The First To Take Action: The Story of Quebec’s Law to End Poverty

Photograph above attributed to Hélène Rochon, 2002

In 2017, ATD Fourth World invited people around the world to document real-life “Stories of Change” starting from situations of injustice and exclusion caused by extreme poverty. These stories – from activists, community leaders, and others – show that when people work together, real change can happen. For more about the “Stories of Change” blog, click here.

By Vivian Labrie, independent researcher and citizen of Quebec (Canada)

It was twenty years ago that it started, in autumn 1997, during a Street Parliament that was held in front of the Quebec National Assembly. Even though it might have been unclear at the time, that motley tent city marked the beginning of an unprecedented adventure. It was an adventure that started with the introduction of a law for a Quebec without poverty, and culminated with the adoption of this law by the National Assembly, inspiring similar initiatives across Canada.

I can still hear Yvette Muise saying she was sick of idle dreams: “We have to dream practically!” Yvette knew what she was talking about. She had seen so much in her life. Her words captured what so many of us felt.

Her words inspired us to believe in the vision of a Quebec without poverty and incentivized us to work in our own civil society networks to spread this dream. We repeated her words often in the following years. They became part of the preamble to the first proposed law, which was symbolically adopted in Spring 2000 by the Quebec National Assembly.

It’s important to note that the process we were part of in autumn, 1997 was itself the result of years of citizen activism. For varying reasons, a huge array of citizen groups had come together around the idea that people in poverty had to be at the heart of the struggle against poverty. This idea was embedded within groups working to ensure civil rights. It was within literacy classes. It was within popular education groups from a wide range of schools of thought: the see-judge-act process of Catholic Action, the collective analysis of certain leftist movements, and the consciousness-raising approach of Paulo Freire and international solidarity, among others. This idea was also present in ATD Fourth World too, which had teams in Quebec participating in this movement — and influencing one another along the way.

When the time came in the winter of 1998 to form a collective to write and propose a law for the elimination of poverty, we all were already on the same page. We took care that this fundamental focus – that those in poverty had to be at the heart of the struggle against it – was included not only in how we organized and thought about the issue but also in the text of the law we were writing collectively.

During one meeting, while we were working on the text of a petition, the ATD Fourth World team suggested that the document showcase how people living in poverty take action every day against it. This idea became part of the preamble of the law adopted symbolically in 2000. In that text we note, “People living in poverty are the first to take action to improve their own lives and those of others.” From that moment on, we strove to become the living proof of this conviction.

We put in place a policy that each member organization could have two delegates. Each organization would have one vote. However if at least one of those delegates was someone living in poverty, the organization would obtain two votes. We put in place a committee we called “AVEC” (meaning “WITH” in English). AVEC had the mandate to ensure that working “with” people in poverty was truly working “together” – something we adhered to in our campaigns and actions. We looked for inclusive ways of working that would let thousands of people from diverse social backgrounds share what they wanted to see in the law designed to eliminate poverty and contribute however they were able. People found their words and their ideas in the texts produced by the organizing committee, such as the phrase of Lucien Paulhus, which figured alongside that of Yvette Muise, in the preamble: “Now I am a leaf next to the tree. When this law is passed, I will be part of the tree.”

We did experience, however, some debates about sensitive subjects, including the question of whether we should advocate for money to cover peoples’ basic needs or for a universal basic income that could help people escape poverty. There were also moments of celebration like that seen in a photo from 2002, which became a poster for the campaign and a source of pride. In the picture you can see two hundred people, people who had an experience of poverty and others supporting them, holding together a series of banners with the following words:

“Build the foundation of a Quebec without poverty, and with more solidarity and equality! Do it with people living in poverty. Govern and develop differently!”

The law, adopted unanimously by the National Assembly in 2002, doesn’t go as far as the proposal that inspired it. Nevertheless, the preamble affirms that people in poverty are the first to act against it.

Since the law’s adoption, there have been both good and bad decisions taken by the Government. On the one hand, the law commits us towards a Quebec without poverty. It guarantees a minimum salary level that allows individuals to qualify for benefits, and makes significant improvements in the amount of support families receive. It puts into place a consultative committee charged with following the application of the law and advising government ministers concerned with the law. The composition of this committee, moreover, must include three people living in poverty. The inclusion of these individuals required some major changes in how the committee functions, such as expecting members to pay for their own transportation to meetings!

Unfortunately, on the other hand, many decisions remain based on stereotypes and fear of people in poverty. The new law cannot change people’s stereotypes. These decisions have led to the further deterioration of the economic situation of single people and couples without children who depend on public benefits. Little by little, the idea of work requirements, influential before the law passed and often used to justify all sorts of humiliating obligations, is again becoming more prominent.

This is what is happening now as I write this story. In spite of the law against poverty, new rules have been announced that claim to be in the interest of people who are requesting benefits for the first time. They reintroduce just the kinds of obligations and penalties which twenty years ago brought forth this very movement, the movement for a Quebec without poverty.

I am reminded of the words of another Yvette, one who also spoke out almost twenty years ago: “There is nothing worse than someone who wants what’s good for you without asking you.” This is where things stand right now –  for the time being –  because the dream of a Quebec without poverty remains, right next to the need to dream practically.

Video about this project: (in French with English sub-titles):

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