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National Poverty Reduction Summit spotlights inequality

By Roderick Benns


There is no shortage of hard-working and intelligent people across the length and breadth of Canada who are passionate about ending inequality. From Victoria to St. John’s, from Nunavut to Windsor, representatives at the National Poverty Reduction Summit were committed to action.

Hosted by Tamarack and Vibrant Communities Canada, the summit brought together thought leaders, business people, activists, advocates, and leaders of all kinds to the nation’s capital to mine shared ideas, gather successful practices, and pledge community-by-community action.

Perhaps Mayor Naheed Nenshi of Calgary said it best, though, when he pointed out that poverty levels have virtually remained the same for a generation, despite all the good people doing good things, and despite all the great stories that advocates can point to.

So where do we go from here, so we’re not doing more of the same, ineffective things?

Over the course of the three-day summit there were many opinions about how to achieve this, but top among them was to relentlessly focus on encouraging strong leadership at all levels of government, and changing governments through elections when necessary.

Senator Art Eggleton said that all candidates in all federal political parties need the issue of inequality placed squarely in front of them. “They have to be exposed to this. We have to help create the political will to act, so we have to do a better job of informing the candidates” who are choosing to run for office, he said.

He noted that provinces can help by pushing hard for a national agenda on poverty, and that this pressure is vital leading up to the October election.

Poverty reduction targets

Paul Born, president and cofounder of Tamarack, told a capacity crowd that at least 50 cities across Canada have active poverty reduction strategies and about 60 others are actively working toward this goal. It will be crucial to grow these numbers to effect even greater national-level change, but this does show every sign of being accomplished.

First Nations partnerships

Chief Kirby Whiteduck, of Pikwakanagan First Nation in Ottawa, noted poverty was especially troubling for indigenous peoples. Fully half of status First Nations children in Canada live below the poverty line. Chief Whiteduck told the crowd that he is cautiously optimistic. “We think there is some hope and we are open to new ideas and partnerships on ways to reduce poverty.”

Using the tools we have

Alan Broadbent, who co-founded and chairs the Caledon Institute of Social Policy and Tamarack Institute, said it was laughable to believe that a country as rich and privileged as Canada cannot choose to end poverty.

Poverty is a choice that society makes, says Broadbent. “It is constructed…by the voices we listen to, by the rights we choose to respect or ignore.”

But if poverty is something that we have built, he added, “then we can also tear it down.”

Broadbent is a believer in the poverty reduction tools already at Canada’s disposal, including the highly effective Canada Child Tax Benefit and the promising Working Income Tax Benefit. The problem, he says, is that they are all underfunded.

A basic income guarantee and the social determinants of health

Showing the diversity of opinion over the course of the three days at the summit, there was also support for a basic income guarantee from Mayor Nenshi of Calgary, and support for focusing on the social determinants of health, as outlined by Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson.

Iveson started the Mayor’s Task Force to Eliminate Poverty in Edmonton within one generation, making no apologies for the word ‘elimination.’

“We have to think inter-generationally” on these important issues, to get it right for the future, not just for the politically expedient short term, he said. “I’d rather do the right thing and lose the next election,” then do the wrong thing and win, he told the crowd.

In Calgary, Nenshi told the crowd that the poverty reduction strategy is called Enough for All and that the overall goal is to reduce poverty by 50 percent by 2023.

Affluence can be corrosive

Dana Robbins, vice president and group publisher, at Metroland, commented that lessening inequality should be something that all Canadians can get behind. He recalled growing up, like most Canadians, in an environment where one rubbed shoulders “with people of all stripes.”

“Many of us now have only known affluence. The middle class of today is not the middle class of yesterday. Poverty today is marginalizing in a way it wasn’t in previous generations,” said Robbins.

Since middle class affluence can be a corrosive force when wealth is not shared, says Robbins, it has “backed our nation into a corner.”

Robbins suggested that orienting our discussion about poverty to a discussion about health might be the best way to go, considering that poverty is unequivocally bad for one’s wellbeing.

