JOURNEY TO JUSTICE

Joe Gunn

July 16, 2012

What would you say about hunger, if the United Nations wanted to hear from you?

Canadians had to think hard about that question in May, and so did I when I was asked to speak before Olivier De Schutter, the UN special rapporteur on the right to food, during his visit to Canada.

De Shutter was on an 11-day mission to Canada, his first to a developed country, in order to map out Canada's compliance with our international human rights commitments. He met with families on social assistance who find it hard to feed their children healthy food, he visited inner city neighbourhoods in Ontario and Quebec, and he travelled to remote aboriginal communities in Manitoba and Alberta.

You may remember from press reports that the UN envoy urged Canadian governments to put an end to the need for almost 900,000 Canadians to visit a food bank each month.

He decried the fact that in such a wealthy nation, one in 10 families with a child under six is unable to meet its daily food needs.

"This is a country that is rich but that fails to adapt the levels of social assistance benefits and its minimum wage to the rising costs of basic necessities, including food and housing," De Schutter said.

At least initially, federal government ministers refused to meet him and discuss his findings. After his press statements however, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney angrily suggested De Schutter was wasting the UN's money by visiting a developed country.

Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq then met with De Schutter, but strongly objected to his remarks on food issues facing aboriginals. Aglukkaq told reporters, "He's ill-informed. . . . In the Arctic," she said, "the food security issue is not about access to (food). It's about fighting environmentalists trying to put a stop to our way of life."

Catholics certainly believe the issue is about access to food.

Not only was the right to food enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but at the Second Vatican Council, the right to food was specifically mentioned as one of the human rights necessary for human dignity.

"The right to have a share of earthly goods sufficient for oneself and one's family belongs to everyone."

FEED THE HUNGRY

The bishops used language beyond that of any UN diplomat when they wrote, "Since there are so many people prostrate with hunger in the world, this sacred council urges all, both individuals and governments, to remember the aphorism of the Fathers, "Feed the man dying of hunger, because if you have not fed him, you have killed him" (Gaudium et Spes, 69).

Almost certainly, bishops would not use such inflammatory language today, even if government was to cut millions of dollars from development assistance programs, or limit budgets to assist low income people at home.

But non-profit agencies, many of them Church-related, spoke out long before De Schutter's visit. They realize that the issues of food security and hunger are directly related to poverty.

When we met, I knew I didn't have to remind De Shutter of the UN's own guidelines document that reads, "Poverty signifies non-realization of human rights so that the adoption of a poverty reduction strategy is therefore not just desirable but obligatory on the part of states that have ratified human rights instruments."

However, many Canadians may not know that when Canada's performance on human, economic and social rights was last reviewed by the UN, my own organization, Citizens for Public Justice, called upon Canada to develop a poverty reduction strategy. The UN's Human Rights Council then encouraged Canada to do exactly that.

PASS THE BUCK

But in June 2009, the federal government specifically rejected this recommendation and its attendant responsibility. Ottawa stated that poverty reduction was "a provincial responsibility."

Food Secure Canada argues that "A Canada with no food policy is like not having a national health care policy." While a quarter of Canadians are considered obese, we are the only G8 country without a nationally-funded school meal program.

Stats Can reports that close to two and a half million Canadians are moderately or severely food insecure.

Most Canadian provinces already have poverty reduction plans, and Premier Alison Redford has promised to initiate one in Alberta.

It is time Christians encouraged our federal government to live up to its word, as well.

(Joe Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice, www.cpj.ca, an ecumenical social advocacy organization.)