Learning to be Human
"I don't want charity," says Barbara Low. "I want justice."
It was with that desire that Low, a Mi’kmaq woman living in Antigonish began attending meetings for the Antigonish Poverty Reduction Coalition (APRC) – a group now struggling to stay afloat as a result of federal budget cuts.
"I have a voice and I can see what's happening," says Low, who feels an obligation to do something about the poverty she witnesses and experiences every day in Antigonish. "In the food bank line-up I've heard of at least three suicides now … [these people] were hopeless in the face of extreme poverty."
In 2011, the APRC received one year of funding to conduct community roundtables about needs and possible solutions to inequalities in Antigonish town and county.
The process itself was a rich one, according to Paula Cameron, coordinator of the project. "There were different partners on board that hadn't been there before," she says of a coalition that includes religious groups, the women's centre, and the local health authority.
"The [APRC] has built a lot of relationships through the project," Cameron says. Trust was being built in the community, she says, and more people with lived experience of poverty were becoming involved.
"There was a sense from everybody that there was momentum," Cameron adds.
After a year of roundtables and conversations, the APRC produced a five-year plan to put its research into action. Action items focused on everything from income security to transportation, with a special focus on cultivating community capacity to develop affordable housing.
Before the federal budget was announced, Cameron was told by the Rural Partnership Program - the project's main funder - that the coalition was a perfect candidate for the next level of funding.
But then, the Rural Partnership Program fell victim to the Harper government's last round of cuts before the APRC could apply.
"It's devastating," says Cameron. "There's not a lot of funding for rural communities to plan, but there's nothing for implementation of tangible projects."
In addition, the APRC has lost at least two other potential funders, as a result of provincial and federal budget cuts: the Cooperative Development Initiatives, a federal program that was cut entirely, and Nova Scotia Transit Research Incentive Program, which is now awarding much smaller grants.
"There's fewer and fewer funds coming from all levels of government," says Cameron. She says these "layers of cuts" are having devastating impacts on rural dwellers, particularly those living in poverty.
For Low, the most recent round of budget cuts, though enraging, are simply part of a 500-year trend.
"We've been subjected to genocide and colonization that continues. It's a continuing project," says Low, referring to everything from smallpox infected blankets to residential schools to the Indian Act. "Here we are in our own lands and we're asking for food from the settlers."
Today, "[w]ho is at the food bank?" asks Low. "Black people. Indigenous people. Disabled people. Children.” The sector of society that uses the food bank "is indicative of a systemic issue," she says, "which is legislated poverty that is putting those specific groups there."
But Low says she finds hope in the people around her. She sees one of her roles as having conversations with non-Indigenous people – “building relationships between human beings."
"Our role as Mi'kmaq is to teach the settlers, the newcomers, how to be human beings in these lands. We've been living here since the beginning of time. We know how to live with this land. The settlers arrived and started living off of the land. It hasn't worked for anybody. Hasn't worked for them and it hasn't worked for us."
Land, air and water are not resources, says Low, but life supports. Prosperity is not about the stock exchange, but about "everybody being well sheltered and well fed."
Cameron says the APRC will move forward with its plan, a plan that strives towards a similar kind of prosperity as the one Low describes. "The coalition existed before government funding and it will continue," she says.
She adds, however, "The government should be funding this kind of project. We need to hold them accountable."