JOURNEY TO JUSTICE

Joe Gunn

October 8, 2012

Sitting in our parish basement, she told her story with a quiet dignity – and a carefully concealed anger.

Anna's story was one that has stayed with me, because I cannot fathom why she had to be in that predicament in the first place.

An interfaith grouping of more than 100 souls had gathered to hear the stories of people with lived experiences of poverty and to then decide what to do about the persistence of poverty in our community.

Anna told our small circle how she escaped a situation of marital violence, and arrived in Ottawa looking for a safe, new beginning.

Her story was one of persistence in demanding help from her caseworkers and annoyance at the "silly rules" that exhaust a person's dignity.

Without work and or a social support system of friends and family, things were tough.

After being forced to use up all her savings, she was able to exist on welfare, but with great difficulty. She told of meeting friends after church for a walk and window-shopping, but how that lovely day turned into tears of disgrace when they decided to stop for coffee – which Anna could not afford.

Then, one day, Anna exclaimed with a smile, she was no longer poor. Poof! She turned 65, began to receive seniors' benefits and, while not living extravagantly, Anna can now meet her friends for that occasional (but now symbolic) cup of coffee.

POVERTY DIMINISHES US ALL

Poverty need not always be with you.

The ending of Anna's story is worth pondering. A generation ago, Canadians decided that poverty among seniors was bad for society and that something could be done.

We designed state policies to rectify the situation: In the 1970s about 30 per cent of Canadian seniors lived under the poverty line. Today, with enhanced Old Age Security and the Guaranteed Income Supplement for lower income seniors in place, fewer than five per cent suffer in this way.

So we've learned that poverty among certain sectors can be almost totally eradicated, if we care to do so.

Why could we not obtain the same successful results if we decided that children in Canada should not live in poverty, or that youth unemployment should not be twice as high as the population in general, or that newcomers to Canada should have higher poverty rates - even when their educational status is higher than the average?

SOCIAL CHANGE

There are a growing number of seniors in Canada, and politicians know that seniors get out and vote (whereas young people often don't, and children cannot). To create lasting social change, our "love for our neighbour" in the policy arena should be matched by our organizing smarts in the political arena.

Dignity for All: the campaign for a poverty-free Canada (www.dignityforall.ca) began three years ago to mobilize public and political party support for workable solutions to address persistent poverty. Its work is co-led by Citizens for Public Justice (the faith-based NGO where I work) and Canada Without Poverty, a poor people's organization.

Parliamentary committees and United Nations' representatives have supported the main goal of the campaign (that is, that Canada develop and implement a poverty reduction strategy).

Dignity for All has earned the support of almost 600 organizations and most of Canada's faith communities, including the Catholic bishops. Seven provinces have, and others are developing, poverty reduction plans, but it's clear that we need federal leadership.

People of faith can help make a difference. Oct. 17 marks the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. In both 1996 and 1998, the bishops of Canada marked the occasion with the release of a pastoral letter on poverty. This year, you can take action against poverty by checking out the resources at www.cpj.ca and:

Read CPJ's Poverty Trends Scorecard – Ask your member of Parliament how he or she intends to address poverty and to attend the Dignity for All event on Parliament Hill that evening, co-sponsored by Parliament's Anti-Poverty Caucus.

TAKE ACTION

Start the conversation in your own faith community, using the reflections and activities in CPJ's Living Justice: A Gospel Response to Poverty. Order at www.cpj.ca/livingjustice.

Listening to the experiences of people like Anna, educating ourselves about poverty's root causes and encouraging members of our church to engage with these issues is the best way to mark Oct. 17. We can send a clear message that Christians "walk the talk" when it comes to poverty in Canada.

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