Practising Social Activism


Because she grew up with poverty, Edith brought this context of familiarity to conditions she encountered while working for the Children's Aid of Winnipeg. But there was also an element of naiveté because, at first, she accepted conditions as she had her own, growing up. Once exposed to the outside world, she became more analytical and asked herself what about the picture was wrong. This concern led to a more critical and structural view of social injustice; observing that social and economic barriers were prevalent, even in a country like Canada, she began to question why some people had so many more choices than others based on wealth. She noted that even within the Native communities there was economic disparity based on government employment for the few while many lived in direst poverty.

Edith was 28 when she married and had opted to become a stay-at-home mother. However, the commitment she had already honed to social justice provided the incentive to get intensely involved in her community in a rural area east of Winnipeg. There she took on many projects, from getting a day care and a seniors' home started to being both a Girl Guide and Brownie leader.

Springboard to politics and moving to the Island

The silence of the poor slowly began to dawn on me: 'We don't have a voice because we are poor'.

Her volunteer work and lobbying over ten years in Manitoba provided a springboard for Edith to commit to issues requiring in-depth involvement and greater lobbying than she had ever done before. She observed that there were "groups of people, not necessarily individuals, who are forever struggling to get something" – and that this struggle was about having a voice to deal effectively with the kind of equitable change that could improve the quality of lives for certain groups.

By this time, Edith had become actively involved with a political party, having realized that her own and direct participation was now crucial: "if you weren't there, influencing and affecting decisions and development of policy, then you might as well just stay home and keep making coffee and serving sandwiches".

Then, in 1985, Edith and her family moved to a rural property on Prince Edward Island. Here she continued her community involvement, working with the Home and School Association, and Brownies and Girl Guides. She joined the local Women's Institute to get acquainted with her neighbours. Intensifying her activism, Edith's priority was squarely focused on social justice because she was deeply concerned about the poverty and its long-term effects. She became involved in feminist organizations such as the Women's Network, in anti-poverty organizations such as Alert, the Working Group for Livable Income, and in literacy groups such as Laubach and the PEI Literacy Alliance. Analyzing the links between poverty and literacy, health, nutrition, and learning disabilities, she developed her understanding that impacts of poverty could be reduced by dealing with such issues as low wages, availability of full-time work, single parenting, and levels of Social Assistance.

Today, Edith feels that issues related to poverty have become more politicized; for instance it is more widely understood that the fact that young people cannot find work and must leave the Maritimes impacts not only on their individual lives but on the regional leaders concerned with the economy. These community and activist leaders either find fewer voices joining theirs or they themselves become silenced because they have moved on or are forced to make a living with fewer resources. For example, young people speaking out about social justice and the environment often have to leave for work where the economy is better. Family farm advocates leave their farming struggles to earn a living elsewhere. If they want to enter the kind of politics that speaks more to their sense of social justice they find that having to make an income detracts from their advocacy via politics. Being poorer has begun to impact upon middle-income people. Decent-paying jobs have decreased. No one is immune to job loss and bankruptcy.

Perhaps there is willingness now for decision makers to pay attention. Things are happening that are proving what we were warning or predicting or protesting about is now actually happening.

On a global level, conflict and the environmental crisis have drawn attention to the inequalities at the root of war and ecological imbalances. Edith feels that activists in the peace and environmental movements have found growing support among the general public as people have become more aware of the loss of life and the damage to the environment that are caused by social problems. Locally, more traditional citizens have participated in peace efforts. Regarding farming practices, Edith's friends and activists who are passionate about sustainable farming find inadequate incomes from organic, but socially responsible agriculture; it is very difficult for them. However, in recent years, more farmers who farmed in the standard way have faced economic crisis. They have turned to the niche markets provided by organic and genetically modified GMO-free (genetically modified) produce.

Putting a human face on the problem

Edith's focus has consistently been to "put a real face on a representative of a group of people who have always faced inadequate income". In this capacity she has spoken out boldly on the various faces of poverty, raising awareness that many people across various socio-economic levels have experienced poverty at some time over the course of their lives.

