I think the claim that we’re all born equal is a particularly stupid one since of course it’s not true. A kid born into poverty is already at a different starting point than the kid born into a middle class family. And that’s just one obvious example.
People of colour, Canada’s Aboriginal population, and other members of marginal communities are already at a huge disadvantage as well when it comes to this idea about being born ‘equal.’
The problem then becomes that if we accept this notion about all of us being born ‘equal’ as some kind of absolute truth – which so many seem to – then we absolutely judge those who end up on social assistance, especially those who appear, at least to us, as being able-bodied.
That’s why I love this meme. Of course, this isn’t just true of our educational system. It’s also true of social class when we suggest or believe that all of us have ‘equal’ access to ‘success.’
Kathy was a guest on CBC Ottawa Morning on November 9th (2015).
She was interviewed after she was awarded a Vanier Scholarship. The segment, How are Canada’s poor being misrepresented?, highlights the focus of her research as a PhD student at Carleton University.
Kathy discuses her research into ‘poor bashing’ and the narratives that are told about those living in poverty. Part of her research focus is on how the poor are portrayed in the news media, social media and government reports, and how these shape and influence the public’s perception of those living in poverty, as well as how these portrayals ‘shame and blame’ those who have lived or continue to live in poverty- the impact these portrayals have on the victims of poverty in Canada.
No, I didn’t actually have a five-minute meeting with Justin Trudeau. But after being asked by a CBC reporter last week what’s the one thing I would tell Canadians about poverty if I could, I started thinking about how much I wish I could have a conversation with Mr. Trudeau about the ugly side of poverty nobody wants to talk about.
Let’s be honest here; we want our poor to be grateful, deserving, quiet, and ideally, not
embarrass us with anything that might make us feel uncomfortable. In other words, don’t talk about food bank lines, broken or missing teeth, a lack of shampoo, soap or toilet paper, being hungry and cold, or the dozens of other daily indignities that often accompany being among some of the poorest in Canada. Let’s not put anyone on the spot by talking about that deep sense of shame, lack of hope, and overwhelming sense of sadness that I know I grew up with, along with my five sisters and our single mother, while trying to make ends meet on social assistance.
I’ve learned over the years that if you dare, however, to even hint at such ugly truths, you often actually make it easier to be dismissed because the ugly truth is that plenty of us don’t really want to help someone whom we consider to be icky, or worse, embarrassing. (Maybe this is partly why so many people find it easy to walk by that homeless person, the one holding out an old Starbucks or Tim Horton’s paper cup, hoping for some coins? They are literally invisible to some. Or perhaps just repulsive?)
As I share in my book, With a Closed Fist: Growing up in Canada’s Toughest Neighbourhood, in the early 70s, while growing up on welfare, my younger sister Barbara wrote a letter to then Prime Minister, Pierre Elliot Trudeau. She was nine years old and had recently learned that letters to the Prime Minister didn’t require a stamp. So she wrote him quite a lengthy letter, telling him all about herself, her family, and asked if he’d like to be pen pals. After all, it wouldn’t cost more than an envelope for either of them. Although our mother was shocked, my sister wasn’t when a few weeks later she received a personally written reply from the Prime Minister, saying his secretary, who apparently shared the same name as my sister, Barbara, had just shown her letter to him and they had both been “so charmed and delighted” he had decided to write back. It was a kind and friendly letter, one my entire family lived off of for weeks. Suddenly we weren’t invisible. My little sister had said all of our names in her letter. As a kid at the time myself, I remember somehow taking comfort in the idea that the Boss of Canada had read my name, even if only in his head, while reading Barbara’s letter. It was a powerful moment for all of us. We existed. We mattered. At least for a while.
The CBC reporter had called me because of a Vanier Scholarship I’ve recently won, and she was doing a pre-interview about my research. Her last question was: what did I wish I could tell Canadians about poverty? Although I instantly answered the question, I’ve been thinking it over ever since.
I told the reporter that if I could tell Canadians one thing about poverty, it would be that poverty is not a choice. And if we would stop treating it as if it were, it could change everything.
