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Poverty Free Ontario challenges candidates

OAKVILLE – Despite its reputation for health, there is poverty in Halton Region and a number of groups have joined forces to spread the word to the community.

With the provincial election coming up in a few weeks, the group will be challenging candidates on poverty issues and is asking residents to vote for a poverty-free Ontario.

On Thursday, Sept. 15, the Interfaith Council of Halton, Voices for Change, Halton and the Halton Poverty Roundtable held a Poverty Free Ontario discussion at Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church, as similar roundtable discussions were taking place in communities across Ontario.

The province-wide Poverty Free Ontario initiative was organized by Social Planning Network of Ontario in partnership with the Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition.

At the Oakville event, several people spoke about their own experiences with ongoing poverty.

The pastor of the church, Daniel Phannenhour, also made a presentation, urging people to think about poverty in the provincial election, saying the issue does not get the attention it deserves in society.

“People of faith care about poverty because we share a conviction of the world, in which we live, that it is created good,” he said. “Creation is good. The goodness of creation and all its blessings, including that of our human community, reflects the goodness of the creator.”

However, when the goodness of creation is denied to certain people through the barrier of poverty, people of faith are compelled to respond.

He said poverty could be considered as a noble and virtuous condition; however, when stories of poverty are told, they reveal the most marginalized people in society, such as single women with children, older women living alone, people with disabilities (physical, mental and emotional), and aboriginal people.

“Such people relegated to poverty can only be the result of deliberate and intentional decisions made by the people who exercise authority within our political and economic picture,” he said.

“These decisions can be changed and poverty can be eliminated through the exercise of our collective values expressed through the political process.”

He asked people to vote to end poverty and that the group would make the issue of poverty a top priority in the election.

June Cockwell, representing Halton Poverty Roundtable, said the organization is part of a larger national collective working to eliminate poverty.

The Poverty Roundtable has organized an all-candidates meeting for the Oakville riding at the local YMCA on Tuesday, Sept. 20, where it plans to question candidates on issues of poverty. The meeting runs from 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. in Multi-purpose Room 5 (Kinesis Room).

Three women, who have been involved with Voices for Change Halton, spoke to a small group of people about their experiences.

Barbara Chilwell is a single mother of a child with special needs, Emily Murphy is only 21, and Juliana (who asked for her last name not be used) is an immigrant. All three are currently faced with poverty.

Barbara Chilwell

Barbara Chilwell and her special needs daughter lived with Barbara’s mother.

“My fall into poverty happened very suddenly,” she said.

“One Friday afternoon my mother had a stroke. A week later I had a heart attack, then I had cardiac arrest and then I had congestive heart failure. About three days later my mother died. About five days later, my stepmother – who was the same age as me and my best friend – died.”

She continued to live in the house, as her family owned it, but her mother’s contributions to it ended.

“I lived on the equity of the house for a few years and then I couldn’t manage and I wasn’t getting any better physically,” she said.

Eventually she was forced to get social assistance, but going on an Ontario Disability Service Program was a negative experience.

“You have to bare your soul to people and you’re shamed that you’re there in the first place,” she said. “Whether it’s through illness or no matter what got you there, no one likes to ask for help.”

She said the system makes one feel as though the person is trying to take advantage of it and it affects people negatively.

“I was a business person prior to all of this. I lost my confidence. I lost my self. I lost my voice. I would still advocate for my daughter . . . but for myself, I could not do that,” she said.

Her world became smaller because it was difficult to socialize with friends, having no money to even go out for coffee. Being on social assistance made her feel like a drain on society and there is a stigma associated with it.

“You believe what everybody says about you, whether you want to or not,” she said.

She said she’s thankful there was a system to help her, but those social services are very expensive.

She was invited into Voices for Change Halton where there were people who understood what people such as her were going through.

“Through that I started to understand I had a voice and I had to get it back,” she said.

She became involved with the organization.

