Surviving Together: Canadian Public Tradition Under Threat

Canada’s collectivist culture

For one who has grown up in Canada’s golden age of left-of-centre social democratic public culture, it has been shocking to experience the fraying and unravelling of the welfare state over the last four decades. Most recently, Canadians have been subjected to an intensive and poisonous dismantling of their public traditions under the Harper dictatorial regime. But this unravelling started much earlier than Harper’s assumption of power. It is shocking because the story of Canada can be told as a narrative of a collective struggle to forge a nation in the face of great geographical and political obstacles.

We as Canadians have privileged the collective over the individual, and accentuated the organic community (think of Catholicism in Quebec, Anglicanism in early Ontario and communitarianism on the prairies). We have fundamentally valued the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness not for the isolated individual; rather, so that peace, order and good government would prevail in the land.

Our pre-eminent learning challenge as a nation-state has been survival. To survive, be it in the harshness of the prairie winter or the unceasing pull from the south, Canadians have had to forge deep bonds with one another. We imagine not a frontier sliding towards the promised land of fortune and individual freedom, but a fortress, where we gather together against a mysterious and dangerous wilderness for comfort and hope.

Our greatest economic historian, Harold Innis, taught us that the very nature of our staples economy (fish, fur, wheat, oil) required a collectively oriented state. Our state had to intervene to create the infrastructure to facilitate staple production and distribution, largely from our hinterlands to the metropole. Canadian Prime Minister Sir John MacDonald fashioned our “national policy” in the late nineteenth century through high tariffs and the building of a railway linking east and west. Canadians are at ease with an activist state. The belief that the state must act to foster human solidarity and ensure that the least among us is cared for resides deep within our collective psyches. Both our real conservatives (Canadians call them “red Tories) and our socialists share this belief. In the depression, particularly, our collective suffered severe shocks and Canadian people suffered from coast to coast.

But Canadian collectivist culture survived the dislocation of acute suffering of the depression and war years. Catalysed by thousands of grassroots adult educators who led endless study and action groups, Canadians came to believe that the state needed to intervene more actively to plan for the commonwealth.

This belief had its roots in the powerful social gospel tradition that shaped politics in the early to mid-twentieth century (that is, that care for the most vulnerable must be an integral part of the commonwealth). Social gospeller Tommy Douglas, first premier of a democratic socialist provincial government in Saskatchewan (elected in 1944), is famed for midwifing public healthcare in Canada.

It is not surprising, then, in the light of our public traditions, that Canadians would adopt a version of Keynesian economic theory which was committed to economic activism in support of stabilization and full employment (collectively oriented goals). The collective provision of social benefits and collective management of the economy became central features of Canadian life to an extent that clearly differentiated us from the United States. Canadians were also keenly involved in the creation of the UN Universal Declaration of Rights in the late 1940s.

In 1991 an Ontario Ministry of Intergovernmental Affairs document captured the essence of Canadian citizenship. “Over time, the idea of Canadian citizenship has evolved and broadened. Today, a national system of health care, an array of income support programmes, free public and secondary education and affordable post-secondary education are claims that all Canadians make on their governments.

Taken together, these programmes represent and symbolize Canadians’ sense of themselves as members of a community where solidarity and mutual responsibility are fundamental social norms.” Times change quickly, however: the neo-conservative government of Mike Harris (he was premier of Ontario from 1995-2002) engendered serious social upheaval and conflict in Ontario.

The vitality of our democratic life in Canada had been sustained in the depression and post-war years by a host of associations and movements within civil society, such as women’s and indigenous people’s networks, ecology groups, and so on. In the 1930s and 1940s—“amateurs out to change the world” (Legendary Canadian cooperator Alexander Laidlaw’s memorable phrase)–captured the spiritual dynamics of many of our popular educators throughout the twentieth century in Canada.

These amateurs fought for a learning process that would build and sustain community while simultaneously empowering men and women as collective actors to struggle for justice. They understood popular adult education as part of the resistance movement to capital’s maniacal drive to create “possessive individualists” out of us all. Left to our individual resources, we would not be strong enough to counter those forces fracturing us—class against class, men against women, group against group, and region against region.

Neo-conservativism comes to Canada

Our social nation-state is now under serious assault; our social legacy, forged in the bitter fires of the depression and war years and hammered into shape in the 1960s and 1970s, is in danger of being undermined. Canadian economists Errol Black and Robert Chernomas believe that the neo-conservatives are trying to transform Canadian society from a “form of social or communitarian capitalism to a miniature replica of the US form of individualistic capitalism.”

In response to economic stagnation, escalating inflation and a restive labour movement in the 1970s, the federal Liberals introduced disastrous monetary policies in 1981. Interest rates skyrocketed to 18 per cent, fuelling growing in public-sector debt, exacerbating the emerging fiscal crisis, accelerating unemployment and causing untold misery for many ordinary people. In 1984, Brian Mulroney swept the moribund Liberals out of office, offering us a platform of job creation and preservation of social programs. But it did not take him very long to reveal his true colours.

