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  • "An Unexpectedly Significant Finding"Poverty and the Royal Commission on the Status of Women
  • Margaret Hillyard Little (bio)

In April 1965 Prime Minister Lester Pearson declared "war on poverty." He promised $25 million a year to needy mothers and their children through the introduction of the Canada Assistance Plan (cap). The cap heralded a new era in federal-provincial welfare-state expansion. It guaranteed unlimited cost-shared funding for provincial and municipal welfare programs, and it signalled a new level of federal responsibility for the nation's poor.1 Yet despite this war on poverty, most provinces did not increase their welfare rates, rates that remained well below subsistence. Nor did they lessen their moral surveillance.2

By the mid 1960s, poverty had gained public attention as a result of a number of widely publicized reports. In 1964 the Ontario Federation of Labour declared that more than 1 million Ontarians were living in poverty. In 1965 a Canadian Welfare Council study on rural poverty found the "extent staggering." And another report the same year concluded that more than 1 million Canadians were illiterate and about 4 million (one in five Canadians) were living below the minimum poverty line. These shocking reports on poverty were headline stories in prominent daily newspapers.3

On 16 February 1967, following these well-publicized poverty reports, the Royal Commission on the Status of Women (rcsw) announced it would solicit the views of women, to encourage women's organizations and individual women to write letters and/or present briefs to the commission as it travelled throughout the country. Just ten months after this announcement, on 6 October 1968, the federal government established the Special Senate Committee on Poverty (Croll Committee) with a $1 million budget to inquire into the causes of poverty and make recommendations for its elimination. The [End Page 203] Croll Committee provided money to help the poor organize, present before the committee, and protest outside the committee hearings, thus receiving media attention.

From April 1969 to November 1970 the Special Senate Committee on Poverty held hearings across Canada. The national and local media covered the Croll Committee members as they travelled, met in hotel ballrooms, and heard briefs. The committee members were criticized for holding their hearings in ballrooms, so they began taking tours of the "slums" of Canada's cities with the media in tow. This was front-page news day after day. And the committee hearings provided a national forum for low-income voices. This was the first time federal funding was available to poor and low-income groups, which in turn used this strategically to form, organize, protest, and attract media attention. This sparked hundreds of antipoverty groups to organize and raise their voices.4

I am being a stickler on the dates of these developments for the rcsw and the Croll Committee on Poverty because I want you to see the extent to which issues of poverty were in circulation during the announcement, hearings, and report of the rcsw. In December 1970, just seven months after the Croll Committee hearings ended, the rcsw report was released. And yet, despite all this public attention to poverty, the rcsw's report states, "The specific situation of women in poverty was an unexpectedly significant finding [my emphasis] in our investigation."5 Unexpectedly? This phrase in the rcsw report was written four and a half years after Prime Minister Pearson declared war on poverty, after low-income groups had begun to organize in almost every city, and after poverty had become a front-page news story with the Croll Committee members touring the country.

How could the rcsw be surprised by the breadth and depth of poverty that women experienced? To understand this more fully, I examined how many low-income women's groups submitted briefs to the rcsw, what specifically they said about poverty, and what they recommended as solutions.6 First, of the 468 briefs submitted to the rcsw there are only three from explicitly lowincome women's groups. Second, all three advocated strongly for a Guaranteed [End Page 204]

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Table 1.

The Timeline of the Royal Commission on the...