After nine years of calling for a national anti-poverty plan, we have finally been told that the government’s Canadian Poverty Reduction Strategy (CPRS) will be released this year. With this in mind, the Dignity for All (DfA) campaign took advantage of a critical moment. From May 14 to 18, supporters were asked to meet with or call their MPs with a united message: pass legislation that will set us on a course for dignity for all!
Given that the plan is coming soon, timeline, DfA has shifted its priorities. Instead of focusing on policies and programs that are presumably already set, we wanted to ensure that the strategy was backed by legislation. This is key to ensuring that it becomes a permanent and accountable part of Canadian social policy.
We consulted with organizations and partners that have endorsed DfA in the past. Based on their feedback, our Set a Course campaign called on the federal government to create anti-poverty legislation that:
- Set strong poverty reduction targets and timelines to eradicate poverty once and for all;
- Establish a plan to meet measurable targets and timelines; and
- Reinstate the National Council of Welfare and establish a National Commissioner to ensure accountability and representation.
CPJ and DfA have long been asking for legislated targets, timelines, and implementation plans as part of a national strategy. What may be less familiar to our supporters, however, is our call for the reinstitution of the National Council of Welfare (NCW) and the establishment of a National Commissioner.
From 1969 to 2012, the NCW served as an arms-length advisory group to the federal government on poverty-related issues. Comprised of members from across the country, the NCW created opportunities for people experiencing poverty to have their voices heard in national decision-making processes. Rather than focusing solely on poverty or being tied to a specific policy, it had a holistic approach that examined social and political inclusion as well. Unfortunately, the NCW was cut by the federal government in 2012. No comparable organization currently exists, and civil society groups do not have the resources, access, or authority to carry out the NCW's important mandate.
Sheila Regehr is a former executive director of the NCW. She spoke with me about the group’s historic and potential benefits. Of critical importance to Regehr were their cross-country consultations, noting that, “experts in their field don’t have expertise in all contexts.”
Regehr recalls a young mothers’ group in Toronto. “The women controlled the meeting,” she said. “It was so much more powerful than if one of those women had come to join a panel or committee rather than meeting with them as a group.” While diverse representation was necessary in appointing members to the NCW, Regehr cautions that this is no replacement for connecting with people on their home turf.
Regehr recommends the reinstatement of some form of the NCW that reflects the great gains have been made in terms of available data, the implementation of strategic policies, and the recognition of diverse voices and experiences. At the same time, however, she notes gaps in civil society engagement that could be addressed through the reinstatement of the NCW. Having the mandate and independence of the Council legislated, an adequate budget for staffing and consultations, and direct access to report to the House of Commons were top priorities to increase accountability and transparency.
The Set a Course campaign was taken up by over 20 organizers in five provinces and one territory. Many of our organizers were participating for their first time with DfA and shared their appreciation for feeling part of a broader movement while acting in their own local communities. At the Every Women’s Centre in Sydney, N.S., organizers invited clients to write their frustrations and experiences of poverty on cue cards which were delivered to their MP during their meeting. As always, the strength of these campaigns lies in the dedication and truth-telling of our members. Together, we are setting a course for dignity for all!