Reflecting on Canada’s Past 50 Years: What has changed for Poverty?


In the midst of Canada150 celebrations, I cannot help but think back 50 years ago to Expo67 and the Centennial anniversary.

I was only 6 years old at the time with the Bobby Gimby tune singing in my head, “One, little two, little three Canadians” – and had no idea of the colonial significance.  I recall that it was a sunny day with an overwhelming number of people and lots of noise.  What I learned later of course was that while it was viewed as the world’s most successful world fair of the 20th century there was a hidden side of the celebrations where, as noted by Jane Griffith, “Indians of Canada Pavilion at Expo 67 resisted“.

At the end of the baby boomer generation, our population was at 20 million with a very new Canadian Maple Leaf flag. Both good and bad change was happening all across the country. The Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) was introduced as a temporary measure, with the Medical Care Act in place the year before along with the Canada Assistance Plan (CAP) program. Hippie culture and Quiet Revolution in Québec were underway. The Toronto Maple Leafs had won the Stanley Cup against the Montreal Canadiens and haven’t won it since.  And the shameful permanent move of the Innu of Davis Inlet to the restrictions of Iluikoyak Island and the cultural genocide of the residential system were in full swing.

Poverty in Canada in 1967

During our centennial year, 3.86 million people lived in poverty, as highlighted by the Report of the Special Senate Committee on Poverty led by David Croll.  Prevailing thoughts as to the causes of poverty during that this time focused on an individualistic point of view:

“Why so many poor ?: The concern and legislation of the 1960’s also raised the questions of why there were so many poor people in a country as rich as Canada. In the prevailing ethos, poverty is perceived and treated as an individual problem, not a social problem – for example, individuals who are poor have themselves to blame” – The Canadian Encyclopedia

Poverty in Canada in 2017

Presently there are 4.9 million people living in poverty in Canada.

What has changed in 50 years?

Although the UN Declaration of Human Rights was established in 1948 it wouldn’t be until 1976 that Canada signed two critically important UN agreements: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on the Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. And still later international conventions were signed on the rights of children, persons with disabilities, women and many others. Concretely, these covenants require that Canada take steps to progressively achieve fulfillment of these rights. In terms of combating poverty, this means that governments in Canada must create strategies and policies, like the upcoming Canadian Poverty Reduction Strategy, in line with our human rights obligations. A rights focus is not only a legal obligation – it can enrich laws, policies and programs by focusing on long-term structural barriers to equality. As the former Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights stated:

“What is needed, therefore, is human rights-based change that directly addresses the long-term structural barriers to equality and sets the foundations for a sustainable, socially inclusive society.” – Maria Magdalena Sepúlveda Carmona

What hasn’t changed in 50 years?

High levels of poverty still exist in a wealthy country such as Canada.

What can you do?

Sometimes we feel insignificant in the face of overwhelming numbers such as 4.9 million people living in poverty, or the at least 235,000 people visibly homeless in 2016. “How can one person make a difference?” is what I sometimes hear.  What I can tell you is that each one of us makes a difference. Our voice matters! Here’s what you can do:

  • Read these UN agreements and find out what they mean. You can learn even more about human rights and poverty by signing up for CWP’s online rights course starting on July 14th;
  • Ask questions and find out more about the realities of poverty in Canada;
  • See what is already being done, join a campaign and sign a petition;
  • Volunteer with an organization, there is strength in numbers;
  • Contact your Member of Parliament by writing a letter, phoning, or making an appointment;
  • Be creative, have a positive attitude, use social media;
  • Donate your time or money to a cause or organization; and
  • Be persistent, don’t give up, work in collaboration with others and have fun!

In looking to the future in 2067, Canada will look very different than it does now. Fifty years is a long time to create positive change. Canada has the capacity, intelligence, creativity and obligation to effectively address poverty. Working together can achieve this, we can have a Canada without poverty.

Harriett McLachlan is the interim Deputy Director of Canada Without Poverty.