Statement of the Episcopal Commission for Social Affairs concerning the Eradication of Poverty

Thursday, October 15 1998

In his Apostolic Letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente His Holiness Pope John Paul II sets the agenda for the Church’s preparation for the Jubilee Year 2000 with a remarkable stress on the social dimension of this event. The Holy Father states that, “Indeed, it has to be said that a commitment to justice and peace…is a necessary condition for the preparation and celebration of the Jubilee.”(1)

Since the Jubilee year “was meant to restore equality among all,”(2) the members of the Social Affairs Commission would like to encourage people of good will to reflect on how we could work together to create a Jubilee where greater social justice prevails. Two years ago today, our Commission released a pastoral letter entitled The Struggle Against Poverty: A Sign of Hope for Our World. In that message, the Bishops reflected on the situation of four groups where poverty has been concentrated in Canada: women, aboriginal people, uprooted persons and families. From our religious conviction, we called for concerted actions to join in the worldwide effort to eradicate poverty by following the path of solidarity. How then have we fared in this task?

In the latest figures available from the National Council for Welfare, the same source we relied on for our pastoral letter, the results are extremely alarming.’ The poverty rate rose to 17.6 per cent in Canada, the child poverty rate jumped to 20.9 per cent and even the poverty rate for seniors (which has been falling) increased to almost 19 per cent.(3)

The most troubling aspect of these statistics is the fact that with the economic recession having been judged to be over, it would have been reasonable to expect poverty rates to fall, and yet they did not. It seems that a rising economic tide did not lift all boats. In fact, while the richest 20 per cent of Canadians saw their incomes rise, the poorest 20 per cent saw theirs fall. With child poverty rates at a 17 year high, is it not now time for a renewed commitment to truly make the eradication of poverty a national priority? As we stated in 1993, “Unemployment is obviously responsible for much of the poverty, hunger, homelessness, family breakdown and suicide that plague society today.”(4) The situation of the unemployed in our communities is a source of grave concern for us. It is a matter of justice that they receive their fair share of employment insurance.

On a world scale, there continues to be cause for concern. If we accept the World Bank suggestion that anyone living on less than $1US per day is among the “absolute poor,” then about 1.3 billion people, or a third of the developing world, live in absolute poverty. With the unsettling of international markets, attributed to the “Asian economic flu,” millions more have been thrust into unemployment and even worse poverty. Unfortunately, international financial institutions are not preventing the market’s failures from causing extreme damage to the lives of ordinary people.

In the globalized economy it is clear that the adverse affects are a contagion that has been allowed to spread faster and farther than ever before. While Canadians and their governments worry about their own future, we also need to realize that our interdependent world cries out for a solidarity that is increasingly in our mutual interest to provide. Yet Canada’s foreign aid is at its lowest level in 30 years while Ottawa spends almost five times more on “defence” and cuts important projects of NGOs such as the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace.

Signs of Hope

There are some signs of hope in the struggle to reduce poverty both at home and abroad. Many local churches have begun programs to feed, clothe and house the impoverished. More impressive yet are the initiatives undertaken to help persons find or create jobs, form cooperatives or advocate for their rights.

In particular, we fully support the initiative of the Collectif pour une loi sur l’élimination de la pauvreté which has just begun a process of drafting legislation for the Quebec National Assembly, designed to eliminate poverty in that province. We also support the activities and objectives of Campaign 2000, which attempts to hold Parliament accountable to its unanimous 1989 resolution to achieve the elimination of poverty among Canadian children by the year 2000. We urge Canada’s finance minister to make this a priority in his next budget, and for all political parties to support such laudable action.

In Canada, the Senate has recently passed a bill designed to add “social condition” to the list of prohibited grounds for discrimination in the Human Rights Act. This legislation is designed to shield the poor from the kind of discrimination they often report from banks, telephone companies or federal agencies.(5) In this year marking the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights, this legislation could have the symbolic effect of encouraging Canadians to see poverty as an important human rights issue, beyond a simple concern for our personal charity. The Social Affairs Commission encourages members of Parliament to introduce and pass this legislation in the House of Commons without delay.

