Creating a Poverty Reduction Strategy in Renfrew County
Written by: Annie Morrison, Ontario Healthy Communities Coalition
with Lyn Smith & Greg Lubimiv of the Renfrew County Child Poverty Action Network
Renfrew County is a large and predominantly rural county in Ontario that experiences a relatively high incidence of child poverty and unemployment. So in 2000, the Renfrew County Child Poverty Report Card galvanized local agencies and community groups to join forces and act on the issue of child poverty. As a result, the Renfrew County Child Poverty Action Network (CPAN) was formed with the mandate to eliminate the effects of child poverty in a manner that was empowering and inclusive. A grassroots agency, CPAN now has almost 600 members, including individuals and community organizations, media outlets, service providers, as well as educational and religious institutions.
CPAN is hosted by The Phoenix Centre for Children and Families, whose work is centered on social inclusion and the importance of treating every client with dignity and respect. It is also highly dependent on community support and involvement. According to the group’s coordinator Lyn Smith, “without community engagement CPAN would not be able to continue doing the amount of quality work that gets done. This includes programs, education, and advocacy.” She explained that one way CPAN involves the community in their work is to “often hold focus groups to ask our community to guide the work that we do, making sure that we are community-driven and in sync with what is needed in our community.”
Early in 2014, Lyn got in touch with HC Link to help with a community forum on child poverty. Jeff Kohl, an HC Link Community Consultant, worked with a local planning team to harness the high level of community energy and enthusiasm to address child poverty. He met with the planning team, contacted other local people who provided input into the process and designed and facilitated a forum which was held in June 2014. He continued to work with the committee to refine the action plan that emerged from the child poverty forum. Five working groups emerged from the 2014 forum, three of which continue to work together today.
“It continues to amaze and impress me the magic that happens when you bring people together to work on things they are important to them. That sort of enthusiasm and collaborative effort has once again mobilized the energy and commitment to make a difference.” – Jeff Kohl, HC Link Consultant
About a year later, Lyn reconnected with Jeff to gain HC Link’s assistance with another community forum that would remove the child-centered lens and focus on poverty in general. The event’s main goal was to start work on the creation of a local poverty reduction strategy that would work alongside with the Ontario Poverty Reduction Strategy and any future federal poverty reduction strategy.
The Renfrew County Poverty Reduction Forum was held in September 2015, co-hosted by CPAN, the County of Renfrew, and the City of Pembroke. With over 60 stakeholders present, there was great enthusiasm to tackle the issue of poverty by creating a poverty reduction strategy uniquely suited to the rural needs of Renfrew County residents. As a result of the forum, a Renfrew County Poverty Reduction Strategy Committee was launched to create a county-wide plan to reduce poverty. The committee will utilize the social determinants of health and the Canadian Index of Wellbeing to help structure the focus of the work. Renfrew County’s warden and Pembroke’s mayor gave their commitment by becoming co-chairs of the Committee and working on the first phase of creating a strategic plan. The work will be supported by various work groups, open to any interested community member, with a goal of creating a draft plan by April 2017.
The combination of strong political leadership and an inclusive process involving service providers and grassroots advocates proved to be a recipe for success in Renfrew County. What struck Jeff about this second poverty forum was “the number of politicians it attracted and the level of political commitment that they demonstrated. More than just glad-handing, these officials stayed for the session, and spoke afterwards with the service providers and those with lived experience of poverty”.