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When poverty mattered: remembering the Poor People’s Conference of 1971

Human Rights

The following is an excerpt from Paul Weinberg’s new book, When Poverty Mattered: Then and Now, released this year by Fernwood Publishing.

Unknown to the people at the Toronto based Praxis research institute its stolen files and conference registration forms happen to be in the hands of the RCMP Security Service following a mysterious and unsolved burglary and fire at its office in a house on Huron Street just north of the University of Toronto. Yet, Praxis still managed to pull together one month later Canada’s first and perhaps only national gathering of poor people.

The Poor People’s Conference

After the burglary of the Praxis offices, staff member Lynn Lang was scrambling to reassemble the list of delegates for the upcoming conference from scratch. Praxis was now deprived of an office, files or desks and had to set up shop elsewhere. This was before the invention of the Internet, smart phones and other electronic devices that would have helped them communicate with far flung delegates across the country. Leonard Shifrin at the National Council of Welfare, which had been responsible for conceiving the event in the first place, gave Praxis access to free government phones to make arrangements for the conference. The unsolved crime and initial media coverage emboldened more people than had been expected to decide to cross the country and show up for the conference. The funding to cover their transportation costs came courtesy of several federal government departments. The largest donor was Health and Welfare, which contributed $68,000 towards the travelling and billeting costs of the approximately five hundred delegates from about two hundred organizations, identified as active low-income groups.

The Poor People’s Conference was held on January 7–10, 1971, at the Lord Simcoe Hotel in downtown Toronto. The national conference had been planned by a committee involving representatives of poor peoples’ organizations and Praxis, without the direct involvement of Ottawa. It was a golden opportunity for representatives of marginalized portions of the Canadian population from different parts of the country to meet and share experiences. Media coverage was intense. After a great deal of debate the conference delegates agreed, in a close vote, to allow reporters to cover the general discussion, but they were kept out of the individual workshops. The argument was made that this would allow delegates to speak freely without the presence of TV cameras. “It supplied the delegates with an opportunity to discuss and experience the very real problems related to the power of the media,” wrote Bob Smith, a reporter for the Vancouver-based Georgia Straight. He said that as he was writing for the alternative media he was given less of a hassle about his presence. He also noted that delegates upset with some of the news coverage got a thrill out of their decision to poke a stick at the reporters on hand. The list of conference workshops reveals that some provided basic information to delegates who were to new community organizing, such as handling the media, conducting demonstrations and resolving the invariable splits over issues in community organizations.

The reporting was not necessarily all unfavourable, but there were some hiccups along the way. An old stereotype bubbled to the surface in a headline on the first edition of the Globe and Mail article: “Bar Business Brisk as 450 Poor Check into Lord Simcoe Hotel for Convention”. This headline was quickly changed in the second edition (in those pre-digital times, newspapers published several editions throughout the day). Telegram reporter Pat Johnson broke the delegates into categories by the emotions they individually displayed, which included despair, hope, determination, anger, fear and militancy. Doris Power, a member of the conference planning committee, was cited as displaying the greatest amount of anger during the proceedings. This was ironic, Johnson wrote, because Power was selected to head the press committee to publicize problems of the poor. “Yet, hers was one of the more bitter, angry voices trying to keep the press out”. Not mentioned was the possibility that this may have arisen from how Praxis and her organization, the Just Society Movement, were being treated by Peter Worthington in Johnson’s newspaper.

A wide range of resolutions were passed that pointed sharply at the state of poverty in Canada in 1971 that sound familiar to our ears today. They included insufficient housing, the high rate of economic inequality, the tax advantages provided to the wealthy and the lack of meaningful work. A raft of motions expressed outrage at the treatment of all poor people, including Indigenous Peoples, people of colour and other minorities, at the hands of the law, police and prisons. One resolution spoke of the police entrapping citizens to commit a crime and then arresting them for doing it. Another requested assistance for those released from a penal institution, and a third asked for less use of solitary confinement. Unfortunately, no specific examples or cases were mentioned in the handbook of resolutions but they seem to reflect discontent in the early seventies with the Canadian justice system. Also taken to task were the provinces and the federal government for not living up to their respective legal obligations in the provision of social assistance under the Canada Assistance Plan.

What generated the greatest attention in the press and some political fireworks involved telegrams sent by delegates to governments in Ottawa and Quebec, condemning the “repressive legislation” in the War Measures Act and calling for the restoration of civil liberties to Canadian citizens in Quebec. The War Measures Act was passed by Parliament on October 16, 1970, at the urging of Pierre Trudeau’s government during the October Crisis. Only the small federal NDP caucus led by Tommy Douglas stood opposed to the bill.

