What actual honour looks like

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.



  1. Zachariah says

    It’s spelled “honor.” What are you, British?

    But seriously thanks for sharing this example. It’s good to know that somewhere in the world there exist politicians with character.

  2. MichaelD says

    I love our Canadian ability to appropriate American and British spellings. By far my favorite under appreciated thing about being Canadian.

  3. Pen says

    Oh, you have so understood our system! As long as you start with ‘The Honourable Gentleman/Lady from…’, you can say what you like! You can hurl cream pies… You can shout and swear… And you can go out to the pub with said Honourable Lady or Gentleman afterwards and charge it to expenses!

  4. F says

    Well, props to Brar and also to Martin. Very much especially to Brar. Hell, you don’t even have to be on welfare to have such low income. Once you’re there, it’s hard to get out.

    Also honourable: You, Crommunist.

  5. Dunc says

    First, living on welfare for a month does not give one a full understanding of what it is like.

    Yeah – for one thing, you can easily get through a month (several, in fact) without having to buy any clothes or shoes. But shabby clothes and worn-out shoes don’t exactly help in interviews…

  6. CanadianSteve says

    Pat Martin is awesome. Great to hear a politician actually say what they are thinking for a change. Especially when they are thinking what 65% of Canadians are also thinking.

  7. ash says

    Yeah, but especially in his not backing down and in fact adding MORE invective in place of an expected apology.

  8. Leni says

    Interesting post! One of the things that really drives me crazy about some conservative is the attitude that pretty much anyone can get a middle class wage job and those who don’t are to blame. Except low paying jobs make up a large part of our economy and someone has to work them.

    Apparently it’s all teenagers and bored retirees who should fill these jobs. Poverty is built right into the system, yet poor people are to blame for it.

    Another tangential point- here in America there are efforts in several states to institute drug testing of welfare recipients. Florida instituted this policy for a time in 2011 (until it was blocked by a US District court) and found:

    Nearly 1,600 welfare applicants have refused to take the test since testing began in mid July, but they aren’t required to say why. Thirty-two applicants failed the test, and more than 7,000 have passed, according to the Department of Children and Families. The majority of positives were for marijuana.

    Supporters of the law say applicants skipped the test because they knew they would have tested positive for drugs. Applicants must pay $25 to $45 for the test and are reimbursed by the state if they pass. It’s unclear if the state has saved money.

    Under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, the state gives $180 a month for one person or $364 for a family of four.

    Those who test positive for drugs are ineligible for the cash assistance for one year, though passing a drug course can cut that period in half. If they fail a second time, they are ineligible for three years.

    Besides finding that the state so far has failed to adequately defend its position in support of drug testing, Scriven’s order on Monday cited the fact that a 2003 state-sanctioned study of drug use among welfare recipients indicated the incidence of drug use was lower among Florida’s state welfare recipients than among the general population.

    Emphasis added.

    This is the kind of thing that really make me despise conservatives. Not only that, but drug use is a huge problem and poor addicts deserve help just as much as anyone else. I fail to see how vindictive and punitive policies like this will help alleviate the problem and bring people out of poverty. It seems more likely to aggravate it, and ultimately raise costs as those desperate people turn to crime for income.

    There is just no middle ground with these assholes.

  9. Pat O'Brien says

    I agree with your comments about the homeless but not about Mr. Brar. This stunt was performed by the late Emery Barnes several years ago but Emery spent several months living the “homeless” life. The question we have to ask is what good came of this? Apparently nothing. The homeless problem in Vancouver is as bad as it has ever been.
    I do not elect my MLA to engage in publicity stunts, they are elected to do the work of the people in parliament and in committees. For almost one month Mr. Brar did nothing to really help the homeless, perhaps he helped his own re-election by appearing to sympathize with the homeless.
    Yes he brought the plight of the homeless into the public discussion, but he also brought his own public image into the public discussion.
    My take is that he did more for his reputation than he did for the homeless.

    Pat O’Brien

  10. says

    “… the image of people living fat off the government teat is an illusion conceived in the darkest recesses of the paranoid conservative mind.”

    Sorry, but I have to disagree with you on that point. There are people living fat off of government handouts. They are called politicians, with their rich salaries and pensions. Oh, and don’t forget corporations, which as everyone knows are people too.

  11. says

    You can add ‘landowners’ to that where Vancouver is concerned. It seems that every time TransLink raises the possibility of a property tax hike, or better yet a parking tax (levy charged to businesses based on the amount of parking space they maintain) hike, both the Province and the Vancouver Sun are awash with stories about poor business owners and owners of $600k+ property who can’t possibly afford the new taxes! So, all we get is an increase of $3.48 per year per $100,000 of assessed value…that will only last for two years…if no other funding source is found.

    Yeah, most property owners will totally be unable to afford that. And for the ones that really can’t, the problem has to be the taxes and not, say, rampant land speculation promoted at least in part by a provincial government that started off by instituting its own version of the Bush tax cuts, and followed that up by slashing public services so that we could pay for the Olympics. YAY OLYMPICS. -.-;

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