Robert Bonner’s speech at the Poverty Olympics

February 8th, 2010-->

Tan-Sai. Hello everyone. Hi everyone. I’m Robert Bonner. I am Cree from Manitoba. I work with the Carnegie Community Action Project. We work to get better housing and incomes in this neighbourhood and to stop gentrification. We are part of Raise the Rates, a BC wide coalition who sponsor our Poverty Olympics.

I would like to acknowledge the Coast Salish People, The Burrard, Musqueam, Gitxsan and Squamish Nations for allowing me to live and do my work on this land. Miiquitch.

I want to welcome you to our DTES. We care a lot about each other here and strive to improve things for all.

I also want to say that this Poverty Olympics is dedicated to the memory of two volunteers from last year’s Poverty Olympians who passed away last year: Bingo and Hal Asham. Our whole community mourns them.

Welcome to the Downtown Eastside where:

  • In the 30s workers of all nations fought for work and wages;
  • In the 60s we stopped a freeway from demolishing our neighbourhood;
  • In the 70s we fought to get a name other than skid road and for a community centre;
  • In the 80s we fought to get a park on the waterfront and started the fight for social housing;
  • And in the 90s we fought for our missing and murdered women and for our safe injection site.

Now we’re fighting for better housing, better incomes and to stop gentrification.

I’m going to take about 3 minutes to tell you why we are having our third annual Poverty Olympics. Canada is a very rich country—rich in land that was stolen from aboriginal people; rich in money and assets. Canadians had almost $5 TRILLON in personal wealth when the last wealth survey was done in 2005.

But you wouldn’t know it to look at our neighbourhood, the Downtown Eastside.

  • Our HIV rate is similar to Botswana’s;
  • We have about 700 homeless people, just in the DTES and a couple hundred thousand in Canada;
  • Even though aboriginal people are only 2% of the population of Vancouver, they are 32% of the homeless;
  • Nearly half of all homeless women in the Vancouver area are aboriginal;
  • Our province of British Columbia, which the Premier calls “the best place on earth” has
    • about 12,000 homeless people;
    • the highest poverty rate in Canada;
    • the highest child poverty rate in Canada 6 years in a row;
    • the lowest minimum wage and highest cost of living in Canada.

And here in Canada, this very wealthy country, poverty has about twice the impact as all cancers combined on lost years of life and healthy living!! If you’re poor you have about ten fewer years of healthy living than if you’re rich!

And even though the colonial system has made my people the poorest in Canada, the Canadian government refused to sign the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Here in the DTES people sleep in doorways, crowd into First United Church to sleep on hard pews and floors; sleep in the crummiest housing in Canada along with bedbugs, cockroaches and rodents. Spending $178 million for a skating oval isn’t very impressive when you’re sleeping in a doorway. That money could build 890 brand new desperately needed apartments. Spending nearly one billion for a highway to open up real estate profits between here and beyond Whistler could build 5000 units of social housing, almost what we need in the DTES.

What do the Olympics mean for us in the Downtown Eastside?

  • Fined for selling stuff on the street so we can make ends meet;
  • Arrested for not being able to pay the fines;
  • Forced by police to go to shelters when we don’t want to go;
  • Evicted by high rents in hotels as developers use the Olympics to speed up the gentrification of the DTES into a condo paradise.

What could the government do if it weren’t spending billions on the Olympics? It could virtually end poverty and homelessness. End poverty. It’s not a Game. That’s what we say.

So… Canadian governments, take note, people around the world are watching you. There is a movement growing here and around the world for justice. You know when regular folks like us start making bedbug costumes and organizing a province wide Poverty Olympics torch relay that something really important is happening! Welcome to the Poverty Olympics. Let the real Olympics, the Poverty Olympics, begin!

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