People on welfare shouldn’t be allowed to buy booze, cigarettes or TVs. Why should we be paying for that kind of stuff?
If you spend any time on social media then you’ve probably seen these kinds of poor bashing memes that pop up on a regular basis, including those that demand welfare recipients be drug tested in order to keep receiving government assistance. They not only piss me off, they also make me cringe and make my blood pressure go up when they pop up in my own Facebook feed. After all, it means some of my own friends are perpetuating many of the worst myths about people who live in poverty.
These memes suggest that people on welfare shouldn’t be using any of their welfare check on alcohol, cigarettes or electronics. Some memes take it even further.
It’s not enough to claim that – apparently unlike the rest of us – welfare recipients should be banned from having electronics, booze, tattoos, cigarettes or lotteries, they should also have to undergo regular blood tests to make sure they’re not on drugs.
This kind of ignorance annoys the hell out of me. For one thing, moral panics concerning people on welfare have always blown the problem vastly out of proportion, with plenty of research finding that not only is welfare fraud rare, these tests actually waste millions of dollars in taxpayers’ money, while also adding to the shame and stigmatization of welfare recipients.
In fact, drug tests for welfare recipients are not only expensive and inefficient (What 7 States Discovered After Spending More than $1 Million Drug Testing Welfare Recipients), pilot studies have found virtually no evidence of any drug abuse. Of course, these are all rational, logical arguments for why this kind of thinking is flawed, never mind the questionable ethics of bashing marginalized people with a lack of power. So how come we don’t have more memes which highlight and mock all of the tax dollars and breaks going to large corporations? Why aren’t there more comments on Facebook about all of the taxpayers’ money going to rich corporations in the form of tax subsidies?
And why do we love bashing poor people on the Internet?
That’s just a few of the many questions I’ve been considering and plan to continue to explore over the next few years, as a PhD student in the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University.
I grew up in Point St. Charles, an industrial slum in Montréal that was then described in a documentary by the National Film Board as the “Toughest Neighbourhood in Canada.” Along with my five sisters, I was raised by a militant community activist single mom, Eileen Dobson, who didn’t hesitate to use guerilla style tactics while fighting for social justice in our neighbourhood. Although I grew up on welfare and dropped out of high school at the age of 15, I did eventually manage to go back to school and went on to complete an undergraduate and master’s degree.
A few years ago my book, With a Closed Fist: Growing Up In Canada’s Toughest Neighbourhood (Véhicule Press) was published. It shares the social history of some of the grassroots organizations that fought for healthcare and educational reform in Montréal during the 1960s and 1970s, leading to the development of Québec’s first Community based Healthcare Clinic (which went on to serve as a blueprint for the rest of the country’s socialized healthcare system). My book also shares an insider’s view of the culture of poverty and examines the impact and ripple effect it can have on all aspects of one’s life. Although she passed away nine years ago, my mother continues to be my inspiration and the reason I want to examine, and perhaps even challenge, some of the ‘official’ dominant discourses around poverty. I hope to continue my mother’s work.
My research at Carleton University is looking at the construction, circulation, and reinforcement of particular cultural narratives concerning poverty issues and those living in poverty. In other words, I’m examining how the poor are represented, including by social welfare and government agencies, media platforms (such as the news media and also social media such as Facebook and Twitter), etc., and how this perhaps reinforces certain self-conceptions of those living in poverty.
For instance, the idea that people living on welfare are lazy – is this narrative in part propagated by the actions of particular social agencies, programs and initiatives? How is this narrative constructed in the public consciousness? At the same time, is it a way of thinking that is internalized by people living in poverty themselves?
I think we need to stop blaming the poor for their own poverty.
Calling bullshit on some of those Facebook memes might be an important first step.
Kathy is coming to Ingleside and Montréal next week!
Ingleside Library, Ingleside ON.
Kathy will be at the Ingleside Library from 6:30-8:00 pm, talking about her book, “With A Closed Fist: Growing up in Canada’s Toughest Neighbourhood” and other future writing projects.
Dawson College, Montréal
Kathy will be having a round table discussion with students in Dawson College’s Social Service Program.
McGill University, Montréal.
