The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: charity

Witnessing Change is Never Enough

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YESTERDAY WAS MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. DAY, so we spent some time watching his “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, only three months before John F. Kennedy was slain. The rhythm and passion of his phrases still struck deep chords. He wasn’t trying merely to reconcile various groups of people, but was striving for a world that had a more equitable future.

It’s only proper that we appoint special days to remind us of our ideals and what we believe to be our greatest aspirations, but there’s a difference between honouring someone and participating in changing the world by following in their footsteps. Some people like King and his wife, Coretta, naturally accomplished that, but for the rest of us it is a constant effort to get outside of our own worlds and into the broader one that requires our participation more than anything else.

In his speech King reminded all of us that acts of charity must be angled towards justice and real systemic change if they are to be truly effective. He talked about taking political actions in order to change public policy. As his wife reminded millions not that many years ago, an important part of her husband’s “dream” was ending poverty through societal reformation. When he spoke of his children living in a world at peace with those who don’t judge others by the colour of their skin, it wasn’t some mere sentiment but a plan of action that ultimately cost him his life.  Yet he chose to insert himself into the political debate of his day at a cost of great personal insecurity.

The difficulties in these present days must remind us again and again that it is never enough to have leaders; there must also be co-dreamers. And it is never enough to only dream of a personal world, but of a collective one that strives for justice for all people, in every nation.

One of my great friends in Parliament during my tenure there was Carolyn Bennett, now Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs. In a recent interview she was asked how she would know that she had been successful after taking on such an important file. She could have talked about full health on reserves, open education for all indigenous people, or a successful conclusion to the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women file. Instead she noted that she would feel truly successful when the average Canadian finally understood the great collective injustice against our indigenous brothers and sisters and had sought to alter their own inactions in order to bring about a better day.  You can listen to that remarkable interview here.

She was right, and so was Dr. King. Our ultimate goal must be to change ourselves, to arc our actions towards justice, self-reflection, and personal transformation.

The picture at the top of this post talks about “witnessing” the dream, but that is never enough. We must be active participants in making it happen, of being witnesses “to” that ideal but taking our own personal risks at shaping a better future.

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter,” King said. Well, right now, there are things that really matter before us and no leader, no Prime Minister or President, will change our future unless we participate and shape it ourselves – policy without people is just a platform. Or, as King better put it: “The ultimate measure of a man or woman is not where they stand in moments of comfort and convenience, but in times of challenge and controversy.” It is never enough to just witness the change; we must be energized witnesses within it.

 

 

 

 

 

Food Bank Myths

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FOOD BANKS ACROSS CANADA HAVE BEEN with us for some three decades now, and despite the fact that they have been highly public and faithfully supported, assumptions continue to be made about both food banks and their clients. Here are some common misconceptions.

Food Banks have a high rate of dependency

That’s not what the statistics reveal. In the London Food Bank, for example, 40% of our clients came only once a year, and 75% came four times a year or less. According to the Ontario Association of Food Banks, close to half of the people assisted in 2013 at food banks were there for the first time, while an equivalent number stopped using food banks. Food banks are still primarily used for emergency purposes. As poverty increases over time, those numbers could change but for now families use food banks only in a pinch.

Clients collect large amounts of food from food banks

This doesn’t bear out. Again, to use the London Food Bank as an illustration, a family of four receives food enough for four days in a hamper that is worth between $80-$120. This is average with what most food banks distribute across the country.

People can come to the food bank as often as they wish

The majority of food banks help on a once-a-month basis, as with the London Food Bank. The vast majority of clients come only a few times a year.

Clients aren’t required to give any proof of identification

This has never been the case for the vast majority of food banks across the province. Most utilize an interview process where clients have to provide proof of where they live, how many dependents they have, and proof of whether they are on social assistance of any kind.   Eligibility criteria is important to maintaining public trust. This information is then stored on computers from which statistics to provide the public, media and donors are generated. No private information is shared, but the general statistics help Canadians to understand how entrenched poverty is becoming.  Food banks across the country share this information for one month a year in order to produce what is called the Hunger Count – a report detailing food bank use across the country.

