The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: food banks

Be It Resolved

broken_promises_by_herrfousNew Years doesn’t quite retain the deeper cultural meanings it used to possess years ago, but it still carries quite a punch.  Growing up in Edinburgh, Scotland, some of my most vivid memories swirl around New Years Eve, the gathering of family and friends, community celebrations, and, of course, the singing of Auld Lang Syne.  There was a depth of humanity to its words that transcended the moment.  But there was a restrained sadness in its singing, a kind of brooding acknowledgement that the arrival of a new year meant having to deal with some of the more difficult realities of the one just expired.

The words “Auld Lang Syne” could literally be translated as “old long since” and spoke of the passing of time.  They ask a straightforward question, based on the difficult times many citizens in those days had to endure.  The words ask plainly whether old friends and times will be forgotten.  There’s a kind of collective resolution expressed that such a thing won’t happen because, “we’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet.”

But there were other verses in the song that we don’t sing in North America but which acknowledge some difficult community realities.  They speak of how friendships used to be strong and animated but how time had distanced those relationships in the words, “broad seas have roared between us.”

The years of the famous song’s origins, as with many eras since, were difficult times when communities struggled to stay together despite strong outside forces that would seek to undermine their history.  There remain some desperately tragic stories of entire communities that disappeared into the mist as time passed them by.  Always, in those early Scotland years for me, was this ongoing tension between hope and sadness whenever the song was sung that was profoundly collective in nature.

Today, New Years has become far more individualistic.  Yes, we gather, drink and dance, but the sense of coming together for the sake of entire communities has receded into memory.  In the place of community experience has come individual resolutions – the willingness to make promises to ourselves that we hope to fulfill in the ensuing months.  We desire to change and better ourselves, which is a wonderful thing.  And yet such actions often take place in isolation: losing weight, eating better, saving money, being more successful.  It is rare anymore to see citizens coming together at New Years and making joint resolutions to better their collective life, to share in resources, and to fight those broader forces seeking to diminish their community identity.

Recent research in the U.S. revealed that 50% of Americans make New Years resolutions, but that, sadly, 88% never carry them out to conclusion.  That’s over 150,000,000 resolutions that failed.  The research went deeper and revealed why it was the people couldn’t maintain that drive.  Put simply, those making such resolutions failed to understand the distinction between a resolution and a habit.  It remains almost impossible to retain a certain practice all year and then suddenly end it just because you feel like it.  The goal shouldn’t be to make a sudden change but to build “instinctual” habits that will eventually assist us to achieve our target.  Resolutions are always vital, but without the discipline to back them up the brain experiences great difficulty in creating changes in our lives that are sustainable.

This New Years, there will be many like me seeking to place a broader focus on our resolutions.  Things won’t be about “us” but “we” and there will be some hope of winning meaning back into the places where we live.  We will resolve to work more with others, to not be as opinionated or unforgiving, to be generous in spirit as opposed to restrained.  But by February or March the old ways stand a great chance of creeping back in and robbing us of our collective promises to one another.

We stand the chance of forgetting once more that for people like Mandela, forgiveness became a daily discipline and generosity of spirit had become a daily habit.  Our communities could use such a message once more.  As years pass, people who were once friends have divided sharply over a particular issue and never resolve to heal the relationship.  Sometimes such divisions occurred over mere opinions and not any particular actions.  Surely such troubles could be healed, friendships restored, and collective action for the sake of community be put back on track.

If citizens become so political every day that they refuse to congregate and work together because of hyped-up partisan instincts, then our cities will be at a loss.  If everything depends on one political tribe beating another into submission, where is the space left for magnanimous communities or shared purpose?  Instead of uniting us in difficult times, politics has taken on the nature of dividing over partisan feuds.

So let us this New Years make one collective resolution.  Be it resolved that we will create empowering citizen habits that will see us spend the next 365 days healing old wounds, salving areas of historic pain, using social media as an aggregator of commonality as opposed to a mere bulletin board of random opinions and postings that often divide us, and supporting those institutions that would seek to bring us together.  Given the challenges we now face, let’s build those habits of healthy citizenship that can see us resolve actions together that we can actually complete.  Happy New Year to all.

