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A few highlights from Rethinking Poverty

Ottawa’s such a terrific city. There are always interesting things to do. And now that I’m unemployed, I can do some of the daytime things too. There’s a whole other world of opportunities out there once you reclaim the weekdays!

Yesterday I went to a free conference at City Hall: Rethinking Poverty 2 – An Immigrant Perspective. It was organized by the Coalition of Community Health and Resource Centres of Ottawa. Not only was it free, but they fed me and gave me bus tickets too.

Uzma Shakir, a Torontonian from Pakistan, was the keynote speaker. She’s part advocate, part activist, part stand-up comic. (She reminded me of Jim Stanford, who has the same kind of spontaneous quick wit on stage. They’re both worth checking out if you get the chance.)

Here’s an example:

“My husband doesn’t make as much money as I think he should.” Shakir said, ‘But of course he’s a Muslim man – between oppressing me and throwing bombs, he doesn’t have much time for making money. Oppressing me is a full-time job.”

Shakir commended Canada on how we always acknowledge that certain groups within our population are vulnerable to poverty: racialized groups, Aboriginals, single mothers, people with disabilities, newcomers, immigrants, etc. We don’t actually do anything about it, she says wryly, but at least we name them, which is more than many other countries do.

But, she adds, Canadians are too polite to talk about race. It makes us uncomfortable. Everybody heaved a big old sigh of relief when Obama got elected, because having a Black family in the White House somehow signified that we’re now living in a post-racist society, which meant we wouldn’t have to talk about race anymore.

But of course we do have to talk about it, because it’s unacceptable that skin colour is so closely correlated with income levels, and this problem is not going to go away by itself. Our collective failure to deal with racism has resulted in it becoming more entrenched over time.

Some things I learned:

  • There’s a gradient of income that matches the gradient of skin colour in this country. The darker you are, the greater your risk of poverty.
  • Between 1980 and 2000 (a period of economic prosperity), the skills and education levels of immigrants were above the national average, yet the poverty rate of families from racial minorities went up by 361%. During the same period, the poverty rate for white families decreased by 28%.
  • The skills, education and credentials that immigrants bring to Canada are largely wasted here, because Canada discredits them. For the first six years that Shakir lived in Scarborough, she could not find a family physician. Yet every time she called a taxi, it was driven by an immigrant who had been a physician or an engineer in their country of origin. Apparently there’s no doctor shortage here, just a waste of doctors. (The last cab she took was driven by a Somali man with a masters degree in French Literature. “What can I say?” she said, “He drove the cab quite well.”)

Shakir suggested that what Canada needs is fewer “settlement workers” and more organizers. Settlement workers help newcomers settle into life in Canada. Organizers, on the other hand, would help them speak out against policies that fail them, and help them unite to change, rather than adapt to, our dysfunctional status quo.

In other news, GC and I are heading for the hills tonight. It’ll be our first road trip together! We’ve planted three-day crops on our Facebook farms, and one of the band members is looking after Duncan. By the way, we’ve changed the name of the band again. It’s now called The Blue-Eyed Hermits, One Black Guy and Jesus.

I hope you all enjoy the unseasonably warm weekend weather. See you in a couple of days!

3 comments to A few highlights from Rethinking Poverty

  • From StatsCan:

    Most second-generation Canadians attain very high levels of education, and as a result, do very well in the labour market. Their educational and economic outcomes are seen, on average, to be equal to or better than those of their Canadian-born counterparts.

    This gybes with comments from the second generation immigrants I’ve grown up with. Canada isn’t a hospitable place if you speak with a funny accent, have credentials from some place we don’t know, or have a common social circle. But, if you sound like “us”, if you went to the same schools “we” did, and you know people that “we” went to school with, you’re in the club.

    Or at least that’s the way I interpret it. Keep in mind that I came to Canada when I was wee, I’m white, and I don’t have an accent, so I don’t have much in the way of personal experience here.

  • I loved the information in this post. Even if you’re still sorting out poverty and health issues, I can still say with great confidence that we folks in the US still think that Canada is the bomb. :-)

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