L’Itinéraire vous offre cette entrevue tirée du magazine Megaphone dans sa version originale anglaise.

Megaphone vendors preside over a wide-ranging interview with federal Liberals, including the Minister of Families, Children and Social Development Jean-Yves Duclos.

By Paula Carlson

On May 9, two members of Megaphone’s Vendor Advisory Board u2014 Stephen Scott and Peter Thompson u2014 sat down with the federal Minister of Families, Children and Social Development Jean-Yves Duclos (MP for Québec) for an exclusive interview. Also taking part was Ron McKinnon, Liberal MP for Coquitlam-Port Coquitlam, and Megaphone Executive Director Jessica Hannon. Here is the question-and-answer-style discussion.

Jean-Yves Duclos: I’m so pleased that we can discuss, I can learn more about your important work and see how we can be helpful.

Jessica Hannon: Yes. So, Peter and Stephen are members of our Vendor Advisory Board. Megaphone vendors are all people who are experiencing poverty and homelessness, and they sell Megaphone Magazine and the calendar that we produce as a way to earn money, connect with the community and also build support to end poverty. Vendors are out there on the streets all over Vancouver and Victoria making connections with people, having conversations and really helping people understand a little bit more the human side of poverty.

So Stephen and Peter are two vendors on our Vendor Advisory Board. Juliana was supposed to be here but she sends her regrets, she’s sick today.

The Vendor Advisory Board is an elected board, elected by the vendors to give us advice that affect vendors and the organization, what we should be working on, what issues we should be talking about. Peter and Stephen have been leaders in their community for a long time and we have some questions for you, and we welcome any questions from you as well, but we have some questions that the vendors came up with.

Stephen Scott: I would like to ask what you like about Vancouver. I don’t know if you’ve been here before.

JYD: Good question. I’ve been here in the last two years many times, every time has been very good.

Vancouver has two things that are special to it. The first thing is that it is a community… a very diverse community with people from everywhere and from many different backgrounds. Stephen, you’re an example, you come from Montreal. Peter you come from a bit outside of Vancouver. Many people come here because of the natural environment of course, but also because of the community. There is a sense of community that we find that is less elsewhere. So that’s the first thing, community life, community diversity.

The second thing is that Vancouverites and B.C.-ers more generally often tend to be a bit ahead of other Canadians when it comes to social and environmental issues… issues relating to how we can live together, how we can be well together and how we can look after our natural and social environments. So we Canadians can benefit from the leadership and vision of the people in this part of Canada. I like to come back as often as I can to feed myself from that vision and that leadership.

SS: Are you familiar with the street paper in Montreal called L’Itinéraire?

JYD: L’Itinéraire! Ah oui! It’s very good.

JH: Megaphone and L’Itinéraire are both part of an international network of street papers. The model is called a street paper, and I think there are 105 or so street papers around the world in 35 countries.

Peter Thompson: whats your favourite food or favourite recipe? Our vendors, we shared our our recipes in the Megaphone paper and I shared how to cook bannock.

SS: I know how to cook tourtiere (meat pie).

JYD: My favourite recipe is sugar pie. It is because my mother and my grandmothers were cooking it… because many years ago in Canada, in my part of Canada, in Quebec, people were relatively poor and they had access to flour, they had access to milk, and cream ,and butter, and they had access to sugar u2014 to maple syrup. I remember eating an entire pie (laughing).

PT: My next question is we have homelessness in every community, caused by renovations and also buyers, big developers, and more people are put out into the street because of this and they can’t afford to rent anywhere. This has to be controlled. How can we get more land space for affordable housing? That’s really a necessity.

JYD: The key word is community. Community, because a). when one sleeps on the streets, everyone in the community is diminished and that is because we’re all together, you know? So it’s not an individual issue, its not an individual problem, it’s a community challenge to make sure that everyone has a safe place to live in.

The second reason is that it’s community that makes the difference. That’s why the help that the federal government provides to fight homelessness goes through communities, so you have community boards, community organizations that work together in order to see how best to help homeless Canadians be off the streets.

Because it’s what really makes a difference… how we work with other organizations, health organizations. It could be health care, it could be home care, mental health care… you know just to be surrounded by these other services that we need to be well in life.

And the third reason why community is so important is that if we want communities like the Vancouver community to develop and keep being successful, we need people to have affordable housing. Affordable and safe housing. This place is not going to keep growing if there is no home for middle class and lower-income Canadian and that’s just not going to work. So if we want Vancouver and B.C. to keep being successful societies, we need to find a solution to home affordability.

PT: Yes, because you know a lot of people they tried with shelters and everything, but shelters are just a Band-Aid solution. And people need housing because if you decide, « we’re going to put a shelter over here, » then all these people that have been renovicted and put on the streets, the other people think that these people are bad people… and they say, « no we don’t want these shelters here, we don’t want these people here. » So they condemn these people that have been pushed out of that place. And that’s not right, you know. We should have affordable housing and space for these people.

