Perspectives

Canadian students raise their voices about child poverty

By Pauline Théoret
March 6, 2015

Jorja (left) and Jazmin of Hines Creek Composite School in Alberta

"As teachers, we hold in our minds and hearts a vision of what might be, if only the world were equitable and socially just. When our students understand the value of eliminating poverty, they can creatively engage in school-community social action projects to effect positive change."

Dianne Woloschuk, CTF President

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In November 2014, 55 students and 30 teachers came together in Ottawa for two days to participate in a Student Summit to support Keep the Promise, an anti-poverty campaign. The Summit was a culminating event to months of classroom work on poverty by grades 5-8 students from coast to coast to coast. The Canadian Teachers’ Federation’s social justice program Imagineaction offered educational resources and tools to help teachers facilitate a class discussion on the issue, research community statistics, and come up with a school-community social action project idea.

Following this preparatory classroom work, students and teachers came together to share their findings and attempt to understand the issue of poverty from both a community and national perspective. While in Ottawa, students also had the opportunity to meet with Members of Parliament, Senators, and community-based organizations that work daily to support people living in poverty. Most importantly, students had the opportunity to voice their concerns via a public town hall event that was livestreamed.

Here’s what teachers had to say about the Student Summit on child poverty:

Front: Natisha, Annabelle and Bayly. Back: Teacher Sara Tillett and YTA Vice-President Tanis Gizci.

Sara Tillett, teacher at Jack Hulland Elementary School, Whitehorse, YK – The Poverty Summit was an incredible experience for our three Yukon students. Not only did they travel to our Nation’s capital but they had the opportunity to interact with other students and have their voices heard. Hearing the voices of others on such an important issue is critical. I witnessed my students as well as the other participants begin to take ownership of an issue they may not have thought deeply about before.

My students felt honoured to be there and to be taken seriously. I am not sure they realized how much poverty there was across Canada and how much they might be able to effectuate change. They also began to understand how big our country is, plus how powerful it can be if everyone demands and acts for change.

Lynzee Portfors

Now, these three students are engaged in a project here in Whitehorse in which they educate their classmates and ask questions to those around them. Over the next few months, these student leaders will help our class and school learn more about the issues of poverty and highlight its ravages to ignite student action and engagement of the issue. Projects such as claymations, art and poetry are some of the ways students plan on showcasing their learning.

Lynzee Portfors, teacher at Drummondville Elementary School, QC – Attending the National Student Summit in Ottawa was a phenomenal learning opportunity for students and teachers alike! For one of my students, the highlight of her trip was meeting with NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair and reminding him that a promise has been broken!

Front, from left to right: Chief Poundmaker teacher aide Gineen Albert; Kayla, Ethan and Calvin; Gwen Dueck, Executive Director, Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation (STF). Back: Bruno Central School teacher Corrinne Arnold; Brianna; Randy Cline, STF Vice-President; Chief Poundmaker teacher Sarah Thompson.

Sarah Thompson, teacher at Chief Poundmaker School, SK – Providing an opportunity to attend the National Student Summit was life changing for our students. It gave them a unique opportunity to travel, to meet students and teachers from across the country, and to take an active role in a very important event that relates to Canadian history and our future.

Chief Poundmaker students Ethan and Calvin, SK – Attending the National Student Summit was an unforgettable experience! We learned a lot through discussions with our peers and are thankful to have been provided an opportunity to learn more about poverty across Canada, the Keep the Promise project, and to take part in the town hall livestream.

Front: Principal Bonnie Worrall; Tommy and Nicholas; Heather Smith, CTF President-Designate; Marilyn Boudreau, Executive Director, New Brunswick Teachers’ Federation. Back: Larry Jamieson, Executive Director, New Brunswick Teachers’ Association (NBTA); Peter Fullerton, NBTA President, and teacher Wendy Peters.

