Poverty, warns John Ralston Saul, threatens the very basis of our democracy
Poverty, warns John Ralston Saul, threatens the very basis of our democracy
Initiated by His Excellency John Ralston Saul, the annual LaFontaine-Baldwin lecture series on democracy this year will focus on the struggle to move from classic human rights to a broader definition of social rights. Louise Arbour, the former Supreme Court of Canada justice, now the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, will deliver the speech named after the two pre-Confederation leaders who set the framework for responsible government. In advance of her March 4 remarks in Quebec City and the accompanying symposium organized by the Dominion Institute, Saul argues that poverty in Canada threatens the social equality upon which our freedoms are based.
IT IS STRANGE how stingy we are when it comes to human rights. We have managed to codify a few and so are pretty pleased with ourselves. Yet were it not for charitable activity, many citizens today would starve or freeze. Why then can’t we pull ourselves into a mindset which sees human well-being, dignity, life itself, as a right? A citizen’s right.
What did the founders of Canadian democracy think? Theirs was a small and very poor society. Nevertheless, in 1840, when Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine created
the anglophone-francophone alliance for democracy, he centred his argument on a simple premise: it would only work if built upon “the social equality which shapes the distinctive characteristics as much of Upper Canada as of Lower Canada.” His Address to the Electors of Terrebonne—the public letter with which he launched the Canadian democratic movement—was filled with specific references to that idea of justice through equality, whether in the courts or the schools or the workplace.
Over the past five years, I have been in hundreds of communities and seen how many of us have somehow been excluded from our middle-class idea of social equality. I could take you from the Arctic to the South, from city to city, town to town, shelter to food bank to drop-in centre to hospice. Everywhere you would find Canadians excluded from their own society by their poverty. And everywhere there are Canadians working to help charitable structures fill in for our societal failure. Not one of them would disagree with Willy Brandt’s exclamation before the UN in 1973: “Hunger, too, is war!”
The vast majority of the people on our streets, eating out of our food banks, do not want to be there. In the Mustard Seed in Calgary, you would find homeless people who have jobs which pay so little they must sleep in the shelter. In the Andrew’s Street Family Centre in Winnipeg, you would find
families whose needs are so basic that they are dependent on the centre’s phone in order to be able to enter into the bureaucratic logic of public services. These are also the realities at The Mission in Ottawa or The Turning Point in Halifax. And in shelter after shelter you will find mothers who must bring in their children for food. This in a society which complains about taxes, but eagerly rushes to empty its citizens’ wallets and fill government coffers through state-sponsored gambling. Why? To replace taxes not levied at the other end of the spectrum.
My sense is that the vast majority of the excluded could successfully find their way toward the mainstream through some form of low-cost or assisted housing. Many have mental-health problems. They are on the street because we eliminated their hospital beds without developing an alternative. A bit of human support in open group homes, for example, would change their lives. And ours. After all, these people want to contribute to society. It is their right and their duty as citizens.
What would the cost be of helping these people get off the streets? More to the point, what is the cost—ethical and financial—of leaving them out there?
Some people believe that these citizens have been excluded because they have made insufficient personal effort. The opposite is more likely to be true. In many cases, they try much harder than most middle-class Canadians. They have to struggle with a collection of problems that most of us could not even imagine. Remember that very human Haida admonition: “The world is as sharp as a knife. If you don’t watch out, you’ll fall right off.”
Thousands of us fall off all the time. How far should you have to fall in a society which claims it is devoted to human rights? Just weeks ago, Nelson Mandela issued this plea to leaders and citizens: “Massive poverty and obscene inequality are such terrible scourges of our times that they have to rank alongside slavery and apartheid as social evils. And overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice.”
Mandela was referring to the massive poverty of Africa. But we have our slice of this scourge. It is as real as your life. It just happens to be the life of another. And in a society as successful as ours, the existence of such want can only mean a personal failure by those of us who have not fallen off.
Those who are excluded are not those who have failed. It is those of us who could, but do not treat the needs of others as a right, who have sacrificed our dignity. Go to Chez Pops in Montreal and talk to the street kids. Talk to Gilles Règle in Quebec City. Spend some time at the Carnegie Library in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. This is your country. These are your fellow
citizens. They have something to say. We will benefit from listening.
Joseph Howe, in 1835, answered the central questions about the nature of citizenship: “The only questions I ask myself are: ‘What is right? What is just? What is for the public good?’ ” In 1850, shortly after leading the
successful drive for democracy, he insisted, “I would press any ministry of which I was a member to take the initiative ... in every noble enterprise, to be in advance of the social, political and industrial energies which we have undertaken to lead.”
I remember five years ago going, with very mixed feelings, to open Halifax’s new Turning Point Shelter. It was a far better place than the old, mouldy, half-heated building it replaced. And yet it was a shel-
ter, not housing, not a home. Not something to celebrate. There, and in shelter after shelter across the country, the message is clear. We talk of homelessness. We mean poverty and the lack of supportive housing for those dealing with various disabilities.
Here and there across the country I see signs of movement—very positive signs— even when compared to five years ago. These
are practical signs of the resurgence of the humanist ideals upon which Western democracies were built. But this welcome change comes in a slow and ad hoc manner, as if we have forgotten the concept of inclusion which was already intellectually and ethically fixed in place by LaFontaine, Baldwin and Howe as the keystone of the Canadian idea. It is of course true that in the middle of the 19th century, struggling with the problems of our isolated and poverty-stricken colonies, they could not have seen where their broad vision could lead us a century and a half later. That is the point of a broad vision. It is not about the minutiae of the day. It is about the direction in which it carries a society. If we believe that citizenship is a blend of rights and obligations, how can we today not believe that the dignity of well-being is one of the descriptions of citizenship?
Extreme levels of poverty and the lack of affordable housing and services eat away at our society. It is a form of gangrene. We cannot have a democracy which accepts the exclusion of its own citizens. The true reflection of ourselves, of our society, is the one among us who has the least. 171
For more information on the LaFontaineBaldwin lecture and symposium, visit www.macleans.ca.
TU IT DC I nCKC. are signs of the resurgence of humanist ideals, but this welcome change is slow and in an ad hoc manner
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