Haughty and Hungry

There was a time, not all that many years ago when Canada was a deeply respected world player, that the United Nations was the venue through which we applied our foreign policy. Unlike our neighbours to the south, who exhibited a certain scepticism toward the international organization, Canada would only sanction international actions once cleared through the Security Council. It was a pattern practiced by every prime minister, regardless of the party in power.

There were advantages to this approach. Such constraint taught us the effective nuances of diplomacy and foreign service and kept us from striking out unilaterally in ways that could disturb fragile peace networks around the world.

Certain vestiges of that approach remain, but our careful diplomacy has now been overrun by the ideology of the “Strong Man” revealed by the current Conservative regime as opposed to the intelligent team player among nations that we were once noted for. This was a big part of the reason why we couldn’t win a seat on the Security Council a short while ago and why Canadian diplomatic influence is on the wane globally.

So we shouldn’t be surprised when a special UN food envoy comes to Canada and is treated to a tongue-lashing by the Harper Conservatives. To be sure, it was unusual for the UN to send such a representative to an advanced democracy instead of the usual developed nations facing so many challenges worldwide. But then again something unusual is itself happening in Canada. In only a few years we have fallen from first place to sixth on the Human Development Index.

The envoy, Olivier De Schutter, came as a friend to remind us that we are slipping in our commitment to those who are hungry. In return, he was treated like a chump by a government that should have known better. Minister Jason Kenney loves to mix it up with this kind of stuff and replied that the UN would do better to head back to the developing world and do their preaching among the starving millions.

Except we do have starving millions in Canada. As Schutter reminded us, some three million of our own people are attempting to stave off hunger and poverty. Almost a million people head to food banks for assistance each month, and of those assisted over 40% are children. I know this stuff, having been a volunteer executive director for a large food bank for 25 years. There is nothing fake about this – it is the cold hard reality of a modern Canada more focused on fighter jets than fighting poverty, on super jails instead of sustainable affordable housing. In fact, if the Conservatives would target just one-half of the funds for the F-35 and the super jails to tackling hunger, the lack of access to food or housing would end not in a generation, but within a few years.

But no, we don’t do that as Canada anymore. We have a government that asks Canadians, not to compare their own standards with themselves, but with Bangladesh, Somalia or some other devastated place across the globe. This is either a sign of a duped people or an arrogant government. We have taken to castigating our historic friends instead of receiving the critique in good faith – as good friends do. By telling the UN to head back to places like Africa to tackle food security, the government implied in troubling terms that 600,000 children living in poverty is absolutely acceptable in Canada, or that we can easily live with wait times of almost a decade for people requiring affordable housing. We not only showed our friend the exit door, we locked in a cell with no key some three million Canadians held in the clutches of poverty.

Kenney should be careful what he wishes for. All Schutter has to do is visit all those developed nations where Canada once used to play a significant part in tackling poverty and see that we don’t nearly care as much about poverty elsewhere either. We froze aid, then we cut it deeper. It will only confirm what he already knows – we currently run the risk as a once compassionate country of selling our birthright – for oil, for international finance, for the financial elite, and for a dollar made from risk as opposed to hard work and innovation.

At the very time that the Harper government is failing the country’s low-income citizens, it is also attempting to curtail the actions of those charities seeking to address hunger as a seriously relevant issue. Do good work if you wish, they say, but be careful lest you be spotted criticizing the federal government for its lack of action. You could lose your charitable status. Not only have the Conservatives turned their back on the poor themselves, they are inhibiting the ability of those ministering to needy families to speak to effective and long-term solutions to poverty. So somebody else had to come in and remind us.

I was brought up in Calgary singing, “This land is your land, this land is my land.” No more. This is Stephen Harper’s land – all the vacuous, ideological, mean breadth of it – at least for some. There is only one way to make this land ours again and make something more fair out of it in the process – take it back. But that will involve actually growing irate at the way our own citizens are being treated, as well as our friends that we have worked with for decades. We stand haughty and hungry. How’s that for a once-honoured nation?