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Making Poverty A Federal Priority Is Only The First Step

11/23/2015 12:09 EST | Updated 11/23/2016 05:12 EST
Xinhua News Agency via Getty Images
OTTAWA, Nov. 4, 2015-- Newly elected Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, front, delivers a statement after his swearing in ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa, Canada, Nov. 4, 2015. Justin Trudeau was sworn in as Canada's 23rd prime minister and named a 31-member cabinet here Wednesday. (Xinhua/Chris Roussakis via Getty Images)

The P-word is out and there's no stopping it. Poverty is back on the federal agenda and the government is no longer afraid to say it.

The anti-poverty community is abuzz about the mandate letters of our new federal ministers which were released to the public last Friday. The letters highlight the focus of each ministry over the next four years. A welcome feature is a focus on the well-being of the most vulnerable people in Canada -- a shift that includes engaging meaningfully in a discussion about how to address complex social issues such as poverty.

In Prime Minister Trudeau's letter to the Hon. Mr. Duclos, Minister of Families, Children and Social Development, the minister was tasked with a number of key social program changes. The most notable change was the commitment to a national poverty reduction plan with specific targets, timelines and consistent reporting. The letter went further to suggest that a plan would work in tandem with poverty strategies currently in place in a number of provinces and territories.

After years of rarely hearing the P-word uttered by government -- or even media -- the undertaking to develop a national poverty plan sets a new tone for the federal government's assumption of accountability. Trudeau's letter recognizes that people living in poverty can no longer be sidelined and that addressing poverty must become an immediate priority. Both of which are long overdue recognitions.

For the past few years, anti-poverty advocates have been telling the government: we need a plan to end poverty in Canada. In fact, Dignity for All, a national anti-poverty campaign, has been promoting this message loudly and earlier this year released a model national poverty plan that was developed in collaboration with organizations and individuals across the country.

The model plan covers some of the important thematic areas that Mr. Duclos will be addressing, for example:

  • Cancelling the previous government's move to change the age of eligibility for Old Age Security from 65 to 67 and increasing the rate of the Guaranteed Income Supplement for vulnerable seniors
  • Creating a stronger Canada Child Benefit for families with children
  • Developing a National Early Learning and Childcare Framework

Additionally, the plan reflects measures to improve access to adequate, affordable housing. These policies range from rent-geared-to-income supplements, to building new affordable housing units and encouraging the development of more rental properties. The details of each of these tasks have yet to be unveiled, but this commitment marks the first sign of change for people living in poverty.

It should be noted that -- so far -- explicit reference to human rights seems to be absent from the conversation. Human rights are a necessary part of any anti-poverty strategy. Rights provide a transformational framework that ensures that the rights of key stakeholders are placed at the core of policy and not subject to political whims of governments.

Within the anti-poverty community there is a sense of freedom now that this "dirty word" is actually part of a necessary conversation that has for too-long gone ignored.

So this is step one -- check. Now, onto phase two: honouring the commitment.

With the development of any policy or program comes process. Prime Minister Trudeau is promising "constructive dialogue with Canadians, civil society and stakeholders, including business, organized labour, the broader public sector and the not-for-profit and charitable sectors." He also is supportive of the collection of data to help identify and properly address poverty and housing issues -- confirmed by his commitment to reinstate the long-form census.

There is a sense of hope and possibility in the air.

What is it about the idea of the poverty plan leaves a feeling of optimism? The vision to end a violation of rights affecting the lives of thousands? The idea of our governments working together on a common goal? The potential to address the policy areas mentioned (income supports for children, childcare, housing and seniors) pointing to the complexity of poverty itself? Or the implicit acknowledgement that poverty is a priority -- something deserving of immediate attention?

It's all of the above. But saying the P-word is one thing. Following through is something completely different.

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