Photo: Getty Images | Design: Genevieve Pizzale
On what led her to become impoverished
I grew up in a middle class family in the 60s and 70s and I was born into violence and abuse. I was sexually abused by my father from a young age up to when I left home. I witnessed the beating of my brothers, and had the beating of my life when I was 16 and knew I had to leave. But I grew up in northern Québec and it was a small town and I needed to figure out a way to leave safely. I found myself on my own in Montréal, when I came to study in Cégep. My father paid for part of that and I worked. There was a residence, so that’s where I stayed. And when I got married at the age of 19, I felt safer from my family in some regards.
Defining her experience
I continued counselling after my divorce, and the counsellor asked me if I was abused as a child. I thought everyone grew up with what I grew up with and I thought there was something wrong with me that I couldn’t manage my life. Through counselling I realized with great clarity that I was abused and that this was part of who I was. And I realized—at the age of 24—that I couldn’t communicate very well, I couldn’t put thoughts and ideas into sentences so people could understand me. I had a lot of wounds that I needed to work on before I ever became a professional. I had graduated from nursing and felt like I really lacked some fundamental substance to perform professionally. I really had come to grips with a lot of stuff that had taken place in my life. I started to piece different things together and realized I needed to do something to take care of my son and myself. It was very slow going. I didn’t have family support so I went on welfare and was on it for a number of years to try and figure out what was going on with my life and trying to take care of my son. Even though the welfare amount really wasn’t very much I really needed time to figure that out.
When I was ready, I thought maybe I could do university, and enrolled in a certificate program, and the world opened up to me. I realized that I was smart and I had many interests, and I learned how to communicate. I wasn’t stupid (as I was told I was). I made the decision to continue with education and also internally, to not have poverty define me. I was athletic, I had done a lot of running, track and basketball and I had started volunteering at 10 years old, so I thought, that I would let those things and my interests define me and not let my poverty define me.
I met someone in university, we had common interests and eventually got together as a couple and had two children. During that time I got a social work degree, but the relationship was really unhealthy and I continued to be poor.
On applying for welfare
When I sought out welfare when I was 24, I felt really desperate. I thought if I wasn’t accepted into the welfare program, I don’t know what I would have done. I couldn’t go back to my family. I found the welfare agent very sympathetic at the time, even though I knew people who didn’t have a good experience. In the 1980's, welfare paid for part of your education, and I was very grateful for that. Then they changed some of the regulations, and you had to volunteer in order to receive welfare. And so my agent said “I know you’re a single parent, I know you’re working hard, but you have to volunteer to keep it.” I’ve always volunteered, so that was fine—at the time I was volunteering at 5 different places that would contribute to my career in social work. But, none of the places I was volunteering at were on his list so he said I would be penalized $100 a month, which meant, with me being in my last year of my certificate program, I wouldn’t be able to make ends meet or graduate. So I found myself desperate again. Fortunately, a friend noticed an advertisement for a new project in Montréal that had social housing for single mothers seeking post-secondary education so I applied and was accepted—I was the first graduate. If it wasn’t for that social housing that was geared specifically for single parents going to university, I would have had to end my attempts at education.
Educated, working full time, living in crumbling housing
Following my second divorce, I was a single parent for 12 years. I had my master’s degree at this point, I was working as a social worker, I was a director of community organization at a charity but with a poor salary so I still lived in poverty. I had applied for jobs in positions where the salary was much better and that were government funded, but because of a language issue it never worked out. So even though I was a director, I continued to live in poverty. I lived in dilapidated housing because it was all I could afford. It was a three bedroom and so I gave my children the bedrooms. I slept on the couch. I had a landlord who made sexual advances, and there were these wild sewer rats in the house. They used to only be around in the spring in the basement and then they made it up to the living space in the kitchen and my children’s bedrooms. Every second weekend my kids would go to their dad’s and I would do the rat patrol and check for rats in their rooms to make sure there were none. Here I was, an educated professional working at a community organization with food bank programs and housing initiatives and I lived with these incredible challenges. I don’t know how I made it through those years.
The power of having a community
We lived in a quad-plex and I had really good neighbours next to me and we lived in a sense of community. We shared meals together, our children grew up together, our households shared a lot of life and death issues together. When my cousin killed himself or when their father was sick or their mother died, we shared all those things together and that was a real strength in my life—I didn’t feel so isolated and alone. Life became rich because we did a lot of different things together. Activities became possible because of my neighbours. I couldn’t afford vacations, so I would borrow my neighbour’s canoe and he would drive me to the river’s edge and my children and I would canoe across the river to a park and we had a tent that I borrowed so we could camp for a week. So there were those concrete things and the richness of support, conversation and feeling like the world was bigger around me. I had spaces and pockets of air to breathe more than I had in all my life, I think. It was a very growing and healing time despite the struggles. I think it made a huge difference in my life and I considered myself very lucky. We all face life challenges and have different perspectives and I think to me what’s important is that there’s always a positive. There has always been a positive in my life, and I always acknowledge my privilege even in my poverty, as a white, able-bodied woman born in Canada.
On hiding poverty from her kids
I never wanted my children to feel the impact of poverty, so I would go without eating sometimes. I made impossible choices between paying my rent and my hydro or food. I was always, always behind in payments on everything. I always made sure my children had a positive experience though. We always played together. I was always exhausted after work but never really let that show and after supper, as soon as I set down my fork we’d be out playing tag in the park and friends and neighbours would join—we had a rich experience that way. My kids today are phenomenal. They’re lifeguards and scout-leaders, they’re university-educated, some of them are still in university, one of them has his own house. So they’re all doing well. It’s funny, just a couple years ago my kids said, “mom I didn’t know you were so poor,” and that really encouraged me because I really wanted them to be buffered from the hard realities of being poor. I was thrilled that they never saw it.
Investing in social programs
We live in a wealthy country that has agreed internationally with the UN to address some of these issues of poverty, housing and food security issues. Canada has an opportunity and a responsibility to take care of some of these agreements to address the poverty that many Canadians live in. I would have loved to have more social housing and food help during my years of struggle. I just think that, here I was an individual doing my best and struggling so very much. There’s this belief that if you let the market system have it’s way then poverty will be taken care of and that’s not true. There’s so much more that needs to be done. I’ve seen it as a professional and I’ve lived it in my personal life. I really think that if you invest in people, then people can be more engaged economically and socially in the world around them. They can have gainful employment and then you’ll see the reinvestment in the economy and in the social fabric of Canada. In my personal and professional years of experience with poverty, that’s an important direction to take.
Living with the stigma of poverty
I was embarrassed for a long time. And as a student, when everyone else wanted to go out for lunch I had to say no and say I had an appointment because I didn’t have money for lunch. Just embarrassed about poverty, when I thought it was my fault. Like I wasn’t doing something right. The more I moved in my profession, the more I realized this has to do with the structure that’s not working right, and this is how it’s making me feel. I know that a lot of poor people have internalized that stigma and feel like they have no worth. The stigma is hard.
One of the hardest things to do is change human behaviour. How can people who have never lived in poverty, who live with affluence and privilege, ever understand what it’s like to live with the struggle and stigma of poverty? The disgrace, the humiliation and the lack of self-worth that goes along with that. I think, to try to understand, have lunch with someone. Be able to listen and hear the stories of one another. This is our common point of meeting, we all have the human experience of what it means when a tragedy happens in our lives. How we deal with it and our capacity and ability to deal with it depends on where we’re situated socially and economically, but we still share in the human experience of processing that grief, anger, shock when tragedy happens. People are people around the world. They strive for similar things, regardless of what governments do.