Art Eggleton: From mayor to anti-poverty crusader

TheStar.com – Opinion
Published On Wed Mar 03 2010.   By Carol Goar, Editorial Board

Back in his days as Toronto’s longest-serving mayor, no one would have described Art Eggleton as a champion of social justice.

He was a capable administrator, an affable middle-of-the-road politician, a pro-development municipal leader, a guy who could keep city hall on an even keel – but not a defender of the urban underclass.

Nor was he seen as an advocate for the poor during his 11 years as a federal minister.

He was a competent, somewhat bland, member of Jean Chrétien’s cabinet who was better at handling numbers than messy human problems.

But as a senator, Eggleton has become an outspoken and knowledgeable crusader for the 3.4 million Canadians living in poverty. He’s even acquired some passion.

Last week, the 66-year-old accountant, who heads the Senate subcommittee on cities, brought his message to the Empire Club of Toronto. It would be an exaggeration to say his speech was a stemwinder. But he delivered it with force and conviction. He clearly wanted to move listeners, create a sense of urgency, persuade them to take up the cause.

“The hard truth is that poverty costs all of us,” he said. “It forces up our bills, depresses the economy, increases health costs and can breed alienation and crime.

“We must rouse ourselves. I’m not going to rest until we get some action.”

It’s been three months since Eggleton and his Senate colleagues released their blueprint for eradicating poverty in Canada. The 362-page report, A Call to Action on Poverty, Housing and Homelessness, was comprehensive, thoughtful and loaded with recommendations.

It was scarcely noticed in Ottawa.

Since then, Eggleton and his co-chair, Conservative Senator Hugh Segal, have been out speaking to Canadians, hoping to generate enough momentum to get the issue on the national agenda.

Parts of Eggleton’s Empire Club speech sounded like a laundry list of the report’s recommendations. But he ended it with a heartfelt appeal to listeners to speak out, write to their MPs and show Prime Minister Stephen Harper that poverty is a public priority.

The applause was warm – hardly surprising considering that the audience was liberally sprinkled with social activists and that the Empire Club’s president, lawyer Alf Apps, also happens to be president of the Liberal party.

Most of his audiences have been “believers,” Eggleton acknowledged afterward. He knows he has to win converts in the business community. And he thinks he has a strong case to make: no corporation would pour $150 billion a year into a social welfare system that merely perpetuates poverty. Its shareholders wouldn’t allow it. Why should Canadian taxpayers?

As he looks back over his 40-year political career – Etobicoke alderman, city budget chief, mayor, Toronto MP and cabinet minister – Eggleton insists his values haven’t changed. People’s perceptions have.

He always considered himself a progressive mayor. He presided over a remarkable boom in the construction of social housing. It wasn’t his fault it was part of a city-wide building boom.

He always wanted to be an advocate for the vulnerable during his years as a federal cabinet minister, but none of his portfolios – president of the Treasury Board, minister for international trade or defence minister – gave him the chance.

It wasn’t until he became a senator that he could follow his social conscience. By then, urban poverty had deepened and the shortage of affordable housing had become acute.

“I look at social issues as they affect cities,” he said. “That’s where I came from. That’s where my background is.”

Torontonians might question his interpretation of the past. But no one who hears him speak now would question the sincerity of his commitment.

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