What Happened to Canada?

The left has long admired Canada as an enclave of social democracy in North America: for its openly socialist electoral parties, its robust welfare state, and its more moderate policy profile. Recent developments, however, have thrown that reputation into question. The country is helmed by a prime minister, Stephen Harper, known for his brazenly right-wing views and executive unilateralism. Both federal and provincial governments have embraced austerity and eroded public services. And Canada’s newly aggressive exploitation of its natural resources has it trampling on civil liberties and reneging on its international obligations like, as Foreign Policy put it, a “rogue, reckless petrostate.”

These are not changes born in the hearts and minds of the Canadian people, but an agenda designed and implemented from above, articulated in an imported conservative ideology, to abet the interests of private industry. Some of that agenda, like the shocking attack on Canada’s environmental research community, has been implemented so swiftly and unilaterally that the public is just now catching up. Other aspects, like the undermining of the country’s universal health care system, have been imposed more gradually, a death by a thousand cuts combined with a relentless propaganda campaign.

What is happening in Canada is part of a much larger trend: the formidable disciplinary forces of late capitalism are exerting themselves everywhere, including in other western democracies, where governments are scaling back social programs while lavishing tax concessions and subsidies on industry. The European Union and the United States are similarly absorbing market shocks on behalf of business while allowing downturns to undermine the poor and working class. If Canada is becoming indulgent of, even slavish toward, its resource industry (the biggest contributor to GDP), it is arguably no more so than the United States in relation to its banking sector, which was never brought to heel despite causing the 2008 collapse.

Still, the drastic turn in Canadian politics and policy raises some urgent questions. Why hasn’t the population stopped the attack on its public services? Why have left-leaning parties lost ground at the polls while Harper and his ilk continue getting reelected? Why, in a society with a more collectively oriented spirit, has the political discourse taken a sharp turn to the right?

The answers to those questions tell a story to which the left should pay heed, for the hijacking of Canada’s social democracy was made possible in part by the utter failure of its left parties, and the prospects for wresting the country from the current conservative agenda depend on the success of grassroots movements of resistance.

Canada’s public services, including health care and post-secondary education, the post office and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, are generally quite beloved. Unlike in the United States, where the government is viewed with some suspicion, in Canada government-administered and -funded institutions are understood to play an important nation-building role by servicing a population dispersed across a vast terrain. And the fact that all Canadians’ needs are provided for has become a point of pride.

Over the past few decades, however, private business interests and their neoliberal allies in government have led a concerted push to expand the role of the market and shift government expenditure away from social need. The assault on public services hasn’t been conducted by criticizing them on principle, but by manufacturing crises and then suggesting that the only solution is to expand the role of the private sector.

Such is the strategy playing out right now at the post office. Last December, it was announced that Canada Post would have to phase out home delivery within five years, requiring residential customers to retrieve their mail from nearby community boxes. The change would come along with a significant increase in the cost of postage (from 63 cents to one dollar for a single stamp) and the layoff of 8,000 postal workers.

The announcement was shocking, but calculatedly so. The recommendations were prepared by a think tank arguing for privatization. It claimed that the post office is unsustainable and uncompetitive, a burden to taxpayers, and poor at meeting consumers’ needs. In reality, Canada Post has netted a profit for sixteen of the last seventeen years, and, despite occasionally suffering losses, has yet to receive a single dollar in taxpayer bailout. All of the report’s recommendations were part of a larger and often-used strategy to “restructure” services so that user costs increase while services deteriorate, and then, in response to public frustration, suggest market-based solutions.

The same strategy has been exercised repeatedly in health care: crises are brought on by underfunding, and the alleged only solution is to expand the role of private profit. Services are “delisted,” i.e. taken out of universal medicare coverage, but private supplemental insurance becomes available to cover them. Public hospitals are closed but private clinics allowed to open. Wait times for services increase due to budget cuts, but patients are permitted to “jump the queue” and pay out of pocket for their own MRI. The public is thus softened for market-based solutions, although on an ideological level it remains staunchly committed to medicare and vocally resistant to efforts to introduce parallel private health insurance and private hospitals. The CBC, itself constantly menaced with cuts, recently held a months-long contest to select “The Greatest Canadian.” The population chose Tommy Douglas, the architect of Canada’s medicare system, ahead of Wayne Gretzky, Alexander Graham Bell, and Pierre Trudeau.

