Lack of creativity when dealing with poverty

First published:
May 7, 2004

In 12 years of poverty activism Richard Shapcott was arrested for the first time recently during a protest in Belleville, charged with counselling to commit theft. Shame on those people who charged him. Shame on those who people in our community who condemn him. And shame on those who undertook this protest.

The entire incident raises some serious concerns.

Mr. Shapcott was not an organizer for the event, held by the Tenant’s Action Group (TAG) located in Belleville. A coalition of poverty groups from the region decided recently to provide support for each other. The groups hope through their mutual support, issues like housing, homelessness, poverty and others will gain the publicity it takes to make governments and communities respond. For example, Mr. Shapcott was recently at an event sponsored by the Peterborough Coalition Against Poverty to prevent a house from being torn down.

A memorandum circulated by the Ontario Common Front, a direct-action poverty group, said the protest was to involve “unannounced ‘food grabs’ where people in need will enter local grocery stores en masse and help themselves to what the provincial government refuses to provide.”  Those involved are “willing to engage in civil disobedience in order to help people in need provide for their families,” a press released stated.

In the end, the group just handed out flyers.

It is far too easy to dismiss radical action. This kind of anarchy does not sit well with most people in the community. But the level of frustration felt by those living in poverty and those who advocate for them is at a breaking point.

For years, activists have followed the traditional path of protest. Letters, petitions, marches and sit-ins have lost their luster in the eyes of a weary public and disinterested politicians. After former Ontario Premier Mike Harris successfully marginalized low-income people. While he boasted of the high number of people getting off welfare, many families were falling through the cracks without any help. A mythology was created around welfare assistance that vilified those in need. And many people bought into his approach. As the years have passed, these people continue to struggle faced with little or no hope.

Northumberland County administrator Bill Pyatt said during a recent presentation 12,000 people are at risk of losing their housing in the county. And with rising hydro rates, the numbers will increase, he said.

Last year 3,200 people in the county received homelessness services, among them people who had jobs but couldn’t make enough to live or were on fixed income.

Add to this the 300 low-income singles, seniors and families waiting for social housing. It takes up to four years to get housing, he added.

Small steps are made. Northumberland County council agreed to pay $45,000, under the Children’s enrichment Program, to help pay for rent and other expenses. It will provide a central warehouse to store food for food banks and nutrition program. Previously large donations could not be accepted because there was no space.

Still, while there is progress, often poverty is not front and centre compared with other issues. So, why would poverty activists decide to undertake something called a Steal-A-thon?

So in the more radical circles of activism civil disobedience become a path to shock people out of their complacency. Certainly there is a long tradition in this kind of action. Both Gandhi and Martin Luther King were jailed for disobeying laws. Mr. Shapcott is in good company.

It will be up to the courts to decide if a criminal act was committed.

In the meantime, poverty activists may have hurt themselves more than they have helped.

In the short-term, nobody’s mind has changed. Those involved have damaged their reputations. No community group or politician will take them seriously. It could be argued the activists’ concerns were not taken to heart before, so nothing was lost. The credibility of these individuals and the organizations they represent is gone.

The incident will also alienate key supporters; people who believe the traditional forms of protest are legitimate and wish to follow that path. Those allies are important ones.

In terms of the perception of the general public,this is a major setback. Yes, hunger and poverty got front page coverage for a few news cycles. People are still hungry. They still cannot afford food.

These issues cannot be ignored. With the figures put forward by county council, maybe Northumberland MP Paul Macklin and MPP Lou Rinaldi could show some level of co-operation by forming a task force on poverty, bringing together activists, community groups, municipal politicians and residents to seek solutions and develop an action plan.

Mr. Shapcott deservers our respect for demonstrating the courage of his convictions. His intention was not to break the law. He continues to raise issues and work on behalf of the poor with zeal. The charges should be dropped. No one was harmed. No good will come from pursing this further.

Radicalism may win the battle of the day by grabbing the spotlight temporarily, but the war on the poor in Ontario continues. It still exists in Northumberland and it is growing. Frustration may be high, but this current action plan shows creativity among activists is at an all time low.

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