Earlier this month I had the pleasure of attending the 2nd Annual National Poverty Reduction Summit. This year’s conference was hosted by the city of Edmonton and entitled “Cities Reducing Poverty: When Mayors Lead”. Mayors, municipal representatives, nonprofit leaders and the first voice of lived experience came together in an unprecedented way to talk openly and honestly about the challenges cities face when tackling the complex nature of community poverty.
I was lifted by the clear voices rallying for change. Mayors from all across Canada are leading the charge in ensuring that poverty is on the national agenda. And for the first time in over a decade, the winds seem to be that national partners and all levels of government are listening. Alan Broadbent, Chairman and Founder of Maytree challenged the Federal government to find and reallocate the dollars needed to well fund poverty reduction across the country. Once decision maker can liken poverty reduction investment (the housing stability of our neighbours, the education of their children and the inherent human rights of the individual) to infrastructure investment (roads & bridges, community hubs, arenas and libraries) real change can start to happen.
It’s heartening that the necessary shift from the charity model to a human rights model is happening within the poverty reduction movement. We all deserve a safe and secure home, enough money to feed our children and the ability to get to our place of work easily and affordably and when we strip individuals of this basic human justice we strip away pieces of our own humanity. Andrea Barrack-Cohen of the Ontario Trillium Foundation reminded those in attendance that it is our responsibility to challenge the systems and institutions that create poverty.
I am in awe of Dr. Cindy Blackstock – and this conference was the first time I had ever watched her speak live. Her passion and advocacy is a force to be reckoned with and I was especially struck when she highlighted a quote from one of the students she’s met – the student noted “discrimination is when the government doesn’t think you’re worth the money”. Dr. Blackstock’s keynote was a chilling reminder that we have broken our promises to our First Nation communities and there is exceptional work to be done with the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as our guide.
There were so many shining examples of communities leading the charge on poverty reduction. We heard from Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson, Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman and many others about the projects, the plans and initiatives being undertaken in their communities to change systems and lift people out of poverty.
Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman officially challenged all Mayors across Canada to zealously promote and encourage participation in the Canada Learning Bond (CLB), a federal program that provides up to $2,000 toward postsecondary education for children from low-income families. This drove home that Chatham-Kent, as a community, is heading in the right direction – working hard to change our local participation rates (currently 23%) to one of 70% of qualified families registered within five years.
As a nice change of pace, the organizers of the conference took the opportunity to highlight the great work happening in Edmonton by sending attendees out in the community on school busses to see examples of community projects that are working. I was really touched by the tour I was on.
Our first stop was at the Bissell Centre, a spot where homeless men and women can find support and fellowship in their community. The Bissell Centre was opened in 1910 and has a storied history of supporting Edmontonians living with low-income. In the 60’s and 70’s the Bissell Centre expanded their programming to include supports for families and opened a daycare. The daycare model employed at the Bissell Centre is an exceptionally interesting one based on respite care; families can sign up their child a few times as a week as needed so Mom and Dad can go to appointments, have a few hours off, tend to other tasks while their child is cared for.
We then walked around the corner to the Boyle Street Community League, located in the heart of Edmonton, in what used to be a lonesome and unsafe neighbourhood. The centre which is an amazing community collaboration of multiple partners houses a community kitchen, a day care, an art gallery, meeting space and a gym has revitalized a tough neighbourhood. When you peer out the large windows at the front you see a beautiful apartment building across the park. The apartment building houses approximately 300 affordable apartment units. People used to walk this corner with their heads down, not wanting to catch their neighbour’s eyes. Now families play in the park in the centre, have picnics on the community art installation (that is a GIANT picnic bench) and support one another in meaningful ways such as trading babysitting services and sharing a meal.
Our tour ended at the Edmonton City Hall where we had the opportunity to learn about two exceptionally cool municipal projects. We were led to a café, given a few appetizers and asked to sit. I munched on the delicious food, wondered about my ability to go back for seconds while I waited for the presentation to start. We soon learned we were in the Kids in the Hall Bistro. The Kids in the Hall Bistro is a catering company that offers at risk youth (16 – 24) opportunities to earn high school credits, learn life and employment skills while working in a bistro. We heard moving testimonials from students whose lives were utterly changed by participating in this program.
We ended our tour in City Hall School, an actual classroom in City Hall that employs an Edmonton teacher. City Hall School is a week long, inquiry based, hands on learning experience for Grade 1 – 12 students. Students gain an understanding of municipal government through simulated City Council sessions, a visit to the Mayor’s office and by working with Councillors, social workers, Edmonton Police Service, historians and other City employees. Citizenship, the environment and social responsibility are topics which are an integral part of City Hall School. The teacher presenting shared with us notebooks where kids, parents and their teachers shared their thoughts on the experience. All were positive and talked about the life-changing nature of this program. One of the students after seeing homelessness for the first time spent her entire March Break knitting hats and scarves – she was able to knit over 30 and donated them out in the community.
In coming back to Chatham-Kent, I spent time reflecting on what needs to happen next, and what needs to happen next is that this conversation continues. We must use these winds of change to our advantage; continue to have this conversation with our community members, our politicians, and our provincial and national partners. Dr. Blackstock urged us to become more “aligned with our national values.” And Mayor Don Iveson urgently encouraged those in attendance to work hard to “build a national consensus to end poverty in Canada.” We need change now. I’m committed, are you?
- Kate do Forno