Sunday, 3 August 2014

Our failure as a Society witnessed

We do live in a Society which promotes individual worth and values at the expense of the Community as a whole. When we say our Community or Community values it is a very vague concept and one which does not or must not interfere with personal individual rights and values. In fact the word community nowadays in modern Canadian Society is pretty meaningless, the same goes for Community Leaders this is a term the media loves to use when it is trying to support the idea that an initiative or a project has a wide support amongst people. That is not true, the majority are too busy pursuing personal goals to bother much with the so called community.

In Canada today there are 3 types of what could be defined loosely as a community, there is the Rural group mostly farmers and individuals who live outside cities.

Then there are suburbanites, people who live in these large bedroom communities with malls and is composed mostly of either Heterosexual White Christian groups or large single Ethnicity groups who live in a suburban ghetto, they can be Asians like in the Suburb South of Montreal or in Suburb around Toronto which use to be small towns now absorbed in larger metropolitan areas. This group usually sees the inner city as dangerous and full of crimes, despite the fact that the crime rate in Canada is as low as in 1970.

Finally you have the City Core dwellers who are either old or young, rich, middle class and the urban poor, the Natives, the disabled, comprising every ethnic background in very varied neighbourhoods. Many have always lived in the City itself and are usually more progressive socially.

So in other words the idea of a community does not really exist in a Society dominated by the pursuit of individuality, social responsibility is diluted and this may explain, only in part, why we have so much indifference towards the many poor people old and young in Canada. There is also in the last 25 years the rapidly changing economy and in Canada we are clearly creating more minimum wage jobs in the service industry and inequality in general is on a rapid rise. One million Canadians do not have enough to eat or go without food on any given day, that is what is called food insecurity, 14% of children in Canada are poor and suffer from lack of adequate food, this is the highest rate in all industrial nations. Some 40% of Canadians pay two thirds of their income in rent or mortgage, housing in Canada is expensive.  All this to say that Canada is on the fast track to economic disparity and poverty for the majority.

The economy may be rock solid for some, like the Banks and the Oil Company an image our PM Harper spins endlessly, but for your average Canadian it is very far from being rock solid, more choppy seas with much uncertainty and with record personal debt. You loose your job and all of a sudden you are tipped into poverty.

Yes the urban poor is nothing new and existed since we have had cities in Canada, it has been a difficult problem to effectively deal with. Most people prefer to think that it exist but is not that serious and could be remedied easily with a bunch of social measures. Or worse that people who are poor deserve it because they are lazy. It is also easy to look down on the poor because they fit into a category we do not understand and do not want to know about.

All this to say that like most people I had heard of poverty in our cities but in the last 16 months I have become more aware of it. First was a conversation I had with the Director of the Soupe Populaire in Gatineau, his soup kitchen feeds the urban poor in the city across the river from the National Capital, he told me that in the winter of 2013, some 12 people had frozen to death on city streets in Gatineau. In Ottawa the Nation's Capital the numbers are a little higher, unbelievable when you think that most Canadians love to tell the world how rich we are. It is a National disgrace that this should happen, we do have enough shelter beds in the City provided by Churches and other groups but some people because of mental health issues do not want to participate and fall in the cracks. The other national disgrace is the situation of the Native people in Canada, there are about 1 million natives all around Canada. Recently I was speaking with UN Officials and I was told how completely horrendous the situation of Natives has become, the effect of years of neglect by the Federal Government on top of the savage budget cuts of the Harper government and the incredible level of violence suffered by native communities is beyond what we imagine Canada to be about. As a country we are failing at several social policy levels and also in terms of responsibilities towards our Native population. But most Canadians are totally oblivious and simply do not want to hear about it, which suits Harper and Co. fine. At any rate the UN is not much liked by the current government and this has been made clear in Official speeches.

I started to volunteer at the Shepherd of Good Hope on Murray Street in Lower Town, it is the largest shelter in the Capital, very well established it provides many services to the homeless and disadvantage including those suffering from mental illness though on that level what they can do is limited.  So I go and serve lunch, the routine is fairly simple, we get there by 08:30am and you are given food preparation duties, you may be asked to peel potatoes, cut up meat, make sandwiches, etc..