Her life is now improving, being off expensive, publicly-paid-for medication, and feels as though she’s less of a drain on society.

“Because I’ve been given my voice back, I’ve also been given hope. We all need hope. We need to see there’s something we can do.”

Though she’s still on social assistance, she said she will soon be able to contribute to society after being given a hand-up, not a hand-out.

That is why she decided to speak, so people will understand the need to help people in tough times.

“I want people to understand the value to society to help me find my voice, to move ahead, to get out of the system, to become a person I used to be,” she said. “Or, when people get onto the system, to stop the slide, to stop losing your job, or getting ill, to being beaten down, to becoming less than you are because then the journey to getting a job is a lot harder.”

Emily Murphy

The 21-year-old Murphy said she has been on Ontario Works since the age of 18.

“I never thought of myself as living in poverty,” she said. “I wasn’t aware of the issues and I didn’t find myself as poor — not when I was living off $25 a week for groceries, or when I was washing my hair in public bathrooms… or when I was staying at the Lighthouse shelter… I was just going through a rough patch.”

Murphy said she comes from a middle-class family. She got into poverty because she hated school. It was a case of not fitting in and she was miserable in high school. One day, she couldn’t get herself back into the school building and she never graduated.

She began arguing with her family about not completing school and then she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis.

“That was the final straw. With all the logic of a wounded animal, I decided to straighten up on my own. It didn’t take me long to end up on OW (Ontario Works),” she said.

Paying $450 a month for housing, she had little money left for anything else.

Murphy felt like a drain on the system and an absolute failure. Her self-respect took a beating. She told herself she would eventually do better and become better but it didn’t happen.

She recently went to Voices for Change where she learned a single person on OW gets 39.6 per cent of the poverty line. This needs to change, but she understands the battle is a difficult one.

“I feel obligated to try to do something about it, whether it’s effective or not,” she told the group. “I want to be able to do something that I can be proud of. I’m definitely proud to be up here speaking today. That’s a good start.”


Juliana lived a well-off life with her husband and children in Dubai. However, the couple knew it wasn’t the best place to raise their children so they decided start fresh in Canada. They packed up their lives and came to Canada in 2002, being promised an easy start to get to the wealth they had enjoyed.

“When we came here, I discovered the decision was really good for kids, but not for us as parents,” she said.

In Dubai she was a management professional and her husband was an engineer with 25 years experience, which meant little in Canada. They spent money getting a home and starting a new life but neither one could find work.

She and her husband began to fight and eventually they divorced.

“I started to figure out all that is bad with the system, starting with me paying taxes in this country but when you ask for help, they treat you like a person who doesn’t deserve it or someone who isn’t allowed to have this money,” she said of having to get social assistance.

When she found a job, she wanted to improve her education, but she couldn’t afford to.

She remarried and her second husband said he would take care of her, but he was abusive. She got help at a women’s shelter, where someone recommended she should consider leaving him. After only 10 months, the marriage broke up.

Juliana stayed in a shelter and returned to her home country for a few months. Upon returning to Canada, she began rebuilding her life and her business in jewelry design.

“I’m in the middle of the road that is taking me to be a really successful entrepreneur, but at the same time, I’m still dealing with legal issues, social issues,” she said of her current life.

“I’m struggling with money issues because I don’t classify for any help. I’m still waiting for this to be over.”

She said social assistance programs are not helpful to women, as the programs don’t help women upgrade their education or those who have their own businesses, or women who come out of recent relationships.

Juliana added it is difficult to get out of the tough financial situation in Canada.

“If you are not a strong person that you can get yourself out of it, working in two or three part-time jobs, you will not be able to get out of that situation,” she said.

She said the system needs to change and she’s happy to be part of an organization that is trying to do that, with Voices for Change Halton.

“There are people who are struggling in this country and there are people who are filthy rich,” she said, adding there is a need for people to help those who are in need.

“Hopefully, I will be one of those people soon, who help those who are in poverty,” she said.



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