People who use food banks aren’t very educated

Toronto’s Daily Bread Food Bank – Canada’s largest – says one in four clients have a university education or higher. From this number, 17% have some college or university education, 16% have a college diploma, while 13% have a bachelor’s degree. This mirrors much of what is occurring in the job market, where people become unemployed despite having adequate levels of education.

Food banks only distribute food

This is highly unlikely. Canada’s food banks support community garden initiatives, collective kitchens, skills programs, budgeting programs, services for new mothers, community food centres, job application services, and dietary educational classes. The London Food Bank, like many others, while not managing such programs, supplies and assists school breakfast programs, various food models in the community, women’s shelters, homeless programs, research initiatives, and couponing/price matching programs.

Food banks are as diverse as the communities in which they function. They come in all shapes and sizes, but, like London, share in both national and provincial codes of ethics and share statistics, food supplies, and transport with one another. They are attempting to keep up with ever-increasing demands and are only able to do so because of the high levels of support they get from their communities. They are not the answer to poverty, but without their presence in those places where we live, hunger would be far more obvious and widespread. Whatever myths might be assumed about their work, they have become important community partners to the hungry, the media, other social agencies, and numerous community initiatives.  They continue to work with other organizations in attempts to define, track, and overcome poverty itself.

Why Do We Give?

This past weekend’s activities, along with speaking with some Afghanistan veterans during yesterday’s Remembrance Day activities, put me in a philosophical mood. Seeing so many citizens put their best foot forward caused me to ask, “Why do people give so generously?” Lots of theories popped into my mind, but still, the act of sacrificing something you own for someone else is perhaps the most noble trait resident within the human race.  Some give in order to get something in return (recognition or favour), while others donate through a kind of enlightened self-interest.  Still others give because there is a personal connection to some ultimate cause.

And then you volunteer for the London Food Bank in the Santa Claus parade and you witness another dimension altogether. Watching thousands lining the parade route, braving the cold and the wind, holding out non-perishable food items in their hands, I was again taken aback, as I am every year.  In the busy world of food bank activities, this is my favourite event because you meet so many people on one particular occasion and you get the chance to thank them. I didn’t know those people, nor they me.  It would be the only time they would all gather together like this in that one place, called together by a kind of civic compassion that was hardly organized or manipulated.  They sat patiently with others they didn’t know until that night – and they gave.

To who?  Well, they really didn’t know.  To the homeless, the hungry, fellow citizens in times of trouble?  All of the above, I’m sure.  But the point is that they gave to other people they didn’t even know, and in that precious moment civic virtue was born anew and validated.  They understood that their gift wasn’t a job, or a place to live, but they wanted to play their own small part, and when the thousands of them were added together the yield from that instinct would feed hungry families for some time to come.

Most of us can say what we care about, but experience a harder time attesting to what we want to achieve with our giving.  Some say that is kind of foolish; I say it is human.  Sometimes the greatest compassion is reserved for those moments when we are moved by an urge we can neither define nor prove.  It just “is” and we know that if we don’t act in that moment, then we will be poorer as individuals for our lack of spontaneity. To come together anonymously as these citizens did, and to provide for needy families in their midst without any organization, is beyond explanation, other than it is human to give even when we don’t comprehend the ultimate purpose of such acts.

In such moments, the observation of Antonio Porchia bears itself out:  “I know what I have given you … I do not know what you have received.”

Well, I can tell you what I received that evening: hope.  There remains this abiding belief that if people can give from their heart on a moment of impulse, there is yet hope for our communities – not because giving to a food bank is any ultimate answer to hunger, but because if the impulse is there to sacrifice, then at some point we might yet learn to fight poverty in ways that will lead to justice and an enhanced sense of social equality.  In such moments, how we give collectively might be worth more than what we actually give because it represents one clear conclusion: we see the good in the world because we choose to and don’t just imagine it.  We understand that the good is there to be noticed and pursued, not made up, and in such a reckoning lies a future worth following and communities worth building.

