Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

History lessons and hope

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The Free Press asked a number of community leaders to comment on the growing gap between rich and poor. Is it getting better or worse? What has changed since the 1919 General Strike?

 

Lloyd Axworthy

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Lloyd Axworthy

Lloyd Axworthy

president, University of Winnipeg

The Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 was an event of cataclysmic importance, reported around the world as a forerunner of revolution in the post-First World War western world. It was a violent confrontation between class and ethnic forces, an epic struggle between haves and have-nots.

Today it is only dimly remembered.

Most Winnipeggers could barely tell you the cause or outcome. Yet its legacy reaches across the 93-year divide to remind us that the issues that were fought out long ago on the streets of Winnipeg have not been fully resolved.

The divide between rich and poor still exists, if in a different guise and less incendiary atmosphere. Since the general strike, there have been significant improvements in labour laws and creation of a basic social safety net. But the reality of poverty in our city persists, in some ways in a more pernicious fashion because it is more invisible than it was nine decades ago.

It doesn't have to be that way in this prosperous, well-endowed city. It shouldn't be that we indifferently permit a poverty trap to exist that saps the energy and talent of so many of our young. The 1919 strike should tell us that poverty doesn't just destroy the poor, it erodes the whole community and cannot be tolerated for long.

 

David Northcott

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David Northcott

David Northcott

Winnipeg Harvest executive director

A low-income person in 1919 would likely live in unsafe, unsanitary housing, work long hours for low pay, not be able to afford adequate, nutritious food, die earlier because of lack of nutrition and other factors.

Many of the aims of the strikers, which seemed impossible at the time, have been achieved: medicare, Employment Insurance, the Canada Pension Plan, Old Age Security and Guaranteed Income Supplement.

The welfare system was supposed to provide a basic income floor for all Manitobans. But it does not provide enough money for recipients to pay their shelter costs and buy adequate, nutritious food.

Even those who work hard at full-time minimum-wage jobs cannot afford to feed themselves and their children.

A low-income person in 2012 likely lives in unsafe, unsanitary housing, works long hours for low pay, is not able to afford adequate, nutritious food (and) will die earlier because of lack of nutrition and other factors.

We are moving slowly to a more equitable society, but are we more loving? To make real progress towards social justice and equity, today's Winnipeggers will have to dream as big and act as boldly as did the Winnipeggers of 1919.

 

John Buhler

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John Buhler

John Buhler

businessman and philanthropist

How do you balance the bank president thinking he's worth $10 million a year to someone eking out a living for his family at $40,000? That spread has to change. We need to decide what's important and what's fair.

I think it goes back to what we teach our kids. We need to teach them what's necessary. Here I am giving away millions, and here I am saving the last crust of bread. We can't spend more than we have. We're headed for longer bread lines. It'll happen again.

 

 

 

 

 

Sister Maria Vigna

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Sister Maria Vigna

Sister Maria Vigna

co-executive director, Rossbrook House

Unfortunately, all too often, the normal milestones of growing up are burdened, compounded and even interrupted by the ravages of poverty. Unemployment, poor housing, racism and unsafe neighbourhoods deeply impact the day-to-day life of children and youth -- the most vulnerable in our society.

While growing up can hold some wondrous moments, we all know that it also bears its own unique challenges. It takes a lot of energy to navigate through its lessons, to push open the realm of becoming. This energy is dissipated when children, youth and their families must struggle to meet the most basic of human needs and when every day holds uncertainty.

The inherent right of children to have what they need to grow up safe, strong and nourished, to participate in the shaping of their own life story is so often compromised and eroded. Ensuring that not one among us ever goes without food or shelter is a matter of justice and a call to honour the dignity of each one.

 

Bob Silver

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Bob Silver (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS ARCHIVES) Photo Store

Bob Silver

businessman and co-owner of the Winnipeg Free Press

It seems that the gap between the very wealthy and very poor is widening. Perhaps it just seems so in some instances because some of the newly very wealthy have become so obvious and indeed obnoxious in showing that wealth.

Wealth has become the end instead of the means to a better end for many and wealth has increasingly become the measure of success instead of what that wealth can create or what the individual has contributed to society. The gap is different across the globe but does exist. Having said that, it is wrong to assume that any individual with enough desire, energy, work ethic and attitude cannot bridge that gap.

It may be far more difficult for some than others but I believe in countries like Canada, it is not impossible. We will probably never eliminate the greed, selfishness or ego but we should never stop trying nor use that as an excuse to not try to succeed.

 

Jim Silver

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Jim Silver

Jim Silver

University of Winnipeg professor and chair, Urban and Inner-City Studies

Poverty was deep and destructive in Winnipeg's North End in the decades before and after 1919. Wages were low. Housing was overcrowded. Communicable diseases were rampant. Racism was directed at Eastern European workers. The blame for the North End's problems was attributed to their moral failings. The area's rich and vibrant culture was unknown beyond the North End. Governments refused to invest in solutions, which historian Alan Artibise attributed to "the failure of Winnipeg's leadership to develop a mature social conscience." But it was a long time ago, eh?

Not so. A housing crisis still plagues the low-income residents of the North End and, now, much broader inner city. Health problems of all kinds are much worse here than elsewhere in Winnipeg. Racism persists, directed today at the area's aboriginal residents. Blame continues to be directed at the supposed moral failings of the poor. The many strengths of this community remain largely unknown. And with some important exceptions, governments still refuse to invest sufficient amounts to solve inner-city problems, although the solutions are now well-known.

Today, as was the case a century ago, Winnipeg remains a segregated city -- spatially, socially and economically. The costs, both in human and financial terms, of our continued "failure to develop a mature social conscience" are too high. We would all benefit if this were to change.

 

-- Lindor Reynolds

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 16, 2012 J2

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