As a young woman, Edith was part of a group of women which never earned an adequate income and certainly were never on a par with men; many did not expect to advance in their positions or to achieve equal pay, and often would not speak out because they feared being ostracized or putting their families in jeopardy. She herself evolved to the point of having "more confidence in being prepared to have the courage to speak out on justice issues, particularly to bureaucrats and political officials". She became known as "one of those people who would be at the front line saying what had to be said". But she is careful to say that she did not act alone. Edith attributed her transformation from a shy, self-conscious young person to someone much more confident and prepared for handling the necessity of speaking directly to power and learning the skills to do that effectively. She had learned also that nothing could be achieved by remaining silent. So she volunteered to be the one to speak. Time and time again, whether to prevent Manitoba Hydro from expropriating land (a multi-year process), or finally getting a senior citizens' home built in the Manitoba village near where she lived, Edith assumed the crucial vocal roles of explanation, persuasion, and argumentation. She saw results: "the fact that we actually accomplished something reinforced to me that if you want something to happen, you have to speak out".

The limits of the "charity model"

Edith has been involved over almost four decades (to date) in a wide range of issues related to labour issues. Supporting these groups is necessary because economic and social status imbalance keeps people poor. Her priority has become fighting what makes us poor. It has become time to change the charity model to a social justice one that effectively fights poverty, Edith believes. Changing government policy is difficult, she argues, because of the way systems are set up in a society that is full of the tensions of knowing something is wrong, but being uncertain about what needs to change while "still being prepared to accept the status quo". Her analysis is that to some extent the system can remain static because those who want to change it do not have the money to take legal action, to lobby, or even to be in the right place at the right time to protest and educate the public.

Edith has discovered that "it's more complicated and more difficult to change policy and how things are done because you have to educate yourself and everyone else around you". And the system in Canada that tends most to help the poor—apart from government services—is based on the charity model, not the social justice model. Consequently, many volunteers and community groups conduct publicly sanctioned charitable work, for example, in stocking food banks or building a shelter, but they cannot or do not wish to see beyond socially approved fundraising efforts and high individual donations to the larger, less visible and intractable structural issues that feed the plight of economically disadvantaged citizens. So those citizens are faced sometimes with agonizing decisions: for example, "do we eat, or do we heat?" And though the charity model is often acknowledged as being inadequate to the scope of the problems, Edith sees that many are still prepared "to get on that treadmill and keep on perpetuating that way of dealing with poverty" – which does not significantly change things because comforting habits of thinking push aside deeper, sharper digging into the root causes of injustice and inequality.

The Working Group for a Livable Income raises awareness about the underlying issues of poverty: "We add voices to influencing government policy. The more voices we have to do this, the more policy makers will change how they deal with poverty."

Walking with both feet

To describe a comprehensive model for addressing poverty issues that is an alternative to the charity model, Edith refers to a phrase that she found in some literature she found somewhere: "walking with both feet". It refers to two approaches to helping others in need. The first way is giving essentially from the heart to alleviate immediate needs, such as providing (for the time being anyway) adequate food or clothing. The second way is to use the head to examine the social justice and inequality, using the deeper factors that created the need in the first place. However, such "other foot" walking demands courage, tenacity, research, critique of public policy, preparation and skilful lobbying.

A malfunctioning electoral system

Another concern for Edith is how citizens are elected to legislatures. She is adamant that the first-past-the-post electoral system in Canada excludes certain groups from representation, and thereby results in their marginalization and silencing. In Canada, both federally and provincially, Edith observes that the two old-line political parties rule by first-past-the-post. Thus other voices are not heard. Edith wants to see an electoral system that elects people by proportional representation.

Finding fulfilment

If we continue to be a voice out there, I have this sense that politicians and other officials are hearing us.

Edith does feel some sense of fulfilment in accomplishing some of her social justice goals. Seeing young women with the necessary education, knowledge, skills and motivation come along to help pursue social justice goals is deeply encouraging. It will become more difficult for others to ignore effective social activists.

Attending to focus and subsequent details

Known for being the one to step up and say what is needed in straightforward, plain language, Edith understands that she can effectively "cut to the chase and say what it is". When she is working with a team, the group will strategize before a meeting and decide who will be the spokesperson. Sometimes a personal issue might threaten to sidetrack a meeting so she will help take the opportunity to bring it back on track by addressing the issue clearly without any personal attacks. At other times, an activist group about to meet with an official committee will do the research and analysis before that meeting in order to know a great deal about the priorities and backgrounds of the committee members. The group may decide to include use of one person's personal point-of-view to put a valuable human face on the issue. " I become that human face because I have lived it or have been closely associated with someone who is."

Teams also make it possible to gather all necessary information on an issue. Organizations with labour representation have access to research. Women's groups such as the Women's Network, the Advisory Council on the Status of Women, and the Cooper Institute on PEI also have research abilities and skills. If adequately funded, such groups can lobby most effectively for changes to the policy and direction of government.

As you become a little more exposed to the outside world and a little more knowledgeable, you begin to put a finger on what's wrong with this picture.