Lorna Crozier on growing up poor

First aired on The Current (1/12/11)

Lorna Crozier is an award-winning poet, a university professor and a newly anointed member of the Order of Canada. But she grew up in poverty, and the experience has stayed with her. It also inspired her to want to share the stories of Canada's invisible poor.

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Recently, Crozier hosted a special edition of The Current called "We Are the 10%" that featured some of those stories. The day before that segment aired, Crozier spoke with host Anna Maria Tremonti about her motivation and her own experiences of being poor.

"When I was a kid, my parents lived in poverty, although I don't think they ever would have called it that," she explained. "But I'm interested in... getting some of the stories told from people who live this on a day-to-day basis."

Crozier was raised in Swift Current, Saskatchewan. Though it was a small city of 14,000 at the time, the divide between the haves and the have-nots was evident. "When you were in the lower class -- the working class or the un-working class -- you knew you were there," she said. "And you knew there were doctors and lawyers and teachers' kids who were much better off than you were."

Both of her parents grew up on a farm, and were children during the Depression. "So they knew the real effects of poverty," Crozier said. "I used to hear my mom's stories about how they'd get one orange a year for Christmas, and it would be shared among seven kids. And that was kind of the presiding myth of that province, and I think still is in many ways, even though it's booming now."

After Crozier's father lost the farm to his younger brother, the family moved into Swift Current. He drove heavy machinery for the city and would be laid off every winter, so money was always tight. She remembers hearing her parents worry over how they were going to pay the rent. She also recalls their substandard housing. "We left one house because the landlady wouldn't fix the furnace, in the middle of winter, and we were dressing in front of the wood-stove in the kitchen," she described. "Then we moved into an even worse place with a kind of a dirt cellar, with the toilet and bathtub down in the basement."

As a pre-schooler, Crozier didn't actually realize that her family was poor.

"I knew I was different, but I thought I was advantaged because we had the junkiest yard in the street. We were the only rental family on the block, and my dad was a collector of old pipes and oil drums, and things that he hoped to sell," she explained. "And so our yard was where all the kids gathered to play, because there was nothing that they could ruin..."

Her awakening came when she started school. She recalled walking home from her Grade 1 class with some children who weren't from the neighbourhood. "I remember at the top of our alley, them pointing at the house we lived in, and saying, 'I wonder who lives in that poor house?' And it was like someone had kicked me in the heart," Crozier said. "And I didn't say, 'I do.' I just said, 'Oh, I don't know,' and I walked down the alley and walked past my house and then doubled back and went in later. And I thought, My god, I am what they call poor."

Crozier points out that poverty isn't just about lacking money for food and shelter and other necessities. "I think part of the whole thing of growing up with limited means is that you're culturally deprived," Crozier said. "We were never short of food. My mom always managed to put good meals on the table. But we didn't have books around the house, we didn't have art, we didn't have music."

In Crozier's family, there was also a resignation, what she called "a lack of hope for what my brother and I could become in life." Crozier went to university over the objections of her mother, who knew they couldn't help with the cost. She urged Crozier to take a secretarial course instead. "But I had some gumption," Crozier said. "I knew that education would be a ticket out, so I tried really hard to get that."

Crozier acknowledges that the effects of growing up poor are still with her. "Somewhere inside, no matter what my accomplishments or what I've done in life, I can still see myself as that poor little kid from Swift Current, Saskatchewan," she said.

When asked what shocks her about poverty in Canada today, Crozier responded: "Well, here we are, one of the wealthiest countries in the world, and we brag about our social safety net. But when you see stories like that [the crisis in Attiwapiskat] you see there are huge holes in that net."

She went on to describe some of the people she spoke to for the "We Are the 10%" segment. "I talked to a young mom at a native friendship centre outside of Victoria with her three kids. She was there because there was a free lunch that day," Crozier said. "A woman who is disabled and she's living on one meal a day, that's all she can afford... A working dad. All of these people have such dignity about them, and they are trying to live lives of grace and richness, and yet with so very, very little."

Crozier feels strongly about revealing the faces -- and stories -- behind the statistics on poverty. "Some of them might be your neighbours, some of them relatives. But there's a whole group of people that are being terribly affected by poverty, and will be for the rest of their living days," she said.

Crozier also read a passage from her memoir, Small Beneath the Sky, in which she looked back on learning to read. Because she hadn't attended kindergarten (which had to be paid for), she was behind in Grade 1, and didn't know how to read. She took to heart being relegated to the group of slowest readers. The groups were described as birds, so the top were bluebirds and the worst were crows.

"Sitting with a group of crows in the classroom, stumbling over the words in our reader, was not where I wanted to be," Crozier said. "I did my best to get out of that group, and by the end of Grade 1, I won the prize for having read the most books."

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