Despite 150 years of history and the best efforts of many, the Canadian identity remains elusive. The dream began with Macdonald’s railway, or perhaps even before as Europe’s hewers of wood and drawers of water. Canadians have sacrificed through Borden’s and King’s world wars; embraced Douglas’s socialized medicare; resisted Lévesque’s attempt to tear apart the Two Solitudes; rallied behind Trudeau’s Just Society; and watched in belated shame as Mulroney and Chrétien sought truth and reconciliation in an attempt to repair the irreparable, all the while seeking an identity separate from our massive neighbours to the south that protects and honours the best of our Aboriginal, English and French founding nations in an increasingly complex, many-cultured mosaic.
Whether it is the enormity of the task or growing ambivalence towards it, the modern state of affairs was driven home in a 1997 speech by a 38-year-old Reform MP from Calgary West who cynically quipped to a conservative American audience, “If you’re like all Americans, you know almost nothing except for your own country. Which makes you probably knowledgeable about one more country than most Canadians.” This same MP famously posited, upon his election as prime minister in 2006, that “you won’t recognize Canada when I’m through with it.” While he was referring to an expansion in the funding and role of the Canadian Forces, the Canada Stephen Harper now governs is in fact dramatically and fundamentally changed from the Canada that elected him to a minority leadership in 2006.
With a federal election looming on October 19 (if it’s not called sooner), I had the opportunity to sit down with Hassan Yussuff, President of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), to discuss the nine years of Harper’s leadership and what identity Harper was building for Canada. I began by asking him about what was at stake in the upcoming election.
Hassan: I think there’s a real sense that this election will determine what kind of a country we’re going to continue to live in, whether it’s a country that’s caring, a country that might want to try and deal with some of the social challenges around poverty, a country that is going to continue to have social programs…. This will be a very crucial election in regard to the future of Canada but that’s also critical for the labour movement.
Colin: I’d like to talk about the economy over the last couple of decades and whether we’re at a point where we can really judge the full impact of the free trade deals that were signed back in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
Hassan: I think there’s enough evidence that is available for those who chose to deal with it candidly to acknowledge that the free trade agreements, both NAFTA and the free trade agreements with the United States, fundamentally changed those relationships. There was a huge amount of warning against the impact the free trade agreements could have on the future of the country in regard to social programs, and today I think every social program that we built after the war is threatened. The funding the government is contributing to social programs, that level of commitment from government and what those programs used to provide are no longer there for Canadians to access.
In addition to that, in the manufacturing sector of this country, we lost some 600,000 manufacturing jobs. You see the contraction of the investment and where it’s happening and south of the border so you can measure significantly how that agreement and subsequent re-deal will now alter the direction of our country and will continue to do so because we’ve constitutionalized the rights of corporations, whereas prior to free trade that didn’t exist in the legal context that exists today.
Colin: In the current context, then, when Stephen Harper ran in 2006 one of the key components of his platform was Standing up for Opportunity, which really focused on cutting taxes for large corporations as well as small businesses, and over the last nine years we’ve seen the Canadian business tax rate dropped down to 15 per cent.
Given the importance of having social programs in our country, they need to be paid for and there’s only one way to do that: you have to have tax revenue and there’s always been a recognition that everybody should pay their fair share.
Hassan: Given the importance of having social programs in our country, they need to be paid for and there’s only one way to do that: you have to have tax revenue and there’s always been a recognition that everybody should pay their fair share. Both individual Canadians and corporations should pay their fair share. What we’re seeing in the history of our country today in regard to the tax rate is that corporations are paying the lowest tax rate in the G7. We’ve got the lowest corporate tax we’ve ever had in the history of our country. It went from 23 per cent down to 15 per cent. It’s the lowest, lower than the United States. The reality of that, of course, is it means the government has less revenue.
This is the same government that has also cut GST by two per cent. At this point that takes a huge amount of revenue that the government would have to have, both to support social programs and make Canada a much more equal place. If you look at some of the challenges we’re faced with in some of our more celebrated social programs like national health care, we are experiencing the lowest levels of funding we’ve ever seen in the history of the federal government contributing to health care in this country. They’re going to take $36-billion out of health care, and $14-billion of that will be directly out of Ontario health care funding, so it’s going to dramatically change the social program in Ontario. As I speak to you today, we’re at a point in the City of Toronto where only 20 per cent of the unemployed in Toronto get EI benefits. Eighty per cent, even though they’ve contributed to the unemployment insurance fund, are getting no benefits—and guess who is picking up the tab? It is the taxpayers of the City of Toronto because when people don’t get employment insurance, then they have to get social assistance and of course the homeowners are the ones who are paying the cost of that at the end of the day.
