How to put Canada back together again: Four big recommendations for repairing the tears in our social fabric
By: Michael Valpy, Special to the Star
This is the final article of the 2013 Atkinson Series: Me, You, Us, journalist and author Michael Valpy’s investigation into social cohesion in Canada — what binds us together, what pulls us apart.
Question: How do you stop the unravelling of social cohesion in Canada? Answer: Not with political Botox or quick-fix policy nips and tucks. This is deep cultural stuff.
It’s a winter storm of globalization-and-technology assaults that Canadians’ governing elites haven’t stood up to. It’s the continuing fallout of a cruel neo-liberal hoax. It’s a massive decades-old shift from a collectivist to a more individualist society aggravated by a withdrawal of the state from Canadians’ lives.
And it’s a thrice-told tale, with each account over the past 15 years bearing striking similarities.
From a scholarly 1999 Senate report, from research by Heritage Canada published between 2000 and 2002, from work done under the auspices of the Atkinson Foundation published over the past three weeks in the Toronto Star, the symptoms identified have been the same, and they’ve been related.
The emergence of social and economic barriers to an inclusive society most noticeably in the workplace — leading, in a word, to inequality. Or maybe two words: “class warfare.”
Dalhousie University economist Lars Osberg, an internationally acknowledged expert on socially inclusive societies, wrestled with the meaning of social cohesion more than a decade ago and concluded it was more than just a path to something better: “It is not just a means that we use to produce something that we value even more, such as economic growth,” he said. “Social cohesion is in itself something that people value. People value the idea of a sense of community. People value the ability to deal in a mutually trusting way with each other … Therefore, social cohesion is not just something that is a means to an end; it is an end in itself. In that sense, we can think of it as a valid objective of policy in and of itself.”
Let’s start with the Big Four ways we can advance social cohesion in Canada.
1. Mandatory voting.
Nationally and provincially, Canada is heading toward voter participation rates of less than 50 per cent. Young and poor Canadians vote in such small numbers that it makes it difficult for any political party or government in the country to claim to speak for them. Canada’s youngest cohort of voters may fall into the teens in the next federal election.
This is pushing democratic legitimacy to a crisis stage. In a decade or two, younger voters will be in the prime of their lives and paying for the political choices of their now departed grandparents. These choices are not likely to reflect the priorities or the needs of next Canada.
If we can make jury duty mandatory, we can make the basic task of democracy mandatory. If we can legally enforce rights of citizenship, we can legally enforce responsibilities of citizenship.
2. A proportional representation electoral system.
Our first-past-the-post system has too many flaws, from the wasted votes cast for candidates and their parties who don’t win to the excessive tilt of Canada’s politics to territorial and linguistic representation rather than to class and values representation. Most Western democracies use some form of proportional or multi-winner system with the notable exception of the U.S., United Kingdom and Canada.
3. A guarantee of basic income.
For so many of us, work is our primary identity. Work gives us our sense of well-being and meaningfulness. And work increasingly is being debased by globalization, technology and corporate competitiveness and greed.
Good full-time jobs with benefits and security are disappearing, ushering in the new age of precarious employment, the age of the precariat. There is no indication that this will change any time soon, and sociologists and economists believe that barriers to economic participation in society contribute far more to social fragmentation and social exclusion than differing values and personal attitudes.
Personal transfers and what remains of Canada’s progressive taxation system are no longer protecting Canadians from rising inequality.
When inequality rises, people are more inclined to define themselves with class labels and Canada increasingly is experiencing the phenomenon of people deselecting themselves from the middle class.
Does this continue unchecked? Canadians marching like lemmings into the abyss of temporary, low-wage, insecure employment?
The Danes have met globalization and technology with so-called flexicurity: in a system supported by business and labour, the government allows precarious employment to exist but has introduced state supports that guarantee workers decent incomes, benefits and pensions. Some question whether this Danish flexicurity system would be a good cultural fit with Canadian society.
But an increasing number of Canadian economists, public policy commentators and politicians do advocate a guaranteed annual income. The estimated annual cost of such a program has been calculated at more than $30-plus-billion. Expensive, undoubtedly. But deducted from that would be $20-plus-billion in provincial welfare spending plus billions of dollars more on piecemeal programs related to the costs of poverty, from health costs to prisons.
4. Protections for the Precariat
The growing numbers of workers in precarious employment need full workplace protections and enforcement of employment standards (such as job security, occupational health and safety) and regulations governing compensation and benefits (including wages, overtime, sick leave, payment for statutory holidays and employer contributions to unemployment insurance and the Canada Pension Plan) that are extended to permanent full-time workers. Period. No exceptions.
The fee structure charged by temporary employment agencies to client companies should be transparent. Misclassification of agency-hired temporary workers as so-called independent contractors should be made illegal and be strictly monitored. Government enforcement of labour standards should be equal to the task of ensuring that workers’ rights are met and their full wages are paid.
As for internships for young people — specifically unpaid internships — provincial governments have been appallingly lax in shutting down illegal internships or in informing employers and young people what the law is. They have yet to develop common employment standards across Canada regulating working conditions and health and safety protections. This must be done.
The Big Four recommendations address the main assaults on social cohesion: nonparticipation in democratic institutions and inequality in the workplace.
There are smaller but nonetheless critically important proposals that deserve implementation:
MP Michael Chong’s private member’s bill that would return control of the House of Commons to party caucuses and individual members.
Ideas to rein in inequality by giving low-income people subsidized access to transit and child-care.
A renewed Katimavik funded by the federal government to give young Canadians the opportunity to participate in intensive six-month periods of volunteer service.
A look across the border where a guaranteed basic income is picking up support from both liberals and conservatives — the latter seeing it as a means of simplifying and reducing the size of government.
And one more point must be made: European governments work with labour, business and civil society organizations as societal partners. The Canadian government all but ignores organized labour and has hamstrung civil society organizations by cutting their funding.
The former voice of big business in Canada, the Business Council on National Issues, lamented in 1997 that “Canadians have become highly skeptical about the extent of corporate contributions to the public good.
“Canadian leading corporations have often been portrayed as villains: pursuing a ‘corporate agenda’ of dismembering government and gutting social programs, persisting in layoffs even as profits recovered from recessionary levels, and using freer trade as an excuse for a race to to the global bottom in wages and benefits.”
The BCNI issued a paper on the social and economic role of large corporations, outlining the need to continue working toward deeper global economic integration “without leading Canada into some of the less desirable features of the American experience such as income polarization and the loss of social cohesion.”
There’s no evident references to these thoughts on the website of its successor organization, the Canadian Council of Chief Executives. That must change.
So here we are at the end — back to the declaration posed by this series of articles at the beginning: we’re attached to the country but our attachment to each other leaves something to be wished for.
It’s not about ideology or bureaucracy. It’s about harmony, about inclusivity and belonging — about the quality of being Canadian.
We need to work on that.
Award-winning journalist Michael Valpy is this year’s recipient of the Atkinson Fellowship in Public Policy (funded by the Atkinson Charitable Foundation or ACF). The Canadian Index of Wellbeing was incubated at ACF for many years before landing at its permanent home at the University of Waterloo in 2011.