The War at Home: An Intimate Portrait of Canada’s Poor, by Pat Capponi. Penguin, 1999.
Capponi’s book is a trans-Canada look at some of the nation’s most marginalized citizens. The book is divided into six chapters, each one representing a different stop on Capponi’s journey from Vancouver, through Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto, and Montreal, to St. John’s. Each chapter focuses on a different aspect, such as drug abuse in Vancouver, homelessness in Toronto. Capponi speaks with, sometimes lives with, her subjects and the people who work with them. Across all 6 cities, common themes recur. Sexual abuse, physical abuse, verbal abuse, mental illness, drug abuse, broken homes, single mothers. Hopelessness. Powerlessness. It’s not a cheerful read. Capponi is non-prescriptive. While she is generally critical of existing societal efforts at aid, she does not offer solutions.
This is not a book of statistics and figures, but some facts stand out. The poorest postal code in Canada is one of the only places in Canada where women’s income is higher than men’s, due to the number of single women raising children on social assistance payments, which are larger than the amount received by single men on welfare.
The War at Home was published a decade ago. Is it still relevant? Probably too much so. The recent case of Vince Li, an extreme example, shows that better treatment for the mentally ill is urgently needed. Some things have changed. Vancouver has developed the Four Pillars initiative. Insite, a supervised injection facility was opened in 2003. Insite was recently featured in a .Fifth Estate episode titled Staying Alive. In Ontario, the government has developed a poverty reduction strategy, with the goal of reducing the number of children living in poverty by 25 per cent over 5 years. Critics note that a strategy is not the same as a developed plan featuring affordable housing, reliable childcare and other needs and the government strategy still needs to be enacted.
Last Stop Sunnyside by Pat Capponi. HarperCollins, 2006.
The Corpse Will Keep by Pat Capponi. HarperCollins, 2008.
More recently, Capponi has melded her interest and knowledge of the marginalized with fiction to create the Dana Leoni mystery series. Dana’s life was interrupted when a violent attack left her shattered. Now she resides at the Delta Court rooming house in the Parkdale area of Toronto. In Last Stop Sunnyside, Dana and her ragtag band of fellow residents work together to uncover the circumstances surrounding the disappearance and subsequent death of a fellow resident after the police close their file. Michael, Diamond, Gerry and Miss Semple are engaging characters who allow Capponi to comment on some of the causes of marginalization and problems that confront the poorest of citizens in a sympathetic manner. With friends Pete, Jeremy, Charlene and love interest Ed the policeman, Leoni has a strong supporting cast. The story comes to a satisfying conclusion that wraps up all the loose ends and leads nicely into the sequel. In The Corpse Will Keep, Leoni is studying for her private detective license. An old school acquaintance approaches her to look into the strange behavior of his wealthy mother, who has become secretive since volunteering with her church’s program for the homeless. Meanwhile, Ed is called upon to work on the case of a series of brutal home invasions.
I enjoyed Dana and her unusual team of detectives. Capponi has them reading Janet Evanovitch and I wondered if her choice of names for her sleuth reflects a tip of the hat to Donna Leon, author of the Guido Brunetti series set in Venice. Capponi is a well-known activist in Toronto. See her message to supporters of the 25 in 5 Network here.