Speech from the Launch of the Poverty Olympics Torch Relay

Thank you all for coming out today to celebrate the start of the Poverty Olympics Torch Relay, a province-wide journey that will shine the spotlight on the devastating reality of poverty and homelessness throughout BC.

We have Torchbearers ready and waiting to run with the Poverty Olympic Flame down the main streets of 18 communities around BC so far. Unlike the “official” Torch Relay, which has security alone costing 4 million dollars, we are on a very tight budget so the passing of the Torch will be symbolic rather than physical – each day, a different town along the route will hold their Torch parade, sharing the stories of their local community.

We will have farmers serving home-grown soup and performing skits in 100 Mile House, where the poverty rate is one of the highest in the province at 25.3%, 1 in 4 people. We will have the Troubled Times Troubadours playing and singing their woes in Sechelt on the Sunshine Coast, where food bank usage rose dramatically last year. We will have the Poverty Olympics mascots skiing down the slopes in Whistler, where homeless people are allegedly already being displaced to Squamish. During the next 3 weeks, the Poverty Olympic Torch will light up around the province, finally finishing it’s journey at the third annual Poverty Olympics in Vancouver on February 7.

Why are British Columbians around the province coming together to be a part of this Torch Relay? Because people are struggling with poverty and homelessness throughout the province.

There are somewhere between 10 and 15,000 homeless people in BC. And 643,000 British Columbians were living in poverty in 2007, the latest data available. That was during the economic boom, before the recession hit, and the government responded by slashing funding across the board – education, the arts, libraries, health care, social services, seniors care, legal aid – so imagine the numbers now. But through it all the government continues to fund the Olympics, which has now reached a cost of over 6 billion dollars.

In the build-up to Olympic Games, people often wonder whose going to go home with the most medals. Well, BC’s already ahead of the pack in Gold Medal wins. This province has the highest average wealth in Canada and more millionaires per capita than any other province. It also has the worst poverty rate in Canada, the lowest minimum wage, and the highest child poverty rate for the sixth year in a row. BC is the epitome of the phrase “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” Clearly, it’s only “The Best Place on Earth” for a few, while many many more live in grinding poverty, desperately trying to get by from one day to the next.

But people aren’t just living in poverty, they’re dying in poverty. Poor people have a shorter life expectancy than those with high incomes. And a homeless person dies every 12 days in BC.

This province is in a state of emergency. And we need bold actions to get us out of it. But we can get out of it; there is nothing inevitable about poverty and homelessness. Other countries and provinces are committing to the reduction of poverty and seeing results. During the Poverty Olympics Torch Relay, Torchbearers will be calling on our governments to put the same energy and public spending into ending poverty and homelessness as they are into holding the Olympics.

There are steps we can take right now that would make a dramatic difference: Raise the minimum wage. Raise welfare rates and make it accessible to those in desperate need. Build social housing. Better yet, commit to a poverty reduction plan with targets and timelines, that would include all these measures.

You might think, we can’t afford this, especially right now. But now, in this economic moment, is the perfect time. Investing in low income people is the best way to stimulate the economy because poor people spend most of their money in their community, giving back directly to their local economy. High income people only give back 3-4 cents for every dollar received.

I became a citizen of Canada last year, but I’m having a hard time saying I’m proud to be a Canadian, when governments sit back and do little in the face of this crisis. I’m disappointed by all the broken promises and broken lives the Olympics is built on.

But I became a citizen because I believe in this country and our province and our communities. I believe we have the moral courage to make the necessary changes to end poverty and homelessness.

Our Torchbearers are spreading the Poverty Olympic spirit throughout the province, from the Rockies to the coast, from the North to the South, because they believe.

The question is, do you believe?