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Crossing Roads


I was invited to the Canadian Social Forum 2009, hosted by the Canadian Council on Social Development — it took place in May in Calgary. Pam Shime, the founding director of the Global Advocacy and Leadership Initiative and I spent some time getting to know each other via Skype as we were co-faciliating a workshop on advocacy in hard economic times.

The forum organizers had made some serious effort to bring together diverse communities working in the anti-poverty field. They particularly made a point of offering subsidies to advocates and poor people in marginalized communities. But, as Athena McKenzie Lothian asks in her blog post, “Where are the People Living in Poverty”? There were real attempts to give marginalized anti-poverty participants a voice in plenaries and workshops, but the roots of the problem lie deeper and are grounded in the kind of event it was. I had tried to talk a couple of anti-poverty organizers from Vancouver into attending, prepared to do the negotiating re: subsidies, because they would have been a dynamite addition to our workshop, and to the conference as a whole. But they both politely and extremely firmly declined. They were too busy on the ground.

And so, my thoughts on why a conference (or a forum) is not the best way to go when you’re trying to alleviate poverty:

ARRIVING AT THE HOTEL: I didn’t have a working credit card (although my room had been paid for, there was a mixup with information being faxed) and so immediately was put in the position of most people attending conferences without credit cards, of being told to sort it out before I moved into my room.

THE RECEPTION AT THE TELUS CONFERENCE CENTRE: Massive, alienating space, lovely to see some friends from all over Canada (and BC), free h’ors d’oeuvres (my fellow advocate from BC and I cursed having already had dinner!). Went to line up for a ticket for a glass of wine. Eight dollars. I clearly reacted; a friend behind me offered to buy me one. I declined; the wine suddenly wasn’t the point.

THE FOOD: After our first lunch, when it was clear that there was going to be a pile of food left over, I talked to the staff at the hotel about what happened to it all. “It gets thrown out.” I asked if there was any way it could be redistributed. The person I talked to said that the conference centre used to have the food distributed to poor people, but someone got sick and so they don’t do it any more. Apparently there’s no organization in Calgary that picks up food. I could have gone and got plastic containers, at least for the sandwiches (we’ve done that before in Vancouver). I didn’t. Someone brought it up at the town hall at the end of the forum; she was talking on behalf of a co-worker in a local organization who was too angry to speak herself.

THE STAFF: One of the issues that came up over and over again at the conference was the Living Wage Campaign. It’s a campaign that points out that a minimum wage is not a living wage, and that:

“A living wage allows lower-income families to avoid having to make impossible choices, such as whether to buy food or heat the house, feed the children or pay the rent. The living wage calculation includes basic expenses for a two-earner family with two young children (such as housing, childcare, food and transportation), and government taxes, credits, deductions and subsidies. It finds that each parent would need to work full-time at an hourly wage of $16.74 in Metro Vancouver and $16.39 in Greater Victoria in order to pay for necessities, support the healthy development of their children and participate in the social and civil life of their communities.” (from a September 2008 press release from CCPA).

There was much enthusiasm and support for the Living Wage Campaign (and indeed it’s one that makes a lot of sense.) Someone got up at the town hall and observed that the staff at the Telus Conference Centre were not making a living wage.

It’s easy to criticize after the fact. It’s clearly important to engage all levels of concerned people when it comes to alleviating poverty. That includes researchers, academics, community workers, advocates, workers (both organized and unorganized) and poor people. And they were all there. But it’s hard to make that engagement real when the power balance isn’t equal. And it’s usually money that tips that balance, be it wages or glasses of wine. A friend and I talked after the conference about the idea of holding “A People’s Forum” across the road (metaphorically speaking) like they do at international consultations. But then, how do we cross the road?

Something happened on my way back to my hotel after the conference was over. I was walking up the hill from the C-train, and I saw a homeless man (I assumed by the shopping cart) also struggling up the hill. Two cops on bicycles accosted him as we all reached the top. They started asking him questions about where he was going, what he was doing. He tried to cross the road as the light changed, and they told him “they weren’t done with him yet.” I stopped. The cops looked at me; I made a snap decision that I wasn’t going to get directly involved because I could leave town, and the homeless man couldn’t – and they knew his name. Brian, it was. I crossed the road and stood watching on the other side, making sure I stayed in their line of sight. Eventually, they let him go and he crossed the road. The police officers got on their bikes and took off. So did I; I figured Brian likely didn’t want to talk about it.


  1. Hungry Girl wrote:

    Some good stories, and much to ponder.

