Canada’s politicians are failing the poor
TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion
October 14, 2012. By Dow Marmur, Columnist
ISARC is the acronym for the Interfaith Social Action Reform Coalition. It describes itself as “faith communities in action against poverty.” A few days before Thanksgiving that this year coincided with the week-long Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot, it held several vigils across Ontario.
The event I attended at Queen’s Park had both substance and symbolism. But perhaps the most powerful symbol wasn’t planned. The imam scheduled to be there on behalf of the Muslim community was unable to attend. He had, therefore, asked his colleague, Rabbi Stephen Wise of Oakville, who spoke on behalf of the Jewish community, to represent him. This is Canada at its best: instead of engaging in proxy wars, these religious leaders and their communities are living in neighbourly friendship and mutual support.
On behalf of the imam, the rabbi read a passage by the Persian Islamic poet Saadi Shirazi(1195-1226) that encapsulated the purpose of the vigil: “To worship God is nothing other than to serve the people. It does not need rosaries, prayer carpets or robes. All peoples are members of the same body, created from one essence. If fate brings suffering to one member, the others cannot stay at rest.”
We were there to remind Ontario legislators of their responsibility for those who can least fend for themselves, not because it’s politically expedient but because it’s morally right.
The representatives of the many faith communities who spoke probably hold different views on many political issues, but at the vigil they were united in their concern for the poor and the powerless in our midst. This is interfaith work at its best.
The speakers stressed how the politicians are letting us down. In support, the organizers distributed a document on behalf of the Ontario Common Front, a coalition of many welfare organizations. It persuasively illustrated how our province is “falling behind the rest of Canada in terms of growing poverty, increasing inequality and flagging financial support for vital social programmes.”
The document contains telling charts and incontrovertible statistics showing that “the richest are getting richer while 40 per cent of Ontario’s families with children are falling behind.”
Its opening statement reminds readers that ours is a province of highly educated people with access to rich natural resources and with a well developed industrial infrastructure. Yet we don’t seem to be living up to our responsibilities to the poor among us.
The report alerts us to the sad fact that “Ontario’s current sprint toward austerity is occurring in the context of grave inequality” because “income inequality has outpaced the rest of the country since the 1990s.” One of the consequences is that almost 400,000 Ontarians are turning to food banks for help; more than a third of them are children under 18. Some of the banks periodically run out of supplies.
Faith communities find themselves in the usual bind. On the one hand, they seek to alleviate immediate needs by providing food and shelter through programs like “Out of the Cold.” On the other, they know that these acts of charity and decency implicitly give a kind of licence to politicians to do little and to expect religious institutions to shoulder too much of the burden of looking after the disadvantaged.
Reflecting the mandate of ISARC, the purpose of the vigils was to influence religious people to go beyond acts of charity by making legitimate demands on their elected representatives. Though the voices of women and men of faith are rarely strong enough to threaten the political future of legislators, they can and must rouse the consciences of those in power to be true to their mandate.
Dow Marmur is rabbi emeritus at Toronto’s Holy Blossom Temple.
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