Being poor and a single parent in Canada by Zed

Paula Johnson waits impatiently for the elevator to take her to the 8th floor of her one bedroom apartment. She shakes her head in disbelief, as the usual ten minutes wait for the elevator turns to fifteen minutes.  She enters the dingy apartment.  The pale sheer curtains hang unevenly at the window, revealing the areas where the paint is stripping off the wall. The two- piece sofa hugs the corner of the living room. The discoloured cushions sink in the middle. The top of the sofa is of a darker shade than the rest as grease and dirty palms leave permanent impressions.

The television blares. The girls are oblivious to the fact that Sponge Bob has lost his job at the Krusty Krab; they tug at a doll to gain possession. Paula pulls two nutri-bars from her handbag and shouts at them to stop.  They hastily grab the bars from their mother’s grasp. "Say thank you!" she snaps. She slumps into the chair as weariness, annoyance and despair battle each other.

Her younger daughter sits beside her and hugs her. This is not enough comfort for Paula. She forces a smile from her hardened face.

Paula lifts her eyes to the ceiling. She inhales, holds her breath and lets out a loud sigh.  She whispers inaudibly to herself, saying a prayer that cannot be shared with the public, “I love my children, but my struggle as a single mother is a daily reality. Help God!”

Paula is a lone- parent coping with the realities of being a lone parent in Ontario. Based on figures from the government census, Paula can count herself among the more than 1.5 million women in Canada whose income is low. According  to figures from this census, twenty-one per cent of all female lone parents and twenty-three per cent of children in female lone parent families live in poverty. This is Paula’s reality.

During my first year in Canada, I journeyed through Castlemore with Elder Tony as my tour guide. I had to gaze upwards to view the buildings as they were too tall for direct eye contact. There stands the majestic buildings with three, four or five garages, huge and overpowering, symbols of wealth and prosperity, the piece of Canada that Elder Tony wanted me to covet. The two acres property could easily accommodate a shopping centre but instead a mother, a father with two or three children live there.

These are the homes of the upper echelons of the society; the rich and famous in Brampton—the comfort and splendour of life, devoid of the harsh struggles of so many in the same city and the same country; the stories of the people –  pain or joy, wealth or poverty, struggles or ease. The stark contrast of their lives is like night and darkness, sunshine and rain.

Margaret Wente of "The Global Mail" says that everyone worries about inequality as they see the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. It is a social problem. She believes the marriage gap needs to be fixed. Marriage is no longer popular and too many children are born out of wedlock. Female headed households are increasing.  As a result, inequality reigns and persons find it difficult to survive economically.

In supporting Margaret Wente’s argument, Russ Roberts, a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution says, “The rise in female – headed households has helped create the great stagnation in family incomes. The rise of divorce, the decline of marriage and the growth in non-marital motherhood have been much more dramatic among lower-middle-class and poor families than among the rich.”

The scholars agree that lone-parent families in Canada are four times more likely to be poor than two parent families.

Margaret Wente says, “It would be nice to think we could close the marriage gap with more income supports for single mothers, higher minimum wages and all-day kindergarten for their kids. Frankly, that seems like wishful thinking.”

Paula reminisces on her life in the Caribbean. She had enjoyed a middle-class lifestyle while growing up in Jamaica. She lived in the part of the city called “Upper St. Andrew” where the lawns are lush, green and well manicured; a place where the bougainvillea’s and shoe black line the decorated blocks that form the upper part of the walls that border the property.  A single storey building with six bedrooms plus a helper’s quarters stands majestic.

The smell of fresh paint permeates the atmosphere as it is normal to change the colour scheme of the house at regular intervals. "Upper St. Andrew” experiences exceptionally cooler temperatures and more rainfall than the rest of the city.  The tennis court to the back of the property is separated from the swimming pool by wire fencing. Paula beams with pride as she recalls the many pool parties that her parents hosted.  Paula now recognises the wealth she had possessed and she misses her former life.

Here in Canada, Paula has plummeted to the lowest social class. Her parents have migrated to “greener pasture,” or so they think. They believe that a developed country offers greater opportunities for their children.

After spending two years in Canada, Paula returned to Jamaica at age 12 to complete high school. On her return to Canada, the curfews were removed; the boundaries were relaxed. Paula’s new sense of freedom found her with child; then another, then the disappearance of the fathers and the allowances for the children.

Now, Paula bears the burden of raising her girls alone.

