News and announcements
Nick Saul delivered this talk on October 29, 2019 at the Isabel Bader Theatre in Toronto, as part of the #WalrusTalks series.
When my boys were little, I spent much time perched on the edge of sandboxes in local parks. Young kids do a lot of what’s known as “parallel play.” When they finally notice each other, it’s often to throw sand, bite or grab someone else’s toy.
And so there are parents like me everywhere urging their darlings through gritted teeth to please — please! — share.
We spend years pushing the importance of sharing with our children and, indeed, it’s a lesson that most people (eventually!) learn and embrace. I see it on my street, where we support one another with drives to doctor’s appointments and baking of banana bread when required. I see it in my work with our generous volunteers and donors who give their time, energy and funds to low-income communities.
I was also recently struck by a few newspaper stories highlighting this desire to help. There was the Egyptian owner of a pita shop in St. John’s, Newfoundland who saw people going hungry in his adopted city and started to offer free food to homeless people once a week. Inspired by his generosity, customers began to make donations to help him keep it up. And then there was the Toronto family who were concerned about people going without food in their neighbourhood so they set up a Little Free Pantry, essentially a mini food bank on their front lawn that people could access anytime.
This kind of sharing is intimate and tangible. It’s easy to see the direct impact. I think it emerges from a deep wellspring of empathy and that such acts are expressions of our shared humanity. At the core, they represent who we truly are as a species: social beings who need each other to survive and thrive.
The problem is: the scale is way, way off.
In Canada alone, four million people are food insecure. That’s 13% of our population. In the Black community, the number soars to 29%. In Nunavut 47% of households worry about where their next meal will come from.
These are people living diminished lives because of their poverty. They’re disproportionately affected by a wide range of physical and mental health issues including heart disease, diabetes, anxiety, and depression.
This is a reality that affects us all. We’re not only compromised morally, but also economically, as poverty is estimated to cost us upwards of $80 billion per year.
We can’t possibly hope to tackle these big, serious, urgent issues with food pantries on front lawns or pitas once a week — no matter how kind, genuine and well meaning.
The solution to enormous structural inequalities is indeed sharing — just like we tell our kids in the sandbox — only now the sandbox is exponentially bigger and the sharing has to be as well.
The promise of liberal democracy and its government is that we can secure such large-scale sharing through our democratic institutions.
This means pushing governments to use our collective tax dollars to underwrite initiatives that put the needs of the many over the few. It means creating and safeguarding policy and regulations so that everyone has their basic human rights met — to housing, to education, to water, to food.
And yet few of us seem to believe government is able to do this anymore. Many people — especially the most marginalized — just don’t feel they have a say or a stake in government.
In a time of rampant disinformation, divisive social media, a House of Commons that resembles that sandbox going south, and politicians that don’t follow thru on their promises, it’s hardly surprising that Canadian’s trust in government is dwindling.
It’s understandable, yes, but it’s also bad news for creating a more equitable world. The only way to climb out of the mess we’re in is to reclaim the political system and use it to shape our communities in our shared interest.
Let me be clear, I’m not saying that individual acts of kindness and generosity aren’t important. They are. They help build a culture of compassion. But I think we must simultaneously work at a societal level. And this requires us to engage with politics and government to forge a society that reflects our best and true
Democracy only works when we make our voices heard, applying pressure to bring about the change we want to see. Politics, after all, is a contact sport.
We can start here in Canada by continuing to push for that elusive electoral reform, doing away with the first past the post system, which suffocates diversity of voice and debate.
We can elect and support politicians who commit to moving away from short term-ism and the false hope of endless growth, people who see our health and the health of the planet as their north stars, guiding every decision. Curbing the power and influence of corporations in the public policy realm will be an essential part of this. Evidence-based research — not lobbying, bottom line thinking and a thirst for quarterly returns — must drive decisions that affect us all.
Finding the courage to implement bold transformational change to meet the urgency of the vast inequalities that exist is also crucial. The discarding of Ontario’s Basic Income Pilot project, despite evidence that it was improving health, reducing stress and increasing education opportunities, was a massive missed opportunity to address the yawning gap between the rich and everyone else.
We must also foster spaces where people can come together to discover and articulate their shared interests. Let’s establish non-partisan neighbourhood councils that focus on creating people-centred policies. Non-profits are perfectly suited to host such councils, as they are places that have the potential to truly galvanize the voices and issues of the most ignored people in our society.
All of this is possible. I know it because everywhere I look I see people caring deeply about each other.
I see hope in the millions of young people marching in the streets to demand their political representatives meet head on the climate emergency and its resulting inequalities. I see smaller scale but deeply radical hope in the low-income people of Dartmouth North, where a grassroots voter education and mobilizing campaign at our Community Food Centre there increased the number of people at the polls threefold, raising issues and concerns central to that community.
I believe we’re at a moment when we have to decide if we’re going to hoard or we’re going to share. What kind of world do we want our children to inherit? Do we want to be biters and hitters in the sandbox or do we want to be part of a different sort of sandbox where every person has a chance to play?
I think we live better when we ALL live better. And we live BEST when we are working together in our communities and through the political system to ensure everyone has a dignified seat at the table.