Dreamless Sleep

girl-reflected-in-windowSo it’s out.  No, not about the use of crack cocaine, or a new revelation on the Senate scandal.

Following months of preparation, food banks across Canada have produced their annual HungerCount report.  Some in the media say it’s good news, that with the economy turning a corner we can finally see a decline in poverty.  That’s quite a stretch, and fortunately most of the media reported it for what it was: another indication of the entrenchment of poverty in the Canadian context that refuses to go away regardless of the state of the economy.

The report concludes that food bank use has declined 7% in the last year.  However, much of that is regionally slanted, with many food banks facing continual increases.  Food bank use went up 25% in the past five years says the report, but in London, Ontario that number is just shy of 50%.  While some food banks might have welcomed a slight decline, London’s numbers increased 3% over the same period.

Food banks have lived through three recessions since their presence on the Canadian scene, and following each recovery usage never returned to pre-recession levels.  Their greatest challenge has been faced in the last few years.  While some economists remind us that we are on the road to recovery, food banks numbers remain stubbornly high and will remain so for the foreseeable future.

Increasingly, Canadians are asking why this is so.  Why is it, for instance, that when corporations say that because of competition they are required to slash wages and spending, they are also achieving profits that are at an all-time high?  When such companies say they can’t afford higher wages or the infrastructure costs to run more environmentally sustainable activities, how do they square that with their flushed coffers?  Such success clearly makes it possible to pay workers better and remain in the black, so what’s holding them back from benefitting their community in such a fashion?  These are fundamental common sense questions for which no one is getting an answer.

The HungerCount report provided one very troubling reality.  Of the almost one million people who frequented food banks, 36% were children.  Many continually claim that they sympathize with children in developing nations because the adults and leaders of those nations permit their youngest members to exist in such a state.  They are correct when stating that leaving children in poverty is a systemic problem characterized by a lack of will.  How do Canadians respond to a similar trend in their own country?  Regardless of our ideologies or preferences, none of us desires a future of poverty for our children.  Why then do we permit a situation where kids remain hungry?

Yes, there are numerous solutions being bandied about to provide programs and incentives for low-income families, but wouldn’t it make more sense to take on that one great task that might have the greatest effect: protect and enhance the middle class?  A number of well-intentioned initiatives designed to lift children out of hunger and poverty could never measure up to this one great endeavour poised before the Canadian people, their businesses, and their governments.

It has been said that poverty, once experienced, becomes a prison, a trap from which one can’t escape.  But surely that can’t be so because at one point in our journey as humans we were virtually all impoverished.  Over centuries, we developed mechanisms – legal, economic, ethical, and social – that began the great process of freeing the human race from oppressive poverty.  The largest part of that adventure remains unfinished.  Poverty, regardless of its oppressive circumstances, is mostly a state of mind that refuses to create the conditions necessary for the economic liberation of the greatest number of citizens or simply mindlessly acquiesces to the status quo.  We can’t keep blaming the politicians alone, regardless of what we are enduring at present.  A country’s dreams are established in its people, not just its leaders, and the fact that we continue to accept poverty in such high numbers is merely a sign that we have instead fallen into a dreamless sleep.

Managing Poverty

After 25 years you’d think we’d be used to it. But by the time I walked into the food bank for the press conference for our 25th annual Spring Food Drive I sensed something different inside of myself.

The number of families we were helping was huge (3660 a month in January), but that wasn’t it. Londoners had given enough food to fill a warehouse, but it wasn’t that either. The volunteers were bustling around the warehouse and front area, displaying a remarkable commitment to their community. Yet after a few moments observing them, I knew it was more than such an inspiring sight.

