Endeavour, Resolution, and the Children of Peace: Lessons from history for the fight against poverty
This speech was delivered at the Tamarack Institute’s poverty reduction summit, Cities Reducing Poverty: When Business Is Engaged, on April 4, 2017, in Hamilton, Ontario.
My favourite subject in school was what we called “social studies,” which in later grades and university we came to know as “history.” More than the lists of kings and prime ministers, what I loved about it were the stories of people in the past. I still read history, either actual histories written by historians, or biographies, or novels set in a time in the past, the best of which are based on solid historical research. For example, I just read The Gold Eaters by Ronald Wright, a novel about the Spanish conquest of the Incas. This has spurred me on to read a history of the Incan Empire, one of the great civilizations.
Among historical figures, one who really impresses me is James Cook, the English sea captain and explorer. Canadians are often familiar with that name, and the odd statue of Cook can be found on either the east or west coast. Cook was a skilled cartographer, and early in his career made highly accurate maps of the coasts of Newfoundland and into the Gulf of St. Lawrence as far as present day Quebec City. He was present at the battle of the Plains of Abraham, having made the maps that allowed the English to land and scale the bluffs to the battleground where Wolfe defeated Montcalm. Late in his career he mapped the west coast from Oregon up to the Bering Strait.
Accurate mapping in those days was hard. Consider making maps from observation and measurement from the deck of a ship, or a skiff trailing along a shoreline. It required remarkable patience, painstakingly accurate measurement, and relentless application.
Between the periods mapping our coasts, Cook made three epic voyages from England. Altogether, these three went to the Antarctic to find out if there was a habitable continent, and then into the South Pacific, where he charted Tahiti and many of the other islands, New Zealand and the east coast of Australia, and across the Pacific Ocean via Hawaii to our west coast, around both Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope, and many other stops along the way. Given the vagaries of winds and currents, availability of fresh water and supplies, and the refitting of ships, there were few straight lines. So Cook’s ships often doubled back to where they’d been, running up the miles.
Besides his great cartography skills, several other things stood out about Cook. He almost always enjoyed good relations with the indigenous people he encountered. He respected them and their cultures, and was disinclined to exploit them. What Cook took in terms of fresh water and provisions were traded for, but often received as gifts. While there were some conflicts, mostly there was cooperation. A tragic exception happened in Hawaii, where a clear lapse in judgment by an aging and irritable Cook resulted in his murder. But unlike many explorers of the age, Cook respected indigenous people and in turn was respected by them. Even after murdering him, the Hawaiians afforded him the funeral ceremony of a great chief.
Cook’s voyages were also scientific in nature, gathering plants and specimens for further study by English scientists. Cook’s interest in science extended to his attention to the diet of his crew. Scurvy was the scourge of the seafarer, but its cause was then unknown. We now know it was a lack of fresh nutrients, particularly vitamin C. Cook concocted several edibles that would last a long sea journey, and his crew rarely got scurvy. His record was exceptional.
In all my reading about Cook, though, one fact stood out. Having first gone to sea on the coal boats in the North Sea port of Whitby, he had both an affection and trust in these wide-bellied stable boats known as colliers. They were a class of boat known as a barque. When Cook joined the Royal Navy and was given his first command, he chose a boat modeled on the collier, which he named Endeavour.
And here is the fact that caught my attention: these ships under full sail and in a good wind travelled at the speed of a fast walk. A fast walk!
Imagine that. You set off from the south coast of England and walk across the Atlantic Ocean, around the tip of South America and then up to Tahiti, then down to the Great Southern Ocean and around New Zealand, and on and on. Think how long that would take. Think of the determination you would have to have to achieve your goal. Think of how fixed in your mind your vision would have to be. Think, if you were the captain of the Endeavour, how you would keep your crew engaged and able. At the speed of a fast walk.
Cook’s three epic voyages lasted two, three and four years. They covered tens of thousands of miles. They mapped the Pacific Ocean, gathered scientific specimens, left copious descriptions of people, places and cultures, and left fine examples of shipboard protocols in diet, cleanliness, discipline, and navigation. Cook’s detailed accounts of his voyages were innovations in and of themselves. Endeavour carried him on his first voyage, and Resolution on his last two.
Endeavour and Resolution: Fine words to bring to our work on poverty
Endeavour: the serious effort to achieve something
Resolution: the solving of doubt; boldness and firmness of purpose
Heaven knows we’ve needed both over the years, because we often seem to be moving at the pace of a fast walk. The changes we seek never seem to come at the speed we want. Cook went to Tahiti on his first voyage and it took nine months. Today, you can fly from London to Tahiti in less than a day. If we could, we’d all like to eliminate poverty in less than a day. But regrettably that is not the way it works either in government or outside. It is a slow, discouraging process, and often we wonder if we’re getting anywhere at all. We can wonder if it is even worth starting the journey, and it takes a lot of belief and a sense of vision of what might be achieved to keep going.
