Here in PEI with the approaching Holiday Season the many, many campaigns to help the poor are underway. Every year it’s the same story, tons and tons of food and clothing are collected for poor children and poor families. PEI is the smallest Province of Canada and our total population is 150,000, that is the equivalent of one neighbourhood in Montreal or Toronto. The Provincial Capital Charlottetown has a population of 36,000. a small town really. If you visit PEI from May to September like most tourists do, you will see zero poverty, we are very good at hiding it. You will see beautiful properties, manicured gardens, beautiful clean beaches and tons of greenery. We are known as the garden province. Restaurants serve lobster and seafood to tourists but that is not the diet of poor people who are reduced to eating food from the large food banks, mostly canned goods, powdered milk and other non-perishable. If you look on the internet you will find no photos of impoverished areas anywhere on the Island, it is all about affluence and pretty snapshots to maintain the myth and to make tourists happy.
Speaking with doctor friends about their daily encounter with poor people they mention a lot of mental health problems caused by poverty. We also have a zero housing vacancy which creates another layer of difficulties. At the moment and for the last 3 years the old original Downtown of Charlottetown is going through extensive gentrification. Properties which were former mansions or large houses turned into rooming houses are now being sold and thoroughly renovated and re-sold as luxury condos or high rent apartments pushing out a precarious population. For a small town we also have 800 Air B&B or STR as they are called now. The owners at the moment pay no taxes on such units and it is enormously lucrative. Most are not registered as STR’s and many do not meet the fire code regulations but no check is being made by the City. New regulations are coming in 2020 but again we are dealing with powerful and wealthy people who are very well connected, this is a small place after all.
PEI also has the lowest minimum wages in all of Canada, so the waiter or the store clerk you meet is making a pittance a day in salary. In many ways the history of this Canadian Province is far from progressive and in its history from Colony to Province (1755 to today) the wealthy landowners and business people have ruled with arrogance and impunity.
So Officially according to the Department of Statistics of Canada the level of poverty in PEI is 15% and the number of children living in poverty in Charlottetown alone is 25% according to 2017 figures, that would be 9,000 children, an incredible number.
So in December the CBC will have a charity drive usually hosted by the local Weather guy collecting turkeys for families who cannot afford a meal at Christmas. The Churches will do free concerts for all. The Food Bank will collect food and many gifts come from large companies who have surpluses like ADL the big dairy producer. Many farmers will give excess potatoes from the last harvest. The media in general will interview donors and thank them for their generosity. But the poor themselves are mostly invisible, no interviews for them, no photo-ops. Last year the Feed a Family Campaign collected over 2000 turkeys. Other social clubs will give away free meat pies, upwards of 100 per day until Christmas Eve. Clothing for children, toys and cash donations are also taken.
Of course such charity drives exist in all cities and communities during the Holiday Season, however it is more shocking here on this small Island given the small population. I am aware of the need in the City but someone pointed out to me the need also exist and is more acute in rural areas where people are very isolated and often must make a choice between buying fuel to heat the house or food.
I wish our politicians would try to seriously address the housing shortage and minimum wage crisis more effectively and our Media stop presenting these Charity Campaign as a great gesture from the well to do for the deserving poor. The current system is entrenched and keeps the poor in this vicious circle. Lack of education, lack of opportunities, lack of meaningful jobs and clean housing is part of a societal change required for PEI. This situation is nothing to be proud of PEI.