Colin: You’ve opened the question of the relationship between the federal government and the provinces. Many of our OSSTF/FEESO members’ jobs are funded directly by the provincial government. We heard our own Federation President, Paul Elliott, say in the fall that “OSSTF/FEESO members can’t afford not to be involved in this federal election” and I’m wondering if we can take a look at that relationship between the federal government and the provinces and why OSSTF/FEESO members need to be involved in this election.
“The federal government is not some small player in regard to the quality of life of all Canadians. They have a significant role to play in everything that affects our lives at the end of the day.”
Hassan: The federal government is not some small player in regard to the quality of life of all Canadians. They have a significant role to play in everything that affects our lives at the end of the day, whether they deliver a service directly or they’re contributing towards what the provinces are able to do in delivering services. It is true that it is a province’s responsibility to provide public education for their citizens but the reality is we live in a federation. The country is unequal in terms of income and geography and ability to get resources and as a result, federal governments have always been there as an equalizer to ensure the transfer of payments to the provinces are balancing and ensure that the “have” and the “have-not” provinces have an equal opportunity to ensure their citizens enjoy the same degree of services. What we have seen with this federal government is they continue to shift the responsibility by downloading what would normally be their responsibility to the provinces.
I’ll give you a couple of examples; health care is one of them. Based on the cuts, the provinces are going to be now left to provide the bulk of the funding for health care and, in the context of provincial budgets, in some cases already over 40 per cent of their provincial budgets is going to health care. If the federal government is not there to provide at some point, the province is going to say we can’t provide these levels of services so we’ll start to privatize certain sections of health care. I don’t think this federal government can go out and campaign to privatize health care because Canadians will not vote for such a government. And so they don’t do it by that, they do it by stealth, by starving the provinces and hoping the provinces will do the privatization because they can’t meet their commitment.
Education, at the end of the day, requires the federal government making a healthy transfer to the provinces. Because of the cuts in the transfer payments to provinces, fundamentally the provinces will have less and less fiscal room as to how they deliver the service. It is true that the federal government gets its resources through taxes, both personal income tax or corporate tax and sales tax or consumption tax. This government has done more to reduce their intake of revenue both in terms of a cut to income tax, a cut to corporate tax and of course a cut to consumption tax. What that means is the federal government does not have the fiscal room it used to have to support the provinces and make sure we have an equal Canada and, of course, it’s going to have a devastating impact.
It’s already having that impact. We’re seeing it in poverty among seniors, we’re seeing it in poverty among young people. Young people are going to university and having the highest debt load any generation has ever had in the history of this country, attending and trying to get a post-secondary education. That speaks volumes that the federal government does not believe it is something every Canadian’s entitled to. Who would believe a country as rich as ours can’t afford to make post-secondary education free? I think it speaks to the ideology of the Prime Minister and his government that fundamentally do not believe working people should have the same rights as those who are wealthy. They don’t believe in it, they don’t share it and fundamentally they’re doing everything in regards to their public policy to ensure they’re going to change that reality. In the nine years they’ve been in power, we’ve already seen Canadians experiencing this reality of what a different Canada it is versus the one we used to have.
Colin: You talked about rising inequality in this country and as education workers, our own students are really near and dear to our hearts. What opportunity exists for students entering the workforce?
Hassan: For the first time in history, young people are being told that the future their parents used to have or once enjoyed is no longer available to them. They have not reduced the unemployment level around young people since 2008—it’s still there today—and the jobs they’ve been creating are not jobs we can be proud of, that you would want to have, because they don’t have benefits, they don’t have a pension plan. More likely you’re doing two or three jobs to make ends meet. Everywhere I’ve gone, parents come up to me and say, “The story you just told, you’re talking about my kid, that’s my family’s story you’ve just told.”
“We’re seeing an increase in child poverty despite the fact that over two decades ago, we passed a resolution in the House of Commons committing to end child poverty in this country. I think it’s a question of choice.”
We’re seeing an increase in child poverty despite the fact that over two decades ago, we passed a resolution in the House of Commons committing to end child poverty in this country. I think it’s a question of choice. This election I think gives Canadians some very stark things to reflect on. What kind of a Canada do we want to live in? Do we want to live in a more equal Canada, you know, a Canada that’s more fair, that’s more just? And if we are committed to that, individuals have to go out and vote to ensure this government does not get re-elected. It’s not like you have any other choice because of the nine years they’ve been in office, they’ve had choices to make and the choices they’ve made have been bad choices for the working people in this country.
I am hopeful, you know, that Canadians will recognize this as they go to the polls and, more importantly, think about what’s at stake. It’s the future of our kids, the future of our country, more than the future of our labour movement. All of it is at stake from this one election.
Photos: Courtesy of CLC