The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: data

Public Good Without the Facts


WHEN ALLAN GREGG DELIVERED THE Knowles-Woodsworth lecture at the University of Winnipeg 18 months ago, his speech created much introspection on where Canada is going. Yet the well-known pollster, television interviewer, and political pundit, began with who were are as a people before launching into his concerns of who we might become.

He spoke of how we were a nation of facts, data, progressive thought, and directed by research for public policy decisions. Such dependence on evidence-based data and relevant statistics had served us well for decades, helping Canada to stand somewhat apart from other countries through its unique balancing of social justice and economic health.

But no sooner had he said that than he got to nitty-gritty: “It seems as though our government’s use of evidence and facts as the bases of policy was declining, and in their place, dogma, whim and political expediency was on the rise.”

Using the termination of the Statistics Canada long-form census by the Harper government, he asked a practical question: “How could you determine how many units of affordable housing were needed unless the change in the number of people who qualified for affordable housing? How could you assess the appropriate costs of affordable housing unless you knew the change in the amount of disposable income available to eligible recipients?” These were vital questions every community across the country required answers for, but the feds had removed the main resource whereby we could acquire the information required to respond with effective public policy. The termination of the census, he reasoned, “amounted to an attempt to eliminate anyone who might use science, facts, and evidence to challenge government policies.”

Then Gregg took a deliberate turn into history, reflecting on how civilization would inevitably take steps backward the moment ruling elites suppressed knowledge from getting to citizens. “The subversive power of the flow of information and people has never been lost on political and religious tyrants. This is why they suppress speech, writing and associations and why democracies protect these channels in their bills of rights.”

The list of key public servants fired by the present government is now lengthy and acknowledged. The suppression of scientific voices, and the requirement of such voices to first have their facts and speeches vetted by the government public relations office has now become so glaring that even voices from around the globe have wondered why Canada, of all places, has chosen to emasculate its own conscience and intelligence in such a fashion. It takes all of 30 seconds on Google to verify that there is a huge body of evidence on this political suppression.

I especially appreciated Gregg’s observation on how this has affected our political life together, wondering whether government’s forcing a false division between reason and morality, “might be responsible for the shrill, callow and uninspirational public discourse that takes place today.” Just sixty seconds in Question Period would seem to answer that question with some sense of clarity.

Allan Gregg quoted Mahatma Gandhi strategically in the middle of his speech by reminding his audience that such false divisions were what often pulled houses of faith into decades of ineffectiveness: “A religion that takes no account of practical affairs and does not help to solve them is no religion.” We understand his implication: any government that refuses enlightened research and information from its citizens in order to maintain power is no government.

Yes, government panhandlers will argue vociferously against this, and opposition parties will concur outright with Gregg. But these parties aren’t the ultimate arbitrator or judge on such matters. And as vital as the voices of science and information are, they are not what will fully convince us that something is amiss in Canada. For that, we only have to live a little while in our own minds to understand the implications of all this. We know politics is in decline. We are aware that citizens feel left out of their own collective fate. We live with the effects of climate change every season and marvel that no imagination or sense of urgency emanates from Ottawa. We feel angst because we are aware that poverty is growing and that small businesses keep getting passed over for the big firms with clout and influence.

We know all this already – more scientific voices or data will only confirm what we already sense. If Gandhi was correct when he said that,” we are the change we have been seeking,” then fewer things can drive change as effectively as a people who know in their heart of hearts that we have lost our way as a nation due, in part, to manipulation by government. We don’t require more data to know we must alter our path; we need citizens who will bring their own lights of conscience to overpower the shadows cast by partisan urges of the political order. To create change, it’s not more science that we need, but average citizens willing enough to put already established facts over the political establishment’s fictions.




Living Research

MDG : Data revolution


OCCASIONALLY COMMUNITIES HAVE TROUBLE telling their own stories.  It often happens during times of transition, when change moves faster than a city’s ability to understand it.

This is what happened in London when it came to a growing poverty problem.  While places like the London Food Bank were reporting that their clientele had climbed 40% in the last five years, London struggled to determine what was happening and what were the causes.

The answers were never fully clear because the data required to get a good grasp on the problem was just not available.  Much of the data presently in use has come from Statistics Canada but was regionally based and couldn’t drill down to isolate what was really happening in our city.  The killing off of the long-form census only compounded the problem.  Numerous agencies had gathered data for the operation of their own organizations, but these often remained in isolation, not gathered or collated into a grander study.  And much of the poverty research for London was accomplished by academic institutions – data that ended up in academic journals or eventually consigned to library bookshelves

Even a decade ago there had been an increasing voice in London searching for some kind of central place for data capture, but then came the great financial fallout beginning in 2008 – a period where every community was preoccupied with attempting to just survive the significant economic fallout locally, nationally, and globally.

The need for better research in poverty in London remained and two groups came together to discuss the possibility of providing a centre solely dedicated to understanding poverty in London through the accumulation and promotion of accurate research.  The Sisters of St. Joseph and the London Food Bank decided to work together towards the possibility of establishing a dedicated research centre to study poverty in our city.  Resources were channeled from both organizations to begin the process, but it became quickly apparent that more funding would be required.

Application was made by a joint proposal from both organizations to the London Community Foundation’s Vitality Grant program – a process that eventually resulted in a grant of $250,355 dedicated specifically to the founding and establishment of the London Poverty Research Centre.

Larger community consultations took place with key partners to instigate data sharing agreements, collaboration, and an agreement to work together to harmonize stories about poverty in London and how it might be beaten

A task force had been established, charged with steering the new organization into the future.  It selected three key areas for research in the Centre’s first few years – 1) precarious work; 2) food security; 3) mental health and housing.  The focus will be on “Living Research” – the inclusion of those living in poverty to tell their stories in real-time and to help shape the effectiveness of the forthcoming research.

From its inception, the London Poverty Research Centre determined that along with the importance of research, there also had to be a strong public component centered on education, the importance of media (traditional and social), the need to inform politicians and policy makers, and the ultimate need to draw Londoners themselves into the dialogue about growing poverty and how to tackle it.

Productive talks have been underway between the Poverty Research Centre and King’s University College to partner together to bring relevant data for public consumption and for policy discussion.

The London Poverty Research Centre was launched yesterday – four months following the initial grant from the London Community Foundation.  With its proposed partnership with King’s University College, the research centre now has in place solid academic support and an exciting mandate to take any findings “public,” to inform debate and tackle poverty at its root causes.

There were a few complaints when the centre was announced yesterday, saying, “Hasn’t enough research been accumulated already?  Isn’t it time to take action?”  The answer to such well-intentioned queries is yes and no.  Not enough research has been done from the standpoint of those living in direct poverty that permits them to build their personal stories directly into the data itself.  And, yes, much research has been done.  But for it to be actionable, it must be brought together into a compelling voice that can gain traction in the public space.  Maybe then politicians and citizens alike will work together for community equity.

London has been through years of difficult transition, but the key to finding a new future lies in our knowledge of what our direct challenges are.  With the presence of the London Poverty Research Centre, our community will be provided with the relevant data to face and change the future of poverty in London through knowledge of both the statistics and direct stories of those struggling in poverty.  The future begins with the gathering of that knowledge and its direct placement in the hands of leaders and citizens alike to build the community they want.

The poor have become lost in all the data about them.  It is time to put those struggling in poverty into the narrative itself and provide them opportunity to shape their own future, just as we wish do with ours.  It can be a compelling story, but first it must be a collective and a collected voice.

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