Review: When Poverty Mattered: Then and now

Like many Canadian cities, Hamilton is beset with crises of poverty. From the steady erosion of affordable housing, to an increasingly visible homeless population, to addiction, mental health, and the stigmatization of entire neighbourhoods, Hamilton struggles with both the direct and indirect costs of poverty.

Society relies upon volunteer organizations and underfunded social services to serve the poor. Politically, policy is mostly lacking in sufficiency, urgency, and empathy. This is in part because society is divided across ideological lines by those who view poverty as systemic and those who view poverty as personal failures. What tends to be missing in discussions around poverty, at both the social and policy levels, though, is the voices of the poor themselves. They’re rarely consulted and seldom provided with a platform to speak for themselves. What if 50 years ago the foundation for organizing the poor to represent themselves politically and into a voting bloc was laid? What if the poor successfully organized themselves with the assistance of academics and a dedicated think tank to advance their own political agenda? It happened. The lessons learned provide little in the way of optimism for Canadians engaged in political activism, today, on behalf the poor, climate change, and human rights.

Paul Weinberg lives in Hamilton’s Crown Point neighbourhood having moved from Toronto in 2013. He is a freelance reporter and investigative journalist and he has written for a variety of trade magazines as well as the Globe and Mail, Toronto’s Now Magazine and a number of alternative media publications. He has just completed his first book, When Poverty Mattered: Then and Now.

It is a disturbing book that looks back at the Pierre Trudeau era in the late-60s and early 70s when poverty mattered to policy makers and, in particular, an organization named Praxis—which served as a precursor to the modern ideological think tank—with a mandate to organize and politicize the poor.  Praxis promoted a range of programs and ideas and one was the concept of Extra Parliamentary Opposition (EPO). The philosophy behind EPO began with the New Left movement in Germany on the premise that elections and parliamentary democracy was ineffective in addressing the demands of the peace movement. In terms of poverty, for Praxis, it meant organizing street protests, demonstrations, and providing the poor with a public and political voice. In Hamilton that became the Hamilton Welfare Rights Organization (HWRO) chaired by Johnny Morris.

It is important to note that Praxis and the work it performed was lawful political activity. Praxis and the activism it promoted was engaging in just the sort of community organizing to which people alienated from the political process would be encouraged to take part. For example, former US President Obama lectured during his farewell address to “… lace up your shoes and do some organizing”. Praxis taught people how to go about doing that.

Despite the work of Praxis being lawful and even laudatory in terms of the health of a liberal democracy, they did not escape the attention of the RCMP Security Services who spied on the organization and the principles involved. Likewise, Peter Worthington, a columnist with the Toronto Telegram (later The Sun), a right wing activist newspaper, took aim at the small organization and directed toxic columns at attempting to discredit and delegitmize its work. His inflammatory commentary directed public antipathy toward Praxis which then fell victim to a break-in and arson.

Documents stolen from Praxis’ offices found their way to the RCMP and Worthington who reportedly handed the documents he received over to RCMP officers after Toronto police refused them (while investigating the break-in). Despite RCMP officers being in possession of stolen documents and despite whatever role they may have had in the break-in, arson and theft (Toronto police charged no one for the crime), no RCMP officer was ever charged with any misconduct. Indeed, even a lawsuit brought against the RCMP was stymied through “bureaucratic containment”, although there was eventually an undisclosed settlement.

Paul Weinberg decided to write this book, he said, because he was fascinated by the facts of the story. He gathered information through research, interviews, and freedom of information requests over the course of years. The book is well researched and meticulously documented. Interviews include many of those who participated in the events at the time including Worthington and Paul Fromm (known to Hamiltonians for his activity with the Yellow Vests at City Hall) who was a member of the Edmund Burke Society in Toronto—a radical right wing populist group—who suspicion falls upon for the break-in and arson.

Weinberg says there are two audiences for his book, “people concerned about civil liberties and people concerned about poverty.” Personally, I think the book will also appeal to historians, both academic and amateur, and anyone who follows current events. The similarities with today are uncanny and not just because we have a prime minister named Trudeau. The Toronto Sun continues to publish toxic columns targeting poverty activists and poverty remains a stubborn problem where those most affected have little voice. Weinberg is correct when he says, “People need to know that side of history.”

The first half of the book is a bit slow as the author sets the stage and the backstory, but it is a necessary element for the second half of the book which is well worth the effort. I encourage readers to stick with it. Weinberg writes from a very neutral perspective. He leaves it to the reader to speculate and connect the dots and there are lots of dots on which to speculate.

What was most disturbing for me was the role of the RCMP security services in spying on and disrupting legitimate and lawful political activity. Weinberg is quick to point out that there is a distinction between policing and security services. The RCMP security services, he said, was founded to target communists in the era of the Cold War. In fact, authorities cited “national security” to absolve RCMP officers of all criminal wrong doing in spite of their being no charge, evidence, or even a hint that Praxis or its activists were engaged in any activity that even remotely threatened the security of the country.

In separating security services from the RCMP and establishing CSIS, “subversion” was eliminated from the mandate of the new organization created in 1984 as was “disrupting” political activities. However, the Harper government with Bill C-51 again empowered CSIS to disrupt “threats”. It has since been reported that CSIS has targeted Indigenous peoples and environmentalists engaged in political activism against oil and gas infrastructure including sharing intelligence with corporations. While it is argued that CSIS is subject to obtaining warrants and oversight, again, there is little reason to believe that warrants won’t be rubber stamped or that oversight will remedy violations of civil and human rights. The people who absolved the RCMP Security Services of criminal acts were, in fact, the oversight of the day. There is an old saying that it is better to ask forgiveness than permission and the record is that security services are always forgiven. Even in the case of Maher Arar, and others, who were rendered to Syria to be tortured, no person has been held accountable, even though there was “troubling questions about the role of Canadian officials”. If torture doesn’t meet the bar for accountability, what does?

On one hand, as we face down rising inequality, a national housing crisis, and catastrophic climate change, politicians and media commentators will remind us that participation in the political process is the mechanism by which change is won. On the other hand, Paul Weinberg’s book reminds us that political activism is viewed as a threat by much more powerful and secretive actors with little accountability.

Weinberg will be launching his book in Hamilton on December 12th, just in time for Christmas, at Merk’s Snackbar and the book will be available at The City and The City Books. Come out and meet the author. Dark glasses, fedora, and overcoat are optional.

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