Santa: Please stop here

The Compass - - EDITORIAL - Pat Cullen Pat Cullen is a jour­nal­ist and com­mu­nity vol­un­teer who lives in Car­bon­ear. She can be reached at 596-1505 or

I haven’t seen that plain­tive lit­tle sign yet. The first week in De­cem­ber is, I sup­pose, too early.

I’ve of­ten won­dered whether it’s just a fad, some­thing all the kids do, or whether the chil­dren in the house dis­play­ing that sign were ac­tu­ally beg­ging Santa to visit. Ig­nored by most, they felt even Santa would find them in­signif­i­cant and pass them by.

It was out­side the poorer homes in Car­bon­ear where I saw that sign. Here, the houses were shab­bier, the dec­o­ra­tions less plen­ti­ful, as if its young oc­cu­pants were will­ing Santa to come and make things bet­ter. I could never bear to look very long at that sign. For to me, it rep­re­sented the worst blas­phemy of all — the in­no­cence of a child, shaken or worse still, de­stroyed by poverty on what is their spe­cial hol­i­day, a time when they are told and be­lieve magic can truly hap­pen. For it is Christ­mas.

Christ­mas is the sea­son of con­trasts. It is the sea­son of happy peo­ple laden with presents lined up at store check­outs, ad­dled, har­ried from a day’s shop­ping, the voices and faces straight out of tele­vi­sion land.

Then, in this cruel di­chotomy, there are those ad­dled and har­ried for a far dif­fer­ent rea­son. Th­ese are the peo­ple call­ing food banks in mid-Novem­ber, ask­ing if Christ­mas ham­pers will be dis­trib­uted this year, the voices some­times ner­vous, ten­ta­tive, the sob-filled sigh of re­lief when you say “Yes.” That sigh alone, that mix­ture of an­guish and fear now tinged with a lit­tle hope is enough to break your heart. You pic­ture the care­worn face be­hind that voice and your heart breaks just a lit­tle fur­ther.

A worker in the Depart­ment of Ad­vanced Ed­u­ca­tion and Skills told me a month ago there was a “high vol­ume” of in­come sup­port ap­pli­ca­tions. It is a star­tling ad­mis­sion and one that puts our gov­ern­ment to shame. A “high vol­ume” in the de­mand for pub­lic char­ity in the land of full and plenty — in a coun­try where no child should lie awake won­der­ing if Santa will see and re­spond to their woe­be­gone lit­tle sign, where no adult should feel they must plead for Christ­mas din­ner.

And yet there was no men­tion made of poverty re­duc­tion in the Five-Point elec­tion plan of now Lib­eral premier-des­ig­nate Dwight Ball. He en­cour­ages us to eat more fruit and veg­eta­bles, but a leader so fa­mil­iar with poverty sta­tis­tics must know that fresh pro­duce is never the sta­ple of food banks.

On a Novem­ber cam­paign stop in Car­bon­ear, Ball said in a pri­vate in­ter­view that roughly 34,000 peo­ple in the prov­ince rely on in­come sup­port, 8,000 of whom are chil­dren. Iron­i­cally, a re­port re­leased the same day by Food Banks Canada put the num­ber of chil­dren eat­ing from food banks in this prov­ince at al­most 9,365 in March alone. It also stated we have the sec­ond-high­est level of food-bank us­age in the coun­try.

Yet, there is no in­di­ca­tion from Ball as to how he plans to elimi- nate those sta­tis­tics. His elec­tion man­i­festo says he will “pro­mote healthy eat­ing habits through a com­bi­na­tion of aware­ness cam­paigns and com­mu­nity out­reach,” but there is no clar­ity as to how he will put nu­tri­tious food into hun­gry bel­lies.

He did say he would make hous­ing more af­ford­able for the poor and in­tro­duce a min­i­mum wage that “guar­an­tees an an­nual in­crease based on the con­sumer price in­dex.” But hav­ing a roof over your head won’t lessen the hunger pangs and an in­dexed min­i­mum wage ben­e­fits only those in the work­force. Per­haps the most in­di­gent will gain through the elim­i­na­tion of pay to par­lia­men­tary sec­re­taries, in ex­cess of $500,000 “since the last elec­tion” his plat­form read, but there is no in­di­ca­tion that any money saved there will ben­e­fit the poor­est of the poor ei­ther.

Christ­mas, the sea­son of hope and joy, is the most cruel for many. It is the hid­den hun­gry I think of mainly, those who won’t go near a food bank, the sort who wish you Merry Christ­mas on Dec. 25 and then re­turn home to their semif­rigid lodg­ings and a hol­i­day din­ner of what­ever can be bought with the rem­nants of an in­come sup­port cheque, af­ter the bills are paid.

In that in­ter­view, Ball was asked if he had given any thought to the in­tro­duc­tion of a ba­sic in­come. He hadn’t, nor ap­par­ently had he even con­sid­ered it. “We have not had any con­sul­ta­tions in the past with the stake­hold­ers that would be in­cluded into a ba­sic in­come.”

And this sys­tem which will give ev­ery in­di­vid­ual enough money to live with the dig­nity of nu­tri­tious food, suf­fi­cient heat, good hous­ing and clothes geared to the weather is, in my opin­ion, a right.

It will elim­i­nate Dick­en­sian scenes of semi-frigid homes and piti­ful meals on Christ­mas Day and ev­ery other day. It will ban­ish im­pov­er­ish­ment and the de­spair that ac­com­pa­nies it.

It is such a sim­ple right, this right to hu­man dig­nity. It is what Christ­mas is all about. It’s only we who make it com­pli­cated through greed, bias and self-in­ter­est. So, let’s put our baser in­stincts aside, not just for a few days or a few weeks, but for good. And we can be­gin by talk­ing, not about a utopian il­lu­sion, but about a work­able con­cept that can and should be im­ple­mented. All we need is the will.

(Ball’s) elec­tion man­i­festo says he will “pro­mote healthy eat­ing habits through a com­bi­na­tion of aware­ness cam­paigns and com­mu­nity out­reach,” but there is no clar­ity as to how he will put nu­tri­tious food into hun­gry bel­lies.

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