Like the Grinch who stole Christmas, the Conservative government of Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper has just left a lump of coal in Canadian workers’ stockings. A cover story in the Globe and Mail of December 22, 2011 announces that federal public pension programs are being targeted for cuts to reduce the federal deficit.1 The previous day the Globe and Mail ran a cover story announcing that the federal government will be reducing funding for health care programs and eliminating national standards for health care.2 In essence, this will gut the Canadian Medicare system. Mr. Harper has been pushing a series of recent neoliberal economic and socially conservative policy changes designed to undo the last elements of post-WWII Keynesianism in Canada.
The Canadian Wheat Board, established by the Parliament of Canada on July 5, 1935 to promote the orderly marketing of Canadian grains and to protect farmers from the vagaries of the market, has just been altered by an Act of Parliament to remove it as the sole marketer of Canadian grains, thus opening up grain sales to the free market. Ostensibly, this move is to give farmers choice in marketing, but the big beneficiaries will be multinational corporations like Cargill. The Harper government has been strongly pushing the free marketing of all Canadian resources to global markets. Mr. Harper is not happy with US President Obama’s postponement of the Keystone XL pipeline project to pipe oil from Alberta to refineries in Texas. The pipeline would further a trend of job losses in Canadian refineries, and increase all the environmental problems caused by extraction of Canada’s notorious “dirty oil” from the northern tar sands, while bringing additional environmental threats through potential oil spills. But the Harper government has consistently shown its distain for environmental issues, most recently at the climate talks in Durban, South Africa. Nor do the Conservatives have a good record on the rights of indigenous peoples. Most recently the Canadian government has proposed moving from communal to private ownership of property on Canadian First Nations’ reserves.3
The government is showing its socially conservative side through promotion of a heightened law and order agenda, with proposed increases in spending to law enforcement and prisons, and harsher sentencing. Mr. Harper has just made an agreement with the US government to include Canada in a North American security pact that applies the conditions of US international security to Canadian borders, in exchange for an easing of restrictions at the Canada-US border which have been deemed impediments to the free flow of trade. So in one move the Harper government has furthered the incorporation of the already highly dependent Canadian economy into the US economy, while advancing Mr. Harper’s law and order agenda. This, along with the previous end of Canada’s international military status as a peacekeeper and open shift to a combat role in Afghanistan, shows the Harper government’s strong predilection to more openly embrace the US imperial agenda. There has been a resulting consternation among Canadian liberals and leftists about the undoing of Canada.
So why is all of this happening, and why is it being hastened now? The answer is simple: this is class warfare. The Harper government, like other Western governments, is busy pushing an austerity program to dump the costs of the post-2007 Great Recession onto the backs of workers and their families. These politicians are either unable or unwilling to see that neoliberal policies of privatization, deregulation and free trade actually exacerbated the economic crisis. In the case of Mr. Harper and his associates, they are known to be strict ideologues when it comes to neoliberal capitalism. And why are the changes being pushed in Canada now? Because the Conservative Party finally got a majority government in the federal election of May 2, 2011, after three minority terms. This majority status can be attributed to the collapse of the Liberal Party and the Bloc Quebecois, low voter turnout, and the lack of proportional representation in the Canadian political system. The Conservative Party gained 54% of the seats in parliament with less than 40% of the popular vote.
So, where is the opposition to the Harper government’s neoliberal onslaught? With the 2011 election the New Democratic Party (NDP) became the official federal opposition for the first time in its history. But while once the party of social democracy in Canada, NDP federal and provincial parties have succumbed in recent years to neoliberal policy, along with other Western social democratic parties. So we should not expect any form of anti-systemic opposition from the NDP. Even the party’s socialist rhetoric has become a thing of the past. Once upon a time there was a strong Canadian nationalist movement, some element of which still exists with organizations like the Council of Canadians. There is some social movement unionism among Canadian labour organizations, but not enough for widespread organization of opposition to the Harper government’s agenda. This is unfortunate, because now is a time of opportunity for articulation of alternatives by labour organizations to capitalism in crisis. The only recent questioning of the established socio-economic order in Canada came from the Occupy Movement arguing for the 99%. But that, for now, shows just the seeds of future potential, and was nowhere near as widespread and developed as in some other countries. Still, the mainstream media in Canada has seen fit to devote a lot of time and space to trying to convince us that the Occupy Movement amounts to nothing. It seems that any threat to the system makes the powers that be uneasy. Why else would police move in to evict Occupy camps in Canadian cities?
Overall, we are seeing in Canada the two-pronged attack of the neoliberals — austerity and law and order. But these policies will only worsen the systemic crisis and show up the need for alternatives.
1 Bill Curry, “Old Age Security for Baby Boomers Heads Toward $100-billion a Year” (December 21, 2011).
2 John Ibbitson, Bill Curry, Ian Bailey, and Dawn Walton, “Provinces Get More Autonomy to Drive Health-care Reform” (December 20, 2011).
3 Bill Curry, “Ottawa Proposes First Nations Property Ownership” (Globe and Mail, December 14, 2011).
Dave Broad is a Professor of Sociology in the Department of Sociology and Social Studies, Faculty of Arts, University of Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada. His publications include Dave Broad, Hollow Work, Hollow Society? Globalization and the Casual Labour Problem; and Dave Broad and Wayne Antony (eds.), Capitalism Rebooted? Work, Welfare and the New Economy (both Fernwood Publishing).