And then it dawned on me. All this work, and generosity, and need, and struggle – we were managing poverty. What once was a blight in the minds of Canadians seeking prosperity and equity had now become a way of life. Food banks like ours are teetering on the edge of institutionalism. For years our communities across the country have comforted themselves by saying that it’s a shame we have food banks, but that doesn’t really cut it anymore. Twenty-five years of that shame is a long time. The great generosity of places like London and the fantastic commitment of its citizens and groups shouldn’t have to be preoccupied with this kind of work for an entire generation. They should be out there building schools, greening communities, holding citizen engagement sessions, fighting for public transport or seeking political reform. Instead they are at a food bank displaying the kind of commitment that represents the highest degree of citizenship. Yet even these wonderful people wonder where the numbers will end and how much more hunger can a community endure. That ability to question is also what makes them the remarkable people they are.

Managing, tolerating, accommodating – these are words that should never be placed in the same sentence as poverty. Instead they should be ending, fighting, reducing. It’s been 25 years and perhaps it’s time to stop coming to terms with this great reduction of human potential and as a community struggle with our marginalized citizens to reclaim their rightful positions among us.

How the Grinch Stole the Food Bank Christmas

It’s hard when the Grinch personally arrives and attempts to steal your Christmas spirit, but that’s just what happened at the London Food Bank’s annual Christmas Party for staff and volunteers this week.

Following dinner we learned from our newly compiled statistics that for the first time in our 25-year history the number of families coming to us monthly had finally surpassed the 3500 figure. It was a landmark we hoped never to see but now it has landed with a thud in our community just in time for the holiday season. Worse still, it doesn’t bode well for the coming year.

I then Twittered the news and it was immediately picked up by citizens and media alike. It was like this new development was a sudden wake up call for our community. Rather than the flood tide cresting, it was if it was time to brace ourselves for higher levels to come.

What are we coming to? We shouldn’t be foolhardy enough to think that this is a problem that has only recently emerged. For two decades now, while our economy was supposedly expanding year after year and wealth was being generated in phenomenal measure, the critical mass of those in poverty continued to remain at stubbornly high levels. We’ve been through three recessions as a food bank and following each the numbers of people in need failed to return to pre-recession levels. It’s as if our delight in all the cheap goods available, low-cost tourism and the baubles offered through the free market deluded us into thinking that all was well, when in reality the encompassing tentacles of poverty were strengthening their national grip without our notice.

And as the poverty numbers continue to climb year after year, the issues that broaden our understanding of the marginalized are challenging us in numerous dimensions.  Mental health and addictions, homelessness, a housing crisis, food insecurity, hunger, high unemployment or marginal employment, aboriginal imbroglios, a growing pension crisis, child poverty – these have emerged from the mystical cloud of “poverty” to challenge us at almost every turn of public policy. We seem to have no comprehensive solutions, merely well-meaning and dedicated local efforts to deal with situations destined to swamp us all with their sheer size.

We pursue solutions that can only assist some victims because we simply can’t come up with anything else greater. For that to happen would require all three levels of government acknowledging that the downward pull of poverty, in all its dimensions, is keeping our communities from flourishing and our country from restoring its image as a light of fairness, equality and opportunity in the world.

It is no longer good enough to pretend that as a nation all of us are struggling through a temporary recession that is debilitating. Clearly that is not true; some are doing very well – perhaps too well. Furthermore, the very economic structure of our country is now highly suspect, for even during the good times the wealth never reached enough of the marginalized to lift them out of poverty, regardless of their rigorous efforts to achieve financial security. The system is flawed and an increasing number of Canadians have already come to that conclusion.

What is missing is leadership, especially at the federal level where so many economic issues emanate. Yet as communities we pull up our bootstraps and dig in to help because that’s what good citizens do. The key to all good citizenship is found at the local level. Unfortunately our struggles are far greater than any local community can handle. As a result, an increasing number of Canadians are alone and adrift – our historic social compact is broken. Like any effective beast of prey, poverty lurks and suddenly strikes those isolated from the group. Our own citizens are increasingly vulnerable, and now is not the time to circle the wagons. This is the moment when we must take on the restructuring of the financial order, despite the formidable nature of its beneficiaries.

