A Canadian conversation about poverty

A Canadian conversation about poverty

A SPECIAL FEATURE ON AN IMPORTANT SOCIAL DISCOURSE

On March 7 and 8, representatives of the Baha’i Community of Canada joined those of other Canadian religions for discussions in Ottawa with Members of Parliament from different political parties as well as national poverty organizations in order to promote a more effective national conversation on poverty.

The discussions were substantial and well informed. Though different approaches were apparent among the four political parties represented, the atmosphere was non-partisan with a spirit of candour, courtesy and friendship among the different party representatives who had worked together in committee on an all-party Standing Committee on Human Resources report released in November 2010, “The Federal Poverty Reduction Plan”.

Members of Parliament from each of the political parties, including Minister of Human Resources and Social Development, Diane Finley, met with the Canadian Interfaith Delegation the first day of the meeting. A public meeting that evening was addressed by MPs Tony Martin of Sault Ste. Marie and Mike Savage of Dartmouth-Cole Harbour as well as Senator Art Eggleton of Toronto who chaired the work on the excellent Senate report on poverty released in 2009, “In from the Margins”.

The second day discussions among the religious leaders and poverty groups continued with the presence of MPs Martin of the NDP, Savage of the Liberal Party and two other Members of Parliament, Yves Lessard of the Bloc Quebecois, from Chambly-Borduas in Quebec, and Ed Komarnicki, Conservative from Souris-Moose Mountain in Saskatchewan. Among other issues, the discussions considered the two reports, “In from the Margins” and “The Federal Poverty Reduction Plan”, and noted that in recent years several countries have adopted poverty reduction plans with encouraging results. In Canada, six provinces have adopted such plans and, again, initial results are positive. The two reports together have more than 130 recommendations which, if even some were acted on by the government, could do much if Canada is to reduce poverty at home and contribute more to world efforts to try and meet the first of eight Millennium Development Goals, that of reducing poverty.

The close collaboration among the Canadian religious communities in initiating the discussions was striking. The meetings were organized by The Canadian Interfaith Delegation to the 2010 Religious Leaders Summit and the Interfaith Partnership, both of which have a Baha’i representative, and the Canadian Council of Churches and the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.

All attending agreed that the two reports on poverty are of great value to the country and that efforts must now go ahead if we are to address the issue of poverty. As Poondit Sharma, President of Canada’s Hindu Federation said, “human beings have a history of working together on many problems, most of which we solve. Why not do that with poverty?” The meetings closed with unanimous agreement on an “Interfaith Declaration” (SEE BELOW).

Susanne Tamas, Director of Governmental Relations for the Baha’i Community, and a member of the Canadian Interfaith Delegation that met with MPs on March 7, chaired the opening panel on March 8, and Gerald Filson, Director of External Affairs for the Baha’i Community of Canada, and member of the Interfaith Partnership, closed the meeting with a Baha’i prayer at the request of the discussion’s Chair, Peter Noteboom of the Canadian Council of Churches. Both participated in the lively discussions drawing on some of the concepts outlined in the Baha’i International Community statements on poverty, released over the years (see www.bic.org).1

While reducing poverty will require sound legislation and government leadership, it will also require learning how to apply key principles to actions which all must take, whether businesses, civil society organizations, communities and individuals, or governments. Contributing to high levels of poverty has been the inequality of women and men which not only serves to generate greater poverty, evident in countries where such inequality is most in evidence, but it also leaves women and children vulnerable in all countries. The lack of sound moral as well as spiritual and scientific education, opportunities to develop capacities and participate in decisions and actions that affect their own lives, the failure of nations to live up to human rights obligations that include social and economic rights, and the extremes of wealth and poverty that allow for the accumulation of astonishing levels of wealth among very few, are among some of the factors that contribute to poverty.

Poverty is complex, of course, and not easy to overcome. Baha’is understand it as a symptom of economic and social relationships where advantage to the few at the expense of the many is permitted by choices human beings themselves have made both individually and collectively. Though poverty rates in Canada fell over the past decade from somewhere around 15% to less than 10% before the economic downturn in late 2008, a particular concern is how vulnerable particular Canadians are to poverty. These include Aboriginal populations, recent immigrants, single mothers and their children, visible minorities, the handicapped and, more recently, the working poor who have begun to enter the ranks of the poor in greater and greater numbers (those who work long hours for minimum wages but who don’t earn enough to keep them and their families over the poverty threshold).

It is encouraging to note an increased appreciation of the multiple factors that are related to poverty, reflected in the two reports from the House of Commons and the Senate committees, as well as in the new Multidimensional Poverty Index in the UNDP’s “Human Development Report” this year which Canada helped to develop.2

In recent Baha’i statements the role of training and capacity building as a means to reduce poverty has been emphasized. Baha’i understanding of this has benefited from the “hands-on” experience of Baha’i communities over the past fifteen years. In focusing considerable effort on children’s education and on bringing young people and adults together to learn how to take ownership of the development of their moral and spiritual capacities, Baha’is are beginning to learn how such local, community activities – when carried out systematically and in a mode of learning – can generate fast friendships and close-knit networks of people, studying and working together, treading a common path of service, supporting one another as they learn to apply spiritual principles, refusing to divide people into categories of those who know, and those who don’t, those who have and those who don’t, all the while striving to overcome deep seated social patterns, prejudice and the kind of discrimination and more subtle forms of discouragement that disempowers and blocks the progress of people, whether young or old. Though a “work in progress”, Baha’is and those involved in these activities have been greatly encouraged by the results.

Becoming friends with others, learning to work together, and being “connected” in vibrant communities has been shown to be among the most critical factors in helping people escape poverty and assist vulnerable people from slipping into poverty.