Wilson Head gave Praxis director Howard Buchbinder high marks for reconciling the sometimes acrimonious discussions of the planning committee to reach an agreement on how the Poor People’s Conference would proceed. The former Social Planning Council executive provided some background in his 1995 autobiography, A Life on the Edge: Experiences in Black and White in North America. Head was sympathetic to the analysis of poverty and welfare and the sheer anger and frustration expressed on the floor. In his book, looking back twenty-four years, he was judgemental and maybe harsh in his general assessment of the ambition and range of resolutions at the Poor Peoples’ Conference. “From my perspective, their anger and discontent made it very difficult for them to think rationally. There was no possibility that many of their demands would be met.”

There was something missing in terms of concrete plans to move forward after the conference. Fellow delegates shouted him down at one point. Head retrospectively questioned the lack of an ongoing strategy to pressure politicians, who would otherwise ignore them because they had neither the power nor the finances to lobby for change. “My Quaker philosophy was of immense value as we went through some difficult sessions. Over a period of several meetings the negative attitude of poor members began to subside and more constructive dialogue became possible.” He felt a chasm as a middle-class professional who had worked for social justice in Canada and the US with those assembled.

The conference was mostly about representatives of isolated poor peoples’ groups meeting each other for the first time, Head wrote. But the excitement of that would soon wear off. He felt what was missing here were plans to mobilize poor people for political action, which involved joining political parties and getting out their vote at election time. Many in the anti-poverty movement wanted poor people to directly participate in the delivery of social programs, but Head was sceptical, drawing attention to the co-opting of poor people into staff positions in the US in the War on Poverty, where he believed they started to sound and act like the professionals they were opposing.

Meanwhile, there was no official comment from Ottawa on the resolutions coming out of the Poor People’s Conference. The first mention of the conference came on March 16 on Parliament Hill in a lively exchange between a low-profile Liberal backbencher and the RCMP Commissioner W.L. Higgitt during a review of the estimates for the federal Department of the Solicitor General. Harold Stafford, the Member of Parliament for Elgin in Ontario, asked Higgitt if he was “at all concerned” about the Poor People’s Conference and the resolution sympathizing with the jailed members of the Front de libération du Québec . “Of course, I’m concerned. I am as concerned as is every Canadian,” replied Higgitt. Stafford also questioned the top Mountie about the role of conference organizer Praxis, “which seems more interested in promoting dissatisfaction and agitation towards changes in the system we live under than it is in helping the poor” (The MP was making the assumption that the two motives were incompatible). The RCMP commissioner was non-committal during the parliamentary session with Stafford, claiming he had never heard of Praxis or of its two principal directors, Gerry Hunnius and Howard Buchbinder. Indeed, Higgitt did not want to disclose publicly that for national security reasons the RCMP Security Service was monitoring the research institute and secretly in possession of the stolen Praxis documents, including the missing registration forms for the Poor People’s Conference….

In a proactive measure the RCMP Security Service had planted agents or found informants among the delegates at the national conference. “The purpose of the Conference was to unite the poor into a national force to solve the problems of poverty. Praxis Corporation and the Just Society viewed the Conference as a vehicle through which the delegates could be politicized and by placing their own followers in key positions on the National Committee,” wrote High and Green. This was not the experience of Wilson Head, who found delegates at the Poor People’s Conference to be fractious and not easily controlled by anybody, including Praxis. In October 1970, around the time the crisis in Quebec was unfolding,….

Don Beavis, an official with the Security Panel Secretariat at the Privy Council Office (PCO), contacted the RCMP Security Service. He stated that four senior cabinet ministers — Robert Andras, Robert Stanbury, Donald MacDonald and John Munro — were showing an interest in “any additional information concerning Praxis.” The list included Munro, whose department had hired Praxis to organize the national Poor People’s Conference but appeared uneasy about the contract. Quietly though, Munro “had requested that a full confidential report on all Praxis people be supplied,” wrote F.E. Goudge, an official from the Department of Health and Welfare to the RCMP Security Service on December 30, 1970, just two weeks after the break-in and fire at the institute office.

Paul Weinberg is a veteran freelance journalist based in Hamilton whose work has appeared at rabble.ca, the Monitor, NOW Magazine and the Globe and Mail’s business section. He is also editing a forthcoming book about Hamilton’s politics, culture and history for another publisher. When Poverty Mattered: Then and Now can be purchased directly from Fernwood Publishing or at your local independent bookstore.

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