Bonnie Worrall, Principal, Geary Elementary Community School, NB – While at the Summit it was remarkable to hear the voices of children from each of Canada’s provinces and territories. To be gathered in one place, under one roof, to share the common issue, child poverty, was a very humbling experience. The students see poverty in their communities every day, and are unsure what they can do to help. Yet this is exactly what they want to do! As teachers, we see it as well and do our best to provide children with breakfast and hot lunch programs, and impress upon them the importance of an education, but at the end of the day these children still go home to families that struggle to provide the nutrition and shelter they need. Low income families move often and children find it hard to maintain community connections.

Teachers Wendy Peters and Bonnie Worrall.

The Summit gave us the tools to approach government and make them aware of the issues of hunger (food), lack of affordable housing, education and local and regional issues. Poverty is very real and alive in New Brunswick and the rest of Canada. It is a cycle that is hard to break. It will take the will of all to improve the well-being of children growing up in poverty to make a change. If we (public and private sectors) all pulled together, we could find a way to make a difference.

Wendy Peters, teacher, Geary Elementary Community School, NB – This summit made my students more aware of the issue of poverty, not only across the country, but right in their own backyards. I have always tried to shelter my students from this subject, but I now realize that they can’t make a difference if they don't know there is a problem.

Teacher Megan Ramsay (left) and students Margaux, Cresny, and Jaime.

Megan Ramsay, teacher, Duke of Connaught Public School, Toronto – Through the inquiry learning process, students’ interests lead teacher instruction. As a teacher I endeavour to engage students in co-created and creative learning that embodies their interests. When the idea of a Student Summit on Child Poverty was presented to my students, they wanted to participate. What happened next is any teacher’s dream for rich learning: engaged youth and a series of meaningful activities during a summit that ignited each child’s commitment to end child poverty.

Front: Trinity, Abigail and Julia. Back: Teachers Steffanie Roy, St. Leonard Catholic School; Leanne Davis, Mother Teresa High School, Nepean; James Ryan, President, Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association.

Steffanie Roy, teacher, St. Leonard Catholic School, Manotick, ON – The two-day summit gave my students a sense of empowerment and a desire to make a change. Throughout the two days, students were engaged in meaningful conversations and were given the opportunity to problem solve with children their own age and from across the country. The videos, activities and Town Hall meeting increased their understanding of the issues Canadian children living in poverty have to face every day. Months later, my students continue to bring awareness to the community and raise funds for local organizations. They are holding on to their vow to “Keep the Promise”.

Teacher Marianne Graham and Leanne.

Marianne Graham, teacher, Holy Trinity High School, Kanata, ON – We were thrilled with how our students who attended the Summit lead others to help us run a very successful Sports Swap! This is what the students shared with their team: Poverty can be invisible. It can be relative and very personal. Dignity is very important yet difficult to maintain. It doesn’t take much to learn someone’s story and then act to change it for the better.

Front: Adam, Joella with teacher Diane Lewis. Back: Allison MacPherson, Nova Scotia Teachers Union (NSTU); Joan Ling, NSTU Executive Director; and Shelley Morse, NSTU President and CTF VP. Students have been honored and received the Lieutenant Governor’s Respectful Citizenship Award of Nova Scotia.

Diane Lewis, teacher, Greenfield Elementary, New Waterford, NS – When I got home from the summit, a new report came out that said 1/3 of children in Cape Breton live in poverty. That is higher than the national average. Now is the time for federal politicians, from every party, to keep their 26 year old promise to end poverty.


Teacher Jenny Reid (back) with students Madison and Meadow.

Jenny Reid, teacher, Weledeh Catholic School, Yellowknife, NWT – The Summit was an amazing experience for students, but it was also a tremendous time of learning for me. It was unlike any other opportunity I had accessed before because the students were the voices and were constructing their own knowledge. Something that really hit home for me during the course of the Summit was that kids see poverty every day on a much more intimate level than I do. Either they are the people directly affected by poverty or their friends are. They have passionate opinions and deep emotions about this issue. Though as adults, it was difficult for us not to jump in and be the “teacher”, I think the power of the Summit was in the students’ voices. I learned so much from each and every one of them.

When it comes to instilling a sense of community values and citizenship regarding a major societal issue such as poverty, give voice to students!

Pauline Théoret is a program officer of CTF’s International and Social Justice Program. She is currently on leave.

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