What does it really mean to live in poverty in Canada? Why is it important that people living in poverty have their voices heard in the development of law and policy on poverty?
At CWP our Board of Directors is made up of people across Canada who have a lived experience of poverty. Last fall, we explored these questions with Board Members Harriett McLachlan and Wayne MacNaughton in the first two instalments of our Spotlight on Poverty series. This month, we’re continuing the Spotlight on Poverty series as the Vice President of our Board of Directors, Laura Cattari, sheds light on her experience of poverty.
Q. In five words how would you describe your experience of poverty?
Isolating. Humiliating. Soul-destroying. Poverty is about more than not having money. It’s about feeling like you will never get ahead.
Q. From your perspective, both from your work on the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction and your personal experience, what does poverty look like in Canada?
On the macro level, poverty looks like your next door neighbour. Poverty is complex and intersectional. Everyone’s story is unique. The commonality would be a story of deprivation.
From the personal level, poverty is the inability to participate in the world around me. As much as not having access to basic needs – worrying about having enough food to eat – is bad, the inability to see a future, to look ahead and plan for a better life, is devastating.
The Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction has given me a voice and helped empower me, given me new life. The Roundtable is a collaboration of city and community foundations, service providers and people with a lived experience of poverty. They’ve opened doors to opportunities for me to be able to engage with policy in a meaningful way.
The fact that I live with disabilities is an important part of my experience of poverty – my personal intersectionality. There’s a misconception that all people need to do is try a bit more elbow grease and things would be fine. But sometimes there are real barriers to accomplishing that. As a person with disabilities who is living in poverty, I don’t have the same opportunities as others.
Q. Recently, at the Tamarack Poverty Reduction Summit you talked about the inclusion of people living in poverty. Can you explain why this is so important to the way we approach anti-poverty work in Canada?
Inclusion is important. And here I mean true inclusion not tokenism.
When we work in an inclusive environment we are provided with a sense of dignity and control over our own lives. Being truly inclusive is a willingness to fully understand that people living in poverty are being denied their basic needs – basic human rights – such as access to adequate food and housing.
I think that recognizing that poverty is a violation of human rights is fundamental to including people living in poverty. The bottom line is that it’s hard to discuss poverty with people that will not recognize that access to adequate food and housing is a human right. Otherwise, it’s like they don’t really see me and can’t comprehend what it really means to live in poverty.
Q. What drives you to do anti-poverty work?
In a single word it’s anger. Righteous anger at injustice. Growing up in Canada I believed I lived in just society. I am proud to be Canadian. When I fell ill I found out that what I thought existed – didn’t.
I believed I had support networks through systems like Canada Pension Plan. But my experience even accessing my pension showed me that process of being denied basic help can be dehumanizing. It’s incredible that we have processes which require people to really fight for basic things like a pension – when they’re already in crisis – processes that make them feel like they’re liars. It brings people to suicidal ideation. Having broken processes like this is really is a horrific way for Canada to treat its citizens.
In a way this is the problem with the way that people think about poverty – people get stuck in stereotypes about how people fall into poverty. This affects they way we are systemically treated. The reality is that no one chooses to be ill. I had planned for it as much as anyone else, I relied on work benefits. I was declared disabled after I lost access to long term disability benefits.
But for the grace of God anyone can fall into poverty – you could be me.
Q. What is one thing that may surprise readers about what you’ve observed about poverty?
Many people living in poverty do not self-identify as poor. I’ve noticed that in urban environments, such as urban Ontario, the demographic of people living in poverty has changed. Where people have started out as middle class, they sometimes don’t want to acknowledge their circumstances – they don’t want to identify as no longer middle class.
Poverty blurs the lines of class, poverty happens regardless of the class you start in, regardless of your level of education – even middle management workers are finding themselves falling into poverty – that was what happened to me.
Q. What would you like to know from a fellow board member about their experience with poverty?
If the fellow board member is still living in poverty I would like to know what lifts them up to do the work that they do.
If they’re no longer living in poverty I would like to know about which aspects of the experience have stayed with them throughout their lives.
Q. What lifts you up?
What lifts me up is when people see me as an equal. When I’m no longer labelled as ‘other’.
Q. Is there anything else you want to add?
I want to address people’s fear of acknowledging human rights. Sometimes I think people are afraid that by acknowledging that poverty is a violation of human rights they will be arbitrarily forced to do things they don’t want to do. But that’s not what human rights are.
Sometimes when I’m talking about human rights I reflect on the history, I talk about World War II and the context of what countries were doing to their people. Human rights were created to address these atrocities. They’re a social contract between people and their governments. If my government denies me access to adequate food it affects my health and all other aspects of my life. Human rights ensures that government policies won’t hurt the people.
Human rights are a way to make communities whole. It’s seeing everyone as human beings. In supporting each other we truly lift all of us up.
Laura Cattari (Hamilton, ON) is a member of the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction’s Operational Steering Committee and Chair of its Social Assistance Reform Work Group. Her promising career in technology came to an end in 2003 with the advent of life long chronic illness. The challenges of illness and subsequent poverty have shaped her outlook and passion for social justice today. She works diligently to affect public policy change that empowers. Laura utilizes community engagement, television and radio appearances and program development reaching tens of thousands; locally, provincially and nationally. It was her great honour to be nominated in 2013 as a Woman of Distinction in Hamilton. For more information about Laura’s community and professional work see her website. Laura is the Vice-President of the Board of Directors.
Canada Without Poverty is a non-partisan, not-for-profit, charitable organization dedicated to the elimination of poverty in Canada. CWP is here because of your support. We would not be able to continue our work in eliminating poverty without your help. Please consider making a donation to CWP to support our work in ending poverty for everyone in Canada.