These are not changes born in the hearts and minds of the Canadian people, but an agenda designed and implemented from above, articulated in an imported conservative ideology, to abet the interests of private industry. Some of that agenda, like the shocking attack on Canada’s environmental research community, has been implemented so swiftly and unilaterally that the public is just now catching up. Other aspects, like the undermining of the country’s universal health care system, have been imposed more gradually, a death by a thousand cuts combined with a relentless propaganda campaign.
What is happening in Canada is part of a much larger trend: the formidable disciplinary forces of late capitalism are exerting themselves everywhere, including in other western democracies, where governments are scaling back social programs while lavishing tax concessions and subsidies on industry. The European Union and the United States are similarly absorbing market shocks on behalf of business while allowing downturns to undermine the poor and working class. If Canada is becoming indulgent of, even slavish toward, its resource industry (the biggest contributor to GDP), it is arguably no more so than the United States in relation to its banking sector, which was never brought to heel despite causing the 2008 collapse.
Still, the drastic turn in Canadian politics and policy raises some urgent questions. Why hasn’t the population stopped the attack on its public services? Why have left-leaning parties lost ground at the polls while Harper and his ilk continue getting reelected? Why, in a society with a more collectively oriented spirit, has the political discourse taken a sharp turn to the right?
The answers to those questions tell a story to which the left should pay heed, for the hijacking of Canada’s social democracy was made possible in part by the utter failure of its left parties, and the prospects for wresting the country from the current conservative agenda depend on the success of grassroots movements of resistance.
Canada’s public services, including health care and post-secondary education, the post office and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, are generally quite beloved. Unlike in the United States, where the government is viewed with some suspicion, in Canada government-administered and -funded institutions are understood to play an important nation-building role by servicing a population dispersed across a vast terrain. And the fact that all Canadians’ needs are provided for has become a point of pride.
Over the past few decades, however, private business interests and their neoliberal allies in government have led a concerted push to expand the role of the market and shift government expenditure away from social need. The assault on public services hasn’t been conducted by criticizing them on principle, but by manufacturing crises and then suggesting that the only solution is to expand the role of the private sector.
Such is the strategy playing out right now at the post office. Last December, it was announced that Canada Post would have to phase out home delivery within five years, requiring residential customers to retrieve their mail from nearby community boxes. The change would come along with a significant increase in the cost of postage (from 63 cents to one dollar for a single stamp) and the layoff of 8,000 postal workers.
The announcement was shocking, but calculatedly so. The recommendations were prepared by a think tank arguing for privatization. It claimed that the post office is unsustainable and uncompetitive, a burden to taxpayers, and poor at meeting consumers’ needs. In reality, Canada Post has netted a profit for sixteen of the last seventeen years, and, despite occasionally suffering losses, has yet to receive a single dollar in taxpayer bailout. All of the report’s recommendations were part of a larger and often-used strategy to “restructure” services so that user costs increase while services deteriorate, and then, in response to public frustration, suggest market-based solutions.
The same strategy has been exercised repeatedly in health care: crises are brought on by underfunding, and the alleged only solution is to expand the role of private profit. Services are “delisted,” i.e. taken out of universal medicare coverage, but private supplemental insurance becomes available to cover them. Public hospitals are closed but private clinics allowed to open. Wait times for services increase due to budget cuts, but patients are permitted to “jump the queue” and pay out of pocket for their own MRI. The public is thus softened for market-based solutions, although on an ideological level it remains staunchly committed to medicare and vocally resistant to efforts to introduce parallel private health insurance and private hospitals. The CBC, itself constantly menaced with cuts, recently held a months-long contest to select “The Greatest Canadian.” The population chose Tommy Douglas, the architect of Canada’s medicare system, ahead of Wayne Gretzky, Alexander Graham Bell, and Pierre Trudeau.