By the mid-1970s the Western world had entered a period of profound change, both economically and ideologically. Global ruling elites, with the transnational corporations as their power base, began a complex process of dismantling social forms of capitalism in order to liberate market constraints or regulations. By now we are all familiar with the brutal consequences of global elite “development” policies: World Bank and International Monetary Fund structural adjustment programs pushed Southern (and Northern) economies into the gravel pits, wreaking havoc with welfare policies (welfare, after all, is about human flourishing).

Over the last four decades Capital has been systematically wrestling itself free of tutelage from either the state or civil society. In fact, it was now going to teach civil society a thing or two. Taking his cues from his idols Reagan and Thatcher, Mulroney fashioned his “Agenda for change.”

Restraint was the keyword: he would reduce the deficit to deal with the fiscal crisis, and would rely on a “free” market to foster economic growth. Deregulate transportation, communication, finance; privatize crown corporations and education, reduce spending on social welfare programs: this was the neo-conservative agenda. Sound familiar?

This agenda, Stephen McBride and John Shields observe, was not a “natural” response to the irresistible demands of globalization. To forgo tax revenues from corporations and to keep interest rates high were choices selected from a range of possibilities. Neo-conservatism is “heavily imbued with ideology.”

Neo-conservativism is a danger to human flourishing

It is important to understand that neo-conservatism is not simply a tough-minded way of business efficiently. It is not just about economics, or the new relationship of the state to the economy. It is an illegitimate and very dangerous attempt to further “colonize the lifeworld.” By attacking the notion of universal social welfare provision, the neo-conservatives undermine forms of solidarity that were previously protected in the activist state.

The regressivity of the tax system, changes to unemployment insurance and the introduction of workfare divide the collectivity, setting up an insidious dichotomy between haves and have-nots. Indeed one notices that, increasingly, the rich and well off live within a “culture of contentment” (The late John Kenneth Galbraith’s acerbic phrase). Those within this culture (and this was starkly manifest in the recent reaction of EU financial elites like Wolfgang Schauble’s icy attitudes to Greece’s despair and desperation) have withdrawn compassion from the less fortunate, who are now held accountable for being out of work or simply out of their minds.

The commonwealth is rent apart by neo-conservative policies, making one wonder what they are conserving and leading one to despise what they think is new. There certainly was a neo-fascist odour to the mean policies of Ontario’s Mike Harris (drastic cuts to poor mums, abolition of anti-scab labour legislation, and reduction in day-care facilities, etc. We should take note, too, of the anti-union policies of the Harris government.

Neo-conservativism does not tolerate oppositional learning sites. Here, we simply observe that the federal neo-conservatives (in the guise of the Liberal Party) in the 1990s withdrew funding from numerous popular groups (including about one hundred international education centres across the country), and radically reduced funding for labour education. In the Third World, the Harper ultra-right government funds civil society organizations whose purpose is to undermine leftist governments who reject the US neo-liberal agenda.

The much nastier and dangerous Stephen Harper has continued defunding as one means of stifling dissent. But he has pressed beyond Harris, an ex-golf pro, to make it legally forbidden to protest against government and corporate malfeasance (see “The tragedy of Harper’s Canada,” CounterPunch, July 3-5, 2015 and scroll through the Harper.Watch web-site). Indeed, there is symmetry between how the Harper regime silences and stifles dissent within Canada and the Canadian government’s actions in many countries of the world.

A “truly civil society” requires that associations of civil society such as trade unions be allowed to pursue freely their own learning processes and agendas. The American sociologist Robert Putman speaks of “social capital,” which he defines as the “processes between people which establish networks, norms and social trust and facilitate co-ordination and co-operation for mutual benefit.”

It is precisely within the domain of what we call civil society (the social space which includes intimate relationships, numerous associations, social movements, public spheres) that social capital is produced. Relationships of mutuality, reciprocity and trust, when they occur, are carefully nurtured over time. Social capital is analogous to the growth of an oak tree. It starts out precariously as an acorn, then a small shoot, facing wind and cold.

Over a hundred years or so, it reaches its full sturdiness. In a matter of minutes, modern technology can burst in on this tree and destroy it. Social capital is a little like that: it takes years of care and nurturing to foster meaningful relationships of respect and tolerance. The heedless action of the state can destroy accumulated social capital, and social capital is not so easy to replace.

Australian Eva Cox comments: “Social capital should be the pre-eminent and most valued form of capital as it provides the basis on which we build a truly civil society. Without our social bases we cannot be human. We become vulnerable to social bankruptcy when our social connections fail. If most of our experiences enhance our senses of trust and mutuality, allowing us to feel valued and value others, then social capital increases.”

The Harper train wreck

Everything Harper does within Canada and on the international scene is divisive and undermines global civil society. From a humanist left perspective, he is on the wrong side of every issue—he openly supports unethical corporate mining in Latin America and dictators who crush democratic opposition and seldom offers a peep against breaches of human rights (in Saudi Arabia or Israel for instance). His hostile actions have poisoned our society and contributed aggressively to a war-mongering and anti-diplomatic world scene. He has worked overtime to militarize Canadian society. No more Canada as peacekeeper for Harper raging and careening down the tracks towards the rocky cliffs.

American ecologist and critic Bill McKibben recently stated: “People in the world are used to thinking of Canada as a force for good in the world. It takes a strange new calibration of peoples’ mental geography to understand for the moment Canada is an obstructive and dangerous force upon the planet.”

Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.