Jane Harris, Alberta author, journalist, writing instructor and presenter, seems like an unlikely candidate for homelessness, but she’s twice come very close to being in that situation.
In Finding Home in the Promised Land, she explains how she became what she terms a social exile and examines how Canada has developed a poverty industry to deal with people in similar circumstances. She uses her personal experiences and research to fuel the argument that Canadians need to rethink how we help.
Harris’s most recent brush with poverty and homelessness was triggered by a violent physical attack. Her husband, who was addicted to prescription drugs, suddenly attacked her in their Lethbridge home. The attacks went on throughout the afternoon before Harris realized that she had to escape or she would die. While her cuts and bruises eventually healed, the long-lasting effects of the brain injury that she sustained are what left her barely able to cope with daily living. She was forced to sell the family home, pay outstanding bills and then try to find a decent place to live with no secure income and no guarantee of being able to resume her career as a writer and teacher.
She got a job as a product demonstrator, but her inability to function mentally left her barely capable of working. “I should not be working in a mall. I panic when anyone walks up behind me. I turn white with horror when I hear loud noises in the warehouse. I slur my words four hours into my shift.”
Harris said the only thing that stopped her from jumping off a bridge was her writing. She uses excerpts taken from notes she made at the time throughout the book to help illustrate her journey back from despair. These glimpses into her life at its lowest point add a personal touch to the more factual information she includes about Canada’s poor, and make the book more accessible.
She proudly recounts the fighting spirit shown by her Scottish ancestors, especially her great-great-grandmother Barbara Gilchrist, who came to the Garafraxa district in Upper Canada with her family in 1849 in search of a better life. She details the establishment in 1877 of the first poorhouse, the Wellington County House of Refuge and Industry, located between Elora and Fergus, Ont. While Barbara was widowed with young children, she quickly remarried and managed to keep her children out of the poorhouse.
These early Canadian settlers — at least the young, healthy men — could head west to work toward a brighter future. “Our vast frontier fuelled our belief that hard work could pull the unlucky out of their bondage to poverty.”
These would-be settlers were encouraged to make their way in the promised land, but Harris shows that some couldn’t realize their dreams of success and were forced to accept charity from the few agencies operating in the late 1800s.
She contends the old belief still exists that only people who are lazy and morally lax find themselves at the bottom of Canada’s social ladder. This misconception is at the heart of the way our current society deals with the less fortunate. Harris details how agencies such as food banks, social services and women’s and homeless shelters degrade clients by trapping them in situations where they become increasingly dependent on help and handouts to stay alive.
Rather than encouraging people to become more self-reliant, Harris maintains many “poverty industry professionals” instead actively work to keep their clients coming back for services.
She recounts how she managed to draw on her skills as a writer and on her inner strength to extricate herself from what she sees as the quicksand of social assistance, but knows that others can’t easily follow her.
While some of the information Harris provides about Canada’s social assistance programs is a bit academic, her own experiences help to add interest to the material she covers.
Andrea Geary is a reporter with Canstar Community News.