Interviewed on September 3, 2014 by Adam Kahane.
Kahane: When you look at what’s going on in Montreal, in Quebec, in Canada, what keeps you up at night?
Pereša: My main concern is that social inequality keeps growing in Canada—even though it’s not as high as elsewhere. Around the world, growing inequality is creating a lot of tension. In Canada, we have been safe from some of that tension because we don’t share borders with any country that has extreme inequalities and so don’t have the pressure from migration.
Still, we have a responsibility to be more open than we have been lately. When my father arrived here as a Croatian immigrant, this community welcomed him wonderfully. Canada has a long history of welcoming refugees or people who are being discriminated against in their countries. But there has been a decline in the welcome we give people. Immigrants generally arrive and experience what we call “transitional poverty.” In Canada, it used to take around seven years before somebody would feel financially comfortable, and after that they would move out to the suburbs. But now it takes 14 years for somebody to reach financial independence. The poverty rate in Montreal is 23%, which means almost one person out of four lives below the poverty line.
We have a collective responsibility to make sure that those who are in the most vulnerable positions are protected and have the same opportunities as the rest of us.
Kahane: If things don’t turn out well in Canada over the next decades, what would have happened and why?
Pereša: We—both citizens and politicians—would have failed to show courage in making the tough, long-term decisions we face. With a four-year election cycle, politicians campaign and paint a nice, beautiful picture, but they’re not telling the entire story. When they get in power, they realize they have to make tough decisions. Then people aren’t happy because the politicians aren’t doing what they promised. When we vote for people, we have to have the courage to let them do what they have to do and not succumb to the pressure to do what is popular.
Kahane: Do you think we’re currently making wise investments for the future?
Pereša: Right now, we’re investing a lot in healthcare. Why is that? Because people fear that they and their loved ones could become ill, and want assurance that if they do they will have access to quality care. But since the population of deprived areas has poorer health and lower life expectancy, reducing poverty reduces the pressure on our health system. And since there is a link between low educational attainment and poverty, investing more in education would be more sustainable than sinking more and more money into healthcare. But how can elected officials who serve four or five years have the courage to invest in such a long-term, preventive approach?
Kahane: Does Montreal have the capacity to make needed change?
Pereša: Over the past 20 years, every neighbourhood in Montreal has organized a multidisciplinary round table in which people from community organizations, local agencies, the city, the police, health providers, schools, and so on talk and work together. Before, only agencies mobilized citizens, but now neighbourhoods themselves are the ones working on this mobilization. They define neighbourhood priorities, such as security or making sure that all kids go to good schools, and then they work together to make it happen. They don’t say, “Okay, we’ll choose the one that is easier”; they say, “What is the most important one for us to move on first?”
I think that we’re fed up with bad news and our scepticism is high. We want good news, and we know that we have to rely only on ourselves to create that good news. Even if we don’t have the same political vision, we know we have to stick together to move forward.
Despite the degree of poverty in Montreal, when you look at statistics on the levels of happiness and quality of life, it is one of the top places to live, because we have a strong community network. The reason we have a low crime rate, a high quality of life, and a society that mobilizes in a peaceful way is because we have an open culture and because our social fabric allows people to have hope.