The loneliness of the long-distance poverty strategy: A race the Government of Canada did not want to win

This short essay[1] attempts to make a difficult and perhaps unseemly comparison between the Government of Canada’s newest narrative on poverty reduction and the actions of a fictional antihero who decided not to finish a marathon race he had won in all other respects.

The analogy I make is not perfect and is incomplete. I choose to use it, however, as I believe that it helps to explain the psychology and politics surrounding some important ambiguities in Canada’s directions for poverty reduction.

When the Government of Canada announced that Canada’s poverty rate had fallen from a 2015 high of 14.5% to a mid-pandemic low of 6.4%, our nation achieved its legislated 15-year long 2030 goal[2] of a 50% drop in poverty [3] in one third the time previously planned.  

In fact, poverty dropped by a whopping 55.8% from 2015 to 2020, a reduction that few if anyone really expected by 2030 let alone much earlier.

Curiously, the Government of Canada had routinely announced drops in poverty after they came into power and they were quick to state that poverty had dropped by 20% (the first legislated goal) two years early in 2018[4].

But when they achieved the second much more important goal in record time, there was neither announcement nor self-congratulation. There was no news release and no celebration.  

The Government had won a time-delineated race against a poverty reduction standard – but like Allan Sillitoe’s anti-hero Colin Smith in The Loneliness of the Long-distance runner[5] – neither formally acknowledged their victories.

In the novel, Colin Smith was a young working-class man who ended up in a reform school for committing a petty crime. The governor of the school noticed Colin’s talent for long-distance running and encouraged him to train for a cross-country race against a prestigious public school.

During the race, Smith led the pack and was on the verge of winning. However, just before reaching the finish line, he intentionally slowed down and stopped, refusing to cross it.

In a very real sense, the Government of Canada refused to acknowledge its own victory and by 2021, it had begun to lose that race. By 2021, the poverty rate grew to 7.4%[6] and the overall reduction in poverty had deteriorated to 49.0%, just short of the millennial goal in legislation. The Government of Canada had started to ‘un-win’ their 2030 objective.

It is also clear that poverty will further increase with the complete loss of pandemic benefits by the end of 2022 and the increases we are seeing in work that attracts poverty level wages. Many of these jobs disappeared during the pandemic reducing the number of working poor in Canada.

For Colin Smith, his refusal to cross the finish line was an act of defiance and a deliberate rebellion against the authorities and the system they represented. He saw the race as a metaphor for his own life, and by stopping before the finish line, he symbolically rejected the notion of conforming to societal expectations and submitting to authority.

For the Government of Canada, its refusal to acknowledge its victory can also be seen as an act of defiance. It did not want programs which it intended to cancel to help them meet its anti-poverty objectives.

Just like Colin Smith’s take on his victory that was not a victory, the Government of Canada had already ‘blown cold’ on the programs that had demonstrated such huge success.

In fact, through both its Officers of Parliament like the Auditor General and its own Finance Minister, the Government has disparaged the programs that did so much to help Canada meet its millennial hurdle.

But it was not until benefits came to their end that the Government confirmed that they harboured suspicions and resentment concerning their own handiwork.

In her report on Covid-19 benefits, Canada’s Auditor General had the following to say[6]:

“As with the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, we found that the lowest-income recipients of the Canada Recovery Benefit could earn more from receiving the benefit than from working. Low-income earners (with gross earnings of $20,000 or less per year) who received the recovery benefit for all periods (54 weeks) effectively replaced their annual income by 119%.

“In our opinion, the ability for low-income individuals to earn more on the Canada Recovery Benefit represented a disincentive to work, which impacted some labour markets at a crucial time when the need for employees was trending upwards.”

In Budget 2023, Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland cloaked suspicion and resentment in the language of efficiency and integrity when she doubled down on pandemic benefit overpayment collection[7]:

“To minimize delays and ensure that Canadians received the support they needed, benefits arrived quickly. Inevitably, this led to overpayments and, in some cases, abuse of the system. In Budget 2023, the Government is taking further action to ensure the integrity of Canada’s emergency benefit system.

Budget 2023 proposes to provide $53.8 million in 2022-23 to Employment and Social Development Canada to support integrity activities relating to overpayments of COVID-19 emergency income supports.”

Canadians are now being clearly told that achieving a legislative victory of a 50% reduction in poverty is of no consequence unless it is achieved through a different course yet to be named.

Overall, “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner” explores themes of alienation, class struggle, individualism, rebellion, and self-reflection. Colin Smith saw the race as an opportunity to make a statement and assert his individuality. By denying the governor the satisfaction of his victory, Colin asserted his own agency and autonomy.

The Government of Canada has also done just that through its damaging statements and its silence on meeting one of its own most difficult goals. It is asserting both agency and autonomy over advocates and activists.

Overall, Colin Smith’s decision to stop before the finish line was an act of rebellion, defiance, and a refusal to conform to societal expectations. It represents his rejection of the system that has marginalized him and a statement of his individuality and autonomy.

The Government of Canada’s decision to allow its singular achievement to erode is an act of rebellion against progressive policy.

Through running, Colin found a temporary escape from his bleak reality and experienced a sense of freedom and empowerment. His ability to excel in long-distance running attracted the attention of the authorities who hoped to use his talent for their own agenda. However, Colin resisted becoming a mere pawn in their game and instead used running as a means of reclaiming his autonomy and personal identity.

Similarly, the Government of Canada is clearly resistant to an agenda for change that it embraced a few short years ago when that agenda suited its purposes.

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance runner ends with Colin Smith walking away, accepting the consequences of his actions but with a sense of personal triumph and a newfound sense of freedom.

Overall, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner concludes with an ambiguous yet rebellious ending.

The Government of Canada has concluded pandemic benefits with comparable ambiguity as it relates to poverty reduction. The programs that met all their anti-poverty goals a decade earlier than planned they now see as rife with disincentives and abuse; and they have fully canceled them all.

Now that the worst of the pandemic appears to be over, we await their next move.

What is the plan now?  

Js May 30, 2023

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[1] This essay was aided using search engines, Chatbot GPT and previous blog entries on my site.