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.