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The War at Home: An Intimate Portrait of Canada’s Poor

by Pat Capponi

Canadians like to brag about how the United Nations consistently rates Canada as the best place in the world to live. It’s selective memory: the U.N. also routinely chastises Canada for its treatment of aboriginal peoples (most of whom live in extreme poverty), and for its shameful legacy of denying many of its citizens basic human rights.

Pat Capponi, the Toronto-based social commentator and author of the memoirs Upstairs in the Crazy House and Dispatches from the Poverty Line, travelled to cities across the country and spoke to people in drop-in centres, on the streets, at meal kitchens, and in homes. Her observations – describing what she calls the human face of poverty – comprise the bulk of The War at Home, with the balance given over to broad references to government policy and cutbacks to social services.

The bare-bones approach to context is the book’s one disappointment. Capponi fails to make reference to the disappearing barriers between nation-states and the forces of multinational capital, so the linkages between money, fiscal policy, and social policy remain unexplained. In her efforts to capture the stories of real people, the author dispenses with policy analysis, at the expense of necessary context.

Capponi’s snappy style and keen eye for description make these vignettes an easy read. She explains well the cycle of poverty, and why children raised in poverty “grow into their own angry, lost adulthood,” and become the prison statistics of the future. (Families are now the fastest growing group among the homeless.) Capponi also does an excellent job of documenting the downward spiral from wage earner to homeless person: one dancer/waitress in Toronto was hit by a car, became unable to work, had her Employment Insurance delayed, and was denied welfare because she had access to EI. That’s all it takes, and it can happen to anyone. The War at Home is a timely and sobering reminder of the average citizen’s vulnerability.