Social Pediatrics as a Solution to Poverty? A view from afar

I recently had the privilege to spend time with Dr. Gilles Julien, a well-known pediatrician in Montreal, who is largely responsible for the ‘social pediatrics’ movement in Canada. Dr. Julien has dedicated his life to children and youth and to their physical, emotional and social well-being by honouring the holistic view to wellness. His years of work in Africa and Inuit regions, taught him that pediatrics is more than physical healing. It’s the healing of the child’s soul, potentially damaged by social ills, and it takes a village to achieve this healing process.

Dr. Gilles JulienDr. Julien proceeded to become Montreal’s first pediatrician with his office on two wheels – a bicycle! His clients were marginalized due to a variety of sociological, emotional and economic factors. His home visits gave him an opportunity to assess what healing should look like to ensure the optimum health and wellness of the child.

Today, Dr. Julien practices in a clinic due to many benefactors who believe in the social pediatrics movement. They understand the holistic view of individual and community health and wellness. Most of the children he sees come from low-income families. Dr. Julien values skill, time, patience, creativity, and vision – seeing what’s possible with every child he meets. These values allow him to see beyond the hurt, the trauma, and the challenges. They give him perspective on the child’s dreams and potential. In his world of social pediatrics, he works with the child, the family, and their environment to support every one of them with the ultimate goal of turning hopelessness into resilience.

Many of the children seen by Dr. Julien attend school and may face additional challenges related to their life in poverty. For example, a recent poll by Ipsos Reid conducted between March 4 and 9, 2015 on behalf of Breakfast for Learning, found that 97% of respondents believe a child’s food intake impacts their ability to learn in the classroom. However, 1 in 6 students go to school hungry during the school year. Beyond the decreased ability to learn, what other challenges do students carry in their backpacks, as a result of poverty?

Many children living in low-income households experience reduced motivation to learn, delayed cognitive development, lower achievement, less participation in extra-curricular activities, lower career aspirations, interrupted school attendance, lower university attendance, an increased risk of illiteracy, and higher drop-out rates. As such, a  September 2014 poll by the Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF) shows that 93% of teachers want us to advocate on their behalf for the elimination of child poverty.

Dr. Julien is doing his part in Québec; that provincial government just set aside millions of dollars to implement additional social pediatric clinics. Many individuals and organizations in Canada are dedicated and working towards the elimination of poverty. The CTF believes ‘Governments at all levels must undertake coordinated social and economic measures designed to eliminate child poverty and to assist those currently living in poverty.’ The CTF is doing what it can by voicing our concerns on behalf of teachers and students to encourage change. It is time to move away from a patchwork of programs aimed at alleviating the effects of a life in poverty to a national plan to eliminate IT once and for all.

If so many people are doing so much, why are 1 in 6 children in Canada still going to school hungry? Poverty alleviation is not about knowing what should be done or about being able to afford what should be done. All that is missing to end child poverty is political will and action at the federal level.

Pauline Théoret is a Program Officer with the Canadian Teachers’ Federation.

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