In the thousands of sets of eyes, on a windy November evening, I saw the possibilities of betterment for our future, that a collective life of austerity need not be our only path forward.  The very lack of definition or organization left the very progressive instincts of our humanity open for all to see – people just naturally gave.  There is a future in such stuff.

The Ones That Got Away

cabalchessYou can always tell when democracy is in a period of decline when there is an increase in volunteerism, charity and celebrity status.  It sounds counter-intuitive, but hear me out.  We have entered a phase where civil society has to pick up the slack from where governments increasingly leave off.  It’s something of a mug’s game, where more becomes expected of citizens than is required of government.

And then there is that third great sector that doesn’t really have to worry about such things very much at all.  The fabulously wealthy, the businesses they run and own, and the financial institutions through which they flourish – become increasingly disconnected from the daily lives of average Canadians and feel little connection to country anymore; their lives are spent more internationally than domestically, as is their wealth.

This has always been one of the great temptations and weaknesses of democracy – especially in a country as vast as Canada with its small population.  It becomes increasingly possible to partake of the benefits of citizenship without ever giving back.  Those who acquired great wealth in Canada feel less and less of an inclination to support the historic social compact of linking wealth with a sense of social justice.  In previous eras the emphasis for the elite wasn’t so much on charity as it was on the building up of the public good – libraries, education, hospitals, infrastructure.  The manner in which this rough equity was achieved was not by grand gestures of philanthropy or opulent fundraisers, but rather by a fair sharing in the tax burden through which wealth was disbursed throughout society.  Participation in this process was both expected and met by those better off in Canada.

We will never be a nation of only millionaires.  In a country as remote as ours the absolute best that could be expected would be a functional, energetic and committed middle class, and in this we succeeded better than almost every other nation.  The elites knew it, understood it, and even appreciated it because the social peace and high employment numbers provided key purchasers for the many products they produced.  More than that, they worked within the system and supported its innovation.  The boom of the post-war years witnessed such an expansion of the progressive state that the wealthy elite themselves shared in the overall expansion of the economy.

The previous two decades have witnessed a great reversal of such a positive development, and this for two key reasons.  Today it is as easy to make money from money in the burgeoning financial sector as it is to actually own something that makes and sells products.  And since financial transactions can travel around the globe almost at the speed of light, there is less and less an inclination for the wealthy to set up shop in a nation, invest in its future and equip its workers. In reality, it becomes increasingly difficult for them to imagine Canada as a real place, with real people, needing real jobs, real research and development, real communities, and real government.  To them, Canada has become a stop along the way rather than a place to plant the kind of roots that lead to investments that cement communities and provide a sense of hope.

The second reason is the rapid decline of the war generation.  They returned to Canada following the conflict and over the course of the next few decades shared their largesse in a structured way that permitted the public good to be better served.  In what seems oddly archaic now, these men and women willingly paid their taxes if it meant that their kids could get to university, their parents could acquire healthcare, if a secure future in later years became a real possibility, and Canada could robustly invest in an expanded humanitarian and economic influence around the world.  My parents were of that generation and they have been dead for over three decades.  Each year the ranks of those like them are depleted and replaced by a citizenry deeply suspicious of taxes, governments, and more than a little jaded with words like the “public good.”

The outcome of all this is now coming into bold relief.  We are volunteering more, giving to charity, and making heroes out of rock stars and billionaires who live elsewhere to escape the tax burden and yet who give millions to noble causes.  Yet all of these efforts bundled up together could never come close to how Canada and other nations functioned when the various economic sectors worked together to broaden the middle class and provide a measure of hope for the marginalized.  There isn’t enough charity to build universities, medical centers, seniors home, ports, high-speed rail systems, a functioning a personal mail service, deep investments in new roads, refurbished neighborhoods, or even research.