Paula opens the refrigerator. The extreme cold air fills the apartment, as there is nothing in the refrigerator, except the water bottles. She leans on the door. The tears well in her eyes. She shivers at the thought of asking her Mom for food. The constant rhetoric of her mother, “If you can’t hear you must feel; books before boys,” is unbearable. But Paula still dials her mom’s number from her list of favourites.

“Sorry your phone is no longer in service, please call your service provider to check on the status of your account…. bleep.”  Paula holds the phone in disbelief as her only option vaporizes. The ‘pay - as - you - go’ service means no payment no service.

“It is the end of the month,” Paula says to herself, “so money should be in the account.” She puts her index finger in the hole at the bottom of her winter boot. It is much larger than the last time she checked, but that is a minor set-back to the heartache she feels as the girls suck on their thumb, making that sloppy, swishy sound as the spittle passes the thumb and runs down their elbows disturbing the silence.  Paula calls her neighbour’s teenage daughter to babysit the girls, who are fast asleep.

Paula steps cautiously across the road, making her way through the slush from the early morning snow and rainfall. She enters the automated machine and checks her balance in the account. The balance reads seventeen dollars. Paula’s brows wrinkle in disbelief. She removes her card; she rechecks her balance. There is no mistake. It is confirmed. In shock and with much vacillation, Paula must decide whether to purchase milk and cereal or bread and eggs as her bill cannot exceed ten dollars. Paula’s plight gives rise to indecisions, perplexity, hopelessness, frustration and artistry.

Sylvia Fuller, an associate professor at the University of British Columbia says, “Balancing jobs and children without a spouse is tough. Money is a constant worry for many lone-parent households".

Paula, the juggler performs her balancing acts daily. She ensures her children are foremost when tossing and matching her finances to her household needs.

One day, Paula receives a message from the principal of the school that her older child attends. She sits, after the principal offers her a seat. She quietly presses her tummy as it growls fiercely. She forces a smile and keeps her mouth closed as toothpaste is not enough to freshen her breath after two days of compulsory fasting. The cordial and caring principal speaks so softly and comforting in her ears. She introduces her to a volunteer at the food bank. Paula forces a smile to show her gratitude. After several attempts, Paula completes the form. Paula and her children qualify for a daily hot meal and weekly grocery.

There are individuals in the same position  as Paula who are not sympathetic to persons experiencing the hardships that Paula and other women like her are experiencing. For example, despite the challenges faced by Maria, a lone—parent because of a divorce, she says, “some of these mothers will manage better if they stop living above their means. They are too materialistic.”

However, Maria confesses that lone—parenting is challenging.  She buys clothes from the thrift store; her mortgage is paid from her overdraft; she eats at home; she buys one pair of “dress” shoes for her children and they do not get another one until they squeeze their toes. She denies them participation in sporting and social activities to pay tutors to assist them with their lessons. Education is key, she believes. Maria believes that other mothers in her position should make the same sacrifices that she is making.

Maria works in auto parts. Her ex-husband refuses to support their children and she fails to use the system to get him to comply. After receiving his share from the sale of the house, he disappears without a trace. He severs all contact with his family.

Paula is doing her best, but her plight seems to be getting  from bad to worse. One day she bellows at the house manager, “I know my rights. This carpet is dirty, and I demand you change it!”  They get in a verbal battle.  She is protecting her daughter who gets asthma attacks on a regular basis. The plant manager, cleans the carpet instead of replacing it.

Paula uses the opportunity to speak about her malfunctioning stove. This is replaced with a refurbished stove.

As Paula prepares her meal, she hears a crackling sound. The pungent smell from the stove, overpowers the usual tantalizing smell of her chicken wings. She opens the oven to see roaches big and small scrambling from the heat. She snatches the broom and swats them. This is too much to bear. Paula has little option, as she previously waited for many years for this apartment. It is unbearable to imagine another very long wait period, if she decides to apply for a new apartment.

At least, she has never slept in a church for 40 nights like Sandra.

Sandra has three children. She had no job and she and her children were homeless. Instead of sleeping on the street, she found refuge in a church.

Sandra shakes her head as she recalls her struggles as a lone-parent. She is now married, and the financial burden is now more bearable.

But for Paula, the struggle continues. She laments the high cost of day-care: “The licensed daycare charge $200 per week for five hours of  after school care” she says. As a worker with children, day care is critical. The wait for subsidised day care is long and tedious. The subsidy is applied based on one's income, which determines qualification for the ‘wait list’. On a weekly basis, Paula takes a portion from her salary to put towards her rent and hands the rest to the care-giver.