Kathy will be at McGill’s School of Social Work discussing her book, With a Closed Fist, and the media’s representation of the poor.
Sharron Prior, a young girl from Point St. Charles, was murdered in 1975. I wrote about her brutal death in my book With a Closed Fist. The National Post article below shares how Sharron’s mother, Yvonne, and her sisters continue to search for answers and hunt for her killer- even 37 years later.
“Mother Hunts a Killer” By Kathy Dobson
Mother Hunts a Killer
By Kathy Dobson, National Post · Apr. 13, 2012 |
When Yvonne Prior was asked to identify her young daughter’s body a few days after Easter in 1975, she couldn’t do it. Sharron Prior, 16, had been abducted on her way to a pizzeria near her Montreal home; her battered body was discovered in a field miles away four days later.
“I knew I couldn’t go down to see her. I didn’t want to see my daughter like that. So my brother went.”
It was the last time Ms. Prior took a passive response to the tragedy that divided her life in half – before Sharron disappeared, and after.
For 37 years, Yvonne has taken charge of her grief, dedicating her life to searching for answers to her daughter’s death, as well as trying to help others.
In addition to a website dedicated to finding Sharron’s killer, which includes links to unsolved murder cases in Quebec and across Canada, and a Facebook page with almost 1,000 members, many of whom still debate the case, sharing insights and theories online, Yvonne and her twin daughters, Doreen and Moreen, constantly prowl the Internet, looking for connections and opportunities to raise awareness about Sharron, and other missing children.
Yvonne’s list includes cases such as Tammy Leaky, a 12-year-old who went missing in 1981, just a few blocks away from where Sharron disappeared six years earlier.
Tammy’s body was found later the same day, raped, beaten and strangled.
“In the 70s,” says Doreen, “we didn’t have computers and social networking. There was no Child Find when Sharron went missing. There was no Amber Alert, no poster campaigns. There was paper and radio but now there is so much more. Photos can be posted online and distributed around the world in minutes. The first 48 hours are the most critical in a missing person’s case, so now when a child goes missing, we want it out there in the public’s eye right away.”
Eleven-year-old Kathryn-Mary Herbert was out with a friend on Sept. 24, 1975, and walking home when she was snatched a short distance from her Abbotsford, B.C., house. Her body was found two months later. An autopsy report revealed she had suffered a fractured skull and broken jaw.
Yvonne regularly shares updates and information about the case, exchanging regular emails with Kathryn-Mary’s mom.
“We know her grief, that her daughter’s killer is still out there.”
Yvonne and her daughters, who were born two years after Sharron, sometimes take a more hands-on approach.
In 1978, Sherbrooke, Que., teen Theresa Allore disappeared and her body was discovered five months later lying facedown in water with only her bra and underwear.
In 2006, her family decided to conduct a search in the area her body had been found, hoping to recover evidence that may have been unclaimed for 27 years.
Yvonne and her daughters joined the Allore family in the search for clues. Although nothing definitive was uncovered that day, Yvonne continues to stay on top of the case, as she does with all the cold-case files involving children across Canada.
Although the Longueil Police Department says they have yet to link the case with a serial killer, Yvonne suspects otherwise, believing Sharron may have been the victim of a serial killer who roamed the country, perhaps by train, targeting young girls close in age and looks. Reading Yvonne’s detailed reports on the victims’ age and deadly injuries, one can’t help but notice the patterns. She seems like a seasoned professional.
“I wish the police could share the evidence they have from my daughter’s case,” she says. “I might see or pick up something that, even after all these years, might have been missed or overlooked during the early years of the investigation.”
Although more than 70 potential suspects have been looked at by the po-lice, nothing has ever led to an arrest. “I only hope it’s solved in my mom’s lifetime,” Doreen says.
This week, police announced an anonymous donor has stepped forward to offer a $10,000 reward. Police also set up a fresh command post in Point St. Charles, and set up a dedicated phone line.
“I believe in my heart that someone, somewhere, knows something,” Yvonne says.
When people learn about how many hours and how much time she devotes to Sharron’s case, and all of the other families of other missing children she’s in contact with, they’ll sometimes ask why she doesn’t just let it go. Especially after all these years.
