Chances are, your family will sit down to dinner tonight in a safe and loving environment, with plenty of food to eat and clean water to drink. And while we’ve all seen graphic reports of people in developing countries facing food and water shortages, and no access to basic justice, most of us would be stunned to discover that many of our fellow Canadians are experiencing all of those things right here, right now.
When David Northcott helped launch Winnipeg Harvest, one of Canada’s first food distribution centres in 1984, he figured he’d be out of a job pretty quickly.
“I thought we’d be gone in 10 years,” says David, now the organization’s Executive Director. “Ed Broadbent had started the campaign for the all-party promise to eliminate poverty by 2000. There were 934,000 poor kids in Canada then. The year 2000 came along, and that number was 1.4 million. So despite the promises of all the government parties, things got worse.”
Today, Manitoba’s poverty rate is 17.3 percent – the second highest in the country. Winnipeg Harvest collects and distributes more than 12 million pounds of food each year to 350 agencies in the city and throughout rural Manitoba. More than 63,000 Manitobans use food banks each month. Almost half – 45 percent – are children.
“Of the 25,000 kids a month using our food banks, seven percent are less than one year of age. That’s just wrong. They’re our future,” says David.
“When you have financial stability, there are lots of mechanisms to be able to look for hope in the future. When you’re in the bottom 20 percent of our society, it’s not like that. We think the system’s broken. A family needs, and is entitled to, water, food, fuel and shelter. People’s rights are built around this. Our governments have made these promises to their citizens over the past four generations, so why are they not doing well for the bottom 20 percent of our society?”
In the 30 years since David first joined the food bank movement, the most shocking change has been the lack of change. “On the world stage, Canada looks pretty good,” he says. “But we’re saying to the world stage: this isn’t good. We just can’t grab enough national or provincial political attention that this situation is outrageous. If we keep doing the same things, food banks are going to stay here forever because families are going to stay poor and hungry.”
David’s team works directly with families in need, many of whom give back to the organization.
“That’s the secret and the magic of Winnipeg Harvest: we have about 340,000 volunteer hours per year, and of that volunteer base, most are clients. That’s the equivalent of about 160 people working full-time every day,” he says.
All Canadians can contribute, David says. “Every time you buy groceries to put on your own table, buy a bit extra to put on a low-income family’s table, and personally make the donation to the food bank in your area,” he says. “Get involved in blue-bin gardening, which is what we have in Manitoba. If you have blue recycling bins you don’t use, turn them into vegetable gardens.”
Check if your community has a Grow-A-Row program, where participants devote one row in their gardens to planting produce for a local food bank. In the five years since Winnipeg Harvest launched its Grow-A-Row program, more than five million pounds of food have been collected.
Despite the urgent need, David is still trying to put himself out of a job; Winnipeg Harvest is aiming to reduce by half the need for food banks in Manitoba by 2020.
The organization has dropped its food bank use this year by about five percent, and is doing more mentorship and apprenticeship programs with families about life issues and work-readiness.
“There are lots of ways for Canadian families to become truly aware of the issues,” says David. “Sending a cheque is great, but we need people. If it becomes personal, that’s how things will change.”
Alex and Tyler Mifflin may seem like typical 20-somethings, except they’ve travelled the world and experienced incredible adventures. Along the way, they’ve also become activists for one of our most precious resources: water. As hosts and co-creators of The Water Brothers, an award-winning eco-adventure television show that has showcased water-related issues in 22 countries, Alex and Tyler help viewers understand and appreciate oceans and freshwater, while introducing them to the people and organizations fighting to protect them.
In October 2012, as they stood atop Mount Kilimanjaro after helping to raise $270,000 in support of WaterCan (watercan.com), a Canadian charity, the brothers began brainstorming about an upcoming episode.
“People often think, ‘It’s so unfortunate that all these people in remote areas in foreign countries don’t have clean water,’” says Alex. “But we knew we couldn’t do an African water issue show and then ignore what’s going on in our own backyard.”
Most Canadians would likely be stunned to learn that the lack of drinkable tap water is a fact of life for tens of thousands of people living on First Nations reserves, many of which are surrounded by lakes and rivers. In 2011, after a nationwide study of 571 First Nations water and wastewater facilities, the federal government revealed that nearly 75 percent had water systems that posed significant health risks to their residents.
And while many large Canadian cities occasionally deal with drinking water advisories warning people to boil their water before consuming it, one in five First Nations communities deals with these routinely. Worse, says Tyler, is how long some of these advisories have been in place, as the brothers discovered while shooting an episode in Neskantaga First Nation in Northwestern Ontario.
“Neskantaga has been on a boil-water advisory for almost two decades! It was really shocking and alarming to us that this problem could persist for so long,” says Tyler. “The Canadian government did bring in a small reverse osmosis system where people could come and get water, but they were still delivering bottled drinking water to people’s homes.”
