Thursday, December 25, 2008


Christmas was always one of my favourite times of the year. It is not so much the giving and receiving of presents, but the presence of others that saves me from myself. After all, Christmas is one of the few times of the year I can truly take time off, as others are more involved in other aspects of their lives and are less concerned with legal hassles, except for the few odd emergencies I worked through in previous years.

While I love Christmas and always look forward in anticipation with the lights, the music and the whole idea of starting off fresh in a new year, it is also a time of year when my cynicism reaches fever pitch. The Salvation Army commercials come on about this time of the year, flashing their statistics on your TV screen, asking you to give, give, give. Food banks are forever predicting a "crisis" of sorts if some white knight or white knights do not come to the rescue with hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the homeless shelters promise to feed the hungry a turkey dinner.

This is a "feel good" time of the year for people who are comfortable. Giving money to a food bank, or a financial donation to a shelter seems to be the thing to do to ease oneself of the guilt of never having to have been a recipient of such a service. For those among us that give very large donations, most do not mind the press coverage - especially a company, as it shows "good corporate citizenship" (even though the same company receiving the heaps of good press may actually be one that pays low wages and treats their workers badly -- but how do we know?). Despite the "good citizenship" deeds that tend to be performed at this time of the year, we hardly give a thought about how the people at the receiving end feel about being at the receiving end. Has anybody ever asked them?

The charitable sector has become ingrained into our political culture to the point whereby we do not really think of those that receive our help, as any more than people who are needy, dependent and in some way, damaged goods. While this is certainly not a conscious assumption, nor is it present in every case of giving ... as I do know personal friends who have formed more reciprocal relationships with the people they set out to help. Unfortunately, this is an exception, not the rule.

When I speak to people who have gone to food banks or other charitable services on a regular basis (as opposed to going only for that one year when times were tough), I learn most of these folks have a very low self-esteem. Some do not believe they are "deserving" of a better life, such as a life where they would have enough resources to reasonably make choices. While they are thankful for the help, they do not see themselves as empowered human beings that are viewed by others as individuals with capabilities, talents and resources of their own. A portion of this group try to steer themselves away from charitable services, thinking they would "rather starve" than accept this help from anyone.

When prospective donors hear about this subset of people who refuse help, they are viewed as "mentally ill" or simply possessing "pride". However, when donors to these services are asked about the people they are "helping", once again - this population is viewed as somewhat helpless, dispossessed and unwanted, although they do acknowledge that some people are getting help as a result of "falling on hard times through no fault of their own". The complicated pseudo-relationship and inherent schema that is developed between the donor and the recipient is rarely considered in how recipients come to view themselves, or their own futures - when in my view, it has EVERYTHING to do with this attitude.

This is not about the people that provide services in this field, the thousands of volunteers that toil daily to sort through donations, others that appeal to the media for more donations and other persons, usually paid personnel that provide direct service to the recipients. It is more about the schema produced and not challenged by these same thousand points of light and the media that backs them about the necessary dichotomy between the helpers and the recipients, roles that are not portrayed as interchanged or interdependent. This role is further entrenched by the screening processes used by such charities to ensure each recipient is "deserving" of help.

Similar to any targeted welfare scheme, prospective recipients are encouraged to disengage themselves as actors and potential participants in their futures, but to focus on everything that is wrong with their lives ... in fact, as with many welfare schemes, one has to prove they have depersonalized themselves and spoiled their identity to the point that the helper is satisfied they have done all they can to reduce themselves to nothing. At the same time, nothing is offered up to address the situation that brought the recipient through their doors in the first place. Many trained in the service delivery model identify with the "spoiled identity" or "damaged goods" version of their entrails, as opposed to questioning why there appears to be a greater number of people each year in similar given circumstances.

While even the social work model professes to work against systemic barriers in favour of progressive social change, this is not what happens when people check their identities at the door to get the so-called "help" they need. The helper is there to "correct" supposed personal deficits of the disadvantaged, as opposed to helping them break barriers to join the "advantaged" part of society. For many social workers and others in related helping professions, they cannot even imagine their clients qualifying to do their jobs, for example.

While most helpers do not necessarily "blame the victim", they do nevertheless, view the victim as somewhat defective. The homeless man is "mentally ill". The single parent with two children in tow is always in abusive relationships. The single man who lost his apartment needs to learn how to balance his budget. The chronically unemployed are there because they are illiterate, lack high school and likely, do not have any skills. When other statistics are presented that show that recipients as a group look more similar to the group of "helpers" than they are dissimilar, helpers resist this interpretation.

