Poverty is a drain on Canada’s health sector, it eats up social services budgets, and dents economic growth. But most of all, it is an affront to the human rights of those who are poor, argues Leilani Farha, executive director of Canada Without Poverty.
CWP, which until a few of years ago was known as the National Anti-Poverty Organization (NAPO), is the only national association that represents poor people from all walks of life. Operating on a shoestring budget, it is trying to convince all Canadians, including those in the business community, that they have an obligation to end poverty in Canada.
How many people in Canada are poor?
It is somewhere between three- and four million people. There are 900,000 people using food banks every month, and there are 250,000 homeless people. It is clearly a problem. But when you start looking at the numbers in light of our wealth, you realize it is a problem that can be solved.
Is there a role for the business community in decreasing poverty in Canada?
Business has a very important role to play. On a practical level, employers need to pay their employees a living wage, and they need to do this without waiting for provincial governments to increase minimum wages. The bottom line is that it is not cheap to live. Employers need to take that into consideration.
Why do employers have that responsibility?
When I ask the business community to pay a living wage, I am actually asking them to stand in the shoes of their employees. What are their employees’ daycare costs? What are they paying for a loaf of bread? What are they paying in rent or what do their mortgage payments look like? What is the cost of Internet, cable TV, or whatever?
Are there economic benefits from reducing poverty?
It makes good business sense. If people have money, they will spend money. That will benefit employers and business, ultimately. It is expensive to run homeless shelters. [And poverty is a] huge tax on our health-care system.
What about the argument we hear from some businesses that raising the minimum wage will decrease the number of people they can employ?
I don’t think that is a legitimate argument. If an employer can’t afford to pay a living wage, then that employer can’t afford to run a business. A living wage has to be considered part of [good] business practice, just like other employment standards. There are links with human rights obligations. Employers should bear some responsibility in that regard.
What about struggling small companies?
We live in a world where the entrepreneurial spirit is very important and very lively, but I think there is still an obligation to pay a living wage.
Is the minimum wage in most Canadian provinces close to a living wage?
It is not. There has been research done that came up with a figure of around $16 or $17 an hour as a living wage [in Toronto, where the Ontario minimum wage is $10.25 an hour]. In Ottawa [one low-income activist group] is calling for a $14-an-hour living wage.
Has the Occupy movement changed people’s attitudes toward poverty?
The Occupy movement has helped bring to light inequality in a rich country like Canada, and it helped us question unbridled capitalism. It is important that people in mainstream and middle class Canada talk about this stuff. There are people really suffering in this country, and they need not be suffering given the wealth of the nation. It also helped stop us in our tracks and say, whoa, wait a second. This corporation has the profits of a small nation, and at the same time there are people struggling.
What is the most important thing Ottawa can do on this issue?
What would make the most significant difference, is if the federal government simply showed some leadership in the area of poverty, and they haven’t done so. I would like them to first recognize that poverty is a problem in Canada. Even that acknowledgment would be a huge first step.
They could adopt a federal plan. That doesn’t mean they need to tell the provinces what to do, but they could set out a framework for poverty reduction.
Canada has essentially ended poverty among seniors. Is that one success?
It is true that we have had some successes. You see success where government has shown leadership, developed a program, implemented the program, and monitored the program for its efficiencies.
You are an expert on housing rights. Is that the central issue in poverty reduction?
Absolutely. We know that for low income people, housing is the biggest single expenditure. When people have limited income, the first thing they do is pay their rent. Then they figure out how they are going to get their food and meet any other expenses. And there are [many] costs associated with housing: heat, electricity, etc.
Are there specific things that could be done, in the short term, to help alleviate poverty?One obvious fix would be to raise social assistance rates. They are so abysmally low that it is mind-boggling. A single person who is deemed employable would receive somewhere around $550 a month in Ontario. The average cost of a bachelor apartment in Toronto is well beyond that. It is completely absurd, and one might say obscene, in a rich country like Canada.
How does your organization pay for its work?
We receive no government funding. We rely on individual donors, and faith-based groups and unions. We are cobbling together very small amounts of money to operate this place. There is tension in the organization, because we feel that we need to be doing things in the community. Yet I end up having to spend a fair bit of my time trying to raise funds. That is the single largest constraint.
Should the government help pay your expenses?
Canada used to be a place where our federal government would fund national organizations to do advocacy work on a variety of issues, including poverty. That was the high water mark of democracy, because the government was confident enough in itself to say: ‘We are going to fund you because we recognize that civil society plays a really important role in democracy, even when you are going to critique us.’ We don’t live in that era right now.
Do you see CWP as a lobby group, a think tank or an educational organization?
We define ourselves slightly differently from any of those. We attempt to bring the voices of poor people to different forums, [ranging from] the United Nations to community meetings. Everyone on our board of directors has [lived in poverty], or is currently living in a situation of poverty. We are uniquely placed to bring those voices forward. We also do education, and advocacy work, as part of our goal of ending poverty.
Title Executive director, Canada Without Poverty
Personal Born in Ottawa; 45 years old
Education BA from the University of Toronto; LLB/Master of Social Work, also from U of T
Worked in international human rights law in Geneva at the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions, from 1997 to 2001
Joined the Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation in Toronto as staff lawyer in 2001; became executive director in 2002
Named executive director of Canada Without Poverty in September, 2012