Ed Broadbent reflects on the child-poverty pledge of 1989

By Marco Chown Oved / The Toronto Star

It was the twilight of his storied political career and Ed Broadbent wanted to send Canada on a historic mission: to eradicate child poverty by 2000.
After days of backroom negotiations in November 1989, he rose in the House of Commons to deliver his last speech as leader of the NDP. It began eloquently by describing how a CBC radio report had informed him of the more than 1 million children living in poor families across the country. Broadbent then spoke of his decision to dedicate the last year of his leadership to finding a solution for these forgotten children.

“For too long we have ignored the appalling poverty in the midst of affluence,” he said. “This is a national horror. This is a national shame. It’s is a horror and a shame that we should put an end to.”

After he finished his speech and sat down to applause, every vote was cast in favour of his motion. Broadbent knew he had support, but did not realize it would be universal.

“I was frankly elated that it was adopted unanimously, because this ought to have had real force of all parties saying . . . 11 years from now we could join the Scandinavian countries and be leaders in the world on how we treat our kids,” he said in an interview with the Star on Tuesday.

Broadbent was encouraged by Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative government, which had spent years helping to craft the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted by the General Assembly only one week prior to Canada’s historic vote.

But what he hadn’t counted on was the way the North America Free Trade Agreement would usher in a decade of deregulation and cost-cutting under Jean Chrétien’s Liberal government. He watched each year as the well-being of Scandinavia’s children improved by many measures — health, education, achievement — while Canada’s got worse.

“We didn’t pick up on policies that could have helped children,” Broadbent said. “This Thatcherite-Reaganite marketization of society prevailed in the 1990s, and somehow children got pushed off the agenda.”

His resolution was remarkable in its simplicity. There was the goal of eliminating poverty among children and a timeline to get it done.

“We got what was important,” said Broadbent, while admitting that the resulting inaction might have been prevented by adding some teeth to the pledge. “It was the triumph of hope over judgment.”

“In retrospect, I think we should have said the federal government should set targets every two years from 1989 to bring child poverty down by so much . . . and had a minister made accountable for achieving this goal — and he or she could have done an annual report to the House of Commons.

“There was no plan or an agenda and no specifics for the provinces to come on board. And it would have been better to have such detail — no doubt about it,” he said.