Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Poverty and Social Mobility

I'm going to try and pull together a variety of threads here, and hopefully tie them together in a way that makes some sort of sense. As an upfront warning, though, I'll note that in some cases I'm going from memory, as I'm currently unable to find some references. You'll just have to take my word for it, for the moment, although I do have some other materials that relate.

The other day there was a news article on CBC radio news. Because I was driving I was unable to write down the pertinent details, and I can find no direct reference to this story. The gist of it was, Canadians who live in poverty have a better chance than Americans of rising out of their standard of living and joining (at least) the so-called middle class. There are a couple of related sites to read, one on how Canadians stand a better chance of post-secondary education, and this piece from the Economist that challenges the idea of American meritocracy.

This was an eye-opening report. I think just about everyone out there has bought into the line that anyone can make it in the US. Little Billy (although not so much little Janey), no matter his situation in life, has just as good a chance to become President as does little George. But if I remember correctly, something over one-half of Canadians will move up, while in the US it's less than one-third. This is largely attributed to government help. The most important aspect of that government help was aid in carrying on in school, getting a degree or diploma, enabling these people to get a job that isn't dead end, or even to start their own business.

A caveat follows, though; the numbers for this report came from times before government cutbacks. After federal and provincial cuts were made in the Canadian version of the conservative revolution (and yes, even though we have a federal Liberal government, we've seen plenty of our version of this), changes to these statistics are inevitable. How difficult they'll make things for those who live in poverty is unknown, and won't be for some time.

So do we beat our chests and howl at the moon in pride? Is this another reason to prove how much better Canada is than the US?

I have one word in response to that: Kashechewan.

For those who think that racism is not a problem in Canada, who think that what I've noted above is proof that anyone can make it here, especially if they're given that initial hand up, I offer you the deplorable state of the water supply at the Kashechewan Indian reserve in Ontario.

Who designed the water system there? Who built, and who approved said building, the water intake system 135 meters downstream from the waste treatment facility?

Even worse, who the hell was snoozing so long that the community was under a boil water advisory for two years? Two years (with intermittent problems for another three years before that) of the people of Kashechewan having to boil their water in order to be able to drink it, two years of bathing and showering in water that resulted in skin rashes and other difficulties.

Unacceptable at the best of times, this is more astonishing because of the Walkerton tragedy in Ontario, in which 7 people died from drinking contaminated drinking water.

I suspect that a similar study involving Aboriginal Canadians would find that their upward social and economic mobility is far more restricted than that of other Canadians (white or otherwise, to be honest). There are no simple answers, obviously, and the distance to go, no matter what the answers might be, is enormous. The days of treating our native peoples like children were, I had thought, over, but this water situation tells me otherwise. Ignore them even if they squawk, and then pay attention only when another adult (replace that word with "white") points things out. And then, instead of directly addressing the problem with the leadership of the community, fly them out of there and set them up somewhere else where things can fail again.

And they will fail again. The same news report notes that there are 50-odd native communities in Ontario that also have to boil their water, and nation wide the number of communities with water problems is around 400. Do we move them all? Hell, there aren't even standards for water quality on reserves across the land. Without some solid requirements in place, the chances of fixing all of this are pretty much nil. Not that it all made a difference in Walkerton, mind, but at least that disaster had the advantage of focusing our attention on the issue.

As long as the problem takes place where people have money, that is.

Watching this story last night on the news, I was ashamed to be a Canadian who has not done enough to make our politicians accountable to *all* Canadians, not just the rich white ones. A boil order for two years? If that had happened anyplace but on a reserve, help would have been in there in a day.

I totally agree with you both. It was embarassing - to us as Canadians and as decent human beings.

What I wondered, reading the story, if the province does not currently have control over the water system in reserves, who does? It looks like the Dept. of Indian Affairs. Is this a self-governed arm? Where was the info going from years back, when the problems started? If my business had an advisory to boil water that was being served to the public, you can be sure that it wouldn't be neglected by Health Services.
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