Oh, Oh, Canada

We’d be prouder if our country lived up to its potential
September 1, 2009

Canadians generally are not as wildly and uncritically patriotic as Americans. We are not chauvinists. We don’t continually wave the flag and boast about our country’s pre-eminence in everything from culture to quality of life to military might.

Most of us, however, tend to be quietly proud of Canada, glad to live here, and even tolerant of the inequitable society that has developed.

The closest we come to jingoism is on Canada Day, when we put our patriotism enthusiastically on display, wearing and waving the Maple Leaf with abandon.

Last July 1st, on the lawn in front of the Parliament buildings, Prime Minister Stephen Harper joined the happy throng of celebrants. “What’s the best country in the world?” he shouted.

“Canada!” Canada!” Canada!” they cheered.

Well, far be it from me to dispute this claim. Canada is certainly a better country in which to live than most others, including the United States. We enjoy private and political freedom. We have great scenery. Most of us have jobs and enough income to live comfortably.

But we have no reason whatsoever to be complacent. Canadians have fallen far short of creating the “just society” that Pierre Elliott Trudeau used to dream about. We rank far below some other countries (mainly in Europe) in making our society more just, more egalitarian, more universally prosperous, more socially progressive, more environmentally protective.

Our failure to excel in these and other qualities of life is all the more inexcusable because it is a failure on our part even to make an effort. Canada is lavishly endowed with all the resources needed to create a virtual Utopia for everyone, but that potential has been ignored or squandered, or sold to the highest bidder.

Consider these statistics:

  • More than a million children in Canada live in poverty, and our overall poverty rate is worse than in 18 other OECD countries.
  • Nearly 800,000 Canadians – as many as 300,000 of them children – have to depend on food banks to help them stay adequately nourished.
  • UNICEF now ranks Canada 21st in infant mortality, 22nd in the rate of children’s suicides, 19th in the rate of childhood obesity, 18th in the incidence of children’s injuries. It includes Canada among “the most child-unfriendly nations in the world.”
  • With only 214 doctors per 100,000 people (because of underfunding), Canada has 33% fewer doctors per capita than the average of other OECD countries.
  • Canada lags far behind other OECD countries in its environmental performance, ranking 28th out of 29. Its failure to reduce pollution levels puts it 126th among 141 countries in the world.
  • Canada’s reduced spending on social programs as a percentage of its GDP (now around 13%) drops it down to 25th place among 30 major industrial nations.
  • Nearly one-quarter of jobs in Canada (21%) now pay less than two-thirds of the median hourly wage, whereas in most Western European countries such low-paying jobs comprise just 8-to-12% of the total.
  • Among the top 16 industrial nations in the OECD, Canada’s unemployment insurance system provides the lowest benefits to the lowest number of the unemployed. (See the front page story.)
  • Since Canada was declared “open for business” by successive Conservative and Liberal governments since 1985, more than 14,000 Canadian companies have been taken over by foreigners. Our economy is now predominantly foreign-owned and controlled, while most other major industrialized countries have kept the extent of foreign business ownership to 5% or less.
  • The income gap between Canada’s rich and the rest of us keeps widening. More than 90% of the gain in income share over a recent 10-year period has gone to the richest 5% of Canadians, while incomes for most workers shrank or stagnated.

This is just a partial list of the serious shortcomings in Canadian society. I cite them not to denigrate the land we live in, but to show how far we have fallen short of realizing Canada’s vast potential.

Most of the blame can be put on the governments we elect and the ultra-conservative policies they pursue that spawn inequality, corporate greed, unemployment and poverty. But we voters are far from blameless. As long as we keep putting reactionary politicians in power (regardless of what they call their parties), the reforms needed to reverse the backsliding trends listed above will never be effected.

The challenge facing Canadians who want their country to measure up to its potential -- and how to tackle it -- is discussed elsewhere in this issue by several progressive thinkers. They include Murray Dobbin, Jeff Noonan, Chris Hedges, Mike Nickerson, and Madeleine Bunting. Many other Monitor writers and CCPA staffers have proposed similar initiatives in the past, and will again in the future.

The task is formidable. It involves defying the most powerful corporate, political, and media forces. It calls for a sustained and strategically astute campaign combining the best elements of organization, enlightenment, and motivation.

If the brilliant planners and thinkers among us are joined by enough rank-and-file activists, there may eventually come a Canada Day when our national pride is unalloyed and entirely justified.

Until then, our patriotism is unavoidably tempered with regret.

(Ed Finn is the CCPA’s Senior Editor.)