Individuals, families and communities endure the tragedy of poverty in ways that can seem simple to define: a painful scarcity of resources (food, housing, income, education, employment, access to participate in culture and opportunities to grow). However, it is not simply the case that there are poor people. End of story. If there are poor people then it is true to say that humanity as a whole is poor. Poverty is a problem for all of humanity, not just those who suffer “on the front lines” of poverty, bearing the worst and most immediate impacts of deprivation. All humanity suffers, but some suffer in ways they hardly understand by attempting to ignore the condition of their fellow creatures, by looking away, becoming distracted by the ephemeral and preoccupied by self and material gratification.

Poverty is not a material scarcity alone since human dignity is not something weighed and measured out in physical units. It is a condition with spiritual dimensions. The indignity of homelessness, malnutrition, and unemployment pervades the common social space that all human beings share. The indignity of a society that accepts poverty is indignity shared by all and the poverty of spirit, the poverty of moral integrity and responsibility that afflicts the comfortable and the rich, however numb they might try to remain, is nonetheless a reality which disfigures any meaning they might try to give their lives.

Baha’u’llah wrote, “tell the rich of the midnight sighing of the poor,” and encouraged us to realize that “man’s merit lieth in service and virtue, not in the pageantry of wealth and riches.” By trying to elevate conversations people can be helped to become conscious of poverty and help put poverty on the public agenda. It is interesting that the phrase “a conversation about poverty” was the theme of the discussions in Ottawa. By advancing the conversation, it is then more likely that poverty will not just be the subject of reports for governments and people to read but a matter of action, whether by way of legislation or well conceived approaches to education and training, the creation of networks of friendship and mutual helpfulness in neighbourhoods and wise and effective social actions by community groups and organizations.

———————–1. The Baha’i International Community has long been addressing issues related to poverty (see statements at www.bic.org). The writings and teachings of Baha’u’llah address the issue of poverty frequently and many talks and letters of ‘Abdu’l-Baha comment on the challenge of poverty. In one of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s North American talks, for example, he said: “It is evident that under present systems and conditions of government the poor are subject to the greatest need and distress while others more fortunate live in luxury and plenty far beyond their actual necessities. This inequality of portion and privilege is one of the deep and vital problems of human society… The remedy must be legislative readjustment of conditions. The rich, too, must be merciful to the poor, contributing from willing hearts to their needs without being forced or compelled to do so.”2. See the International Development Research Centre’s report “Poverty is about more than a lack of money” at http://publicwebsite.idrc.ca.———————–

INTERFAITH DECLARATION: A Time for Inspired Leadership and Action

March 8, 2011

Together as people of faith, informed by our respective traditions, and compelled by our sincerely held beliefs to care for those in need within our communities and across this nation, we recognize this time to be a unique moment and opportunity in Canada for cooperative action to eradicate persistent poverty in our wealthy and wonderful land.

It is a time when Canadians of all faiths, from all walks of life, from all parts of this great country are awakening to the unacceptable levels of poverty, inequity and homelessness, and acknowledging that this injustice must change.

But we cannot do this in isolation. Committed to doing all we can, we call upon our government to partner with us in ending poverty.

We acknowledge with gratitude the many positive government initiatives that continue to benefit the poor. In particular, it is gratifying to acknowledge that a majority of Canadians now live in provinces and territories that have developed and are implementing poverty reduction plans. But it is time for comprehensive, coordinated and collaborative action, with national leadership working in partnership with other jurisdictions.

We have taken account of the Senate report, In From the Margins, released in December 2009, and its 78 recommendations, which offers an impressive foundation for action.

We have also been greatly encouraged by the good work of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of People with Disabilities (HUMA), culminating in the release of its report: Federal Poverty Reduction Plan: Working in Partnership Towards Reducing Poverty in Canada, November 2010.

As faith leaders, we have gathered together in Ottawa days after federal government released its response to the HUMA report. We were deeply encouraged that MPs from all parties worked so well together for three years on this report - studying, consulting, and listening to each other and to constituents. We were disappointed that the federal government response did not take advantage of the consensus for coordinated action reflected in the HUMA report and did not respond substantively to the recommendations.

We also gather two weeks before the next federal budget will be introduced. This is an opportunity for the government to begin to act on the recommendations of these studies, as well as to increased public attention to these matters, and highlight spending measures that will allow our country to begin to achieve realistic poverty reduction goals.

Faith communities in Canada recognize, across our many different traditions, the unified impulse of all religious practice to nurture and share in community with those who are poor, and stand in solidarity with them. We call upon the government to champion public policies that defend everyone’s rights to dignity and abundant life.

Together, we stand, and call on all levels of government to do likewise.

We call on all parties and all candidates for public office to make poverty reduction a priority, and all people of faith and good will to raise the issue of poverty with politicians and candidates for office.

We call on the federal government to give leadership and develop a federal poverty reduction plan that coordinates federal initiatives with existing and emerging provincial and territorial plans; to enact legislation to ensure federal commitment and accountability to poverty reduction goals; to develop a national housing strategy; and for all levels of government to ensure sufficient investment in social security for all Canadians.

As faith communities we commit to launching a national conversation about poverty, to deepen our commitments and multiply our activities that alleviate poverty, and to collaborate with others of good will to address the immediate needs of our neighbours.

And we call on all Canadians to consider how each of us, individually, as families, as communities and as a nation manifest in our lives together a common affirmation that all deserve to be treated with dignity and respect; to be part of a community; to experience the reality of home; and to know what it means to have enough and be assured of the basic necessities of life.

It’s time for leadership. It’s time to act.

The Canadian Council of ChurchesThe Canadian Interfaith Delegation - World Religions Summit 2010The Evangelical Fellowship of CanadaDignity for All