In Canada, we have engaged in fighting poverty throughout our history. We have made progress. During the 1930s, 1960s and 1990s, the elements of our social safety net have been put in place by governments of various stripes. As a country, we learned lessons from other places, and from the devastation of economic downturns such as the Great Depression.
We created supports for farmers, for unemployed workers, for children and parents, for seniors, and for people living with disabilities. Programs such as the Canada Child Benefit and its provincial counterparts, and the Working Income Tax Benefit supplement income. Programs such as the Canada and Quebec Pension Plans, Old Age Security and the Guaranteed Income Supplement, and Employment Insurance replace income when people have temporarily or permanently left the labour market.
Most of these programs are designed and work well. They get supports to the people who need them, they tend to work through large public systems such as the tax system, and they work at scale. They are generally indexed to inflation, so that their value doesn’t decline over time. Governments do a good job at running these programs, and they comprise a significant percentage of the federal government budget, and a lesser but important part of provincial budgets. Program design that gets money to where it is needed, through mechanisms like a refundable tax credit, are an efficient use of public money.
We know where success has occurred. Old Age Security and the Guaranteed Income Supplement led to dramatic declines in senior poverty, particularly for single seniors whose poverty was dire. The Child Tax Benefit, now redesigned and rebranded as the Canada Child Benefit, has led to a 40 per cent decline in child poverty; the new Canada Child Benefit will lift another 300,000 children out of poverty. Observable declines in poverty have resulted from the various instruments we have in place.
Why aren’t the results better if these instruments are so good? Well, they are mostly underfunded. The current federal government combined a number of family supports into the Canada Child Benefit to make it fully funded, although its failure to index it to inflation means that it is falling below adequacy each year until indexing is restored in 2020. But the Working Income Tax Benefit is currently funded at a fraction of where it should be. According to a Maytree paper by my colleague Bonnie Mah, it should probably be redesigned to be more effective. And we know Canada Pension Plan payouts are inadequate for seniors.
If we were to fund these programs properly, it would help tear down the poverty we’ve constructed – because poverty is something we have constructed by the public and private choices we’ve made as a society. It is not natural or inevitable. If we paid attention to the proper design and full funding of these instruments, poverty would begin to crumble. And while some complain that we have too many different programs and argue for a more simple approach, that diversity provides resilience to the overall safety net, which may be salutary at some future date when the political pendulum swings toward some cost-cutting government.
Of course, there are the voices who say we can’t afford to fund these programs fully. We have been stuck inside a narrative of scarcity and insufficiency that is laughable in such a rich nation, one of the most blessed places in the history of humanity. We don’t lack the resources – we lack the will.
But we do seem to be walking towards the goal of eliminating poverty. Sometimes those voices of austerity are slowing us down. Sometimes it is those who raise fears about groups in society: youth, newcomers, people who are somehow “different.” Sometimes, it is those who are too comfortable with the old ways who don’t want to change the way our courts, schools, hospitals or police services do things. As often as not, it is just people with different ideas about how people succeed, or who belongs, or who matters.
And sometimes it is because those who can help to end poverty don’t think it is their job. They think poverty should be dealt with by government, or by social agencies, or by a church.
My own view is that poverty is constructed, not inevitable or a natural occurrence. It is constructed by many players and actors in society: by government policy, by the way businesses compete and operate, by who our institutions include and recognize, by our justice and healthcare systems, and by many others. And it will take all of those players and actors to dismantle poverty, all of them recognizing their involvement in the creation of poverty and their duty in ending it.
And so we’re like Captain Cook. We’re walking and making maps of what works and who is at the table, and sharing our maps with others. We’re looking for fair winds and strong currents to help us along, but we’re also prepared for headwinds and adverse currents: we’ve had them before and we’ll have them again.
When business is engaged
The focus of this conference is the role of business.
You can look at the publication “10: A Guide for Businesses Reducing Poverty” which gives some excellent examples of the good that can come when business is engaged. From VanCity Credit Union in Vancouver with its living wage policy, to Dovico Software in Moncton with its focus on homelessness through aligning with the city’s social inclusion plan, and many places in between and across this wide country of ours, business is engaged.
Indulge me in another historical reference, this time to the Children of Peace. Some of you may know about the Children of Peace, a Quaker sect that broke away from a mainstream group in 1812. It was led by farmer David Wilson, and settled on his farm in Hope about 60 km north of Toronto. It is now called Sharon, and is part of the Town of East Gwillimbury.
