We’ve Done it Before: A Lesson in Optimism from Ed Broadbent

Rebecca Frost, Senior Editor

03 March 2019

Ed Broadbent addressing the House of Commons on November 24th, 1989

Ed Broadbent addressing the House of Commons on November 24th, 1989


Canadian politics feels pretty ugly right now. The Government is currently embroiled in the sort of scandal that seems to pop up every decade or so in Canadian politics. The upcoming federal election looks like it will be divisive and nasty. Much of the rhetoric coming from the leadership across the political spectrum feels increasingly hollow, partisan, and unproductive. This isn’t a uniquely Canadian problem. Political rhetoric in many countries is becoming increasingly angry and polarized. Governments around the world are caught up in messy, seemingly avoidable problems. Brexit is a good example of this. There are countless others. For many young people in Canada and around the world,  it’s a sorry sight to come of age to.

Optimism can often come from unexpected places. In 1989, NDP leader Ed Broadbent gave a speech in the House of Commons, calling upon the Government to address the issue of child poverty in Canada. It was his final speech as party leader. Below are some excerpts of Broadbent’s speech.

“Whatever their philosophical basis, whether Canadians are Conservatives, or Liberals, or New Democrats, I know there isn’t the slightest bit of difference in their commitment to the wellbeing of children. However else we may differ on other political matters -and the differences are real and serious- on this issue there is no difference. On the commitment to overcoming child poverty, I believe there would be no difference about the goal…

…For too long we have ignored the appalling poverty in the midst of affluence. 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…

…We have the resources. We have the ability. We’ve done it before on pensions. We’ve done it before on medicare. What we need now is the same will concerning the needs of our children…

…For the sake of our children, let us find that same spirit of reform, of hope, of courage, of tenacious intelligence, that has led this nation of ours to great accomplishments in the past. Let us affirm today, in this Parliament, that as a nation, by the beginning of the 21st Century, only 11 years away, child poverty in this great Canada, will be a relic of the past.”

While Broadbent was speaking specifically about ending childhood poverty in Canada, but his words have a lesson for all of us today.

Canada has a lot of problems right now. Some are big, some are small, some even qualify as national horrors and national shames. The SNC Lavalin scandal has brought forth allegations that the proceedings of our independent judiciary were subject to political interference. We have a long way to go in forging a path toward meaningful reconciliation with Indigenous people and fully addressing the national horrors and the national shames that accompanied and still accompany colonialism in all its forms. The transition to an environmentally sustainable economy will likely be slow and challenging.  The list goes on.

On the topic of child poverty, according to the most recent census, 1.2 million children still live in poverty in Canada. Notably, a greater percentage of Canadian children live in families below the low-income threshold now than in 1989. Mr. Broadbent has spent a respectable portion of the last 30 years pressuring the Government to do better on that front.

The problem is particularly bad in Nunavut. The most recent studies estimate that seventy percent of children in Nunavut experience food insecurity. Indigenous communities across the country face much higher rates of childhood poverty and food insecurity than the rest of Canada. Nunavut also has a rate of tuberculosis infection that rivals developing countries like Somalia and Bangladesh. If that is not a national horror and a national shame, I do not know what is. Problems like this are daunting. They are often driven by countless complicating factors and many will take generations to solve. But as Mr. Broadbent said on the House floor almost 30 years ago, we’ve done it before.

It is easy to forget how daunting the reforms that Mr. Broadbent mentioned in his speech were. It took decades of hard work and perseverance in the face of opposition to build the healthcare systems we recognize today. 15 years passed between the time a Senate committee was commissioned to investigate old-age income security in 1950, and the introduction of the Canada Pension Plan in 1965. Despite every difficulty, problems were solved, and Canada is better for the hard work of everyone who helped solve them.

Reforms like this must happen. They must happen even when politics looks ugly and bleak. We have many big problems in this country, but we have had big problems before. We did not solve those problems by giving in to cynicism. As Mr. Broadbent said, they were solved with a spirit of reform, hope, courage, and tenacious intelligence.

Solutions do not come easily, and they do not come through rhetoric alone. That speech Mr. Broadbent gave in 1989 was accompanied by a motion to commit the Government to eradicate childhood poverty in Canada by the new millennium. It passed unanimously. As we saw earlier, we are almost two decades into the new millennium and farther from that goal than we were in 1989.

This isn’t limited to Canada. Government’s everywhere face large, problems at home and abroad that will take a lot of hard work to solve. Government’s will even need to work together to address issues like climate change. There will be opposition, there will be setbacks, but something must be done and rhetoric won’t cut it.

It won’t be easy, but we’ve done it before. We must find a way to do it again.