Publications, opinions, and speeches


Reducing poverty: from creating connections to human rights

Published on 10/12/2015

Welcome address at the 2015 Maytree Conference: Connecting for Change on December 10, 2015 in Toronto

When Judy and I founded Maytree 35 years ago, we had a small amount of money to put into the foundation. We knew we had to focus on places where we thought we could make a difference. We knew we wanted to focus on antipoverty work, and so we sought out places a small amount of money could help.

Our first main focus was on literacy, because we knew that illiteracy not only increased the chance someone would become poor, but that it prevented them from participating in any efforts to improve their systemic treatment in society. We funded community-based adult literacy programs in many places across Canada.

That work led us to the immigrant community, because many of the best learners in literacy programs were immigrants and refugees. We discovered they had a whole suite of other needs in order to settle successfully and to succeed. Many of you will be familiar with that stream of our work.

As we were able to put more money into the work of Maytree, we discovered that even then we didn’t have enough to solve the problems we aimed at. As I looked around at the grant-maker sector in Canada and in the United States, I came to the conclusion that even the biggest donors could barely make a dent in the biggest problems. We had to find some way to leverage our grants. We had to find bigger levers to pull.

That led us to co-founding the Caledon Institute of Social Policy to work at the level of public policy. Public budgets constitute one of the biggest levers, and Caledon’s work on income supports has had a material effect on the lives of low-income Canadians. It also led us to co-founding Tamarack – An Institute for Community Engagement, whose work on collective impact and community collaboration exercise another big lever, the power of communities working together. Both Caledon and Tamarack signify that what we do collectively is more powerful than isolated or individual actions.

Our experience with Caledon and Tamarack informed much of our subsequent activity which focused on the big systems: government policy and the regulatory environment; corporate policy, particularly regarding employment practices; and the way key institutions like the criminal justice and police systems work.

I’d like to offer three observations that we’ve learned from our work.

Finding value in creating connections

My first observation is the value in creating connections. In the various areas we’ve worked, we have seen some great work being done by bright and committed people. We’ve also noticed that very often they don’t know the other people working in their own field. Often, particularly in the charitable sector, this is because they are working too hard in underfunded organizations, stretched too far, wearing too many hats, and responding to unrelenting demands. To look up, to glance around, to take some time off for study or contemplation are unaffordable luxuries.

In other cases where there are fewer pressures, the places to meet are few or far between. We learned early on at Maytree that one of the things we could contribute was the creation of a meeting place, in effect a neutral place for people to meet.

And we’ve always been surprised at how often people we thought knew each other didn’t. Or groups we thought were working together weren’t. Or people we thought were collaborators thought of themselves as competitors. Competitors for the public good.

Of course this is understandable. Too much work and pressure to make clients’ lives better. Too little funding, and often competitive processes set up by funders that seem to crave competition, a condition that governments and foundations are often guilty of.

But this kind of isolation and competition doesn’t make us stronger.

What we’ve found too is that colleagues can exist in the darndest places. A good example comes from my friend Al Etmanski, co-founder of Planned Lifetime Advocacy Network (PLAN). When PLAN was developing the Registered Disability Savings Plan (RDSP), they anticipated that one of the toughest groups to get onside would be federal finance bureaucrats, which turned out to be not far off the mark. Except for a couple of them, gnarled veterans, who stepped forward to help in very practical ways, because they thought the RDSP was a good idea and they knew what design would work and how to get it done.

I like the idea of a Points of Light strategy, looking for people who want to achieve what we want, have talent and energy, are making progress, and then connecting them to each other.

Thus the name of our conference today, Connecting for Change.

Importance of working to change systems

My second observation will come as no surprise to you, and that is the importance of working to change systems. That is part of our interest in policy work, in collective impact, and now in human rights, which I’ll come back to in a moment. Sometimes systems are fractured, sometimes they’re just mediocre. But they’re always hard to change because they have defenders and stakeholders.

We’re currently looking at some of the elements of the criminal justice system, particularly what happens to people regarding bail and remand. Most people agree that too many young people in their first brush with the law are being incarcerated unreasonably which robs them of life chances to straighten out. The system is full of conflicting interests:

  • crown attorneys, judges and justices of the peace trying to avoid public embarrassment of having someone on bail commit a serious offence, a bogglingly rare occurrence;
  • police intent on getting arrest rates up and intimidating gangs;
  • duty counsels juggling too many cases even as they’re trying to keep their clients out of jail; and
  • justice department bureaucrats wary of the unintended consequences of any large-scale change.

