You can always tell when democracy is in a period of decline when there is an increase in volunteerism, charity and celebrity status. It sounds counter-intuitive, but hear me out. We have entered a phase where civil society has to pick up the slack from where governments increasingly leave off. It’s something of a mug’s game, where more becomes expected of citizens than is required of government.

And then there is that third great sector that doesn’t really have to worry about such things very much at all. The fabulously wealthy, the businesses they run and own, and the financial institutions through which they flourish – become increasingly disconnected from the daily lives of average Canadians and feel little connection to country anymore; their lives are spent more internationally than domestically, as is their wealth.

The 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech is rapidly approaching, commemorating the historic Aug. 28, 1963, March on Washington.

But 45 years ago, 1968, the year of his assassination, King was waging the Poor People’s Campaign to eradicate poverty. He addressed the congregation at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., saying: “We are challenged to rid our nation and the world of poverty. Like a monstrous octopus, poverty spreads its nagging, prehensile tentacles into hamlets and villages all over our world. Two-thirds of the people of the world go to bed hungry tonight. They are ill-housed; they are ill-nourished; they are shabbily clad. I’ve seen it in Latin America; I’ve seen it in Africa; I’ve seen this poverty in Asia.”

King’s words from that National Cathedral speech ring true today, as we face again the crisis of poverty and hunger: “There is nothing new about poverty. What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will.”

We’re thirty years into a slow-motion famine in Canada. And what’s worse, it is a famine that was planned for, and brought about by, our own government in order to funnel more money into the pockets of the 1%. They knew what they were doing, they decided to do it, and they were amply warned when they did it. But no member of the Mulroney government (or any of those that followed without reversing the policies) will ever be brought to bar to answer for the destruction and death their policies have caused.

… While most threats to food security come from natural hazards–lack of rainfall, global warming, desertification– we don’t expect the hazard to be caused by our own government. Particularly not in a “democracy” such as ours. But that is exactly what the neo-liberal policies pursued under Mulroney et al. have done. Food banks sprang up immediately as the Mulroney government attacked income re-distributive programmes in Canada. And they have never gone away.

As food banks struggle to cope with rising demand, they – and politicians – could learn valuable lessons from volunteers in Canada about the precarious nature of charity food provision.

Curiously, this rather wonderful protest song (above) is not sung by impatient young Marxists, but wise old mainstays of the community in Sudbury, Ontario. The “big society”, if you like. For years they have been volunteers at the local food banks. And they’ve had enough.

In fact, though they express themselves politely, they are furious. Alf Judd, the director of operations at Georgina Community Food Pantry, explained their frustration:

“I began volunteering with the food bank in 1990 thinking I would do this for a couple of years; here I am 22 years later.”

More than 400,000 Ontarians turn to food banks every month, said Mike Balkwill of Put Food in the Budget, which is organizing a daylong forum for about 50 students from Yorkdale Secondary School and West End Alternative Secondary School.

“Hunger is a symptom of poverty. And poverty is about low income,” he said.

“Social assistance rates are too low to ensure people have enough money for food after paying rent. People on minimum wage are going to food banks because minimum wage still keeps them below the poverty line,” added Balkwill, whose provincial group is pushing to raise welfare rates and the minimum wage.

It has been three years since Ontario’s low-wage workers got a boost of extra cash when the Liberal government of the day raised a minimum wage that had been frozen for nearly a decade.

Indeed, poverty activists have been pushing for a $14 mandatory minimum. But Wynne’s recent budget did not offer immediate change. It provided some extra money to social assistance recipients, but for the 8 per cent of the workforce that is earning the minimum it promised only an advisory panel of business, worker and youth representatives to examine possible adjustments. The panel is to report back six months after the budget is passed. It will “consult widely” to see how the minimum wage is set up in other provinces. Some provinces index wages based on the consumer price index while others rely on minimum wage boards or advisory committees.

What if the little old ladies who run the neighborhood church food pantry rebelled? What if they said “we’re 70 years old, we’ve been feeding people for 20 years, and hell if we want to do it for another 20?” What if they demanded that the government reduce the incidence of poverty so that food pantries don’t need to exist in the first place?

Hard to imagine? Well, that’s exactly what has happened in the province of Ontario. With the support of an experienced community organizer, volunteers from emergency meal programs, and food banks (what we call a food pantry in the U.S.) have decided to form a “union.” They’re calling it Freedom 90, a spoof on the “Freedom 55” financial planning advertisements that promise the good life to Canadians who work hard and invest their savings wisely, so they can retire by 55.