One of the neat remnants of the British Parliamentary system is the practice of referring deferentially to colleagues by an honorific title. So if I were addressing the Prime Minister in the House of Commons, I would not simply refer to him as “Mister Harper” or “hey you Lego-haired fascist”, he would be properly addressed as “the Right Honourable Prime Minister”. Lesser MPs are still “the honourable member from (riding)”. While it may help to preserve civility, there are no conventions about what kind of language follows the honorific:
Winnipeg NDP MP Pat Martin added fuel to the obscenity-laden firestorm he created this week when he cursed at a Conservative senator who suggested murderers should be given ropes to hang themselves. On Wednesday, Martin called Senator Pierre-Hugues Boisvenu an “a—hole” for the comment that sparked controversy. When demands for an apology were made Thursday, Martin refused.
“Nobody elected this son of a bitch, he should keep his comments to himself,” Martin told the Winnipeg Free Press. He added perhaps his only mistake was that he didn’t include the required honorific when addressing a senator. “I should have called him an honourable a—hole.”
Pat Martin, incidentally, has a Twitter account and is consistently awesome.
There is again something vaguely Orwellian, however, about referring to politicians as “the honourable” when many of their actions reveal them to be something else quite entirely*. It is refreshing, therefore, to see a member of public office truly live up to their responsibility to serve the people:
This afternoon, Jagrup Brar will bid adieu to the Downtown Eastside and his month of self-imposed exile among the poorest of the poor, and catch the SkyTrain back to his middle-class life in Surrey. With proper food, the NDP MLA for Surrey-Fleetwood will doubtless start regaining the 15 or 16 pounds he’s shed from his 6-foot-4 frame as a result of spending a month living on $610, the amount social services provides for single, employable adults. Of that, only $108 was available for food and other necessities after rent and some money for public transit was deducted. He ran out of money last Wednesday.
There is a lot of demonization of the poor that happens in Canada, and a great deal happens in Vancouver. To be sure, Vancouver has shown quite a bit of hustle in recent years with regard to reducing the population of street homeless. That being said, in the wake of the #Occupy movement, the anti-homeless contingent of the commentariat has not backed down in their demonization of the poor. Homeless people are caricatured as shiftless layabouts who would rather collect a cheque than work a broom (or whatever hackneyed phrase you’d like to throw in there). Welfare programs are one of the central prongs of the anti-homeless argument – ‘why should my hard-earned tax dollars go up a bum’s veins? They should use it to pull themselves out of the gutter!’
This kind of attitude is the reason why Mr. Brar’s experiment is so profoundly useful. The panic over lazy addicts sucking the life out of the welfare system neglects the reality that most welfare recipients do use the funds they receive to buy things like food and utilities and normal (i.e., legal and prudent) expenses. The stupidity of the system (that actively discourages saving or accumulation of the kind of wealth that is necessary to actually get out of poverty), coupled with panicked stories every time we see a street person with a cell phone, results in an intractable quagmire of welfare policies that pretty much ensure that nothing gets done. What Mr. Brar has done is show that even “regular people” will struggle to survive under our current system. People languishing on welfare are not lazy, are not stupid, are not irresponsible – the system creates its own hurdles.
It behooves me to point out a couple of weaknesses in this experiment. First, living on welfare for a month does not give one a full understanding of what it is like. You do not learn what it is like to have your benefits clawed back if you manage to find some income. You do not learn about what it is like to develop a health problem and be unable to do anything about it because it doesn’t qualify for hospital care. You do not learn, basically, what it is to live like common people. Mr. Brar could have ended his experiment at any time, and he knew that he would go back to his upper-middle-class after only a month. He did not have to deal with the helplessness and despair, nor did he have to deal with the stigma and condemnation associated with being homeless. Furthermore, he appears to have been (understandably) warmly received by the community and offered instrumental help – help that is often not available to people living on the streets.
With those criticisms in mind, I still applaud Mr. Brar for taking a step that most of us would consider extraordinary. His month of living ‘on the dole’ should be sufficient to demonstrate, to him at the very least, that the image of people living fat off the government teat is an illusion conceived in the darkest recesses of the paranoid conservative mind. It has at least served to help him recognize that the need for housing is a good starting point for any anti-poverty initiative that is intended to actually accomplish the goal of making welfare a ‘safety net’ that people can actually climb out of.
Tying this back to the original point I wished to make, there is on display here an example of ‘honour’ that cannot be tainted or twisted in the way this morning’s examples were. This is someone standing on principle and demonstrating a willingness to put themselves on the line for the good of hir fellow human beings. Rather than being a cynical campaign stunt or an action taken to deflect a criticism, this appears to be a public servant living up to his job description and using his profile to expose a real gap in our system. This is true honour.
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*I hasten to add that my own MP, the Honourable Joyce Murray, is a person in whom I place a great deal of trust and for whom I have a great deal of respect.