But the system is fractured: lives are being ruined, young people with a chance of straightening out are being kept for unreasonable amounts of time in the ideal school for criminal recruitment, jail.

It is impressive how many people are working to change this, some of whom are on the program for today’s conference. But it is heavy lifting because of the power of some of the elements involved:

  • lawyers and judges;
  • the lack of sympathy for the victims, mostly young men of colour; and
  • the volatility of the issue in the public eye.

But little will change without systems change. There are a few justices of the peace, a few crown counsels, and some duty counsels taking initiative to help these young people avoid getting pushed even further down the wrong path. But they are the tail trying to wag the dog. Our hope is that the advocates for change coming together can push at those capable of implementing systems change, the ministers and deputy ministers of justice and senior judges.

When I talk about working at the systems level, I do not for a moment want to disparage those who are not overtly working on systems change, for I know that working on the ground, at the coal face of misery and deprivation, is fundamental and necessary. In fact, without that work there is often no way to make the case for systems change. One feeds the other. Each needs to be aware of the other, and to work in the context of the other. But we need both.

Need to look at successes

My final observation is perhaps an odd place to start the day, but it is to celebrate antipoverty work in Canada. I know those of us in the work can often look around and not see anything that has changed in the past few decades. You often hear that said. Or even that things have gotten worse. We’ve heard that in the last decade in particular.

We’ve come at fighting poverty from various perspectives. There has been the economic and community wealth building approach, which points out what poverty costs society in terms of lost productivity and remedial costs. There has been a social justice approach, which points out how unequally we start out because of income, disability or gender, and looks for ways to level the playing field. And there has been the moral approach, which laments our toleration of people living in misery and without hope, asking how we can treat another human being like this.

All of these approaches have borne success. We have implemented measures like the Canada Child Tax Benefit (soon to be known as the Canada Child Benefit) and the Working Income Tax Benefit, both of which have made a real difference to people’s ability to lead productive lives. We’ve broadened out other benefits, and we increase their increments regularly, many through being indexed to inflation. They are still mostly underfunded, and we could make huge strides against poverty by merely funding them properly, but without them we would be much worse off.

Social justice arguments have swayed opinion and given our governments permission and some businesses inspiration to level the playing field. And many people have been swayed to more generosity, whether it be church groups feeding the poor or the recent explosion of compassion for the Syrian refugees.

Those who have been toiling in the field can be proud of the results of this work, and from Maytree’s perspective we admire the durability and relentless effort of people committed to antipoverty work.

Looking at human rights as a way of fighting poverty

A further approach, less used in Canada, has been to look at human rights as a way of fighting poverty. This is interesting to Maytree. Rights have many attractions. If something is a right, it is less vulnerable to choices that governments or others might make. If, for example, there is a right to decent housing, the under-housed can stop being supplicants for public housing and demand to be shown to their home.

Canada is governed by rights, by our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It is also signatory to international rights covenants, paramount among them the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the principal drafter of which was Canadian John Humphrey. The UN Declaration was adopted by the General Assembly on December 10, 1948, 67 years ago today, which is the reason we chose this day for our conference.

The Canadian Charter was passed in Parliament in 1982, and was concerned mostly with legal and political rights. It did not contain social or economic rights. Social rights concern safe and affordable housing, health and healthy living conditions, safe and nutritious food, and education. Economic rights include the opportunity for well-paid work in good conditions, income security for those unable to work, and the right to organize.

The UN Declaration includes social and economic rights, as do many rights regimes around the world. Canada is an outlier in not having them. At the time of the Charlottetown Accord in 1992 a Social Charter was included that contained some social and economic rights, but the Accord was defeated in a referendum, and we still do not have social and economic rights. But we do have obligations because we signed the UN Declaration, and other international covenants, and in many cases we have not been living up to those obligations.

Maytree is looking at what would be required to include social and economic rights in our Charter. We want to understand better what impact inclusion might have in the fight against poverty. Would governments be required to act differently? For example, would the continued underfunding of our income support and income replacement programs be able to continue, or might the courts require full funding? Would low wages and insecure working conditions be sustainable? Would poor access to health care for people living in remote places be able to continue?

Many of you here today work in rights, and are way ahead of us in understanding the dimensions of the questions, and the directions in which the answers lie. We hope to be able to learn from you and, in turn, to connect you with others whose work might contribute to yours.

And many of you have not been working in the rights context, but you may be interested in knowing whether it might add to your effectiveness, or at least be an ally in achieving our shared antipoverty goals.


Cities and communities, Civic engagement, Human rights, Poverty


Welcome address at the 2015 Maytree Conference: Connecting for Change on December 10, 2015 in Toronto