As well, more than 30,000 Canadians, our Commission included, signed a petition asking the federal government to establish a taskforce on sweatshop production of footwear and apparel. It is an encouraging sign that consumers are interested in using their purchasing power to obtain products that are manufactured in situations where adequate working conditions are guaranteed.(6) Many retailers seem equally interested in providing articles produced under adequate conditions. We encourage the federal government to quickly announce the establishment of such a taskforce.

In keeping with the theme of Jubilee justice, an initiative that has captured our imagination and which is gathering massive support, is the petition campaign to cancel the backlog of unpayable debts of the most impoverished nations by the year 2000. But having a “jubilee perspective” on the debt question is not simply a matter of the remission of debt; rather,it is a question of removing the harsh burdens that so oppress the poorest. “Debt forgiveness must be part of a process of the restoration of justice, harmony and equity, so that the poorest nations, and the poorest populations of those nations, are enabled to make a fresh start, to turn a new and more hopeful page in their history.”(7) We enthusiastically support the efforts of the Canadian Ecumenical Jubilee Initiative in this regard, and encourage others to join it, as well as the “In Common” global poverty campaign of Canadian development assistance NGOs.(8)

To fully prepare for the Jubilee 2000 is to act justly today by participating in actions that will eradicate poverty in Canada and abroad. To be able to celebrate the Jubilee we will need to develop a boundless solidarity, an immense capacity for prayer, and a spirituality capable of sustaining us on this journey. And to help us live in accord with the will of God, we can count on the Jubilee promise that “I will set up my dwelling among you…I will live in your midst; I will be your God and you shall be my people.”(9)

May our preparations for the Jubilee bear good fruit now, while allowing us to truly anticipate a new millennium of justice and peace for all.

Most Reverend François Thibodeau, CJM,
Bishop of Edmundston

Most Rev. Bertrand Blanchet
Archbishop of Rimouski

Most Rev. Nicola De Angelis
Auxiliary Bishop of Toronto

Most Rev. Raymond Dumais
Bishop of Gaspé

Most Rev. Peter Sutton, OMI
Archbishop of Keewatin-Le Pas

Most Rev. V. James Weisgerber
Bishop of Saskatoon

1. Pope John Paul II, Tertio Millennio Adveniente, no. 51.

2. Ibid, no. 13.

3. Graham Fraser, “Poverty rates rising, report says,The Globe and Mail, May 11, 1998. Their definition of poverty refers to those Canadians who must devote 56.2% or more of their gross income to “the necessities of life”, i.e., basic food, shelter and clothing. Significantly, their tabulations do not include data from the Yukon, Northwest Territories, Indian reserves and institutions such as prisons, mental hospitals and homes for the aged. See: National Council of Welfare, Poverty Profile, 1996, Spring 1998, pp. 4-9.

4. Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, Episcopal Commission for Social Affairs, Widespread Unemployment: A Call to Mobilize the Social Forces of our Nation, April 14, 1993, no. 21.

5. See Bill S-11, sponsored by Conservative Senator Ermine Cohen, passed on June 9, 1998.

6. The fact that many Canadians are now drinking fairly-traded coffee after last year’s ecumenical campaign, and that over 250,000 persons signed petitions asking the Levi-Straus and NIKE companies to improve labour conditions, signals a growing awareness, especially among youth. October 17th is the third day of world action to raise social justice concerns with NIKE leaders around the world.

7. Roger Cardinal Etchegaray, President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and President of the Committee appointed by the Pope to prepare for the Great Jubilee, “A Jubilee on Poverty,” in SEDOS, 4/29/98.

8. See The Canadian Ecumenical Jubilee Initiative, especially the debt petition campaign which is active in 70 countries, and see The Canadian Council for International Cooperation’s In common: Global Action Against Poverty,, especially the Ten Point Agenda.

9. Leviticus 26:11-12.