Child poverty in Canada is three to five times higher than countries that make it a priority to eliminate it, and there is still no national plan in place to reduce poverty and child poverty in Canada. Obviously poverty in Canada is a complicated issue with no easy answers. But I think the first steps are simple – just acknowledging and seeing, rather than turning away from, that ugly side of poverty, so that we can start working towards making a real difference for those one in seven children in Canada still going to bed hungry each night.
I believe we need to have a conversation about how much, whether consciously or not – our government policies, and attitudes towards those in poverty – are shaped by our belief that it is somehow a choice. Poverty is not a choice. So let’s stop treating it like it is.
Maybe I should ask my sister if she wants to write another letter to another Trudeau.
Kathy will be a guest on CBC Ottawa Morning on November 9th @ 8:20am.
From the Carleton Newsroom:
Carleton Graduate Students Win Eminent Awards
Two Carleton University graduate students, Kathy Dobson and Colin Miyata have won prestigious Vanier Scholarships worth $50,000 per year for up to three years.
Miyata works in Mojtaba Ahmadi’s Advanced Biomechatronics and Locomotion (ABL) laboratory in the research intensive Faculty of Engineering and Design at Carleton, where researchers are working on developing devices to help people learn how to walk again and prevent patient falls after a stroke, injury or accident.
Miyata believes safety procedures should be in place to ensure safe human-robot interaction. He is developing a process that will help. His research will develop a sensor on the surface of a robot that will them to sense contact with the environment. When contact is detected, the robot will avoid it while continuing its task.
Dobson, now doing her PhD with the School of Journalism and Communication, looks at representations of the poor, including representations by social welfare and government agencies, media platforms and how these can reinforce self-conceptions of those living in poverty.
In addition to their Vanier awards, Dobson has also been offered a Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship and an Ontario Graduate Scholarship, while Miyata has been offered an Alexander Graham Bell Canada Graduate Scholarship.
As a single parent on welfare, my mother fought for social justice, improved health care and education. She was always asking whose voices are missing whenever social workers and policy-makers would talk about the cycle of poverty and insisted we needed to develop a common language when speaking about poverty and the poor.
During my time at Carleton, I have had many opportunities to research a wide variety of biomedical engineering applications including implant materials, assistive devices, crash test dummy instrumentation and robotics. — Miyata.
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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 often visits colleges and universities across Canada to discuss poverty issues. Last month she gave a guest lecture at Dawson College in Montreal, and spoke about the impact of poverty on individuals and families, as well as her book With a Closed Fist.
If you’d like to have Kathy speak at your school, please email us here.
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.
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.
I felt incredibly honored to have even been asked, and extremely grateful for the opportunity to talk about some of the social issues raised in my book, With a Closed Fist: Growing up in Canada’s Toughest Neighbourhood.
My favourite part was the question and answer period that followed the lecture. In addition to asking me a lot of really great questions (some of which I’m continuing to answer in my head even now) there was also a lot of sharing from the audience. One woman stood up and through trembling lips shared what obviously continues to be a really humiliating story for her.
“I’ve never said this publically before,” she said, choking back tears, then went on to describe a situation where, years earlier, she had been treated with such a lack of respect by the welfare office, it still haunts her today.
Another young woman talked about how she’s the first in her family to break free of poverty, and admitted to often feeling guilty for having escaped the cycle when so many of her family remain behind, still trapped.
I could have listened to their stories all night.
The next morning I spoke to a class of social work students at Algoma- students who seem genuinely committed to making a difference in the world. But I’m not surprised. Algoma’s Honours Bachelor of Social Work (HBSW) Program is committed to promoting social justice, community healing, and social change based on humanitarianism, egalitarianism, and anti-oppressive practice. The program emphasizes structural, Anishinaabe/Indigenous and feminist approaches to social work.
In the end, it was an incredible visit to an amazing school. Approximately 60% of the students at Algoma are non-traditional and although Algoma is the smallest university in Ontario, as the school states on its website: “Small University. Big Education.” Algoma’s size is also its strength as the school is the only university in Ontario that never has more than 65 students in a class.
Speaking before a classroom of future social workers was such an exciting opportunity. My book shares the journey of how a small group of committed social work and med school students help transform my mother and five sisters’ lives, and here I was standing before a class of social work students. It truly felt like a full-circle moment.