Poverty absent from premiers’ agenda

TheStar.com – News/Ontario
Published On Wed Aug 04 2010.   By Jim Coyle, Queen’s Park
Laurel Rothman would look a long time to find the issue that most concerns her on the list of agenda items tossed around before Canada’s premiers gather in Winnipeg on Thursday for their annual meeting.

The formal schedule calls for discussion on the tentative economic recovery, water protection, health care and international relations.

Ontario’s Dalton McGuinty says the fuss over the census might come up. He also hopes to commend his recent drug reforms to other provinces.

Manitoba’s Greg Selinger, host and newbie in the premiers club, is keen to talk education and training.

Most years have their themes and every gathering of the Council of the Federation has issues the premiers would prefer to get out of town without getting nailed down on.

Laurel Rothman’s is probably one of those.

Rothman, director of social reform at Family Service Toronto and national co-ordinator of Campaign 2000, wants the premiers to commit themselves to eradicating poverty.

To that end, Campaign 2000 has helped convene a roundtable Wednesday in Winnipeg while the premiers travel to Churchill to meet aboriginal leaders and, the photo-op gods willing, perhaps spot a polar bear.

From the roundtable will come a statement to the premiers on what they can do to address poverty in Canada over the next decade.

“We’re one of the few places where autoworkers, psychiatrists, the faith community, low-income people, child-care and health-care workers, aboriginal groups, newcomers, people with disabilities sit around the same table,” says Rothman.

And for the most part, she says, the disadvantaged have not benefitted from the stimulation programs of the last two years.

“We think it’s very important to send a strong message across the land that poverty prevention and eradication is the business of all governments.

“We need the provinces on board and we need the provinces to work with us to press the federal government.”

If she and her colleagues know anything, it’s that a whole lot of pressing is required.

It was 20 years ago last November that the Commons passed an all-party resolution to end child poverty by 2000.

“Unfortunately, we were not successful,” she says. “But where we were successful was keeping it on the radar screen.”

Six provinces and the Northwest Territories have developed or are pursuing poverty reduction strategies. And in the last year, there’s been a new Commons resolution and a Senate report on poverty.

“It’s time to get it on the formal radar screen of the provinces,” Rotham said. “We know that if we’re going to make long-term, sustained progress we need the provinces working together and we need the provinces working with the feds.”

Without adequate federal support, programs of social-assistance reform, early childhood education, child care and affordable housing don’t get terribly far past the stage of good intentions.

On the eve of last year’s Council of the Federation meeting in Regina, Rothman wrote an op-ed piece for the Star in which she said Canadians were counting on their governments more than ever “for vision, compassion and leadership.”

It’s doubtful that many folks find those virtues in the sort of risk-free communiqués such as one issued last year announcing that the “premiers agreed on the vital importance of innovation in ensuring Canada’s economic recovery and long-term prosperity.” Or that they “discussed the importance of enhancing international relationships.”

Yet, Rothman and colleagues remain, by necessity, realistic idealists.

“We implore the premiers, and federal party leaders, to reflect the inherent decency of most Canadians and start to work on a plan for poverty eradication,” the Winnipeg Statement concludes.

Are the premiers up the challenge? Rothman was asked.

“We’ll see.”

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