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That could have been me


Published: 08/01/2012

by Jim Campbell

In the 1930s, two blocks from our house in Ottawa there were two vacant properties thick with trees. We kids knew them as "The Big Bush" and "The Little Bush." Our parents warned us never to go past the signs that read, "Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted." Their warnings and signs, heightened by stories older kids told of their forays into the bushes, gave them an aura of delicious mystery and danger.

One of the marks of growing up in our little corner of the world was to venture into "The Big Bush." It was summer, mid-afternoon, when Eddie and I ventured along a well-worn path. "The Big Bush" seemed dark in the shadow of the trees. The path went this way and that ... then ahead it was brighter. We stepped into a clearing.

We stared at a pile of ashes and at sticks to hold pots over a fire. Hanging on the trees were pots, a coat, a sweater and near the fire was a log seat, beside it a carefully folded newspaper. We hurried out along the path. Wow! We had passed; we had a story to tell. We'd warn the little kids.

We'd discovered a hobo camp. It was empty because the men were out seeking work, collecting food, something for the pots hanging on the tree. In that time there were thousands and thousands of men like them and a host of destitute families in our country, in Canada.

They relied on charity ... a sandwich, a bowl of soup, a coffee. They wore second-hand shoes and clothes, and hoped to be given a dime, maybe even a quarter. It took a great outpouring of generosity and compassion by individuals, charities and churches to barely sustain these victims of the Great Depression.

Those who had little shared what they had, people said, "There, but for the grace of God, go I." They knew there was a fine line between any of us and tragedy or destitution.

Whatever became of the men from the camp? Probably some were amongst the first to sign up when war broke out in '39. Later as the war wound down, they joined with those who had helped them to press the government to take responsibility for the unfortunate in our country. It was wrong to leave the task of meeting people's basic needs for food, shelter and clothing to charity alone.

Canadians demanded that compassion be high on the agenda of the nation. Thus, starting in the '40s and '50s, we saw acts passed to provide: old age pensions, the baby bonus, unemployment insurance, and government-financed rental housing all across Canada. In time, the Canada Health Act was passed. We were proud of our social safety net.

Yet once again charities are facing a crushing struggle to meet the desperate needs of our people. Today, there are huge holes in the safety net. Under the bridges and overpasses, ragged collections of the homeless try to establish communities.

What started as emergency responses to needs: food banks, clothing depots, "Out of the Cold" shelter programs, and winter night patrols to provide blankets, coats, mitts and hot soup to the street people, are becoming permanent tasks.

The charities are terrific in dealing with emergencies. Involved, person-to-person, they're sensitive to the pain and suffering of the homeless, the hungry, the sick and all who live on the edge of despair.

There in the trenches, they react to emergencies faster than governments can. These days, homelessness, hunger and poverty are beyond being an emergency. Food drives that once provided extra food for Christmas now have to be run all year long.

The problems are endemic. Only governments can fix the basic inequalities and the problems plaguing our cities and towns.

How can we have such need in these prosperous days? We could easily lose our way in a maze of complex explanations. Action is needed. Those who survived the '30s had a plan. It worked.

First, remember that bad times can come to anyone. "There, but for the Grace of God, go I." Then, lean hard on the politicians to deal with the problems, to heal the wounds, end the hunger and shelter the homeless.

It's time to fix the net, to reaffirm the compassion that defines us as Canadians.

Jim Campbell is an Oakville-based writer. Send your comments by e-mail to or via post to 268 Lakeshore Rd. E., #604, Oakville ON L6J 7S4.

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