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Giving Voice to Recession's Victims

by Carol Goar

The last time Canada went through a recession, there was no Facebook, no high-speed Internet access and no online chat rooms. Email was in its infancy.

That meant public perceptions were shaped largely by economists, politicians and pollsters. The people who were hurting were seldom heard.

This time it will be different, anti-poverty activists vow. Technology has given them the ability to link up, highlight the distress signals they see and tell their stories.

"Facts and figures are useful and important, but we need to show the human impact," said John Andras of Toronto's Recession Relief Fund Coalition, which is spearheading the initiative.

The 5-month-old coalition has built a coast-to-coast network of 230 organizations that speak for - and work with - vulnerable Canadians. It intends to gather intelligence from them, collect personal testimony and combine it into a recession tracking tool. "Our hope is that if Canadians are informed, they will come together in common purpose and the government will have to listen," Andras said.

To introduce the project and build grassroots support, the Recession Relief Fund Coalition held a community forum at the University of Toronto last week. It featured four speakers: high-profile author Naomi Klein, labour organizer Peggy Nash, anti-racism activist Uzma Shakir and food bank head Gail Nyberg.

The room was jammed. The mood was edgy and expectant. Neither surprised Andras, co-founder of the coalition and senior vice-president of Research Capital Corp. "People feel powerless. There's a hunger to be able do something."

Each of the four panellists offered words of support and solidarity.

"This is a moment where you get trampled or transform," Klein told the audience. "We are seeing a level of (government) intervention I have not seen in my lifetime. But public resources are being used to bail out the wealthiest in society.

"We have to stand up and say: We refuse to pay for the crisis."

She urged workers, students, the unemployed, the poor and everyone else left out of Ottawa's rescue package to join forces and demand economic stimulus that serves public - not corporate - interests.

Nash, a senior official at the Canadian Auto Workers, stressed the importance of healing the divisions left by 20 years of tax-cutting, market-pleasing governments. "There has been a concerted effort to divide us against ourselves," she said. "We need a less polarized society."

She described with painful accuracy how Canadians have turned inward, shedding their qualms about letting one group after another - welfare recipients, the jobless, forestry workers, steel workers, auto workers, office and financial workers - fall by the wayside.

"We must choose to work against these divisions," she said.

Nyberg used statistics from the Daily Bread Food Bank to show how irrelevant such divisions have become. The ranks of the poor now include formerly secure families, once-confident workers and long-time donors who never dreamt of needing help, she said. Every stereotype has been shattered.

"Maybe, just maybe, we can use this crisis to open up the government's eyes. It's not `those other people.' It's someone like us."

Shakir, an internationally educated Pakistani writer and feminist, driven to social activism by the racism she found in Canada, reminded listeners that "the communities I've been working with have been in a recession for 30 years."

She urged the fledgling coalition not to marginalize people who look like her. "This is the time to build to a larger solidarity."

The meeting can't be neatly summarized. The speeches (except Nash's) were unpolished. The personal anecdotes were disjointed. The discourse was unfocused, except in one regard: Everyone wanted an outlet for missing voices and was eager to be part of it.

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