Three faces of poverty: All aboard, Manitoba!

This is the third part of a three-part series on poverty in Canada. You can find the background and rest of the series here.

Manitoba’s poverty reduction strategy is called “All aboard”, which is perhaps a bit of an odd choice for a province known for its endless flat prairies and enormous mosquitoes. I’m guessing this is meant to evoke the well-worn metaphor of the welfare state as an crowded lifeboat. I remember that image getting a lot of play in sermons and op eds when I was a young girl, back in the heady days of 1990s welfare reform. Depending on your ideological bent, either the lifeboat was big enough for all of us and the ones inside had to move over and make some room, or the lifeboat was much too small and overcrowded already and we had to keep everyone else out or we’d all drown.

I’ve never liked this analogy. First, it paints the world in general as a shipwreck, a disaster. In spite of recent rather apocalyptic weather events this is not quite true. Second, it implies that the destruction of the existing situation is essential. If you are in a boat, remember, you are leaving one place and going to another – there is nothing good in the submerged place you’re in, nothing that can be salvaged, saved, or built upon. Third, it completely denies the agency of the people in the water, i.e., the poor. (I’m not nuts about the concept of “denying agency” because I think too frequently it gets used in a basically neo-conservative way – “The welfare system denies the agency of the poor to work to better themselves!” – but I can’t think of any other way to express this.) Either the people in the water can be graciously let into the lifeboat or left to drown, but they can’t seem to do anything for themselves – the capacity to act rests solely with the privileged denizens of the lifeboat. So we are back to the poor as helpless victims or worthless scroungers, not people with the capacity and the right to make choices and develop their own ways of life.

In spite of the title, Manitoba’’s strategy doesn’t seem to rely on either the paternalistic or punitive view of the poor, which is good. Of all the strategy documents I’ve read it seems to be the soundest and most clearly thought-out. I’ll give you a quick overview then talk about how well it seems to be working.

As an aside, I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Manitoba and the other prairie provinces. My father is from an enormous Alberta farming family, so I have aunts and uncles and varying degrees of cousins scattered all over western Canada; my sister moved to Saskatoon a few years ago, so I’ve already spent more time there than I ever thought I would. My recent experiences of Manitoba are confined to a music competition in Brandon I went to in 2008 (I won it, too!) and a few performances I’ve done there since then. I can tell you that in general the people live up to their reputation as kind, welcoming, and generous; and that there is an appalling level of separation between the white and First Nations populations.

When you talk about poverty in Western Canada, you are overwhelmingly talking about the lives and experiences of First Nations people. The statistics from Manitoba bear this out. The overall poverty rate for the province of Manitoba is 13.2%; the rate for Status Indians (non-Canadians, I am not being offensive – this is a legal term with complicated ramifications, explained pretty well here) is 54%, for Metis 40.2%. This suggests pretty strongly that Manitoba’s problems with poverty are linked to its past, present, and future of colonization.

While it doesn’t explicitly acknowledge the role of colonization in First Nations poverty – this is something Canada still has a great deal of trouble talking about honestly – the All Aboard strategy does acknowledges that poverty is a complex phenomenon of intersecting factors and requires complex thinking to reduce. It also acknowledges that poverty is not just about money but about social exclusion. The strategy rests on four pillars:

1. Safe, affordable housing
2. Education, jobs, and income supports
3. Strong, healthy families
4. Accessible, coordinated services

Whoever put this strategy together knew what they were doing and developed not just these pillars but action items based on them and indicators of progress. This is crucial for any large-scale project, as you need a way to find out if what you’re doing is working. According to their 2013 report, Manitoba has made progress on all these lines except possibly the last. I won’t give you a blow by blow account – go read it yourself, it’s pretty user-friendly – but here are a few highlights. By 2011 the rate of poverty among First Nations people not living on reserves fell 32.5%. This means that 4000 people who were living in poverty have increased their standard of living and are now officially not poor. 869 new affordable housing units have been created. There’s been an 18.3% increase in the rate of high school graduation, up to 84.1%, and a 21.8% increase in First Nations adults participating in adult education. Average weekly earnings are up, growing 25% faster than the Canadian average. The wage gap between men and women has gone from 33% to 23% (this is still pretty bad, though), and the wage gap between First Nations and settlers is also decreasing.

However, there are still significant gaps and failures. For example, after praising the growth in affordable housing, the report goes give a list of populations which still face housing shortages and difficulties. The list consists of pretty much every possible marginalized group, including “women”! Why has the housing strategy failed to help the most vulnerable? Why is the wage gap still so huge? What gains have been made in addressing poverty on reservations? Why has Manitoba made zero progress in improving access to licenced childcare or post-secondary education?

In short, All Aboard has made some great gains and taken some great steps forward, but there is still much to do.

Next week: my closing thoughts.

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