TELEVISION

The down-and-out

A documentary gives voice to the poor

NANCY WOOD September 14 1992
TELEVISION

The down-and-out

A documentary gives voice to the poor

NANCY WOOD September 14 1992

The down-and-out

A documentary gives voice to the poor

TELEVISION

VOICES FROM THE SHADOWS (CBC, Sept. 15, 8 p.m.)

It is 2 a.m., and Donna Benjamin, a single, welfare-supported mother of two in Canning, N.S., is tired and frustrated. The creators of the documentary Voices from the Shadows have provided her with a video camera to record her story. In a dejected voice, Benjamin, 32, lashes out at the strict welfare rules that prevent her from earning extra money through crafts.

For any money earned, the equivalent is docked from the welfare cheque. Declares Benjamin: “It is almost like living in a communist country. They have total control over your life.” She adds, “I hate to be in a position where I have to be dependent on the government.”

Benjamin’s is one of the more powerful stories in Voices from the Shadows, which will air on the CBC’s Witness series on Sept. 15. Produced and directed by veteran documentary-maker Peter Raymont, who wrote the script with fellow Toronto journalist Lindalee Tracey, the 90-minute program examines the lives of people on welfare in several provinces. And it suggests that Brian Mulroney’s Tories have broken what the Prime Minister himself has described as a sacred trust, by cutting funds for provincial welfare programs.

It is a gritty film, at times as bleak as the lives it portrays. And although it purports to present the other side of the issue by filming the meetings of those who determine welfare policy at the municipal and provincial levels, Voices comes down squarely on the side of welfare recipients.

The documentary describes government crackdowns as “meanspirited” and includes welfare activists who compare Quebec’s welfare inspectors to the gestapo. And it repeatedly juxtaposes dingy welfare offices and soup kitchens with posh council halls and catered government receptions.

To prepare his film, Raymont spent four months in the company of welfare recipients. He uses their testimonials, voice-over narration and occasional statistics to illustrate his points. Raymont told Maclean ’s that he hoped Voices would help debunk the myth that many poor people are shiftless—and that Canada has

a universal welfare system with standardized rates. Said Raymont: “I was really shocked to find out about the disparity and inequitableness of it. The people suffering under it,” he added, “are not lazy welfare bums.”

Indeed, Benjamin and her two young children are poor because she recently left an abusive husband. She receives $486 a month from the municipal assistance program, and

with that she has to feed, clothe and shelter her family. Benjamin has developed an eating disorder—anorexia nervosa, or compulsive dieting. She shops for food with a hawk’s eye, redeeming coupons, spotting specials and then, in the end, resorts to what she calls begging by visiting the local food bank. Says Benjamin: “It is very stressful because I am always scared that I will not have enough money to provide for my kids, never mind myself.”

In light of the severe recession still gripping

Canada, the documentary may touch a raw nerve in many viewers. As more and more people wrestle with their own financially strained circumstances, they may bristle at the fiery resentment voiced by welfare recipients and welfare activists in Voices. In Verdun, Que., welfare recipient Judy Sawyer glares into the camera and says, “Why don’t one of you people, who sit in a nice office and get paid thousands of dollars a year, change places with me?” Mary de Wolfe, a worker at the Chrysalis House women’s shelter in Kentville, N.S., states unequivocally, “It is a right in this country to have affordable housing, decent food, decent clothing, a decent quality of life. It is not a privilege. It is a right.”

At least one recent study, however, argues that those things are within reach of more Canadians than welfare lobbyists suggest. In Poverty in Canada, just published by the Fraser InstiThe Duecks: doing without the better things in life tute, a conservative think-tank in Vancouver, economist Christopher Sarlo argues that activists are wrong to base the poverty line on Statistics Canada’s low-income cutoff, which in 1991 ranged from $19,854 to $26,990 for a family of four, depending on where they lived. Sarlo contends that the lowincome cutoff represents relative poverty in a

wealthy society, and means that the poverty

line is usually too high—and leads to the erroneous conclusion that one in four Canadians is poor. In fact, Sarlo argues, only about one in 25 Canadians is truly poor. And he suggests that Canadians would be more productive— and realistic—to fix a real poverty line and devote more resources to rescuing those who have fallen beneath it.

The Fraser Institute’s antiseptic approach to poverty contrasts starkly with Raymont’s Voices. There is a pervasive softheartedness—some might argue softheadedness—to the documentary’s view of the poor. The film-makers describe the Duecks, a gentle Mennonite family of eight in Saskatoon, as living on an income that is 50 per cent below the poverty line—but Raymont and Tracey disclose neither the poverty line nor the Duecks’ actual income. Voices condemns the unfairness of variable welfare rates across the country but it never compares the payments. Meanwhile, some trivial points are distracting or annoying. When the Dueck father, Tim, who constantly laments his inability to give his family the better things in life, suddenly appears ^ with his hair permed, the film fails to explain how much it cost or why he 2 considered it a priority.

“ Despite such failings, the documentary has undeniable power. Some of — the tragedy it reveals is not directly related to income: a postscript to the film notes that the Dueck’s two-year-old, Darcy, died while waiting for a kidney transplant. But for the most part, the sheer desperation of poverty and the courage required of those who face it daily create a lasting discomfort.

NANCY WOOD