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#FacesOfNSWelfare. How a social media campaign tackled stigma

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – Last year a social media campaign tried to change the way people think about people on welfare.

A social system is frowned upon way too much. It’s something that we as a community should be proud of. Cory Bowles

There were two messages the campaign wanted to get across to a larger audience. One, that nobody wants to be on welfare, and two, that it can happen to anybody.


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Maybe it’s time for a repeat, says documentary maker and actor Jackie Torrens, who was the driving force behind last year’s effort.

She believes mainstream reporting on social assistance is slowly shifting away from condescension to something more positive. Campaigns such as #FacesofNSWelfare can contribute to that shift, she believes.

The campaign was an initiative of the Benefit Reform Action Group (BRAG). It featured both people who were on income assistance at the time, and people who managed to leave welfare behind.

Several of the latter are well known. There are contributions by Cory Bowles of Trailer Park Boys‘ fame, writer and blogger Anne Theriault, radio host Sheldon Macleod, 7 Virtues CEO Barb Stegemann, and others.

Throughout my teenage years, my sister and I lived on Welfare, raised by our single mom in Antigonish. She did her best with what little she had.    Barb Stegemann

There are few things as invasive, humiliating and utterly demoralizing as applying for social assistance.   Anne Theriault

Some were eager to volunteer, for others it was a bit of a struggle, Torrens tells the Nova Scotia Advocate.

“In some cases it wasn’t hard at all. But in some cases it sadly was hard. I get that. The  stereotypes are really effective to make people afraid to speak up,” says Torrens. “It helped that I had been on income assistance myself.”

“It meant that people who were taking such a huge step of courage and were so generous to share their story, they knew they could trust me. I’d say that I am also taking part,I am not asking you to do anything that I am not doing myself.”

I often eat the same food several days in a row for every meal. If potatoes and cabbage are on sale, that’s what I eat until they’re gone so they don’t go bad.     Debi Noye

We have to speak up, Torrens says. A media campaign such as last year’s is part of fighting back against a system that otherwise will never change.

“Silence will ensure that abuses and inadequate rates will continue,” she says,”but that will change when we challenge a system that needs these stereotypes to justify its inadequate rates and punitive policies.”

Jackie Torrens, who worked so hard to make the #FacesofNSWelfare campaign a success, also made the truly excellent documentary My life on welfare. It’s still available on line, and it’s free!

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