An Interview with...
An Interview With...David Northcott 12.06
Aqua Books interviews Winnipeg Harvest's David Northcott
David Northcott - Executive Co-ordinator, Winnipeg Harvest (12.06)
David Northcott is a co-founder of the Winnipeg Harvest Food Bank. Given a two-year break that just ended, he has been the face of Winnipeg Harvest for twenty of its twenty-two years. We asked him a few questions. Here's what he said.
Aqua Books: In the 2004 federal election, you ran as one of the Liberals' so-called star candidates in Winnipeg Centre. You ran against an effective MP in an NDP stronghold, at a time when there was a backlash against the governing Liberals. Many people thought you were making a mistake (I didn't vote for you - sorry). Having been through the wringer as a candidate, has your opinion of politics and the political process changed?
David Northcott: I had several reasons for running at that time. It was the right time for my family and me, even if the political climate was not ideal.
I had been in what was essentially an opposition role for more than 20 years, vis-à-vis city, provincial and federal politicians. I wanted to take a step to move the poverty agenda forward at the national level. I hadn’t seen any politicians move effectively to reduce poverty or to reduce food bank use.
I visited Africa in the winter of 2004 as part of a mission from the Canadian Foodgrains Bank. That visit illustrated clearly to me how critical it is to have an active, effective voice in government.
Compared to other countries, our political process is not perfect, but it is really good. I urge everyone to put their names on the ballot at least once in their lives.
AB: It seems like there’s a charity for everything these days. Philanthropy is big business. People love to feel good about doing good, even if they really have no clue where their money is going. Are there too many charities dividing up the pie? In a market-driven world, how do you stop the proliferation of new charities?
DN: It’s good to have many different charitable activities. I celebrate that. Charity adds to the fabric of our community.
We have so many charities because we have failed to feed, clothe, educate and take care of so many people.
While we wait for strong human rights legislation, many people are working to help others. Most people I know are very wise in supporting charitable activities. They are very aware of where their money is going and what it is doing for the community.
People will decide if new charities are needed or not. If they’re not, people won’t donate to them.
AB: Why doesn’t Winnipeg Harvest receive any funding from the United Way?
DN: The United Way is made up of good people, who contribute to the community. One of the requirements to be a member agency is a “blackout” on advertising and fund-raising during the United Way’s fall campaign period.
At Winnipeg Harvest, one of the strengths of our relationships with the community is the food, time and money we get at harvest time in Manitoba. We would have to give up or limit that profile and those relationships with corporate partners.
People who donate to the United Way can designate Winnipeg Harvest as one of their recipients and the United Way will deduct a service fee and forward us the money.
AB: On your website, you indicate what kind of food is needed most for the food bank. What kind of food do you get that you really don’t need?
DN: We don't get too many items that we don't need or can't use. There are items that don't meet health codes, so those are removed.
AB: What percentage of your clients are long-term food bank users because they are either on welfare or are unemployable?
DN: There is a base of about 25% of the people who struggle for adequate income and struggle with the amount that the government gives them and still use a food bank each month. Most people will use the food bank for about 3 or 4 months and then will not return for several months.
In our society, some work is paid and some is not paid. Those that are employable we have seen moving to paid work The struggle is with minimum wage or less than full time shifts to make ends meet. A food bank is there to help stretch the month!
People with multiple barriers, including health or mental health issues, may not be employable in the paid workforce, but they can work hard for us at Winnipeg Harvest, helping others. Our volunteers demonstrate the same enthusiasm as they would at a full time paid job! Society needs to value that unpaid work the same as a paid job.
Forty-six per cent of the people who use the food bank are children. Jobs help poor children in poor families and good training for their parents will help open those doors!
AB: I believe you’ve said that you’d like to work yourself out of a job. What conditions would be necessary for Winnipeg Harvest to wrap up? Is it really possible? Or would it require a complete overhaul of our value-poor, economy-driven society?
DN: Yes, we do want to work ourselves out of a job. We are advocating for change within the system, working with our partners to change public policy. We believe governments should once again consider a guaranteed annual income.
We also support one-on-one advocacy. We want our clients to build their knowledge so they can become trainers and mentors in their own communities.
Why, in our plentiful economy, is there no basic human rights legislation entitling people to their basic needs: water, food, fuel and shelter? There is still lots of work to be done.
AB: What would happen if Winnipeg Harvest closed its doors right now? Would anyone really starve?
DN: Yes. Children. Right now, we know of mothers who eat only one meal a day, so their kids can eat three meals a day. To remove their last bit of hope for food would be a harshness I hope we never go to. Surely we’re a more loving and respectful society than to use children and poor women as a political fulcrum.
AB: It’s been said that society should be judged by how it treats its weakest members. How should we be judged?
DN: The problem with judging is that through the eyes of someone who enjoys influence and wealth, things look much better than they do through the eyes of the bottom one-fifth of society. As the separation between rich and poor grows in Canada, we have to look at doing things differently.
We will be judged on our heart – our heart for international and domestic issues. There is still much work to be done on both fronts.
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