On his cross-Canada anti-poverty tour, Ken Dryden expected to hear about homelessness in big cities like Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal.
But Whitehorse surprised him.
“I didn’t know I’d hear it as clearly and as vividly as I have in Whitehorse or in Victoria, or Regina, or Hamilton,” said the Liberal MP, waiting for his plane at the Whitehorse airport on Thursday.
“There’s so little in terms of transitional housing,” he said.
When things start to go wrong in somebody’s life, often a lot goes wrong and there might not be a paycheque at the end of it, said Dryden.
“And where do you go when that big thing goes wrong in your life — either a medical problem, a psychological problem, an employment problem or a family problem — where do you go, what do you do?
“If you don’t have the stability of some kind of secured shelter or housing, then the fall that you take can often be a very big fall — and the bigger the fall the harder it is to get ourselves out of it.”
In November, Liberal Leader Stephane Dion announced that if elected, his government would reduce poverty by 30 per cent in five years.
And that’s what this tour, called It Takes A Country, is about, said Dryden.
“We’re saying we put ourselves into a corner with this, but it’s a corner we chose because it’s the right corner to be in and we mean big stuff.”
It’s unacceptable that so many people in this country live the way they do, he said.
“It’s not the way we understand Canada, and it’s time to make poverty a real focus, set targets and to do a lot better.”
Dryden was not championing anti-poverty programs.
“Those are pretty well known and have to do with income supports for children and seniors and the working poor. And they have to do with housing and public transit and early learning and childcare.
“Those are pretty standard techniques for any government anywhere.”
The key is the targetS behind the programs, he said.
“Otherwise they’re just programs and all you need to do is deliver a program and call yourself a success, whether or not the program’s had much impact.”
Canada could learn from the United Kingdom, said Dryden.
Eight years ago, it decided to focus on child poverty.
Making that commitment iS one thing, said Dryden.
Sustaining it over a long period of time is quite another.
“Any kind of poverty fight takes a long time,” he said.
So, it’s got to span different societal changes and priorities.
“If you look at the United Kingdom in the last eight years, 9/11 happened, so did its decision to be involved in the war in Iraq, so did climate change. These things weren’t around in 1999 when the United Kingdom decided to make child poverty a priority.”
To keep poverty in focus through all these societal changes, there need to be targets, said Dryden.
“And the key is to announce those targets and then you get in behind them and talk about them, instead of avoiding them,” he said.
But talking about poverty isn’t easy.
“Discussions always start with people being a little bit standoffish and skeptical,” said Dryden.
But that’s expected, because many of these people live, or have lived, in poverty and see it continue year after year.
“So skeptical is something I understand.”
But as the discussions continue, people become more hopeful, he said. “There’s no point in not being hopeful.
“Setting targets is about sending a message it is possible to reduce poverty by 30 per cent — it’s hard, but it’s possible, so you do it. You commit yourself to doing it.
“I think that achieving targets like that will affect more people and more people’s lives than just about anything.”
During his Whitehorse visit, Dryden participated in an open forum to discuss anti-poverty issues with local organizations and service providers. He also visited a Grade 5 class at Jack Hulland Elementary School.
The class was studying poverty. “And it was quite amazing to listen to those kids talk about what they had heard, what they had seen, what most struck them,” he said.
“They absolutely got it — it’s not fair when somebody’s homeless, or not doing well, you can give me any explanation you want, but it’s only an explanation and it doesn’t make it fair — that’s what those kids were saying.”
Most citizens feel the same as this class at Jack Hulland, said Dryden.
“They feel that it isn’t right, and it isn’t the way we understand Canada. But you don’t talk about it because you’re not quite sure you have the right to say it. You’re not quite sure that anything can be done about it.
“To talk about it is to sound naïve, so you don’t.”
That’s why his tour is so important, said Dryden.
“With events like this, suddenly people feel they have the right to actually feel the way they do and to say what they feel.”
It’s easy to be cynical and assume somebody has just frittered away every chance they’ve been given, said Dryden. But most people, given a chance, are going to do something with it.
“The easiest thing in the world is to not do anything, and protect yourself in doing nothing by being cynical about it, meanwhile hundreds of thousands of people live in a way they shouldn’t have to live.”
Aboriginals, people with physical and mental disabilities, single mothers and new immigrants are disproportionately poor all across the country, said Dryden.
A lawyer, politician, author and six-time Stanley Cup-winning NHL goalie, and a friend of US activist Ralph Nader, Dryden feels he has “been given a chance in life.”
“And that’s what all of this is about,” he said. “Some people don’t get many chances — some people get almost none, and everybody needs a chance.”