SENATOR MUNSON’S SPEECH FOR RENFREW COUNTY’S CHILD POVERTY ACTION NETWORK

Thank you so much for that kind introduction. It’s great to be here today in the heart of the Ottawa Valley.

 

I was born and raised in small towns in New Brunswick, so there’s a feeling here that is familiar to me.  I learned young that there is little anonymity in a small town.  Everybody knew what I did and managed to tell my mother about it before I even got home.  I feel comfortable here, but you’ll have to forgive me if I focus my remarks today on some facts about this beautiful Ottawa valley that should make us all uncomfortable.

 

Let’s start with the statistic that is most shocking.  That one in eight children inRenfrew County is living in poverty.  That means that in an average classroom three to four children are poor.  These children may not have enough good food to eat.  They may live in substandard housing.  They may not be able to go out for the hockey and soccer teams or take piano lessons or dance classes.  And everyday at school they live with the stigma of doing without, of not wearing the cool shoes or hoodie, of not being a part of what other kids are doing, of not being able to have pizza on pizza day or a hot dog on hot dog day.

 

Excuse me ladies and gentlemen.  But I think I can speak for the kids in Renfrew County if I tell you that “This sucks.”

 

So what are we going to do about it?

 

In my work with the Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights we have looked at the rights of children all over the world.  Our report, entitled Children: The Silenced Citizens, makes 24 recommendations ranging from abolishing corporal punishment and sexual exploitation to preventing children from participating in armed conflict.  Two recommendations are particularly relevant to my remarks today.

 

One states that the federal government should meet with provincial and territorial governments to establish national guidelines for early childhood development and child care services. The other deals with child poverty and recommends that the federal government put in place a strategy to combat child poverty, help high-risk families and develop a comprehensive housing strategy.

 

Now I recognize the limits of this kind of work.  Recommendations such as these have value because they state important principles and help give a direction to our efforts.  But they are only words.

 

When it comes to action, to putting these principles to work, that’s where the rubber hits the road.  And that’s where everyone has a role to play, including community leaders and business people like you.

 

When it comes to child poverty, we have to recognize that poor children do not live in a vacuum.  They are the children of poor parents. Yes, we can help children specifically, and CPAN (see-pan) does an admirable job, but to get to the root of the problem we have to help the parents of poor children.

 

How do we do this?

 

When I looked at some of the information about child poverty in Renfrew County there were a few surprises.  At first I thought that the high rate of child poverty was linked to high rates of unemployment.  I thought we had poor kids in this community because we had unemployed parents.  I was wrong.

 

Unemployment rates in Renfrew County are not that high.  There are other employment trends that contribute to high rates of child poverty. First, many workers here have unstable jobs. They work part-time or their work is seasonal. In Renfrew County only 50 per cent of people with paid work have full-time jobs that last the whole year.

 

And it takes a family of four living in Renfrew County 72 hours at minimum wage to meet the poverty line. Those with part-time jobs have low pay and no benefits.  Average earnings inRenfrew County were less than 80 per cent of average earnings in Ontario.  It’s a difficult situation for many families.

 

Now as the job creators in this county, you probably know this.  You may not be in control of local market conditions, but it’s important that you be aware of the impact on children. Just because someone is working, doesn’t mean they have enough to provide a stable home environment where children can thrive.

 

Where children have enough to eat, can get medicine when they are sick, live in a safe home, have school supplies and clothes, and a little extra in the family budget for after school activities.  They also need a home free from the stress of parents trying to stretch their pay cheque to pay the rent and make ends meet.

 

If you can think about the kids affected by your business decisions, you are taking a big first step.  There are other steps to take as well.

 

You can support CPAN for one.  You can contribute money or in kind products and services.  You can help fundraise for the many valuable services CPAN offers.

 

This time of year, Back to School, is one of the most expensive times of year for families. Pollara research recently reported that Back to School expenses exceed $300 per child. That, obviously, is beyond the reach of many parents.

 

With support to CPAN, you can ensure that more children benefit from the Back Pack Plus Program that gives kids school supplies.  You can contribute to Operation Snowsuit to ensure that children can be outside and playing during the winter.  You can contribute to the footwear program so that kids have the shoes they need.

 

You can also support the activities fund so that children can participate in extra curricular programs, including sports, music, dance, and other cultural programs.

 

I can speak for myself as having been a bit of a wayward youth.  (I was a minister’s son, after all).  Sports programs and club teams and coaches along the way had a big impact on me. I wasn’t very interested in school, but I was interested in sports, and it was sports that kept me engaged in my school community.  I don’t want to think about the direction I might have gone without the positive experience of team sports.  I believe all children should have an opportunity to learn the same lessons.

 

Money should not mean the difference between kids playing and kids watching on the sidelines.

 

I also had a loving and stable home.  No matter how wild I got, I knew that at home there were parents who were always there for me and had time for me.  This kind of stability is essential for a secure childhood.  A stable home is what parents strive for, but if they are pulled in every direction to make ends meet, or if they are working two jobs to pay the bills, home life can suffer and kids can feel the stress.

 

The fact is, poverty marginalizes kids.

 

In addition to the obvious dollars and cents differences between children who are poor and those who are not, there are other differences that are even more heartbreaking.  Children living in poverty are more likely to lack confidence and self-esteem.  They are less likely to finish high school.  They feel excluded when young.  These are scars that last beyond childhood and set the course for an adulthood of exclusion.

 

I am particularly happy to see the efforts of CPAN in regards to Aboriginal children.  The statistics for these kids are truly shocking.

 

One quarter of all children on reserve live in poverty and 40 per cent of First Nations children off reserve live in poverty.  When you look at our society you can see that the birth rate among Aboriginal families is much higher than among the non-Aboriginal population.  We cannot afford, as a society, to have so many of our future resources, the children of today, and the adults of tomorrow, excluded from society and living in poverty.  No child should be marginalized.

 

We must fight against passive acceptance of the status quo.

 

We’ve come to a time in our society when we accept that we all have a role to play to protect the environment.  We know that our smallest efforts – turning off lights, recycling, driving a smaller car, for example — can have a big impact because what we do affects the whole. The same is true for child poverty.  In addition to the obvious act of being aware of what we do and its effect on children and families, we can contribute with our time, our money or other resources to organizations like C-PAN.  But another thing we must all do is to open our minds and hearts.  When we consider poor people as “other”, as “them” and “those people” we are perpetuating the marginalization and exclusion of the poor.

 

Those people are your neighbours, your clients and customers, your employees, and your children’s classmates.  For our world to be better, for Renfrew County to be better, their world has to be better.  And that starts with us. Thank you very much.