I have focused some of my time over the years to talk to people who do not visit food banks, go to homeless shelters or seek other types of counseling assistance - even though their life circumstances and their needs may be identical to those that do use such services. While my observations may be anecdotal in nature, the same themes have emerged over time through different voices. What I have learned from these folks is instrumental and should be not only acknowledged by those that deliver services, but incorporated in their overall philosophy and structure of how they approach anybody coming through their door.

1. People want to be viewed as capable and willing to do for
themselves. A hand out in any way, shape or form makes
the person feel they are viewed as dependent and incapable
of doing for themselves, that somebody with "capability"
must do these things for them.

2. People want a hand up, not a hand out. Traditional charities
are very bad at recognizing that people want out of the
"welfare trap" more than they may believe they need
immediate help. People refusing services know they will not
get a job, get out of poverty or get into decent (and
independent) housing through the charitable service. In
other words, their programs do not work.

3. Even if the service is successful in getting the recipient
"housing", for example, the roof over their head becomes
a social service and not just a necessary product for living
in the community. Homeless people are assumed to be
incapable of living on their own and keeping their housing.
People with mental health issues are assumed to have
issues, outside the fact they are poor and nobody will hire
them, which led to them becoming homeless. Everybody
is deemed to want and need "subsidized" housing, despite
the fact the rules for this program tend to cripple initiative
and force people to remain in poverty.

People that do not want these services may need help to
secure an apartment, but after that, they do not want to
be fodder and continue to be a "cause" for ongoing income
for the charity. (The fact of this matter is those that can
live independently are often falsely assumed to not need
ANY help at all).

4. People want help to reach their full potential, not to
cripple it. Most of those refusing help do not want to
work in low-wage, insecure and low-skilled employment.
They want assistance in developing their career potential,
even though doing this may require funds for retraining,
partial employer subsidies and innovative partnerships
in one's respective community. Charities get paid to
"place" people, not get them out of poverty.

5. People want to work with their helpers as partners in
making systemic change. They want their helpers to
challenge employers that appear to not want persons
with disabilities working for them, or only want them if
the person is happy at working for half-wages. They
want to work with the helpers at making changes so that
the services of charities become less and less necessary.

6. Many of those refusing help feel that their presence as
"clients" of these agencies only "proves" demand and
thus, continues to generate ongoing funding for these
charities, regardless if their personal situation improves.

7. With regards to being given food, clothing, housing, etc.
- people feel they are not allowed to make choices. Why
is nobody giving those in need the necessary RESOURCES
to make these choices on their own, as opposed to making
these choices for them?

The very presence of these charities and the encouragement through the media, community influences and other forces, encourages those that want to "do good" to continue to donate and to otherwise continue to "prove" the legitimacy of these charities, as well as to continue to ignore and disregard the need for true systemic changes that would negate the need for the same.

We go ahead and have our Christmas with our families, go to work the next day or day after, and give to some charitable donation because society expects us to pick up the slack from the government. We do not think about the fact that continuing to support the status quo is taking away choices from those that can otherwise handle them with the resources given directly to them, instead of through an expensive and controlling bureaucracy. We do not think that we may be contributing to the continuation of the problem, not necessarily because we want to, but by donating to the charities, there is still no way any donor can reasonably review the success of any such charity in actually changing things for the people they serve.

Except next year at this very same time, even more people will be knocking on the doors of these same charities, many more in even more desperate circumstances. By continuing this cycle, we have to ask ourselves why we are not asking the correct questions and demanding to know why the more people give, the greater number of people end up in need ...

Think about what you are going to do in 2009, whether what you do will actually make a difference (systemic change) or just continue the same old, same old. If you ask me what I want to do, it is the former -- hands down!

Your thoughts?

Sunday, December 14, 2008


Something amazing happened while I was sipping my coffee at a brand new coffee shop downtown where I work. As I watched the words flicker across the screen of the silent television placed above the installed gas fireplace in the lounge, an old song by Duran Duran came on called Wild Boys. Normally, I do not connect any of this to anything, but the song was typically suited to what just happened to our country's Parliament.

Its Official Opposition developed a backbone! It appeared from what I was reading across the screen, then the next day in the newspapers, that Stephen Harper tried to pull a fast one in his Economic Statement tabled on November 27, 2008, before the House. As with everything, including non-money bills, Harper has chosen to make this one as well a confidence vote. This time, it backfired!

I presume that Harper believed the Opposition would cave as it always had under Stephane Dion over the past two years, as his party battered the media with repeated negative attack ads and daring to force the Opposition to call an election. He took it for granted that Dion and his fellow Opposition Party leaders would either back down or split their votes on this one. He got more than he bargained for that Thursday afternoon at Parliament Hill.