Our problems are now far more imposing and threatening that any individual or community. They are now national in scope, emerging from decades of greed and distraction with little attention. We are now in the big leagues as a citizenry, and we either come together over this financial disparity or we find ourselves afloat in our own little vessels. Over 3500 families coming to the food bank each month is not so much a record as it is a travesty. Worse, it is beneath every single one of us who takes pride in their country but not in the potential of its citizens. It’s going to be a lonely life ahead of us unless we find one another in the growing darkness.

On Trial

This is the day we never fully realized would come. The London Food Bank holds a press conference kicking off our annual Thanksgiving food drive but also we commemorate our 25th anniversary as an organization. Who knew? A quarter of a century ago we were just trying to stem the tide of hunger that had predominated during the recession of the early-80s. Food banks were a phenomenon – started by citizens in a response to institutional and capitalist failure and adjustment. We opted for storefront properties or rustic warehouses meant to temporarily house us until the recession had run its course. The belief was that the institutions would pick up the slack once again when the economy improved. It never happened.

In fact, everything continued to get worse. Government bailed; corporations restructured. Small and medium-sized businesses – the real generators of employment – were red-taped to death. With the economic booms that followed, citizens slowly lost touch with their ill-fated kin. When polled as to whether they thought ridding Canada of serious poverty was important, Canadians replied in the 80% range – a number that went into the 90s when asked about child poverty. And then they just went on spending and electing governments that refused to deal with the growing inequities within our society. Citizens said they were concerned about the growing gap between rich and poor and that governments should do something about it, but at the same time demanded a constant lowering of income taxes that eventually shrunk the government revenues enough that effectively dealing with the problem became impossible.

But our lack of attention will cost us. This week the National Council on Welfare reminded us that if we had just spent $12.6 billion to fight poverty programs we wouldn’t have to face the present reality that is costing us double that amount each year dealing with the symptoms rather than the cure. These numbers in the areas of healthcare, education, criminal justice and social services are about to balloon and yet still we develop no plan to deal with the challenge.

We have yet to put together a national plan for dealing with what has clearly become a national and not just regional problem. We have no national housing strategy, or child poverty strategy, or a poverty reduction strategy. Some provinces like Ontario have put certain measures in place, but without a partner at the federal level it just can’t work. During my time in Parliament both the Senate and the House produced two major reports on poverty but the feds just filed them. We are about to pay for that lack of attention. Read the National Council of Welfare report to see what we are up against. Hardly anyone disputes the figures, but there is no shortage of opinions as to what should be done.

What exactly are we doing? Wasting billions of dollars each year on poor programming isn’t so smart in a day of diminishing returns. And then just yesterday we discover that the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy estimates that the cost of climate change will be roughly $5 billion per year in 2020 and will increase to between $21 billion and $43 billion annually by 2050. Where is this money going to come from, especially since we are struggling through the largest deficit in Canadian history? Through productive growth? How can that happen when totaling both the poverty and environmental bills could add up to $75 billion a year within 40 years?

Is this what Kishore Mahbubani, from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy meant when he said, “No leaders dare to tell the truth to the people. All their pronouncements rest on the mythical assumption that ‘recovery’ is around the corner … There will be no painless solution … No politician dares utter the word ‘sacrifice.’ Painful truths cannot be told?” Now, before we start unloading on politicians again for not taking leadership, let’s just remember that we elected them and we likely wouldn’t have done so if they told us we would have to start getting by with less and that progressive taxes would have to be levied. Politicians are only saying what we want to hear – the real truth is frightening in the telling and likely to create voter backlash in the hearing. For the Liberal Party to find real meaning again, this is the reality they should be confronting us with. But why would they when we would punish any party that dared to do what we demand they do – prepare us for the future.

Today my wife and I have our pictures on the front page of the London Free Press in a style that looks like mug shots before we head to prison. The paper is asking the public and its leaders if Jane and I actually did the right thing 25 years ago incorporating the food bank. We asked the paper to do so because we are trying to generate a discussion about the kind of Canada we want. This is hugely uncomfortable for us. Then again, so is the reality that we now help 3200 families each month when it was roughly 300 families 25 years ago. It’s a shame we have reached the point as a society where food banks are put on trial for responding to a massive need created by a lack of citizen and political action. But that’s where we are and it hurts today. Just saying.

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