See poverty for what it is: a violation of human rights

TheGuardian.pe.ca – Opinion/Letters-to-editor
Published on December 14th, 2010.   Gerard Mitchell

Editor’s note: The following are excerpts from a speech made last week by Gerard Mitchell, former chief justice of the P.E.I. Supreme Court, to mark International Human Rights Day and the P.E.I. Human Rights Commission Award for the Advancement of Human Rights.

I want to speak about what I consider to be the most important and pressing human rights issue in Canada today, namely, poverty. Times are tough for a wide range of individuals and families. Demands on food banks and other charitable services are at all time highs. More than three million Canadians, including thousands of Islanders, have incomes below the poverty line and are unable to make ends meet. Canadians with disabilities are a group hit disproportionately hard.

We all know Islanders will do their best, as they always do at this time of year, to ensure there is a turkey on every table and toys in every stocking on Christmas Day. The problem is that there are 364 other days that the poor have to get through. The charity and generosity of Islanders and the seasonal assistance measures by government and service organizations help to alleviate some of the effects of poverty, but they are not the solution that is needed.

Significant poverty reduction requires a concentrated and co-operative effort by all levels of government. It cannot be done by charity and emergency relief.

Poverty must be seen for what it is, namely, a serious violation of human rights. It is an affront to human dignity that deprives its victims of full membership and participation in our society. Therefore, poverty reduction must be seen not as charity work but primarily as a human rights remedy which governments have an obligation to implement.

Canadian governments — through the Charter, Human Rights Acts, and section 36 of the Constitution Act, 1982  — have committed themselves to equal opportunity and equal treatment for all. In addition, Canada has ratified international human rights treaties that require governments at all levels to ensure all Canadian residents enjoy social and economic rights, including an adequate standard of living.

Unfortunately, Canada has been cited and criticized several times by compliance monitoring bodies for its failure to live up to the human rights treaties it has signed. Just last Thursday, UNICEF issued a report showing that Canada lags far behind in equality of children’s material well-being, which includes family income and other basic resources and conditions necessary for child development. According to the report, Canada ranked a disappointing 17th out of 24 industrialized nations.

Well, what can we as ordinary citizens do about poverty reduction? We need to turn up the volume on the advocacy side. The fight against poverty needs a louder more determined voice from we the people.

Governments must be pressured to live up to their human rights obligations.

Governments must also be made to see the socio-economic wisdom of addressing the problem now. The costs of inaction are prohibitive. If poverty is not eliminated, we will pay for it for generations to come through lost productivity, lost opportunity, lost participation as well as through the health-care system, the criminal justice system, and the social support system.

The costs are already staggering. A study by The Ontario Association of Food Banks found the cost of poverty in Canada ranges between $72.5 billion and $86.1 billion per year.

While the present situation is dismal, there are several rays of hope.  In the throne speech on Nov. 12, 2010, the government of P.E.I. announced that as of April 1, 2011, it would end its clawback of the National Child Benefit for families on social assistance. Secondly, the government promised that early in the new year it will release a poverty reduction discussion paper. Another source of optimism for reform is that on Nov. 30, the  P.E.I. legislature’s standing committee on Health, Social Development and Seniors tabled a report saying that our social services programs need an overhaul and a new infusion of cash in order to deal with issues caused by poverty.

On the federal side, there is some cause for hope, too. Just a few weeks ago, a House of Commons standing committee issued a report recommending the federal government immediately commit to an action plan to reduce poverty in Canada that would incorporate a human rights framework and provide for consultations with all stakeholders. It also recommended the creation of a new federal transfer fund to support provincial and territorial poverty reduction initiatives.

All of these promises and recommendations are encouraging, but so far they are just words. We need action. It is incumbent on we, the people, to ensure there is follow-through. We must keep the pressure on leaders by holding governments accountable for their commitments towards reducing poverty.

I hope Islanders will take advantage of the opportunity to show their solidarity with the poor by taking part in the consultations that are to  follow the release of the government’s discussion paper. Government is much more likely to respond favourably if there is a strong demonstration of broad public support for poverty reduction measures.

2011 is just around the corner. It will also be elections year in Canada at both the federal and provincial levels. This presents an opportunity for us to put poverty reduction on the top of both provincial and federal political agendas. Why not make it a 2011 New Year’s resolution to take some action to impress upon our politicians and political parties that poverty in Prince Edward Island and Canada is intolerable and that its reduction must be priority one for our governments. Join an anti-poverty advocacy group. Speak or write to your MLAs and MPs and those hoping to replace them saying simply: I want you to make poverty reduction priority number one it is a matter of Human Rights.

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