We Day sidesteps the real issues of child poverty

By Molly McCracken

This week, 16,000 high school students will be bused to the MTS centre to attend “We Day” and be encouraged to help others. Organized by social enterpreneurs Mark and Craig Kielburger, their globally branded Free the Children charity by all measures is a smashing success – it raised $15 million in Canada last year. But where does this leave Winnipeg and Manitoba, with our shamefully high child-poverty rates?

Efforts to engage young people in social change in today’s media-saturated culture are valiant. The event features motivational speakers and plays to the emotions of young people to make change in the world. The event relies on corporate sponsors like Telus, the Keg Steakhouse to Royal Bank. These corporations get to look good for this day. We Day places corporate social responsibility as central to positive change in the world.

However in the context of corporate pressure to lower taxes, this is troublesome. Canadian corporate tax rates are among the lowest of the G8 countries and 17 per cent lower than those in the US. At the same time Manitoba persists in child poverty – we have the second highest poverty rate for children in Canada. Manitoba’s child poverty rates have remained above the national rate since 1989 and are 6.4 per cent higher than the national average according to the Social Planning Council. Corporations get to look good to young people, while governments are not providing basic human rights for the families of children living in poverty, like quality housing. The event does not educate young people about these systemic challenges and the role the state plays in upholding the public good.

This year’s event features former Mexican president Vicente Fox, who was also president of Coca Cola Mexico, a company human rights advocates have charged with suppressing unions, toxic dumping on agricultural lands, and exhausting water resources for its bottling operations. As President of Mexico, his term was criticized for its failure to achieve results in advancing human rights in a major report by Human Rights Watch in 2006. As with previous years, the values of some of the speakers and the corporations supporting the event are troublesome.

Organizers at the front lines of the struggle against poverty are talking about an alternative We Day. It would show young people the work that’s being done in our back yard here in Winnipeg to deal with people’s daily struggle to survive. It would feature the valiant stories of local people and the systems they struggle with to be properly housed, educated and employed. It would educate young people about the importance of civil society, voting, paying taxes, and ensuring governments and corporations are accountable, especially to those most vulnerable and marginalized.

We all want the world to be a better place, however those with access to power and money get to frame how the problem is defined and how it should be addressed. The not-for-profits struggling with limited budgets do not have the time, resources or influence to organize an event on the scale of We Day. However they are the true heroes – fighting every day to make our city and province a better place for those living in poverty.

Molly McCracken is the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives – Manitoba Director