    Sunday, June 7, 2009 at 10:42 am | Permalink
  2. zoom wrote:

    Excellent observations, Penny, particularly about the difficulties of achieving real engagement in the shadow of a power imbalance.

    It’s like having a disability conference in an inaccessible venue, and offering to carry the wheelchairs of a few token disabled people up and down the stairs.

    Sunday, June 7, 2009 at 7:33 pm | Permalink
  3. Vicky Dalton wrote:

    Interesting and poignant about Brian. fitting conclusion to the conference and illustrates the power imbalance in such a real level.

    I keenly felt the difference in privlege as the telus staff cleaned up after us while we were eating. Send me an email when you have a minute, please

    Monday, June 8, 2009 at 1:58 pm | Permalink
  4. gisele wrote:

    Sounded like a harsh reality check. It is very difficult to attend conferences, etc as an advocate/representative. It doesn’t really tip the balance to have a subsidy. At times I decline simply because I am not up to the task of feeling humiliated and sitting in the lobby because I don’t have a credit card. This has happened even when everything is prepaid and confirmed before I arrived – at 10:00 at night – and I wasn’t able to call the office for assistance. Not fun. It is about money/power, isn’t it? But I must say, the situation is certainly better than it was…. change does come eventually….

    Monday, June 8, 2009 at 2:00 pm | Permalink
  5. Stephanie wrote:

    I also attended the “forum”. One thing not mentioned were the astronomical fees to attend….I got lucky and had some subsidy for my trip from BC to Calgary. In total the fees including registration travel and the $209 per night for a hotel were almost $1400.00 There is a point to attending the forums on poverty and much thought to give towards how big conferences may be a catalyst or a hinderance in addressing poverty. I observed a scene while attending that I also wanted to point out. A local homeless man-a self defined “street” reverend- approached the conference and asked to be admitted in…in the end he was “allowed” to attend…but it was an interesting set of discussion overheard as to the benefits and considerations that were made before he was “let in”…

    Monday, June 8, 2009 at 3:27 pm | Permalink
  6. Student Xena wrote:

    It’s too bad your CSF experience was not a positive one – or at least that’s the impression I get. I really enjoyed the conference – brought home valuable information and made great network connections. I agree with your comments about the lack of relevant representation on the plenary panels as well as the situation with the convention staff and discarded food. Perhaps a constructive approach to making these seemingly hypocritical occurances productive is to insist with the CCSD that the process of considering future venue sites should include a ‘relevant issue’ checklist to help prevent this from transpiring in the future. To that end, my next email message will be to CCSD about this issue. So, although there is room for improvement in most things, I enjoyed the conference and felt it was a good use of my time – which like you, I am sure – is a valuable commodity.

    Tuesday, June 9, 2009 at 2:38 pm | Permalink
  7. Stacey Tyers wrote:

    I don’t think you made it sound negative actually, realistic, fair, and a broad understanding of your observations.

    I’m sorry I couldn’t be there, I wasn’t approved for a subsidy and like many can not afford to do it without. I think it sounded quite interesting and had hopes for a good mix of diverse people, which it sounds somewhat like.

    I agree with Gisele though, even with subsidies, many times it is not possible for low income people to attend. Overall it sounds like an educational experience, which is the most important thing. That we all continue to grow and learn.

    Hope to see you soon Penny!

    Thursday, June 18, 2009 at 1:57 pm | Permalink
  8. Penny wrote:

    Thank you all for your comments.

    Michael Goldberg, formerly of SPARC tells of attending a federated anti-poverty group meeting in Naramata some years ago. He’s a Trekkie, and his ears pricked up when someone talked about what he thought were klingons. Actually, what the person was saying was that at any conference or event, she called herself a “clingon” — that she couldn’t afford a cup of coffee, let alone going out for lunch or dinner (which is what people do at these kinds of events) unless she was “clinging on” to someone else at the conference who had a job. He says it’s something he’s never forgotten.

    Thursday, June 18, 2009 at 2:42 pm | Permalink
  9. BOB Watts wrote:

    Hi, you asked if I would share, from a PWD’s point of view.