The Mifflins point out that jurisdiction complicates the issue: the provinces regulate drinking water across Canada, but First Nations communities themselves are under federal jurisdiction. While First Nations communities own, operate and monitor their water services and treatment plants, the federal government’s Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada are responsible for providing funding, training and guidance. Health Canada helps these communities identify problems with drinking water.
Incredibly, it was not until 2013 that the federal government tabled a law governing safe drinking water in these communities.
“To be fair, lots of non-First Nations communities in Canada have huge problems with their drinking water supply, such as outdated plants. This is not a First Nations-specific problem,” says Alex.
“What is specific to First Nations communities is the length of time they’re impacted compared to other communities, and how long it takes them to solve the problems.”
Despite obvious hardships and health risks, Alex says there is currently no specific plan to pay for and manage proper infrastructure to ensure safe drinking water to First Nations communities.
“The water issue is part of a much bigger and more complex problem. You can’t just say, ‘This is how we’re going to fi x the First Nations’ problems’,” says Alex. “It has to be approached community by community, because the solution lies in creating a community that is sustainable from an economic standpoint so they can finance their own water projects and pay for future maintenance themselves.”
Tyler adds, “It’s going to require effort and involvement from the First Nations communities, and from both provincial and federal governments together to find solutions. Every Canadian deserves clean water.”
With their television series, the brothers hope to generate discussion about these issues and get more Canadians aware of them, says Alex. The series airs with TV Ontario (TVO). Season 1 is available for viewing anytime on TVO.ca (nation-wide) or at thewaterbrothers.ca and Season 2 is available for a 30 day window after each broadcast. Additionally, they will be the key note speakers at the Green Living show on April 24/25/26 as part of Youth Day.
“It’s going to take a lot more than our little TV show to change the relationship between the federal government and all First Nations communities, but we think that water issue is a great tool to understand this broken relationship. If we get our viewers to understand the basics of the whole relationship, I’d consider the show a success. Water is the first stepping stone in solving bigger social and economic issues: housing, education, employment, health.”
Over the past 10 years, the Canadian government has introduced several new initiatives focused on safe water for First Nations and invested several billion dollars in upgrading water infrastructures on reserves. But is it enough, or just a drop in the bucket?
Vancouver's Annabel Webb and Carmen Benoit established Justice For Girls in 1999. The combination of living in poverty and experiencing violence or sexual assault prompted them to advocate for social justice, equality and freedom from violence on behalf of teenage girls living in poverty.
More than 10 year later, the numbers still looked bleak. In 2011, Statistics Canada revealed that girls under 18 make up nearly half of all victims of sexual violence reported to police across the country. A 2013 Child Poverty Report Card noted that British Columbia has the highest child poverty rate in the country.
JFG is making a difference though. When she was 17, Asia Czapska began an internship with the group that solidified her resolve to help other young women just like her. Ten years later, she is an advocate and director at JFG.
“I grew up in a low-income family, which is a big part of what drives me to want to stop poverty in the lives of children and families today,” says Asia. “I became more involved, fighting for the rights of girls to have decent housing and food and be free from violence – things that are really important to me. Our governments have obligations, enshrined in international human rights law, to ensure this. And all of us have a responsibility to stand up beside these girls and demand justice, and not leave the burden on girls to simply be ‘resilient’ in the face of oppression.”
Asia has worked alongside hundreds of vulnerable girls, helping them seek justice after they experienced violence, poverty, hunger or homelessness.
Asia believes Canadians would be surprised to learn that homeless girls face increasingly high rates of violence; indigenous girls – who make up a large percentage of teens living in poverty – are subjected to higher rates of violence in B.C.
“We and other groups have been calling for a national inquiry into this for a long time,” says Asia. “We’d like people across the country to join in that call. There needs to be a lot more awareness and action regarding the injustices that girls and young women face here.”
Asia has heard many heartbreaking stories over the years: child welfare ministries that have refused to provide girls with resources and support, girls who were imprisoned ‘for their own protection’ or strip-searched routinely while in youth custody.
“It’s sharply clear that systemic change is urgently needed for all girls to live in dignity and safety in Canada,” she says.
Girls in need are often referred to JFG through other organizations or schools, says Asia. Depending on what a young woman is facing, JFG will offer various kinds of support.
“If she’s experienced a situation of violence or if a sexual assault has been committed against her, we may go to court with her as advocates for her before the Crown by making sure proper protective measures are taken, such as making sure she doesn’t have to testify in the same room as the perpetrator,” she explains. “If she’s eligible for Child Welfare, we may find a social worker and make sure she gets support.”
There are glimmers of hope in the work Asia does. “Working with girls individually, and seeing them rise up from the violence they experienced and grow into their entitlement to their human rights, and being able to help stop the poverty they’re experiencing – that’s always huge.”
Wendy Helfenbaum is a writer and TV producer in Montreal and frequent contributor to ParentsCanada.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, April 2014.