Should Canadians become more charitable out of a noble instinct to better those who are struggling, who is to argue?  But should they pursue such an option as a kind of “catch up” for the lack of public investment they will never succeed.  By permitting wealth to avoid responsibility, we are turning Canada into a charitable cause as opposed to a just and vibrant society.

We have a remarkably sophisticated society – something that comes with a land so vast and a people so diverse.  The failure to invest in the public good not only erodes our future, it permits private wealth to avoid commitment, and without a fair portion of that wealth we cannot fulfill our contract.

An Extra Special Christmas Gift

It happens each year during this season and it’s remarkable. The unfolding pageant of Londoners expending their time, good wishes and money on needed services and gifts for our community’s marginalized is an inspiring movement.

Christmas and the poor are joined at the hip and that linkage is perhaps the most radical of the redeeming gifts Christmas has passed on to us. Think of George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, assisting the poor in attaining shelter as he slowly slides into poverty himself. There’s White Christmas, where an aging general is about to lose his inn, and A Christmas Carol, when Ebenezer Scrooge learns that even great wealth must bow to the urgent needs of those with little. The best of the Christmas spirit has been reserved for those who get beyond themselves to serve others.

And so the majority of us, moved by a spirit we can’t fully comprehend, play our bit parts in the millennia-old drama of taking something from what we have to give to some families without. It’s a human movement older than London, but it continues to define the best in us.

The opportunities to give back during this season are many, but a new initiative has arrived that might prove more fundamental than the usual Christmas efforts.

Issues emerging from the Occupy Wall Street movement have found support in London well beyond the Victoria Park occupiers. The global movement lit a spark in affluent and developing nations that speaks to abiding concerns over the problems created by global income disparity.

London has hosted two major conferences in the last few weeks dealing with poverty’s abiding effects in our community. And a recent symposium at the Central Library on the subject was well attended by a dynamic cross-section of the community, proving again that these issues are capturing attention.

The new Citizens’ Panel, which was developed at the suggestion of the City of London and which I chair, as a response to Occupy issues has made its initial forays into the community, dealing with problems stemming from income disparity.

Other opportunities for participation are coming forward. For example, on Jan. 15, the faith community will hold a gathering of churches at St. Paul’s Cathedral to examine a co-ordinated and compassionate response to the income gap.

Meanwhile, the focus of the Citizens’ Panel revolves around two opportunities:

To participate in the city’s budget process, and to participate in the first major social assistance review in the province in 20 years — a process that provides for community input at numerous levels.

Londoners will be afforded the opportunity to speak to the Social Assistance Review Commission and the Citizens’ Panel aims to get as many Londoners as possible registering their impressions and solutions on the growing poverty situation in Canada.

How will our community handle the growing poverty rate among seniors who can’t obtain an increase in their pensions and who lost much of their savings in the economic downturn? More seniors than ever are showing up in emergency shelters.

Then there are those with mental health issues unable to obtain a proper diagnosis and who bounce in and out of emergency shelters, often ending up on the street. The nature of the present employment predicament will also be discussed and reviewed.

In a city alive with charitable spirit over the season, here is your opportunity as a citizen to speak directly to public policy. There are a few key questions that require your input. You can attend one of the events mentioned above or reply to the questions online at www.londonpolicyresponse.com.

As poverty grows more systemic across the country, more serious reflection by governments and citizens will be required to reverse the damage.

Why not add to your generosity this season by donating 15 minutes of your time for an initiative that could have significant effect? Your city and province are requested your input. Maybe if we respond in good enough numbers, our future Christmas seasons might increase in spirit and decrease in oppressive poverty. That would be a Christmas gift for the ages.

Note: This was originally a column written for the London Free Press on December 24, 2011.

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