    The Privatization of the Disadvantaged.
    I’m Disabled (this is God’s will for me) and I will never be employable, and I live in total poverty for absolutely no good reason. Let’s look back to1975, the social safety net paid 105% of the poverty line. Today disability rates are 50% below the poverty line. What changed, and is there a saving to taxpayers? The answer is No!
    In 1975 a Disabled person had a guaranteed income, that was adequate enough to cover food, housing, and a little disposable income to improve quality of life.
    Today those direct incomes to the disabled and others have been systematically lowered and privatized. The reason why is that poverty is a multi billion dollar industry, that just begs to be exploited and managed for profit. Plus we all know the poor are a parasitic, unworthy life form, and as such must be kept in line, at any and all costs. Its like I have a bounty on my head, anyone that talks to me gets funding, yet if I need anything its not in the budget. These caregivers and the like get travel expenses, (I stay home) catered meals (I get the food bank), dental plan (extractions for me), and a great paycheque plus a 2010 legacy grant to ask the disabled how accessible the public toilets are for my disability. I asked for a computer and was told no, but if I were a non-profit the answer would be yes. How about a real pension and I’ll hire whom I like.
    Food banks started as a well-intentioned gesture of kindness but it has gradually become a way for the province to off load welfare payments and redirect cash flow to a few large corporations. Here is how it now works. In 1975 the poor had the funds to purchase their own food. Stores in 1975 that had dented cans, out of date breads and dairy products, meats and over ripe vegetables, would depose of these items in dumpsters. Today these once waste items are literally turning into gold. Waste is now sorted by trained employees and are scanned at the cash registers, and 80% of the value of every item is now considered as a tax-exempt donation, valued in the multi millions of dollars.
    Note: My local food bank hands out food only once per week and by that time 90% of perishable foods have now totally expired. One month I was given 5 large bags and ended up with only two edible tomatoes and a big shock to me was two cans where over 6 years out of date. I’ve asked my local health branch to inspect the food bank, request denied! Please allow me to afford to eat fresh again and it will cost the taxpayer not one-penny extra, but the savings will be in the multi millions to the health care system, and the stores can still have sales profits rather than tax exemptions. PS: I don’t drink, smoke or take illegal drugs, so I don’t need to be managed like an animal.
    In 1975 welfare shelter allowances where adequate, homelessness was almost unheard of. The free market had government incentives to supply rentals. Then welfare rates where frozen. Inflation over the years made it more profitable to turn apartments into condos. Now we have homeless shelters but with no surprise (to me) they are funded at $33,333.33 per mat on the floor, per year, (the following web-site shows BC spending $50million on 1,500 shelter beds/mats)
    compared that to the maximum $375 per month or $4,500 per year a single disabled person could get for rent. Why such a vast difference, and are those mats a cost savings? The answer is No! Could it be as simple as the government wanting the poor to find religion. The largest shelter provider is a “Army” for Jesus, its goal, “Salvation”. No thanks!
    The new housing solution in now called “Supportive Housing and Shelters” and this means poor people have guards, costing in the hundreds of millions. For about 10% of the poor this makes perfect sense due to mental illnesses and addictions, but for about 90% of the poor this means big brother is watching and freedom be dammed, but this however is all about big business and thousands of well paying jobs. “ News flash on CBC radio Dec/30/08 Tuberculosis is spreading rapidly amongst the homeless in the BC interior. Quote: “The general public need not fear, it’s just happening to the homeless”. Yes poor people have shorter life spans being homeless, good is what a lot of you reading this story will say, its not a secret or a uncommon thought, its just not politically correct to get caught saying what so many of you really think.
    Our economy is based on a pyramid system with money running from the bottom to the top. The new twist in BC is the hiring of 45,000 foreign workers bypassing all our own citizens. Have you ever heard of a homeless or hungry foreign worker? The answer is No! How about training Canadians rather than casting the poor and unskilled onto the streets to die. BC is spending $55,000 per year, per homeless person, think about that, it cost far less to give a Doctor a free education than it does to keep a person homeless!
    Shelters are registered, as non-profit organizations and as such public records are impossible to find. I have however found 3 articles for 555 Homer Street Vancouver. This property is owned and operated by the Salvation Army of Canada and Bermuda. Yes Bermuda is the offshore Banking capital of the world, read whatever you like into that fact. The public information I’ve attached is I feel typical of how money is spent in the name of the poor and Disabled. Watch how much money changes hands starting Jan-2003 to Apr-2003 to Sept-2004, draw your own conclusions!
    Jan-2003, City of Vancouver buys the Dunsmuir building at 555 Homer for $3 mil and sells it to the Salvation Army for $2 mil
    The City of Vancouver gives a $225,00 property tax exemption—-Welfare, Corrections Canada, Health Board etc, gives the Salvation Army $19 million for renovations plus $1 mil from the city—plus from BC Housing promises to pay off $3 mil on the Salvation Armies 35 year mortgage….
    Apr-2003 Salvation Army gets $16.2 million for new development—$6.3 annual operating expenses—-$390,000 affordable housing grant–$1 million from city of Van—$1 million from community partners….
    Sept-2004 In this story the Salvation Army has taken $23.3 million from the Morris and Helen Belken Foundation to fund the very same building at 555 Homer Street Vancouver.
    Now factor in other private donations, rents, homeless shelter rates of $91.32 per night per bed/mat plus treatment fees, plus, plus, plus, plus.
    There can be no doubt that at least 10% of the poor and Disabled need a “Supported Housing Program”, but for the other 90% like myself we are forced into grinding, relentless poverty, caused directly by the Privatization of Social Programs. The cure for homelessness and so many other social problems is a return to the 1975 guaranteed income rates. The free market will build homes if the disadvantaged have the means to pay. Stimulate the Economy and remember whenever a dollar changes a hand 3 times, then every penny goes back to the government! Give the disabled a real livable pension and don’t call it welfare. Hirer the poor and disabled as consultants. We have great ideas to share and all we ask for is our dignity.
    This all-true story has been published in a few newspapers, with not one single comment pro or con, no one seems to care either way, how very sad.