This past weekend I made about 150 sandwiches in about 2:30 hours, these sandwiches are given to anyone who comes after lunch looking for food. At 11:30am lunch service starts, all the food served is fresh, the menu changes daily and the food is good and wholesome, there is always a hot dish, a stew or a pasta, a soup, salad, bread and butter, dessert and coffee or tea. There are also vegetarian meals for those who want them.

The manager asked me to go to the door to greet the lunch crowd. Some 260 men and women came in, all young or old, many were faces I recognised, you see them in the market or around town. This was a slow day, being August, a long weekend and welfare cheques had just been given out. On a busy day some 400 to 500 persons will come in. One fellow asked me if there was any food left, he said he was really hungry he had not eaten in a day or so.  I could see the pain on his face, the stress and the fear that he might have missed lunch. It is very hard to think that anyone would be in that position, shocking in fact.

The Shepherd of Good Hope buildings is in a central location in the Capital surrounded by expensive condo towers and affluence in the nearby Rideau Centre, expensive shops and National Museums. This is not an isolated part on the edge of town.

What is amazing is how polite they all are, many are very courteous, quick on the thank you and speaking softly, no one that I have seen was loud or aggressive though I can imagine this happens.  I did have one fellow who came in and said to me rather sharply that he had heard we had chili with meat again, is that all you folks can prepare he asked. I told him simply what the menu was today, he looked at me surprised and said oh well that is nice and lined up at the counter.

Some people wore the marks of a recent fights, two women had big shiners, a man had his nose freshly broken and someone had taken a knife to his face. Another women maybe she was in her forties, hard to say, had a leg that had been broken and had not healed properly so she had a pronounced limp. Many Natives in the group and Innu, they are a special case because they come from the Arctic circle and here down South they are completely out of their element, it is very sad to see. Some are manic and this is out of character given their culture but obviously under a lot of stress.

So I stand by the door and say hello to those who come in, they will ask me about the menu of the day, all insist on washing their hands, and then line up at the cafeteria with their trays, they can eat as much as they want. Eating is such a human thing, no food and you die, washing one's hand, the need to feel clean is very important also. Simple courtesies, a simple hello, a word of welcome, a smile, it makes anyone feel more human, part of society. It is so simple, but it is what we all expect without often realizing it.

I also tell them, though they know the routine, that we have sandwiches also for the afternoon. Some will ask about water for their dogs, though we do not give them food for their pets. When you see such numbers coming in for a meal, it gives you an idea of the magnitude of the problem. I also work at the slop table which is clean up after the meal, cleaning plates and trays. All the dish ware is heavy duty porcelain, same with cups.

I do not know if I could do this volunteering on a regular basis, it is psychologically hard. Your first reaction is to feel embarrassed to see this kind of poverty. We do live in a world where most people feel they are paying too many taxes and the government is too intrusive, so you hear or read the heart less comments, few want more social programs, not understanding that organizations like Shepherd of Good Hope keeps the lid on social peace and is our safety net. I know first hand the misery of poverty in the Third World where there is little or no social programs or Caritative organizations like Shepherd.  There is an urgent need to get off the mean and corrosive thinking wagon we have embarked on in the last 9 years.  I can only hope that the support Shepherd is getting in Ottawa will continue and be strengthen, their role is valuable in providing a respectful and stable place for those who have been pushed to the wall.


  1. I did not realize that Canada is suffering from the same lack of community that I experience in the States. What a shame. But as you write, we can all make choices of how we want to respond--we can either fortify our individual cells, or we can act "as if" community is still important. I am glad to hear that a number of people choose the latter.

  2. Tony thank you for your comment.

  3. Thanks for your insights. I, too, find it surprising when I read about the similar problems in Canada as in the States. It's tragic that what seems to have come out of the economic crisis of the past 6+ years is a much wealthier wealthy class and and much larger and poorer poor class.

    1. I think it is a cycle, our politician wish to maintain themselves in Office and the way to do this is to court the Wealthy Elite. The rest of us are left behind. Also solving societal problems is a complex task and most politicians do not know how to go about it.

  4. This was a lovely and touching entry; thank you for sharing it with us.