Learning Through Struggle

Comments by Dawn Hemingway, President, Northern Branch of BC Association of Social Workers to the “Chili Blanket Event”

A Rally Against Legislated Poverty & the “Two Year Rule”
Prince George, BC – December 20, 2003





Here we are yet again, protesting still one more injustice facing our citizenry. The provincial government has taken the unprecedented step of denying some of the most at risk British Columbians the right to any form of livelihood whatsoever. Although seemingly foreign to any sense of what is just, this government has made it legal to deprive people of even the most meagre welfare benefits if they have already received financial assistance for two years – better known as the newly enacted “two-year rule”. And, so far, government representatives have failed to hear the voices of thousands of people across the province who have been trying in many different ways to let elected officials know that this is not acceptable.


So here we are. And if we take a step back and think about it, it’s truly hard to fathom that, in what most consider an advanced society, citizens are reduced to standing out on the street in the middle of winter simply to have their voices heard about some very fundamental rights that every human being should be entitled to – the right to food, to shelter, to health care, to education and to some form of livelihood.


Yet here we are in the year 2003 -- collecting blankets for those without warmth and shelter and serving hot chilli to those without adequate food.

I sometimes think about how our descendents centuries from now will look back at our history. I envision them shaking their heads in disbelief at how backward, uncultured, uncivilized our society actually was. Because the true test of enlightenment and progress in any civilization can best be gauged by the treatment received by the most vulnerable citizens. And it seems, if we look at the changes that have taken place in British Columbia over the past couple of years, as a society, we cannot claim to pass this test.

But there will also be another feature that future generations will uncover – the ongoing resistance of citizens to this backwardness and regression as well as the determination of tens of thousands of people across the province to construct a society that truly meets the needs of all the people. And that’s why we’re here today – to send a strong message to the provincial government that we will not stand idly by while legislation is enacted that will seriously harm the poorest people in the province along with their families, friends, landlords, neighbours and, ultimately, entire communities. We recognize that we are all just one layoff or closure, one piece of legislation, away from facing the same fate.

People across the province are all trying to address this most recent attack on the poor in whatever ways are possible. Social workers and other social service and health workers are trying to bend and stretch every rule possible to make sure that no one is left without a means of survival. Neighbours are trying to help neighbours. Communities are organizing coalitions. Unions are speaking out both for their members and for service users. Professional organizations like the BC Association of Social Workers are lobbying, advocating, drafting letters and resolutions about how the two-year rule and other social service cuts are wreaking havoc with people’s lives.

Our concerns are based on our own experiences and observations, on our own values – values that enshrine the well-being of people as paramount. But our concerns are also based in law because the newly imposed time limits on social assistance explicitly contravene the rights of people in BC to adequate standards of life, liberty, and security of person as guaranteed in Section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982).

The time limits are also contrary to international law following Canada’s (and British Columbia’s) ratification of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1976) which requires governments to respect, protect and fulfill the rights of all people to an adequate standard of living including food, clothing and shelter.

These are not small matters. Fundamental rights are being violated.

Gatherings like this and the work we all are trying to do in our work places and communities, are part of a growing movement that is saying loudly and clearly –


Today we are initiating one more action to stand up for our community and our province. We are doing so not only by being here, but also by bringing blankets for local agencies who are trying to help the increasing number of homeless and destitute people in our community, by providing food for those who are hungry, by beginning a petition campaign, by lobbying, by advocating, by writing, by organizing further demonstrations and community meetings, and by carrying out the less visible day-to-day work amongst our friends, our neighbours and our co-workers. All of us are seeking a progressive, enlightened society and we demand that the provincial government repeal the two year rule – a rule that is not only in violation of our sense of what’s right as citizens but also in violation of the charter of rights and freedoms and the international covenant signed by Canada.

While the current government seems determined to turn back the clock…WE, AS CITIZENS OF BRITISH COLUMBIA, ARE EVEN MORE DETERMINED TO ENSURE THAT SOCIETY MOVES FORWARD!