JYD: I was in Toronto last week and theres a big place called Lawrence Heights, a big housing complex, for many years it has decayed. Maybe 40 years ago it was a social housing project, but it wasn’t really well looked after… so now there is mould, it’s not safe, children cannot play outside. But they are renovating all of that and instead of having one community for lower-income Canadians, and another community for middle class, and another community for high income, they are building a mixed community.

SS: Yeah!

JYD: Everyone lives together. Some people are of different ages, backgrounds, they come from different places, but that’s fine, because they all live in the same community. Their children go to the same school, they go to the same parks, they use the same public transit… it’s all very good. So what you say Peter is very important. If we want to have inclusive societies, people need to talk to each other, and meet each other, and help each other.

PT: I think that’s where we come in with our street paper u2014 people out in the streets selling and talking to people and getting to know the people and that’s where you gain your trust.

JYD: I love so much the word that you used: Trust. Trust is key in our society. Trusting each other is the basic foundation of our communities. Now exactly what you do, your work, builds trust. You talk to people, you sell Megaphone, and that’s one way, as you know, to engage, to talk to people, to say that we can trust each other.

SS: As you know, the overdose crisis here in B.C. (has killed more than 1,400 people in 2017)… a lot of community members are suffering and people are dying. We’ve lost lots of vendors over the past couple years, members with us, so it’s really affecting us. So we’d like to talk about that and what are we going to do about that? It’s been very challenging for everybody.

JYD: If I can turn the question back to you, you’re more expert than I am, it is clearly something that started more in Western Canada, but now it’s going east and the entire country is affected. And so what do you think makes a difference when it comes to addressing this important problem?

SS: I think we need more information and more safe places where people can use, where it can be controlled, there is assistance, like Insite… and not just in Vancouver, the Downtown Eastside, but everywhere, even Port Coquitlam, wherever. Those kind of places where people can feel safe, so they do not have to commit crimes… they should have some supervising team, or nurse, to observe how to really deal with that situation. Because when people are addicted, it’s hard to tell the addicted, « hey, just stop. One day you’re going to get a bad batch and you’re going to die. »

Ron McKinnon: If I may, I think this goes back to community, as we were talking about. One of the key drivers of addiction is lack of social connections, lack of emotional connection. And that’s were community is so critically important. To help people to not fall into addiction and to help them get themselves out of a dependency situation. So certainly a connection to community, and there are also trauma issues as well. I think those are really key elements of this problem.

JH: And what’s your perspective on… I know at the Liberal convention (in Halifax in April) there was a a lot of discussion about decriminalization of drugs, and I know that has been something that certainly we’ve heard a lot from in the community, is that the drug supply is poison. And supervised injection sites and safe injection sites are absolutely helpful, but without some control over the drug supply, people are going to continue to die.

And I’m curious as to what your perspective is on drug decriminalization, because over and over again that’s what we hear from people on the streets is that would do a lot to help bring people in, to be able to access that community and that support without fear of reprisal. And also, the next step being able to allow a drug supply and control the the drug supply so that it’s safe and people aren’t just ingesting poison.

JYD: I have my opinion, but your opinion (Ron) is probably more enlightened.

RM: Well, I certainly support the resolution of the party in this respect. I’m on the health committee… my private member’s bill, the Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act, was passed about a year ago, and what that does is try to remove the barriers that people find phoning for help, the fear of being arrested for being in a situation with drugs, for breach of conditions, or whatever. So that’s a small, a very small, element, but there are many, many more important elements that we need to address.

But the health minister has taken a number of initiatives in this as well. Certainly across the country, many more supervised consumption sites have been created… in this area I think we have three additional ones, and in Victoria I think they’re building one.

But also there are therapies that doctors can use now using medical grade heroin for people who can’t respond, who don’t respond to methadone treatment. But it’s a big issue and we have to deal with it in a lot of different ways.

JYD: I was giving you an example earlier of how Vancouver and B.C. are sometimes leading. In Québec City and in Montreal, there is a greater sense that safe injection sites can make a big difference because of seeing drug addiction as a public health issue as opposed to a criminal justice issue. And years ago, without the experiences and the leadership of B.C. and Vancouver, years ago that would have been unthinkable in Québec and Montreal. But now, people are understanding there is significant progress that can be made if we look at that from a different angle.

RM: And I think the minister makes an extremely good point. The difference is a paradigm shift away from thinking of this as a criminal justice issue back to where it should be, where it always should have been, as a public health issue. But it takes a long time to change the country.