“I even had a lady say, ‘You have other children.’ But each of your children is special. All children are special. And my contact with these other families – the bond that we share as parents of these missing and murdered children – is that we help to keep a spotlight on each other’s cases.”
One of the unexpected bonuses of having my book published is that lots of readers have been getting in touch with me. I especially love it when someone not only reaches out to share their reaction to my book, but to also share a bit of their own story.
As a working journalist for the past 20 plus years, I already know that every person, no matter who they are, have their own stories to tell. I’ve met and interviewed a lot of fascinating people over the past 20 years, people with stories more interesting, more tragic, more touching, and much more important than any of my own will ever be.
And I remember them all.
Everyone has a history; everyone has a story. And I’m touched by those who take the time to not only offer me feedback on ‘my’ story: “With a Closed Fist: Growing up in Canada’s Toughest Neighbourhood,” but to also share some of the most intimate and private stories from their own childhoods.
Many readers have shared stories of incredible hardships, including early years filled with poverty and for some, growing up with the pain and shame of sexual and physical abuse. Many start off by writing, “I’ve never told anyone this before, but…” then go on to tell a story about some terrible secret or challenge they were forced to endure as a child, but have kept hidden for years. Sometimes even decades.
Many of these people aren’t even from Point St. Charles, the Montreal neighbourhood I wrote about in my book. Of course, that didn’t surprise me. Poverty isn’t unique to my old neighbourhood. Nor is it unique to that time in Canadian history, back in the late 60s and early 70s. Poverty continues to cripple millions of Canadians- the majority of which are children- across the country today.
It’s easier to believe that where I grew up was some sort of an anomaly. A rare event in our country’s history. It’s also easier to believe that physically and sexually abused women and children only live in those ‘tough’ parts of Canada, those really rough neighbourhoods with high unemployment and welfare rates.
But that’s a lie.
Women and children are sexually and physically abused in all social classes. And Canadians of both genders and of all ages continue to live in poverty across the country today. According to a study conducted last year by Angus Reid, one in 11 Canadians live in poverty. That’s three million Canadians.
The rough and tough neighbourhood I grew up in during the 60s and 70s was not the enemy. Poverty is. That, and the common misconception that poverty is somehow a choice.
After speaking at the Montreal “Books and Breakfast,” an event I wrote about a few months ago, I thought I had mostly overcome my fear of public speaking.
A large audience, including many from the publishing industry, all gathered in a large ballroom of a fancy downtown hotel had their eyes trained on me for fifteen minutes straight while I babbled incoherently about my recently published book, With a Closed Fist: Growing up in Canada’s Toughest Neighbourhood.
Looking back, it was sort of like peeling the Band-Aid off all at once. With a machete. For someone with a fear of public speaking it was a ‘trial by fire crash course’ kind of scenario.
In the end, as I’ve previously wrote about here, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I expected. Sure, I didn’t exactly sound off-the-cuff with my crumpled-up cue cards scrunched between my sweaty, shaky palms. But I had been afraid that when I walked up to the podium, I’d forget how to speak, becoming temporarily blind, deaf, and mute.
I admit that, looking back, anticipating it was much worse than actually doing it. (Okay, that’s not actually true. Doing it was much worse than anticipating it. I just say this to make myself feel better.)
After the Books and Breakfast event, I figured I’d be up for anything. I was now a war-hardened, veteran public speaker. Compared to the Books and Breakfast, speaking at the Ingleside Public Library would be like just talking to a small group of close friends. Right?
So naturally, I was a complete nervous wreck.
At the Books and Breakfast, something that was surprisingly comforting was the fact that I felt like I couldn’t see the audience. My field of vision was limited to the three inches between my face and the cue cards. The ballroom where the event was held was so large, and the lights were so bright, it was almost like the audience was lost in a fog. Sort of like that saying about “not seeing the forest because of the trees.”
But in the library, I was going to see each individual person. They weren’t some large anonymous crowd who, if I utterly humiliated myself in front of them, I could cry and run off the stage and drive 500 kilometers away and begin the slow, painful process of blocking the memory out and hoping it never resurfaces.
This was a room filled with people whom I’ve known for years and consider many of them to be pretty close friends. People that I really care about what they think of me. Especially considering how personal and raw and vulnerable the subject matter of my book is.
