When Tony Martin entered federal politics in 2004, representing the Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., riding, he had a long history of helping the poor and disadvantaged.
The New Democratic Party’s poverty critic brought his experience and passion for social justice into his private member’s bill C-545, An Act to Eliminate Poverty in Canada. It would legally require the federal government to develop a poverty-elimination strategy in cooperation with other levels of government.
While Martin’s bill may never even get debated on the floor of the House of Commons — MPs draw numbers in a lottery for precedence on private member’s business, and Martin drew a high number — it is the product of consultations with a wide array of groups in the trenches helping the poor and disadvantaged.
These include groups such as Make Poverty History, Campaign 2000 and the Dignity for All Campaign. It distills into proposed legislation what he heard.
Martin can also point to the moral support of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, noting its Oct. 15 call for a national anti-poverty strategy in the CCCB justice and peace commission’s Reflection on the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty.
In it, the bishops invited Canadians to join them “in calling on our federal government to emulate the efforts of many provincial governments and develop a national anti-poverty strategy.”
Every child has the right to be nourished and cherished.
“Similarly, we also urge every believer to work in their own lives, professions and neighbourhoods in ways that open doors for the poor,” the bishops said.
Martin’s passion developed when he heard the Second Vatican Council teachings that stressed the preferential option for the poor. “I was very young and open to being informed back then,” he said. “It kind of flowered from there.”
The Catholic Worker movement led by Dorothy Day and its extraordinary efforts to “take faith and turn it into action” also impressed him.
In the 1970s and ‘80s, Martin worked directly for the Church and was influenced by a pastor who helped develop “a better sense of social responsibility and how it connected with the Gospel.”
In 1983, he started a soup kitchen out of Blessed Sacrament Church and soon had 35 groups participating in that effort, which he called “a tremendous sign of ecumenism.”
Martin wrote Canada’s bishops last fall about how the Church’s social teaching “has been a huge influence in my own vocation to work for the common good through elected public office.”
He wrote that his bill represented a three-pronged approach to poverty elimination: “income security, housing and social inclusion.”
It is the “social inclusion” part of the act that might prove to be the most controversial, in that it would add “social condition” to the enumerated grounds in the Canadian Human Rights Act.
Though some provinces have added it to their codes, opponents have argued that the terminology is too vague to be meaningful. Others have argued that equality provisions end up trumping other rights, or impose costly, bureaucratic hurdles for businesses, governments or other institutions that might face human rights complaints.
Martin just wants a level playing field, noting all are born in the “image and likeness of God” and people should not be discriminated against because they are poor, or have a mental health issue or don’t “dress the part.”
“Those things are thrown up for their not getting what the rest of us have access to,” he said. “Poor people have a right to housing. We as a society have to ensure that that happens.”
Landlords who might need protection from tenants who cannot afford to pay for their apartments or whose credit is bad “already have lots of protections,” he said. As well, they can afford lawyers to defend them.
“We’re not looking for a fight here or to set one group up against another,” Martin said.
His bill is trying to “give a group that is powerless in these relationships,” a “fighting chance to get things that we take for granted,” he said. It would also create an Office for Poverty Elimination and Social Inclusion.
No one approach is going to solve the problem. That is why the federal government needs to come to the table and bring in the research. “All of us can come together and put in place things that need to be there.”
Many Canadians are working two or three jobs and still live in poverty, he said. “People who are taxed to the max and they are in debt to the eyeballs, don’t know where to turn.”
In an era of rising government debt, Martin said a poverty elimination strategy does not need to cost “a whole lot of new money, but is a matter of shifting priorities to areas where it will help.”
More corporate taxation so the burden for social programs does not fall disproportionately on ordinary Canadians would be a start, he said. It would also help if money pegged for justice and corrections were instead used to eliminate poverty.
The federal government is planning to spend billions on building jails “when in fact some programs that eradicate poverty might reduce the penal population.”