Findings and Conclusions

Over the course of the first day of the summit, it became clear that:

Successful Poverty Reduction Strategies require broad-based collaborations

  • Cities, provinces, and territories need to take a lead role, but business, education, and the social sector all need to be engaged.
  • This is systemic change that is needed and in order to be meaningful it has to be informed by the lived experience of those living in poverty.
  • There are shared values, there is both a moral and business case, and advocates are poised for action.

What also became clear is that:

Strategies need to be integrated and change will take time

  • Strategies to address child poverty, education, employment, and homelessness need to be integrated in order to create a successful overall poverty reduction strategy.
  • Strategies should be informed and driven by data and evidence, and results need to be measured and shared broadly.
  • A national strategy is needed and federal government policy has a critical role to play.

In the latter half of the summit, the idea of the business community helping in the fight against inequality was widely agreed to be important, because:

Business Community Coalitions can achieve unique results

  • Business leaders have access to political and community leaders, and they can bring us with them.
  • Business leaders may not always want to write a cheque, at least at first; ask for their time, participation, and leadership.
  • Businesses talk a lot about their community investment strategies, but what they don’t talk about is the impact of their business practices on poverty. Simple changes to payroll, procurement, and hiring practices can make a big difference. 

The role of the provinces

As leaders are sought from both community level organizations, and at the top political levels, it is clear that provinces are effectively pursuing deliberate poverty reduction strategies across Canada. Observations include:

  • Ontario has designated a minister responsible for poverty reduction, established an office to coordinate a strategy across all ministries to reduce poverty by 25 percent, which is linked to program spending reviews by the treasury board.
  • Newfoundland and Labrador has moved from the highest level of poverty in Canada to second lowest; how we support vulnerable people speaks to how we address poverty.
  • New Brunswick created an independent Crown corporation with a representative board to implement the provincial strategy, and a Community Inclusion Network to distribute funds.
  • Nunavut developed a shared understanding of poverty reduction that is inclusive and sensitive to Inuit culture and traditions.

With five months to go before the next federal election, it is clear that advocates for a fair, inspired, and engaged Canada are going to push hard to get inequality on the nation’s agenda.

Writing in the Globe and Mail earlier this year, long-time inequality activist and former Senator Hugh Segal noted that in the last English-language televised debate between party leaders in 2011, the subject of poverty was not raised once.

“Going through another election year and debate without voters being able to assess how each potential prime minister and government would address poverty would be a further marginalization of the millions of our fellow Canadians who live below the poverty line.”

If attendees to this recent summit have their way, what happened in 2011 won’t be allowed to be repeated in 2015.

— with files from Tamarack

One comment

  1. Brent LaBrosse

    My question to all of these individuals who attend these conferences is if we are going to try to eliminate poverty in our great county, which is very achievable, the initial step must come from the federal government. We must also realize that society today has been so used to receiving free moneys from either social assistance agencies like the federal and provincial governments that for some of the individuals receiving these funds, it has become a way of life passed down from generation to generation with an internal education from within these households that the government or some form of social agency will always be there for them to live off of. I have no problem supporting an individual to meet a minimum standard of living so that they can at least survive, but will not support an individual who is quite capable of working a regular position but does not because of his or her background of knowing how to use the system for their personal gain. I also believe that it is high time that the federal government quit protecting the more affluent people of this country with ways to hide their money via tax loops. A flat percentage for taxes should be imposed on all individuals in this country so that we pay the same percentage of taxes based on our incomes. Totally fair and equal for everyone so long as the loop holes are closed to hide money with serious fines for those who break the rules. Having lived on a reserve for several years, and seen first hand the poverty on this reserve, there was no reason for these individuals to change their lives, knowing that they were always going to receive some form of subsidy from one agency or another. I believe that in order to change people perspectives of society then the individuals themselves also need to have some personal values and want to change their life style, either through the availability of education, professional development opportunities, skills training or a change in the standards of living. The bottom line is still that the person themselves must want the change otherwise it is like a person who has an addiction which we as society cannot change unless the participant is willing to change themselves.

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