I’d be speaking to people like Jackie from the post office, who my son Scott, at age four, vowed to marry one day. And Sandy Winchester and Margaret Power, two of my children’s favourite teachers, the kind of teachers who make life long lasting impressions on many of their students.
In the end, I wish I could go back in time and tell myself not to worry- that it really would be like speaking to a group of my closest friends. And that I think I’ve finally overcome my fear of public speaking.
An article about “With a Closed Fist” from Cornwall’s daily newspaper, the Standard Freeholder.
By Cheryl Brink
CORNWALL — Many of Kathy Dobson’s local readers will remember her as a humour columnist, sharing anecdotes about her children’s antics and life in Ingleside. So her first book may come as a surprise.
‘With a Closed Fist’ details Dobson’s childhood in Point St. Charles — a rough slum of Montreal — with an activist mother, five sisters and not much else.
“The language in (the book) is authentic for that neighbourhood, but some people would find it extremely offensive,” she says.
“But I wanted it to be real, I wanted it to be honest, and not romanticize poverty the way a lot of people do. I wanted to show that ugly truth.”
It was a tough beginning for someone known in Cornwall for her cheery stories.
Dobson has freelanced for numerous publications — including this one — over the years, but a book was always on her to-do list.
“My mother was a militantly political activist,” she says from her home in Waterloo. “It was always in the back of my mind that it would be a good story to write about.”
Though she says her situation wasn’t a unique one in that place and that period; most mothers were active for various causes, using their children as props for protests and sit-ins.
“I knew it would be an interesting story to one day tell,” she says.
Dobson began working on the narrative as a documentary several years ago, but her mother died before it was complete.
“She helped to create some incredible changes for a neighbourhood that was being ignored,” she says.
Dobson wasn’t ready to review the tapes with her mother’s voice, so she decided to put the story on paper instead, and it evolved from there.
“It ended up being a memoir,” she says. “It was an incredible thing she was doing, but it’s seeing it through our perspective. We didn’t have the understanding of the bigger picture of what she was fighting for.”
Dobson says she read through dozens of her old journals and did research on various events from the time, ensuring she had her facts and dates straight. The writing process took just six months.
“It was a lot harder than I thought it would be,” she says. “There was no writer’s block, but it was very emotional.”
But Dobson says the process was worth it, since hearing from readers who now have a changed perspective on poverty, or found comfort in knowing their own shame wasn’t unique.
“They feel a sense of relief to realize this emotion is universal,” she says, adding that many people blame moral failures or poor choices as the reason for poverty.
“If we treat it like it’s simple, we’re not solving the problem.”
Though Dobson says she cringes to think about some former colleagues or friends discovering her past through the pages of her book, she has also been thrilled with glowing reviews and an outpouring of positive feedback.
“So far, it’s been great,” she says, noting she plans to stop in Cornwall next February during a book tour.
“It was hard, but I think it’s important. This book has been my awakening.”
Dobson is already working on a sequel about her life after Point St. Charles, and also has ideas for a series of novels.
“These are two I wanted to get out of my system first. I’m hoping it can help change how people think about poverty.”
Click here to see the article at the Standard Freeholder online.
It’s always interesting to learn what readers think of your work. Especially when you realize they don’t necessarily share your sense of what’s funny, sad, scary or important in your book.
Then you’re left to wonder. Could you have written it better and perhaps made your point more clear? Thought of a better example to use? Maybe a better choice of words?
Or is it simply a fact that we often laugh and cry at different things?
I recently told an audience about the infamous Victoria Day bonfires that I wrote about in my book, when the Point would almost burn to the ground every year. When I explained how, “then the riot squad would show up and ruin the party,” I thought I was being… well, funny. I thought it was a great line, perfectly illustrating the occasional wide gulf between the poor and the rich when it comes to… partying. I had been joking of course, but unfortunately no one got the joke.
I felt like a bit of an idiot though and had to force myself not to try and explain, as I was sorely tempted to do, what the joke had meant. It would have felt too much like I was begging the room to laugh at my obvious fail at humour.
