Thoughts after an anti poverty meeting at NAC
“I have not been here for a long time. It seems like what I have seen is more like a blink than an observation. In this room we have people who have more knowledge than I have about poverty in Nunavut. But there are images I cannot shake. Now I recognize that these are rumors not necessarily facts. In the many conversations, in class with my students, the nursing students and others, in which I have taken part over the last few months, I have been presented with images that I cannot shake. I have not had these images of poverty since I lived in the third world, in Pointe Noire, Congo in the 1980’s. Then I lived in a Congolese neighbourhood where it was typical for people to live on one meal a day. I have not heard of that in Canada until I came here to the North. Even in my travels to other First Nations communities, I have not heard this described in this way. Perhaps I wasn’t listening. I have images in my head now of empty cupboards and fridges. I have heard the contents described: a jar of mayonnaise, a bottle of Ketchup, salt and pepper. No food. I have heard rumours that a young person who committed suicide may have been hungry. I have heard rumours that the homeless shelter only provides coffee and tea in the evening. The homeless do not always have an evening meal. Sometimes hunters provide this. Sometimes others do. I have heard rumours that the Soup Kitchen is no longer operational. This means that there is no place in Iqaluit where the homeless can be sure of a meal.
Recently I had a very minor incident which brought me to the RCMP. I was enquiring whether a young man was potentially dangerous and if I should have concerns for my safety. When I learned of the reality of this young man’s life, there seemed to be something very wrong with the picture. The RCMP officer explained to me that this person was homeless. On the coldest nights the young man who is ill, not a criminal, would be put into a cell so he would not freeze to death. Many nights he slept in the foyer of the RCMP building.1 I admit that there are aspects of this story that I do not know. But there is still something very wrong with the picture.
It is not surprising that southern Canada would be concerned with the housing crises in the North. I may have the statistics wrong, but it is my understanding that in the north 25% of the population share a room, whereas in the rest of Canada the figure is 2%. With all of the research available today that reveals links between overcrowding and violence it is not surprising that this is a concern. It ties in to so many problems in the North. Even in terms of the education crises. How can children study when they are living in such overcrowded conditions?”
Maureen Doherty keeps her cool and explains things articulately. She appears to be speaking from experience. She has lived in the smaller hamlets. After I spoke with my face getting increasingly red, she spoke with icy cool tones. From her experience in the hamlets there is an unofficial way of dealing with homelessness and hunger. People help each other. She painted a rosy picture of community in which no one fell through the cracks. Seeing double. My name is quoted but the words are not mine. They are hers. I am uncomfortable when she speaks. I recognize what is happening. It is on this note that the meeting has really ended regardless of what will be said afterwards. Has she found the right words to sanitize my images, to place them into a narrow, unique context that is not wide spread? Has she found the words to say what everyone really wants to hear? Things aren’t so bad. These are growing pains.
In the back of my mind, I recall the admonitions of the United Nations, criticizing Canada for the way in which the poor among us are treated.