The 150th anniversary of Confederation will be celebrated across Canada on July 1, but a new book prepared by UBC’s Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies takes a more nuanced look at the country.
Reflections of Canada: Illuminating Our Opportunities and Challenges at 150+ Years includes more than 40 essays by scholars and intellectuals covering a wide range of areas. Those dealing with the political system and the economic status of Canadians paint a picture of a country at a crossroads struggling to come to terms with growing inequality, political disengagement, and the impact of climate change.
In one essay, former NDP leader Ed Broadbent and UBC law professor Margot Young assert that Canada is in a “second Gilded Age”. They maintain that “income and wealth are concentrated in a small percentage of the population—the rich and super-rich—while those at the bottom lie far below acceptable standards of well-being.”
According to them, Canada has become “less generous and just” and ”a country of haves and the desperate have-nots”. While the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms has become an important symbol of national identity since the 1980s, Young and Broadbent maintain that it has also been a “disappointment” for many.
“Cases that push at the greatest inequalities in our society—claims for housing rights, decent income supports—have been time after time thrown out by the courts,” they write. “The poor are Canada’s ‘constitutional castaways.’ ”
This isn’t the only cautionary comment in the book about the charter, which is widely admired by Canadians. In another essay, David Sanschagrin, a PhD student in political science at l’Université du Québec, highlights how the charter has promoted an Ottawa-centric national ideology of “liberal individualism, and whose dominant language is English”.
“This has also meant that members of the First Nations and the Quebec nation must put aside their more collectivist values in order to blend, preferably in English, into a Canadian whole,” Sanschagrin writes. “The allegiance of citizens of diverse immigrant origin, or of those belonging to visible minorities, is taken for granted under the banner of multiculturalism.”
UBC political scientist Maxwell Cameron’s essay links “defects” in democracy to neoliberal globalization. According to Cameron, this ideology emphasizes “rampant individualism”, “the overreliance on rules and incentives”, and “competition in all spheres of life”.
“A self-centred individualism weakens the bonds of attachment to others and can lead to alienation and, in the extreme, mental health problems,” he writes.
In tying this to the political system, he argues that Canada’s “adversarial and hyper-partisan politics” frustrates electoral reform, which offers opportunities to engage citizens in collective decision-making.
“For a country like Canada, the risk for future generations is not that democracy will be abandoned or overthrown, but that it will be diminished, corroded, and hollowed out by the more powerful forces in the global marketplace,” Cameron states.
Seth Klein, the B.C. director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, writes about the triple threat of climate change, a widening economic divide, and the rise of “neofascism”. He prefers this term to the more benign-sounding alt-right.
“In short, the same toxic interplay between working-class alienation and deep-seated racism that elected [Donald] Trump finds a home here, and we, too, face the risk that the politics of hate will occupy centre stage,” Klein warns. “So a first lesson is to stand on guard against rising xenophobia, Islamophobia, racism, sexism, and anti-immigrant politics and assaults. We must name and challenge these ideas, acknowledging that they exist but refusing to let them spread.”
Klein draws upon the lessons of Canada’s actions during and after the Second World War to advocate for a grand response to such monumental challenges. His prescriptions include a $200-per-tonne carbon tax that would raise $80 billion annually. He suggests that this could help alleviate climate change and address the gross inequality that is contributing to the rise of neofascism.
Also on the topic of climate change, the Vancouver mother-daughter duo of UBC political-science prof Kathryn Harrison and environmental activist Sophie Harrison evaluate the economic viability of Canada’s fossil-fuel sector. In their essay, they pay particular attention to the goal of keeping the average global temperature from rising more than 2° C above what it was in pre-industrial times.
Scientists believe that going more than 2° C above that base line sharply elevates the risk of runaway climate change. This would lead to widespread extinction of species—including, possibly, human beings—and massive disruption to the food supply.
According to the International Energy Agency, global fossil-fuel consumption should peak in 2018 in order to achieve the 2° C target. The Harrisons cite research published in Nature showing that under this scenario, “the market for Canadian bitumen would disappear after 2020”.
That’s because international demand for expensively produced Canadian oil would fall sharply as the world moved closer to achieving its climate objectives.
“Put bluntly, the business case for tar sands expansion and new pipelines is inconsistent with the international commitment to limit climate change to 2° C,” they write. “While there is no guarantee the world will meet that target, since current national commitments fall well short of what is needed, it is clear that approving infrastructure to increase Canada’s bitumen exports for decades to come is placing an economic bet against the success of the Paris climate agreement.”
Reflections of Canada was edited by Young, UBC Sauder School of Business professor emeritus Peter Nemetz, and Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies director Philippe Tortell.
“It doesn’t just strike that celebratory tone,” Tortell told the Straight by phone. “There are some unflinching looks at the country.”