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Vibrant Communities: Local Efforts to Reduce Poverty

I Poverty in Canada

Canada is a country of exceptional opportunities. We have exceptional health, education and social programs, a robust economy and a quality of life that is envied around the world. It's hard to think of Canada as a 'poor' country. And yet more than 16% of us live in poverty.

Poverty has had a relentless grip on every city and region of Canada since the 1970s. Canada's economy has grown almost steadily over the past two decades, but not everyone has shared equally in that good fortune. Today almost five million Canadians are poor, according to the most widely accepted definitions. Our cities have experienced a dramatic increase in homelessness, new Canadians are finding it more difficult to gain an economic foothold and young people struggle to get into the job market.

Canada spends billions of dollars each year on efforts to alleviate poverty through income subsidies and social programs. These efforts help poor people, but Canada has not tackled poverty with a comprehensive strategy that yields the only sustainable result that matters -- fewer poor people. We believe all Canadians can -- and should -- share our good fortune.

II Vibrant Communities

Vibrant Communities is a community-driven, nationally supported effort to reduce poverty in Canada by creating partnerships that make use of our most valuable assets -- people, organizations, businesses and governments. It's a unique approach to poverty reduction that will allow communities to learn from, and help each other.

Poverty is a puzzle that has stubbornly resisted the best efforts of our society to solve it. Most conventional programs are designed to alleviate the effects of poverty by providing the "basics," such as food, shelter and income support. Vibrant Communities takes a different approach, focusing on community-based strategies that can help reduce poverty by improving income opportunities and community supports for low-income residents. We believe that the combined effects of these strategies will complement the efforts of government programs and yield new and sustained hope in the fight against poverty in Canada.

Poverty is the result of many factors and overlapping social problems, and no single project can address them all. Communities need to develop a holistic, long- term approach that tackles poverty on many fronts. Vibrant Communities will support communities as they identify local challenges and develop a comprehensive plan to implement the most appropriate and effective poverty- reduction initiatives.

The problems facing Canadian communities are often very similar. But each community has a unique mix of assets that can be put to work in the fight against poverty. This can include business networks, faith groups, labour groups, surplus buildings and land, even community pride. Vibrant Communities will support member organizations as they take stock of their local assets and determine how they can be put to work.

Vibrant Communities will link up to fifteen communities from British Columbia to Newfoundland in a collective effort to test the most effective ways to reduce poverty at the grassroots level. We'll concentrate on four key approaches:

*Comprehensive local initiatives aimed at poverty reduction;

*Grassroots collaboration involving all sectors of the community in these initiatives;

*Identifying community assets and putting them to good use in poverty-reduction efforts; and

*A commitment to learning, change and sharing our learnings, whether they are the product of our successes or failures.

Vibrant Communities is supported by our three sponsors: The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, the Caledon Institute of Social Policy, and Tamarack - An Institute for Community Engagement. But the heart of this initiative is the Pan-Canadian Learning Community, which includes convenor organizations from our member communities as well as our sponsors.

This group will hold teleconferences and regional and national forums to discuss local efforts to reduce poverty, and will develop solutions by learning from each other's experience. Five members of the group, known as Trail Builders, will also develop comprehensive, community- wide initiatives aimed at reducing poverty in their home communities. Their experiences will generate lessons for the Learning Community, which will in turn lend its expertise and support to the Trail Builder initiatives. Together, these efforts are expected to help at least 5,000 Canadian households during their journey out of poverty. We've all seen what deliberate, collective action can accomplish in Canada: medicare, old-age security, the Canada Child Tax Benefit, employment insurance and the Canada/Quebec Pension Plan, to name a few. Canada's list of achievements is remarkable. Now, let's see what we can achieve by focusing our collective efforts on Canada's poverty problem!