The Opposition had been planning to form a "coalition" of sorts, which would include the Liberals and NDP in a type of joint government arrangement with the support of the Bloc Quebecois on all confidence matters. Why this came as a shock to Prime Minister Harper is beyond me ... people can only be stepped on for so long before they fight back! I was proud of the Opposition Parties that night and I thought that for once, maybe Canadians will see a change for the better in their government.

The next few days enshrined newsworthy clips of formalization of the "coalition" government-in-waiting, as Harper began to appear more and more desperate to cling to power. No, the Opposition Parties were not going to back down this time ... they were going to return to Parliament the following Monday, December 8, 2008, and vote the Harper government down. Instead of the Governor-General dissolving Parliament and calling another unwanted election, the "coalition" can then be asked to form the new government.

This event triggered a groundswell of Canadian response all over the web, largely those opposed to the idea of the "coalition" being Harper supporters or people who simply don't have a clue about how our Parliamentary system operates. The masses of the uneducated or under-educated Canadians are typical fodder for the right-wing when they want to convince them of anything. Those in favour of the Coalition understood this was a possibility and perfectly legitimate role for the Opposition in our constitutional system.

On December 1, 2008, the "coalition" parties signed a deal and sent it in a letter to our Governor-General Michaele Jean, who was then forced to cut a cross-European trip to "come home" to deal with this "crisis" as some media pundits referred to it as. To me, there was no "crisis". It was just the Opposition showing their backbone, like they should have done ages ago to rid our political system of the arrogance, partisan bickering and dysfunctionality that has typically marked the federal government for the past several years.

Debate on Face Book reached fever pitch with Harper supporters or others with no clue as to how Parliament works, accusing the Opposition of "stealing their votes", or "partaking in a coup d'etat" without "being elected" ... both assumptions of course are not true. Even if the "coalition" did get a chance to form government, nothing happens with anybody's local representatives that they had selected on October 14, 2008. Tories are still Tories, Liberals are still Liberals, and so forth, as well the party breakdown in the House remains exactly the same as it was when this new government was sworn in.

Further, the act of "taking power" has no relevance to Parliament under a constitutional monarchy, which Canada is. First, all of the members of the "coalition" parties were just as "elected" as the members of the Conservative Party. Secondly, the governing Conservatives lost the confidence of the House. The Conservatives were unable to get enough votes besides their own to push this Economic Statement and all its related partisan tactics, to pass the House. As this was a confidence vote, all Opposition Parties have the power and the right to vote this government down.

As for whether an election gets called or a "coalition" gets appointed, this is the choice of the Governor-General, not unprecedented in Parliament (and has actually taken place in many provincial legislatures). The role of the Governor-General becomes crystal clear here. Her choice is to allow election after election after election with no promise of long-term stability in government, or she can elect to invite the "coalition" to form a government (provided they give her a business case for a stable Parliament for a reasonable period of time).

The Prime Minister knows this, but would not allow Canadians to become educated on this possibility. First, he made a publicized press conference which showed itself to millions of Canadian viewers to tell them the Opposition Parties were trying to take power despite not being elected to do so, and that nobody asked Canadians about whether they wanted this "coalition government" either. On the other hand, I ask, did anybody ask Canadians if they wanted their government to act the way the Harper government has been doing in the past few weeks?

On Thursday, December 4, 2008, Harper then crosses the street to Rideau Hall to speak to Governor-General Jean to prorogue Parliament in order to prevent that all important non-confidence vote he already postponed to December 8, 2008. She granted his wish after what some reported was a two-hour meeting. Parliament will re-open on January 27, 2008, with the expectation that a budget would be tabled in the House.

While proroguing of Parliament is also a legal move, but it was used this time for the wrong reasons. Proroguing or "rising of the House" is done usually after a legislative session has ended and a full program announced in a throne speech, for example, has been achieved. It is a way for the government to re-group and consider what its next steps might be. This time, the proroguing of Parliament was simply used to avoid the inevitable non-confidence vote faced by Harper and his government and for no other reason.

Despite the prorogue of the House, online debates continued ... many of them mirroring the behaviour of Parliamentarians at their worst in the House. If one went to the anti-coalition site, which many pro-coalition supporters have "joined" in order to "observe", those asking questions or trying to get people to think beyond the lies they've been fed or their lack of education and understanding of Parliament, respond violently with ad hominem and angry attacks on the messenger.

I was one of the people going online with them to ask them questions. In no way did I criticize or attack anybody, but just asked questions. I wanted to actually hear an argument against the "coalition" that was not based on emotion or lack of information from this side of tracks. Unfortunately, despite their large numbers, not a single person responded with any intelligent answer. That doesn't surprise me - people tend to be married to their ideological beliefs - however they were acquired.