Like many low income, lone-parents Paula does not have post secondary education. Jobs in the warehouse in which  she  works  are tantamount to those during slavery.

The warehouse jobs scream, No! No benefits! No promotion! No job security! No regard for workers!

And, there is not enough pay! Paula has no desire to stay there. The hostile work environment creates animosity among workers as they jostle for position.   Being a slave is senseless, Paula believes and so she quits the warehouse job, stays home with her children and depends on the Government's assistance.

Paula journeys to the food bank, not to collect her weekly subsidy, but to serve the community. Although, she works in the office, she stands and watches the ladies as they serve. They tend to throw the items into the trolleys.

Paula’s heart lurches, as the people who come are replicas of her, struggling to survive.  The lack of warmth and fellowship burdens Paula.

Finally, she musters the courage and asks for the position. Her bravery is rewarded with the position to be in the forefront  of serving the community. Each day, she greets each person with a smile and shares an encouraging word as she hands them the food basket.

One day, an embossed envelope is delivered to Paula. She gingerly opens the envelope, trying to solve the mystery behind this official letter. Paula’s mouth opens wide. She breathes heavily, as her eyes are fixed on the contents of the letter.  A small gathering of enthusiastic colleagues tries to get information. Paula is dumbfounded. She has been selected to receive an award from the mayor. With this recognition Paula is confident that she will get a permanent position with the food bank.

Paula regularly checks her email. No confirmation! She continues to serve diligently, and faithfully awaiting the day when she becomes permanently employed. On a bright Monday morning  Brad, her co-worker, properly attired in his blazer, steps in to her station. He is the new kid on the block. He stutters as he greets Paula. She sensing his discomfort gives him a word of encouragement and tells him not to worry, he is in a good place. He says, “Are you planning to leave this job any time soon?”

“Not at all. I’m very comfortable here,” replies Paula.

“I have just been offered the permanent position,” Brad utters, trying to suppress his enthusiasm. The thunder rolls in Paula's mind; the earth shakes under her feet; her body shivers, so she grips the counter. She calmly makes eye contact and congratulates him, masking her pain and disappointment.

Paula continues to give sterling service. The manager, on recognising Paula’s discomfort and unease beneath her bright smiles, explains the decision. Brad's appointment is based on his qualification—a diploma in criminology. Paula's temper flares. She unleashes the pent-up anger and the years of frustration on the manager. There and then Paula decides that it is time for upward social mobility.

After much research, Paula receives with glee the news of free tuition in Ontario for those who qualify. She applies to college and completes the online application for OSAP. Having no income, she is confident that she will qualify for free tuition.

A few weeks later she receives an email from OSAP. How can this be? Paula reads in disbelief. Her ghost of the past has come to haunt her. Paula knows that through the years she has made some difficult decisions to ensure that her children are fed. She has defaulted on a previous OSAP loan. She is disqualified. No loan!

Paula looks at her image in the mirror. She looks at her 39 years of existence on the earth. She says, “Whatever it takes, I am going to study, no turning back, so help me God!”

Paula reviews her dismal economic and financial situation, then she recognises her physical health and strength.  She is constrained  by her poor financial  condition, but she has attributes that money cannot buy—health and strength.  She is adamant that she is going to study. And studying she is.  

Paula has received bursaries and kind Samaritans have loaned her well needed books. She wants to be the role model for her children. She is determined  that the fictitious Hollywood lifestyle will not be the trendsetter for her children. She will be their role model and their motivation. She will have failed in her motherly role if she does not get up, rise up out of dependency, humiliation and an inferiority complex and fulfil her destiny. To survive, she must be certified to get a lucrative job.

The sun transforms everything  in its path as Paula steps outside to tackle the demands  of her day. A new era is dawning for Paula and her children.

Zed is an educator who, at the time of writing this article, was studying to gain a degree in writing at a university in Canada - which she has now completed. She shares this story with you in the hope that you will find your light at the end of your tunnel, that is, if you have been searching for one. If you are interested in reading stories about the experiences of Jamaicans in foreign lands, A.S. Cookson's book, The man who came to London, may be right up your alley.

Here are some tips to write your own story.


  1. Interesting read. Sounds like there will be a continuation

    1. The author is thinking about doing just that. I'll keep you posted.


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