The Sharon Temple, which was their meeting house, was completed in 1831. I think it is one of the most beautiful buildings in Canada. Twice a year they have a dusk ceremony where the building is lit only with candles, and glows like a lantern. I was asked to give a talk there at one of the candle ceremonies, but didn’t think through clearly enough that I would have to read my speech by candlelight. I always prefer to speak from a text, but that night I had to improvise because I realized as I started the light wasn’t bright enough to read. Our light is better here this morning.
As I prepared for that talk, I found out about the Children of Peace, and was fascinated to learn that by 1850, they were the most prosperous farming community in Ontario. They organized Ontario’s first cooperative, the Farmer’s Storehouse, and opened the first credit union. They formed joint stock companies to sell their products, and adopted a pricing approach that didn’t seek the highest possible price but calculated a price that covered their costs of production and whatever extra would enable them to live a good life. They farmed shared land, and established protocols that kept the land productive and ensured equitable access to it. They established charitable funds to help community members through tough times.
The Children of Peace were not a commune, or a cooperative, although they did form cooperative organizations for certain functions. What struck me about them was how they adopted the structure of the company, or corporation. Joint stock companies at that time were mini-democracies. They were formed by people putting money into an enterprise and were governed by those shareholders. This was before the laws that limited the liability of shareholders, laws which only came into being after being adopted by the British parliament in 1855. Until then, shareholders were liable for any losses or damages incurred by the company, even beyond the amount of their investment. In other words, their personal assets could be tapped. This made them very attentive to how the company was being run, and the possible risks. Limited liability laws insulated shareholders from that extra reach.
Corporations, historically, were founded by governments to engage in productive enterprise. Governments granted what were considered to be privileges to certain people to form groups to pursue a commercial purpose. It might be to build a piece of community infrastructure, or to conduct international trade. Some were behemoths, and famous, like the British East India Company or the Hudson’s Bay Company. But they all operated under permission from the state to fulfill a purpose determined by the state. In effect, they were children of the state, and received what we now call a “social licence” to operate.
How different it is now, when many big corporations act like the peevish parent of the state, forced to pay for its excesses and submit to its whims. While companies are still required to gain a licence to operate from the state, and to obey laws governing corporations, the process has become mostly a formality of registration, devoid of any significant social test. There is no requirement to show how their being granted a business licence will benefit society. The presumption is that personal gain is sufficient reason, and the society might benefit from some minimal taxation and the creation of jobs.
The state, of course, is us. Our governments act on our behalf, ideally. We choose them, and can un-choose them. Ideally. We may have lapsed in the care and feeding of our democracy, but that is how it is supposed to operate, and I believe it mostly does and we can fix what is broken. The Children of Peace understood this, and were a dynamic force against the Family Compact, the tight group of elite men who ruled Upper Canada. With their experience of democracy gained from their joint stock companies, the Children of Peace became advocates for responsible government, and active backers of Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine and Robert Baldwin, the great reformers who pioneered responsible government in Canada in the 1840s.
The Children of Peace understood the idea of social licence, and structured themselves accordingly. While they had only 350 members living on the Wilson farm, they understood that their responsibility was to many others: to those who bought their farm products and their customers; to the users of those products, who needed them to feed their families; to others in the community from whom they bought equipment and supplies; and to other community institutions that needed a balanced and prosperous place to operate.
When I look at the list of companies in the publication “10: A Guide for Businesses Reducing Poverty,” I see that the example of the Children of Peace is still alive. We have good companies embracing a positive social role. I am among the first to argue that the creation of jobs by companies is important and a huge contribution to prosperity. And many of the goods and services produced make us all better.
I also recognize that the bad actors are exceptions. The companies that conspire through their human resource practices to pay low wages, provide insecure working hours, fire people at the end of a pay period and welch on wages owed; or which pollute their environment, dump shoddy products in vulnerable markets, or dodge their taxes. Some engage in an aggressive takedown of those who might criticize their shortcomings. Sometimes they engage in these practices behind a screen of a little corporate charity, or a much-heralded donation of a sympathetic nature. I call this “philaundering,” the use of philanthropy to wash away unpleasant stains. They don’t represent the norm.
Even the good performers can aspire to do more. They can ask themselves if they are helping to un-construct poverty, say through a wage or employment practice. They can ask, if the state was granting a social licence, would their case for creation of societal benefit be sufficiently compelling?
Many could say yes. Many could be a lantern of hope, like the candlelit Sharon Temple at dusk, a lantern in the village of Hope.
Thank you for indulging me in my history musings this morning. More importantly, thank you for devoting your time and energy over the coming days to tackling poverty.