They don't like Dion. They argue Dion was never elected to be Prime Minister. Well, neither was Stephen Harper, another fact these folks have difficulty absorbing. They "voted for" a Harper government, not a "coalition" - yet on my ballot, there was never any choice given to me as to who I wanted to lead the country, just my electoral district. After several back and forth nonsense, I left, as it is apparent to me that right-wing governments would tell people the moon is made out of green cheese if this would help keep them in power.

After the dust has blown over, so to speak, the Liberal Party of Canada, decided that Dion was a liability. Again, this is another "optic" thing, as really nobody can actually tell if Dion would make a good Prime Minister or a bad one. We already seen Stephen Harper act arrogantly, pro-partisan and Machiavellian in his role as a minority Prime Minister, so we have an idea of what kind of leader he is. One can only imagine if he actually had a majority, and I know instinctively that if he were ever to get a majority, most Canadians would be begging for a change and fast!

Almost overnight, the long-term leadership battle for the Liberal Party between Michael Ignatieff, Bob Rae and Dominic Leblanc, was resolved by fiat of the party's executive, much to disappointment of many grassroots Liberals. Both Leblanc and Rae resigned in concert over as many days. The party's executive crowned Ignatieff the "interim leader" with this appointment only to be formalized at the already organized policy conference in May 2009.

Ignatieff seems to be somebody with a bigger backbone who probably would not back down on attacks by the Conservatives, although his lengthy absence from Canada can be deemed an issue. Some might say he dropped from the sky in 2005 to suddenly be a candidate for the Liberal leadership in their 2006 contest that eventually crowned Dion in the first place. However, many Liberals would say he proved his mettle in caucus and has developed his own strategies for forcing the Conservatives to govern in the national interest.

Almost as soon as he was placed in the leadership suite, Ignatieff brought the Liberal Party's ratings to 31%, while the Conservatives dropped to 37% of voter support. Ignatieff personally had the support of 28% of the voters as their preferred leader, while Harper had the respect of 27%. Under Dion, his ratings were 25% and 23%, respectively. Harper has not mentioned this sudden comeback of his Opposition, although he is no doubt aware that his chances of even winning a majority if an election were called today have all but disappeared. Therefore, Harper took his next step.

Remember, Parliament is prorogued. The doors are locked and Parliamentarians are not working. However, Stephen Harper, who at one time decided that Senate Reform was one of his major priorities, is suddenly taking advantage of that very institution that he hates. He decided that before Christmas, he is going to stuff the Senate with at least eighteen (18) partisans to get his party a "working majority" in the Red Chamber. Even though the Liberals and others still far outnumber Conservatives, his new appointees will likely be more active than those appointed well before.

Stuffing the Senate was an allegation that he made as the leader of the Canadian Alliance and then later as the leader of the Official Opposition when the Liberals governed. Should I publish Harper's many quotes on this subject that he stated to the House during these also very rocky periods? However, either his mind changed or something in the drinking water at the ruling side of the House has caused him to deem this is now an acceptable practice. To me, this is obvious that Harper fears still losing power, particularly now with a formidable opponent in Michael Ignatieff.

So, as time crawls by during the prorogue period ... Canadians have a wide open opportunity. The door has been opened by Michael Ignatieff, one might say. Ignatieff did say he cannot properly vote against a budget that he has not yet read, which makes sense. He has also left the ball in Harper's court to make sure that the budget is in the national interest. So, I would expect all national organizations that are concerned with cuts to the court challenges program, cuts to programs for persons with disabilities, changes to EI program, and so forth, should be FLOODING Parliament Hill with their requests for pre-budget consultations, saying if Harper doesn't do it - they will push the "coalition" to consider these proposals. Lobbying firms are probably busy right now.

Stephen Harper put his own foot in his own mouth by the Economic Statement, and by assuming the Opposition will remain lame duck and always back down, fearing obliteration by an election. Foot in mouth disease is relatively common among politicians of all political stripes. This battle cry by the Opposition is just the medicine this Parliament needed to excite Canadians, make them hope once again, for their own Obama. As Americans voted out the right-wing in droves and installed in place the first Black American as President, Canadians are looking south for this kind of hope ... to me, this is what the "coalition" did.

I am not saying I support or do not support any one or all of the Opposition leaders, but all I can say is that night in the coffee shop, I actually had some hope that something might change for Canadians, who unfortunately are still largely caught up in the myths that tax cuts, shrinking government, privatization of health care, and so forth would make their lives better. I always tell people to look south and ask the masses who voted for Obama if eight straight years of laissez-faire economics did their families any good. It should not take an economic crisis the size of that in the United States to make Canadians better understand that we can make change, and we can expect better. Why not now?