Moving from holiday charity to year-round justice

With the winter holidays fast approaching, people across Canada await the arrival of family, friends, and activities that will bring excitement and holiday cheer.

Along with our various celebrations, many of us take this time to give back to our communities, reflecting the end of the year by donating our time and resources to give back, and come together as communities. All year round, organizations provide support to people experiencing hardships. At the holidays, donating and volunteering gives us a chance to get outside the comfort of our homes and into the lives of those millions of people in Canada experiencing food insecurity, homelessness, and poverty.

My family has always been dedicated to making the holidays a time to volunteer. While this was largely a way for us to spend time together, it was also a way of mitigating the materialistic overhaul that tends to come with celebrations.

We would alternate between food hamper programs, or soup kitchens, or local church dinners. Winters back home in Calgary are harsh and unforgiving, and this type of volunteering left me with a deep gratitude when I get to retire home at the end of the day.

The things I have always been thankful for after volunteering – a warm home, an end to my work, over-the-top holiday celebrations with family – are ones not everyone in Canada has access to. Millions of people find refuge from the traditional Canadian winter climate in various programs that provide desperately-needed services and supports. And with many feeling the need to “give back” this time of year, frontline work is a clear option to provide the urgently needed provisions many rely on. It’s even part of the traditional Guignolée celebrations in Québec and New Brunswick and other provinces to fill baskets with non-perishable foods to help “the poor”.

But we know soup kitchens and non-perishable food baskets alone won’t solve poverty. We need to work towards long term systemic change for the millions in Canada whose rights have been violated for so long.

Across Canada, upstream and frontline advocates alike understand the vital role these services provide as we try to move ourselves from a mindset of charity to one of justice. While food banks are critical emergency supports, poverty is a complex problem that requires a comprehensive approach strongly based in dignity for all.

Ending poverty means making commitments to long term change. It means pushing for strong income assistance programs, universal childcare, rights-based food and housing strategies, as well as other policy solutions. This means cooperation from all levels of government, and vigorous maintenance and evaluation by individuals affected by laws, policies, and programs.

The season is also important for organizations like ours who advocate for systemic change and universal advances to poverty relief, while supporting the voices of individuals with lived experience in policy creation. Organizations like ours work to bridge the gap between direct work and government officials to ensure strategies are inclusive of the populations they intend to serve.   

While the seasonal reflection on giving back means making sure everyone has a warm meal, we also need to take the time to reflect on how we are all working towards the big social change work to build a Canada that doesn’t simply treat the symptoms of poverty, but eradicates it.

We hope this season you consider organizations like ours, and the many others in the policy world, who make significant leaps towards creating a Canada that is truly based in dignity and inclusion for all.

Alexandra Zannis is a Placement Student at Canada Without Poverty in the Carleton Bachelor of Social Work program.