    Saturday, June 20, 2009 at 4:47 pm | Permalink
  10. Bob Watts wrote:

    Bob Watts is not my real name, but seeing I’m PWD I must remain off the Govnment radar. I write a lot of common sense stories, I think, like moving any homeless person that wants to relocate to small towns that have rents starting at $395, and buying 3 bedroom 1,200 sq ft trailers at $35,000. There are many ex logging and mineing towns that sit 50% empty looking for people. For me and a good number of others, we are odd, we don’t use food banks, or any other services that provide services to the poor. I watch groups collecting funds in my name and frankly it bothers me a lot. Society is paying $55,000 per homeless person, to me these funds are the bounty put on a poor persons head. I see homeless shelters being paid $91.32 per night for a mat on the floor and it bugs me. Poverty could be ended overnight for about 90% of the poor, the other 10% have mental problems that require full time care. The answer is so simple redirect that $55,000 to the poor, if I had that type of income, I take up simple minded things like going to sports games and plays. Never had a lobster, a real steak. This morning I watched a show on the poor in Africa, they have their own mud huts, nice cloths, group cooking, the kids and parents playing and laughing, then I think of Hasting and Main. No summer camps for poor kids this year yet kids from all over the world are comimg here for the 2010 games. Nuts! The city is building a billion dollar village for other peoples kids, put we could have rented 2 or 3 hotels in Vancouver for a mth and could have saved what will be in the end with interest 2 billion dollars. I can balance a budget like no other person I’ve ever met, yet being PWD I’m classed as you know what….

    Sunday, June 21, 2009 at 12:20 pm | Permalink
  11. zoom wrote:

    I’ve been giving this some more thought. I think maybe we have to acknowledge that by its very nature, poverty IS exclusionary, and no amount of tact or forethought or sensitivity on the part of the conference organizers is going to make the experience of attending a conference equal for poor and non-poor delegates.

    Poverty is all encompassing thing. You live it and breathe it and eat it and feel it everywhere you go and in everything you do. You don’t get to take breaks from it.

    On the other side of the same coin…I recall, when I was poor, reading about a reporter on an assignment to live in poverty for a month. He moved (temporarily) out of his house, was given a month’s welfare payment by his employer, and his job was to get through the month while reporting daily on the experience of living in poverty.

    I was poor at the time, and the whole thing seemed ludicrous to me. You can’t experience poverty by pretending to be poor temporarily or by putting yourself on a budget for a month.

    Poverty’s about so much more than not enough money. It’s about a profound lack of options and opportunities for yourself and your children. It’s about insecurity and stress and not having any margin of error. It’s about stigma and the way people look at you and the way you look at yourself. It’s about downward momentum.

    The money’s the least of it.

    I think the crux of the matter lies in your contention that “It’s hard to make the engagement real when the power balance isn’t equal.” We cannot make the power balance equal, because poverty by its very nature precludes equality.

    I would like to think, however, that the engagement could still be real.

    Maybe instead of inviting low-income people into the domain of the well-off (ie conferences in hotels), it should be flipped around.

    Maybe the engagement would be more real if the non-poor participants were willing to move out of their comfort zones and have this dialogue in shelters and soup kitchens and community centres and church basements.

    Wednesday, July 1, 2009 at 6:48 am | Permalink

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