I still remember my kids’ reactions when I first told them about the rats coming out of the toilets in some of the places I lived in while growing up in Point St. Charles. About how when I was a kid, I’d stomp my feet and sing to scare off any rats from crawling up the pipes. I told them about the ‘thump’ noise I’d hear coming from the bathroom sometimes, which meant a rat was hitting its head against the toilet seat and trying to escape. It didn’t seem that bizarre or interesting to me, but my kids’ reactions made me look at it in a different way.
It ended up becoming the opening of my book.
I hope some of you will join me tomorrow online with the Montreal Gazette at noon for a live chat about my book, With a Closed Fist!
From the Montréal Gazette:
Making a Point about poverty
By David Johnston
There had been rumours that people were going to crash Kathy Dobson’s book launch Nov. 4 at St. Columba House in Point St. Charles to express indignation over the way they had heard she portrays growing up in the Point a generation ago in her new memoir, With a Closed Fist: Growing Up in Canada’s Toughest Neighbourhood. But it turned out to be a pleasant event, she says.
“I heard those rumours too, that some people were deeply offended that I had misrepresented life in the Point,” says Dobson, now 51 and living in Waterloo, Ont. “I think this speaks to an issue – the way we tend to romanticize poverty. That’s why I wanted to do this book – to show the ugly side of poverty.”
Dobson will be participating in a live online chat with me at noon today at montrealgazette.com. On Sunday, she is scheduled to appear at the Books & Breakfast event at the downtown Le Centre Sheraton.
A review of With a Closed Fist, by The Gazette’s Peggy Curran, was published in the Oct. 22 Books section; Curran called it “Angela’s Ashes on Centre St., without the laughs.”
After the review appeared, The Gazette received several letters to the editor defending life in the Point. Pat Digman Reff, who left the neighbourhood in 1960, wrote from Campbellsville, Ky., that Dobson shouldn’t “make it out that the Point was a tough neighbourhood. It was a good place to grow up, and even after 50 years many of us still keep in touch and have good and happy lives.” Another letter-writer said: “I am proud to have grown up in the Point. I have never been ashamed of it.” And still another wrote of “the hard-working, loving people I grew up with” in the neighbourhood.
For her part, Dobson says she shares the letter-writers’ view that the Point was a good place to grow up, in spite of the district’s disadvantaged conditions.
“If I had to grow up all over again poor – and I’ve said this over and over – I would want to do that in the Point. It was a very connected community,” she says.
Gentrification has given the Point, or at least parts of it, a fresh new look in recent years. Many older buildings have been turned into condos and lofts, including old factory buildings along the Lachine Canal.
“The buildings have changed, but in terms of the people, I’m not an expert on the Point today, but I walked around before my book launch and the people looked a lot like the people I knew growing up,” Dobson says.
Her memoir is written in the present tense, in Dobson’s own voice as she is growing up. It begins in 1968, when she is 8 years old and living with her five sisters and her mother, Eileen. It is through Eileen’s relationship with well-meaning, left-leaning social workers and medical students from McGill University, whom Eileen meets at St Columba House, that she becomes politicized puts Kathy and her two older sisters into public schools in Westmount.
“I went to Westmount Park School, and then Westmount High,” says Dobson. She left Montreal at age 22, returned at age 24, then left again at age 30. Today, she works as a freelance journalist and blogger and is a married mother of five.
With a Closed Fist isn’t the only English-language book that has come out this year that puts a focus on poverty in Montreal several decades ago. In Montreal’s Irish Mafia: The True Story of the Infamous West End Gang, author D’Arcy O’Connor describes how young families of Irish origin in Griffintown used to look to Point St. Charles as a step up in the world.
“I used to hear that, too,” says Dobson. “Just like Verdun was seen as a step up from the Point. In fact, I ended up marrying a guy from Verdun.”
“So you married up, then?” I say to her over the phone.
“Well, that’s what my husband keeps telling me.”
Last Friday was the official book launch for With a Closed Fist at Saint Columba House in Point St. Charles. If you missed out, check out some photos of the event, courtesy of Andrew Waldie Porteus. More photos coming soon! To see a larger version of this slideshow, click here.
Have your own photos of the event or of the Point that you’d like to share on kathydobson.ca? Send them in!