That underfunding services often has less to do with economic necessity than with reshaping institutions to benefit private industry was demonstrated last year when the government of oil-wealthy Alberta announced $147 million in cuts to post-secondary education, a process it described as “collaborative” with colleges and universities but “not negotiable.” Quickly, entire faculties, especially the arts, found themselves on the chopping block. The province warned universities that raising tuition to avoid the cuts was not an option, instead encouraging them to commercialize academic research and redirect resources towards short-term deliverables. Only after significant damage was done to staff and enrollment levels did the province restore $50 million to the education budget. After all, the province’s revenues from oil sands exploration had been steadily increasing.

Just how has this agenda secured such a hold on government? And why haven’t Canadians voted it out at the polls?

The answer has to do with a deliberate attempt, by a handful of media outlets and political strategists, to push the entire Canadian political spectrum to the right, importing rhetoric that bears little relationship to the country’s own intellectual history. Thirty years ago, conservatism in the country generally meant “Red Toryism,” a collectively oriented if somewhat paternalistic belief in “peace, order and good government.” Unlike American conservatism, it was less concerned with rugged individualism or Christian fundamentalist moralism than with noblesse oblige and social harmony. In the last few decades, however, a number of institutions have worked aggressively to introduce radical new conservative views to the Canadian public discourse. There is the Fraser Institute, a right-libertarian think tank based in Vancouver, originally funded by the forestry industry to counter the reigning left-leaning New Democratic Party in British Columbia. There is the National Post, a newspaper that has basically run at a loss since its inception in 1998 for the sake of giving a national media platform to neoliberalism. And there is the “Calgary School,” a cabal of neoconservative academics, policy analysts, and pundits centered around the University of Calgary and so nicknamed after the Milton Friedman–era Chicago School of Economics. The Calgary School’s consolidation of influence over Canadian politics is much storied at this point—they count Harper’s election among their achievements.

Through a series of power moves, including forming splinter political parties and then reabsorbing their conservative electoral competitors, this new Canadian conservatism has all but supplanted the Red Tories, who now express shock at their radical policy agenda, not to mention how they conduct government. Harper’s policy excesses include axing funding for women’s and minority advocacy groups and cutting foreign aid, making good on his brag upon entering office, “You won’t recognize Canada when I’m through with it.” He and his party have also made explicit moves to consolidate their hold on executive power. Harper has “prorogued” parliament—a seldom-used maneuver to suspend legislative activity—four times, sometimes to avoid investigations into his party’s activity. In 2011, Conservative Party affiliates were involved in a voting suppression scandal, in which automated phone calls were placed to other parties’ supporters providing false information about polling locations. Now the Harper government has introduced legislation to overhaul the elections act, reducing independent oversight and removing barriers to campaign contributions.

Perhaps the main reason Harper’s government has been able to maintain its hold on power has to do with the worldwide economic crisis. Canada weathered that storm much more successfully than the US, primarily because of greater regulation of its banking industry. Harper, an economist, happily takes credit for Canada’s stability (even though he previously was an advocate for deregulation), positioning himself as the even hand piloting the country through the storm. In fact, for decades, the Conservatives have branded themselves as fiscally responsible and pro-growth, a strategy that is likely to succeed during times of economic duress.

