Everywhere these days, the usual questions are asked: “Have you decided what to do for Christmas?” “Have you done your Christmas shopping yet?” No doubt this time of year brews excitement in people, especially thinking of family and festivities to come.
Unfortunately, excitement and merriment are not exactly the feelings everyone shares these days. Christmas time for Winnipeg’s poor brings a different kind of thought.
James Desjarlais has lived on social assistance for many years. He smiles while looking at Christmas decorations placed on walls and tables at a drop-in-center and like others, he may decide to attend a community dinner offered by the non-profit organization he frequents during the week.
Apart from a chance to participate in the festivities, for Desjarlais, Christmas is a reminder of the sacrifices poverty imposes on people.
“There are things we cannot have and we cannot do while on social assistance, like to see a movie, go to the Planetarium…I haven’t been there in 20 years…or go see family in the country. Just going to see my uncle out in the country would cost me a week or two of my monthly budget”
He speaks with a firm voice, even though the subject is about things sacrificed on the altar of poverty. Desjarlais gives the impression of a dignified man who rejects poverty while he goes on talking about it.
“Food is something that also gets sacrificed if I need to buy a new pair of socks, a t-shirt, new shoes, underwear. I’ve tried to buy long johns for winter but I can’t do that. Money is not enough for that so I just bear with the cold.”
Poverty seems to be inherited. That was one of Desjarlais’ conclusions after he finished talking.
“You know, everyone I know is on social assistance,” he says emphatically. “I lived in poverty all my life. It is not a good feeling at all, (especially at Christmas time), just knowing that a lot of people I see in shopping malls go in the stores and buy nice presents, like new runners and other stuff like that…I would like to be like that, I’d like to get nice stuff for myself too, just like the other people.”
Poverty definitely contributes to people having lower self esteem and a negative self image:
“I feel depressed, knowing I can’t do the things others can… It makes me feel unworthy in the world, like a third class person in my own city, in this rich country.”
“Isn’t Canada one of the richest countries?” he asks with disbelief.
Reading about James Desjarlais may trigger a sense of guilt for the blessings most of us have at Christmas time. But that is not the point or the intent of sharing this story. Guilt is a negative emotion and Christmas is far from any such feelings.
Having a conversation with James may produce a simple result: just becoming aware of what poverty really means in practical terms, in the daily lives of those we know as the poor in Winnipeg. Awareness is a very important beginning.
The questions that James poses with pride in his own reasoning may not have quick answers for him yet.
“Everyone I know is on social assistance. Poverty must be inherited,” he says.
Desjarlais has started a journey towards discovering the causes of poverty and the way out of it for him, and all those around him.
The process of gaining awareness of what poverty means, what causes it, who’s responsibility it is, signals the birth of social conscience for Desjarlais and for many of us.
Like a Christmas present wrapped in hope, justice and Christmas lights, the goal is that one day, we will all share equality in one of the richest countries on earth.
Poverty by the numbers
In 2010 there were …
54,000 Manitobans under the age of 18 living in poverty (20.9% of children in Manitoba)
18,000 Manitobans over the age of 64 living in poverty (11.2% of seniors in Manitoba)
93,000 Manitobans aged 18-64 living in poverty (12.6% of adults in Manitoba)
27,000 Winnipeggers under the age of 18 living in poverty (16.2% of children in Winnipeg)
10,000 Winnipeggersover the age of 64 living in poverty (9.7 % of seniors in Winnipeg)
58,000 Winnipeggers aged 18-64 living in poverty (10.9% of adults in Winnipeg)
Source: Social Planning Council of Winnipeg