Chew on this: Why do we accept poverty in a nation as rich as Canada?

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Following the tradition in Canada, people gave thanks around the country this past weekend. As food was prepared and bellies were filled we were left wondering: When did Canada decide that 4.9 million people living in poverty was something that we consent to as a nation? How can we find it acceptable that 17.4 per cent of children in Canada are living in households struggling to put food on the table?

As we move toward the federal election after this weekend, we've noticed that there has been scant mention of one of the most pressing issues in the country: poverty. It affects about 15 per cent of our population. Those who experience poverty have been largely ignored by the media and by the platforms of our future members of Parliament. Ironic given that two days before we cast our ballots, we will be marking the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty.

There is no way around the fact that Canada is a rich nation with a substantial poverty problem. Canada ranks in the top 10 countries in the OECD in terms of its GDP per capita, and yet food insecurity is an everyday a reality for so many. A recent report from PROOF reveals that 1.4 million households or over three million people are food insecure in this country and that there is a direct link between food insecurity and chronic physical and mental health conditions.

Communities in the North face severe food insecurity, with rates in Nunavut at 45 per cent or almost four times the national average. A staggering rate of 7 in 10 Inuit preschoolers live in food insecure households -- significantly higher than the 1 in 6 national average for children.

Poverty in Canada is an issue of life-and-death. In a Hamilton study it was found that those experiencing poverty had a shorter lifespan by 21 years. In January 2014, at least two individuals died because of lack of housing and the cold -- and that was just in Toronto. In Canada, one in five dollars spent on health care is attributed to 'health inequities' for preventable conditions such as depression, diabetes, heart disease and other chronic conditions more likely to occur for people who are homeless or living in poverty.

Canadians have a great capacity for compassion and generosity. We witnessed this most recently in response to the Syrian refugee crisis when images of a lifeless child and displaced families hit front page news. There was a wonderful outpouring of concern and action. As a nation, we rightly said: this is wrong, we can do more.

We need our leaders to propose similar attention be paid to those who are poor and homeless right here amongst us. People in Canada want action -- in fact, on October 6 in almost 50 communities across the country, ChewOnThis! participants demanded that all people in Canada be included in the benefits of our economy and nation.

While our leaders incessantly message about the middle class in this electoral home stretch, we wonder, will they think twice on October 17 about the 1 in 7 people in Canada who are living in poverty -- who are homeless or living in terrible conditions, going without food and heating and in some cases even clean water?

When an issue is large in scale and not necessarily a quick-fix, people in Canada look to those who are and who want to be in government for leadership and guidance. While the interests and concerns of Canadians set the agenda, so to do public figures.

This federal election is the ideal time for people in Canada to consider the future of our nation. Will we be a country where politicians and the electorate realize we must address economic injustice and inequality? And will politicians have the courage to do what's right and what's necessary: adopt a national anti-poverty strategy that cuts across sectors -- from health, to housing, to employment, to child care -- and that promotes the inherent dignity and human rights of all members of the human family?

Canada is an affluent country and it's time these resources were put to use to improve the living conditions of Canada's poorest most vulnerable populations.

We've proposed solutions to poverty that are within reach. We need a national anti-poverty plan that is based in promoting human dignity, consistent with human rights. As a nation we need to decide that poverty is everyone's responsibility. We can't ignore the issue any longer.


Leilani Farha is Executive Director of Canada Without Poverty, and Joe Gunn is Executive Director of Citizens for Public Justice. Together they co-chair Dignity for All: The Campaign for a Poverty-free Canada.

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