But the Conservatives’ triumph also derives from their electoral rivals behaving little differently. Since the 1990s, the centrist Liberal Party has embraced a hysteria about balanced budgets and debt repayment to justify cuts to social welfare programs and taxation—all while polls consistently show Canadians would be willing to pay more in taxes in return for better services and a more equitable society. This understandably frustrates voters, who have been abandoning the party in droves. Meanwhile, the New Democratic Party, the explicitly social democratic alternative, has been shifting to the center in an attempt to capture votes lost by the Liberals. At its convention in 2011, the NDP removed the word “socialism” from the party’s constitution; the NDP later came out against taxation of the wealthy, which party leader Thomas Mulcair called “confiscation.” The party has even been willing to directly attack its own base, which historically has been organized labor, by forcing the renegotiation of public sector contracts in Ontario and legislating striking workers back to work in Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia. Finally, even Canada’s Green Party members have come out in support of pipeline projects and oil refineries. In short, like their counterparts in Europe, Canada’s left parties are increasingly willing to act as capital’s executives.

When that happens, voters are driven into the arms of any party that appears to offer an alternative. In Europe this means a growing support for parochialism and fascism. In Canada, it feeds populism, that slippery, neither-left-nor-right strategy meant to capitalize on a general sense of injustice. Populist parties promise to represent the interests of the people against the elitism and favoritism of government, and to root out the sources of social and economic stagnation, but they invariably redirect political energy toward scapegoats. They insist that they alone have the courage to stand up for the common man, but the common man they identify always resembles the dominant social group: natural-born citizens as opposed to immigrants; entrepreneurs rather than workers; able-bodied and ethnically majoritarian individuals as opposed to those “special interests” always clamouring for accommodation; the socially and financially self-sufficient but tax-burdened “average Joe” who serves as a cipher for private business.

Populism secures its foothold in Canada by exploiting regional divides, in a country in which each province feels itself uniquely put upon—Quebec for being a linguistic and cultural minority in a hegemonically “anglo” country and region; the prairie provinces for being neglected by the federal government in Ontario; the Atlantic provinces for facing decades of severe economic hardship (the result of closing coal mines and depleting fisheries stocks). Whatever legitimacy these concerns have had historically, they too have been hijacked to serve a neoliberal agenda. For example, populist politicians in wealthier provinces speak of “regional autonomy” in order to argue against the equalizing “transfer payments” those provinces are required to make to poorer counterparts (the purpose of these payments is to ensure a uniform quality of social programs across the country). Essentially, this stands in for an argument against taxing the wealthy and corporations. Or resource-intensive provinces talk of “job-killing” environmental policies imposed by an obtuse do-gooder federal government, which is really an argument made on behalf of extraction companies.

Regionalist populism is a chauvinism of local industry and wealthier “taxpayers” with a uselessly divisive element of “culture war” tacked on for good measure, or perhaps for the sake of the working class. Take the recent developments in Quebec. In 2012, the Liberal government of Jean Charest was effectively deposed in the wake of massive protests against its neoliberal agenda. Most notably, Charest had attempted to dramatically raise tuition for post-secondary education by 75 percent over five years. Students in the province organized a wide-reaching strike, which galvanized broader segments of Quebec society when they saw students being criminalized and arrested. At stake, in people’s imaginations, was the entire social compromise that had been struck in the 1960s between the wealthy Anglophone minority and blue-collar Francophone society. Eventually, the government felt compelled to call an election in which the Liberals lost their majority to the populist Parti Québécois, whose leader, Pauline Marois, promised to repeal the tuition hike. But what has the PQ done with this mandate? It has senselessly mired the population in a debate about a proposed “Charter of Values” for the province to address such urgent questions as whether public servants should be allowed to wear the hijab. It is a shockingly divisive undertaking in a province that depends upon heavy immigration to maintain its francophone population, and it has succeeded in completely displacing the questions raised by the strike.

If there is a battle over the future of Canada, its frontline is the issue of resource extraction. This is where the most frightening stories are emerging and the most dynamic forms of resistance as well.

For years now, at both the federal and a provincial level, the Canadian government has chosen to shape policy and institutions around maximizing the extraction of wealth from the country’s natural resources—around forestry in British Columbia, mining in the northern territories, the oil sands projects in Alberta, fishing (and now oil as well) in the maritime provinces. To prosecute its G8 status as one of the world’s largest economies, Canada seems willing to play the short-term strategy of reaping resource-based profits instead of developing sustainable growth or economic diversity. And to do so, it appears willing to comprise civil liberties, democratic integrity, and environmental safety no less than other, less developed countries that rely on resource extraction.