Experience is a great teacher, but only if you pay attention to it. The members of the Pan-Canadian Learning Community will engage in a deliberate, ongoing education about poverty and ways to reduce it. Their learnings will come from the best research available, the practical experience of local poverty-reduction initiatives, and expert project evaluation provided by Vibrant Communities. The result will be a continuum of learning, reflection and action that will become part of the culture of poverty reduction in Canada.

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III Our beliefs

The members and sponsors of Vibrant Communities share some basic ideas about poverty reduction in Canada:

* Communities can have a deeper impact if they focus on reducing -- not just alleviating -- poverty.

* Local organizations are effective in mobilizing broad-based community support for efforts to deal with local problems.

* We can do more together than we can on our own.

* We can create increased credibility, capacity and capital for the entire field of community poverty reduction by working together.

* We can complement the efforts of municipal, provincial and federal governments in tackling social and economic challenges.

* We do not have the answers, only a commitment to learn, change and grow.

We know that shifting this paradigm will require important changes in the way Canadians view their communities. We need to move away from the culture of blame that surrounds social problems and engage in a spirit of collective purpose while working toward solutions that benefit entire communities.

We need to acknowledge the assets in every community, not just the deficits, and find creative ways to put those assets to work. We need to help people become leaders -- to assume and welcome responsibility for solving the challenges affecting themselves and their neighbours. And we need to get every sector involved in developing comprehensive local plans for reducing poverty. We have great hope that the Vibrant Communities plan will provide the direction needed to make these vital changes a reality.

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IV Our specific objectives

* To reduce poverty for at least 5,000 households in Canada

* To expand the number of Canadian communities actively using four key approaches to poverty reduction: comprehensive thinking and action, multi-sector collaboration, community asset building and community learning and change

* To link fifteen communities in a process of collaborative learning and to support up to five communities to more deliberately learn and apply these approaches to poverty reduction

* To engage 250 non-profit organizations and government agencies, 100 low-income leaders and 100 businesses in those communities to join us in implementing poverty-reduction plans

* To distill and document lessons learned from these initiatives so that they can be shared with others and be used to help shape policies across sectors and at all levels of government

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V Progress to Date

In cities across Canada, members of Vibrant Communities are already pursuing innovative strategies to address the causes and consequences of poverty in their backyard.

In Saint John, the Human Development Council, the Urban Core Support Network, the City, and Business Community Anti-Poverty Initiative are preparing to raise the existing range of poverty reduction efforts to a new level by developing a broader poverty reduction campaign.

In Niagara Region, a coalition of community leaders known as Opportunities Niagara has consulted with businesses, governments, community agencies and people living in poverty to create a strategic plan for an ambitious project, which will be launched this fall. With the support of the regional government, Opportunities Niagara is developing a multi-year plan that will benefit low-income residents in the Region's 12 area municipalities.

In Victoria, the Community Social Planning Council is coordinating the Quality of Life Challenge for B.C.'s Capital Region. This project has been in development for over a year and has involved people from all sectors in drafting a plan to establish local targets for housing affordability, employment opportunities and community connections.

In Saskatoon, several non-profit organizations are leading a multi-sectoral effort to revitalize the city's 7 core neighborhoods and reduce poverty among its low-income residents over a 20 year period. Local residents have recently voted on which of the thirteen goals and sixty-two related strategies that emerged out of broad-based local consultations the Core Area Neighborhood Council should focus on to begin the revitalization effort.

In Waterloo Region, Opportunities 2000 is entering its fifth year of providing practical approaches to reducing and preventing poverty. This broad network of community leaders, agencies, governments and individuals recently unveiled its new strategic direction, which will focus on augmenting services for the working poor, youth and seniors. Its initiatives include helping low-income families save for post-secondary education for their children and ensuring that all seniors are accessing their Guaranteed Income.

Other current members of the Vibrant Communities initiative include Montreal, Calgary, Cape Breton, Edmonton, Halifax, Surrey, Toronto and Winnipeg.

For more information, on Vibrant Communities, read the premier issue of their newsletter, available online at