider that we need to produce that same amount again — but in just the next 40 years if we are to feed our growing and hungry world.”

But we will never collectively get to such a level until we learn to solve food insecurity in our own communities and across our country. Food insecurity is best defeated by steps and not mere good intentions. We’re not winning that battle at present, which is why food banks are so busy this week. Start there by donating, and then let’s move forward.

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