The evidence is chilling. The government has required Environment Canada scientists to obtain permission before speaking to the media, sent government escorts to accompany researchers participating in international conferences, and reclassified entire swaths of research findings as “confidential.” Meanwhile, as protests have arisen to the Keystone XL and Northern Gateway pipeline projects, the government has sent spies to intimidate community organizers, and reclassified Greenpeace and aboriginal groups as “extremist threats.” Documents obtained through freedom of information requests reveal that the Canadian government has even shared intelligence information with resource companies about admittedly peaceful groups and individuals posing “challenges to projects.”

In addition, the government has shuttered dozens of libraries and environmental research centers, and in December literally burned or landfilled centuries’ worth of materials on Canadian natural resources such as forests and waterways under the mendacious pretext of digitizing records, and at significant cost. Provincial governments are looking at partnerships with oilsands companies to develop school curriculum from kindergarten through twelfth grade. Environmental legislation has been rewritten to remove barriers to exploration, and oversight of environmentally sensitive projects has been deliberately limited. Protections for endangered species have been scaled back, and millions of dollars in funding has been cut from environmental research and climate change initiatives, while environmental charities are being subjected to tax audits. Canada has withdrawn from the Kyoto Protocol (Harper called it a “socialist scheme”) and the country now ranks last among OECD countries for environmental protection.

That this will have tragic consequences is easy to predict. Already, the environment is showing signs of irreparable compromise, especially around the tar sands projects in Alberta, where the clear-cutting rate is second only to the Amazon’s, and where the extraction process produces enormous amounts of contaminated water (by 2010, more than a billion cubic meters). Nearby populations are reporting alarming rates of rare cancers and autoimmune diseases, and some physicians have refused to treat individuals who suggest their symptoms are related to tar sands emissions for fear of government reprisals.

The justification for prioritizing resource development is the benefit to the Canadian economy, but as Martin Lukacs argued in the Guardian, these pipeline projects “do not build a nation, but swindle it.” Contrary to corporate and government claims, the employment they generate is minimal and short-term. The profits generated are mostly foreign and private, while the government’s taxation and royalty rates remain incredibly low—undoubtedly too low to cover the costs, in terms of health and environment, that are “externalized” by resource companies and become the public’s burden to bear. And an undiversified economy—recall Alberta’s redesign of its post-secondary institutions—is vulnerable to collapse.

In addition to these material consequences, it’s worth considering the effect of resource-focused policy on Canadian society and democracy. What of the perceived legitimacy of government institutions that are supposed to act in the public interest? What of the consequences for Canadian society, when economic livelihood is pitted against health and environment? What of the country’s international reputation or that of its scientific community?

Many have sounded the alarm about Canada’s future—scientists, journalists, environmental and community groups—but among the most interesting efforts was a grassroots movement last winter among the country’s First Nations (aboriginal) population. The Idle No More movement arose in November 2012 when four women organized teach-ins to inform the community about the federal government’s proposed budget, which included provisions to weaken environmental protections and barriers to development on reserve (treaty) lands. The movement deliberately sidestepped First Nations leadership and instead quickly gained momentum through a series of peaceful protests—flash mobs at shopping malls, blockades of highways and railroads—and on social media.

Idle No More was interesting not just because of how rapidly it galvanized attention and support both within and outside the country, but because it articulated the threat the government’s plans pose to every Canadian. The movement was partly about the government’s ongoing abrogation of treaty rights, but even more significantly it emphasized that if Canada continues to prioritize resource development over every other concern, it will destroy itself as a country and as a society. INM served as a reminder that while the First Nations people living on reserves may be at the literal forefront of resource exploration, they represent the Canadian population as a whole: they face a choice between short-term infrastructure growth and employment, and long-term safety and sustainability, and that choice is being made on their behalf, without their consent.

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