BY MIKE YOUDS
SPECIAL TO THE NEWS
The B.C. government wants to hear your ideas on how to tackle poverty.
A newly renamed Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction holds a public consultation Tuesday, Jan. 23, at the Athletic Hall, inviting all to share their ideas on how to address B.C.’s growing disparity between haves and have-nots.
The province has the distinction of the highest inequality in Canada, a gulf between rich and poor that has widened and deepened over the past two decades. Port Alberni has felt that trend more than most Island communities.
Tuesday’s session takes place from 5:30-8:30 p.m. at the hall, 3727 Rogers St. A hot meal is included. It’s one of 20 sessions across the province held by Social Development and Poverty Reduction Minister Shane Simpson in order to create a comprehensive poverty-cutting plan. New legislation is promised by spring.
“I think is such an important place for Mr. Simpson to start,” MP Gord Johns said Friday at a community dinner held to focus on issues surrounding poverty in support of the provincial initiative. “We have one of the lowest median incomes in Canada and that’s shameful.”
Friday’s preliminary event, hosted by the Alberni-Clayoquot Health Network, brought together about 120 people, including community leaders, social service and support workers, and anti-poverty advocates. Many expressed a firm resolve to seize the opportunity for change. The event also celebrated the signing of a protocol between local political leaders to co-operate on anti-poverty strategies as they develop.
“This region has been starved for support from the province and from Ottawa, and it’s time we get our share,” Johns said while running through a lengthy list of issues related to economic opportunities and challenges.
“In the Alberni Valley, two-fifths of children are in poverty,” said MLA Scott Fraser. “Disturbingly, Indigenous children are more than twice as likely to face poverty.”
A panel discussion that included Dr. Paul Hasselback, Central Island medical health officer, and Chief Counsellor Cynthia Dick, Tseshaht First Nation, explored a complexity of issues related to economic disparity, health and well-being.
Hasselback sounded a positive note, stating that poverty has dropped in the region, “though we have a long way to go.” Forty percent of children live in single-parent families, he said.
“It’s not surprising that’s where we often see the highest rate of poverty.”
“The majority of people in poverty are working, sometimes in more than one job,” said Deanna Ogle, part of the Living Wage for Families Campaign and another panel member. “We’re the strongest economy in Canada, B.C. is doing very well, but we’re not seeing the benefits of that.”
Dick said she grew up in poverty and promised herself she would work hard to ensure her children would not have the same upbringing. Colonization destroyed what had been a co-operative Indigenous culture prior to European contact, she said. First Nations need a seat at the table to address the issues nation-to-nation, she added.
“Once we start looking at people as equals — and not just people, but land and resources — that’s when we can start making change.”
A lack of affordable housing was one issue raised repeatedly through the evening. Housing is a basic building block for people to break the cycle of poverty, Hasselback noted. Ogle called for a long-overdue national housing strategy.
Another resonant issue at the gathering was the continued export of raw logs in a valley with the highest unemployment on the south coast.
“We should be doing everything we can to plug the economic leakages to stop that money from leaving this community,” Johns said, pledging to pursue the issue federally. “It’s everybody’s issue and we should all raise it,” he added to applause.
The riding is a place of abundance with a natural wealth that should be more equitably shared, several concurred.
Despite the complexity of issues involved, participants expressed a resolve to see progress made through wider co-operation among governments and communities.
“We can’t fight poverty; we have to build prosperity,” Dick said.
Hasselback said he hopes Tuesday’s session attracts greater participation.