SS: Since we’re just talking about drugs… the legalization of marijuana will be all over Canada. What do you think about that?

RM: I think its a very positive step in this path towards moving substance use away from being a criminal justice issue to being a public health issue. By legalizing it we’re in not in any way promoting it or recommending it. We’re just saying it’s not a criminal matter.

YJD: For exactly the reasons you mentioned. And one of those reasons being the products that circulate need to be regulated, monitored, for safe uses of those products to be encouraged.

RM: I think to some degree it (marijuana regulation) will take the pressure off the opioid problem. People who are self-medicating will be able to use cannabis more frequently and more easily than getting access to opioids, which are of questionable providence and quality.

PT: Where is the government at with the development of a national poverty reduction strategy?

JYD: Very good question, Peter. We were talking about that just recently.

You know this is the first time, ever, that the Canadian government will say when it comes to poverty reduction, a). it’s important, b). we need to measure what it means to be excluded, to be poor, and c). we need to make progress on that and the federal government needs to show how it is making progress.

We want to make Canadians feel that they belong to the same community because were all in it together. Its not us versus them. Often, we talk in this way: « Oh, it’s their problem. We are here and they are there. » It’s all of us together, it’s not us versus them.

The poverty reduction strategy is an inclusive strategy, to send a message and to encourage a change in attitudes for the whole society of Canadians. To recognize that we are not born the same way and we are not experiencing the same chances in life for reasons independent of our own control.

If I go outside and I am hit by a car, and I find myself disabled for the rest of my life, why should I not have a fair chance to be well? You know, I happen to be born in a low-income family, and my father is absent, my mother struggles with health issues or addictions, why should I not have a chance as well? So it’s giving everyone a real and fair chance to succeed, it’s also correcting the language of us versus them, so yes, measures, yes progress, and yes accountability on making sure our governments can be asked what they are doing to reduce poverty and reduce exclusion.

SS: Can you talk about a guaranteed basic income?

JYD: Oh, these are very good questions! These are better questions than the ones I hear in the House of Commons.

Now, the annual minimum income, two things that are working, and one thing which is not working so well.

Two things that are working: One is for seniors. In Canada, when you reach 65 years old, you have a guaranteed minimum income. It’s called Old Age Security and Guaranteed Income Supplement. The two together is a guaranteed minimum income. And it works really well, because in Canada, compared to 40 years ago and compared to other countries, we have a very low rate of poverty in seniors. If you are 64 you have a much greater chance of being poor than if you are 65.

The second thing that works well, since 2016, is the Canada Child Benefit. So for those Canadians that have children, lower-income Canadians and middle-class Canadians, the Canada Child Benefit is a guaranteed minimum income that is helping six million children plus three million parents have access to more income to look after their needs. And that’s also reducing child poverty immensely.

One thing that does not work so well is social assistance, in Canada and across provinces, and that’s because social assistance is not a guaranteed minimum income. It’s complicated, not everyone that needs it receives it, there is stigma attached to it and all sorts of conditions, and it’s not equal across Canada. There are provinces that are more generous and more respectful of individual circumstances than other provinces.

Now the challenge of course is that in Canada, we have 10 provinces and three territories, we have a diversity of social assistance systems. The federal government needs to encourage all provinces to do a better job when it comes to making social assistance work for lower-income Canadians But at the end it’s the provinces that decide and B.C. is a province that has the responsibility to provide social assistance to its citizens.

SS: The cost of living here is pretty expensive. The people on social assistance get $600… it’s not going to cover their rent.

JH: A lot of the people that I’ve talked to about universal basic income are concerned about possible unintended negative consequences around bringing in universal basic income and then maybe unintentionally some other services are either cut back or gotten rid of completely and they’re services that low-income people really rely on. What do you think of that criticism?

JYD: It depends on the type of policies and services that complement basic income. Even if there were basic income for childless, non-senior Canadians tomorrow, most Canadian families would still want to work u2014 at least if they have the skills and the opportunities to be in the workplace. So you still need to make sure the labour marketplace is accessible, for Indigenous Canadians, for younger Canadians that struggle with their skills and education, for older Canadians that just lose their job and don’t have the skills needed to transition, for people with disabilities… We need more accessible workplaces. We need to have all sorts of other services so that it’s income yes, but there’s also other opportunities to be fully part of the community.

PT: Why hasn’t the government provided clean water on (First Nations) reserves where they need it? They don’t have drinking water or they can’t bath in their water and still they have to live in that situation.

YJD: Although it’s going to take a little more time, our colleague, Minister (Jane) Philpott, she’s the Minister of Indigenous Services, she has achieved, with the help of Indigenous people, significant progress over the last two years when it comes to eliminating long-term water advisories. And by 2020, I think all Indigenous Canadians will have access to safe water without boiling advisories being issued.