Friday, November 12, 2004

The Myth of the Great Liberal Canada

In the last week or so I have seen a bunch of sites allude to the desire for either individual Americans living in states that went for John Kerry, or the states in their entirety to go on up to Canada. It's gone now, but even Rabble had a link on their top page to a spoof site for Canadians offering to marry such Americans to allow them to emigrate. On a certain level, I can understand this. For the most part, I think it is people blowing off steam and finding humorous ways to express the very real pain of facing another four years of George W. Bush. And I suppose there are a few people who seriously mean it, and I think there is some basis for that, too. After all, I may be living in the U.S. at the moment, but I fully intend to return to Canada.

But the vision of Canada inspired in U.S.-based progressives by Michael Moore et al is very, very romanticized. And whether it is Americans echoing this view here in the States, or Canadians at home getting smug, I refuse to sit still and take the myth of the great liberal Canada.

First the good stuff: Okay, yes, the best way to judge these things is by the quality of life of ordinary people, and there are some ways in which genuine, material gains have been made in Canada that have not been made in the United States.

  • The cause of queer liberation is a little farther along in Canada, with widespread inclusion of lesbian, bisexual, gay, and transgender people in human rights codes and increasing legal recognition of marriage between two people of the same gender. Also (keeping in mind that as a straight person I can never really know this for sure) there seems to be slightly more social space in the Canadian cities I've been in to be "out" than here in LA.

  • Workers rights are, generally speaking, in a better position legislatively in Canada than in the U.S., though Alberta's labour laws are pretty harsh. This translates into union density that is about 30%, compared to about 13% for the U.S. The same basic problems plague the Canadian labour movement as plague the U.S. labour movement, but the balance of forces within the labour movement tilt a bit farther towards the progressive end.

  • Despite more than a decade of neoliberal assault, the social safety net in Canada is still somewhat functional, including socialized medical care -- they're trying to privatize it, but haven't done so quite yet.

  • There are still small corners of state funding for progressive research and community action, via places like Heritage Canada and Status of Women Canada.

  • There is generally less violent crime and stronger gun control measures (even though the current government botched aspects of gun control in a major way, which will make it an easier target for the right for decades to come). As well, the prison population is far smaller relative to the overall population.

  • The CBC does a decent job as a national, public broadcaster, particularly on the radio, though it still very much functions as a mainstream, mass media institution, with all that implies.

That's a pretty short list. It matters because it impacts on people's lives, but it is short.

At heart, though, the issues in Canada are much the same as the issues in the U.S., and oppression exists in both countries.

  • Just like the U.S., the Canadian state is based on stolen land, broken treaties, and the genocide of this continents' Aboriginal peoples. There are proportionately more Aboriginal people in Canada than in the U.S., but they experience the same extremely high rates of poverty and racist treatment. There have been a number of high profile assaults by the state and racist white Canadians in the last ten or fifteen years on First Nations people demanding their rights -- Oka, Burnt Church, a stand-off out in British Columbia whose name I can't recall, and the state murder of Dudley George at Ipperwash come to mind. As well, over the decades there were semi-regular exchanges between the bureaucrats at the Department of Indian Affairs and those in charge of managing apartheid in South Africa. Attempts to extinguish Aboriginal title even to the small area of land they have left and to extinguish Aboriginal culture continue on the part of the federal government.

  • Legislative and judicial gains notwithstanding, there's plenty of homophobia and heterosexism to go around in Canada. In the months before I moved from Hamilton to LA there was a vicious incident of gay bashing that left a gay man of colour with serious injuries. Since I left there was a raid on Hamilton's only bath house.

  • The momentum around labour law is in the wrong direction -- in the mid-1990s there were three major provinces (Quebec, Ontario, and British Columbia) that had anti-scab laws. Those are laws that make it illegal for employers to bring in replacement workers during a strike. It is gone from Ontario and B.C., and I'm not sure about Quebec. In Ontario there was a truly draconian Employment Standards Act passed by the previous provincial government, doing things like making it legal for employers to force employees to work 60 hour weeks without overtime. Changes to labour law in B.C. under the Campbell government have made it the only jurisdiction in North America where child labour is legal.

  • Wealth and income inequality are, generally speaking, on the increase in Canada. Notably, this inequality is racialized, leading to what some commentators have accurately described as "economic apartheid" in Canada.

  • Canada has a long history of active cheerleading and support of U.S. imperialism, most recently with respect to the U.S. sponsored coup in Haiti. Canada stayed out of Vietnam but no nation other than the U.S. itself profited more economically from the slaughter of millions of people in Southeast Asia, and Canadian firms are profiting handsomely from U.S. imperialism in Afghanistan and Iraq.

  • The tradition of fighting for civil liberties is not nearly as well developed in Canada as it is in the U.S. Though legislation similar to the USA PATRIOT Act was passed around that time in Canada, it has received much less attention from activists and the media. There are currently Muslim men in prison with no charges and no publically presented evidence and a great deal of apathy on the part of the public towards this injustice.

  • Even though the mayors of Canada's ten largest cities declared homelessness a national disaster in 1998, the response by the federal government has been largely cosmetic (a program to shore up emergency services and a rental supply program that will benefit mainly the middle-class, at least in many provinces) and some provincial governments have hardly responded at all. According to advocates around one person per week dies on the streets of Toronto in the winter, but the real causes of the crisis -- poverty, lack of affordable housing, and lack of support services -- are not being addressed in any substantial way by the state.

  • The Canadian state has long been an aggressive promoter of the institutions of neoliberal capitalist globalization, and has actively pushed very regressive positions in negotiations. Canada, just like the U.S., benefits from the global economic system that sucks money out of most of the world and pours it into the already-industrialized countries.

  • The prison population in Canada is disproportionately racialized people, particularly Aboriginal people. Racialized communities in Canada experience racial profiling, experience police shootings, and have had to mobilize over the years against systemic racism in the criminal "justice" system. Despite this mobilization, things are probably worse than they were a decade ago in terms of institutional safeguards, at least in Ontario.

  • While less scary than George W. Bush, our current Prime Minister, Paul Martin, is no picnic.

  • In elections in Ontario in the last decade, poor-bashing has often been a successful electoral strategy.

  • Abuse and murder of women by their male partners is epidemic in Canada, just like it is in the U.S.

  • Even though we have the CBC, corporate media consolidation is much more advanced in Canada than in the United States, and community media (particularly progressive community broadcast media) is much less well developed in Canada.

So there you go. I could go on. It plays out a bit more mildly in some ways in Canada than in the U.S., and those differences can have real impacts on real people, but the basic oppressive structures which confrot social movements in the two societies are similar and interconnected. Canada has had the privilege, through its history, of being a small and unimportant appendage to empire, either British or U.S., so people with some privilege in Canada gain from all of the oppression that these empires wreak on the world (and the oppression Canadian elites wreak at home) but with leeway to be somewhat more liberal. But the struggles are the same and the direction is the same.

I think, incidentally, that there is definitely room in Canada for the radical right populist movement that dominates politics in the U.S. to gain ground. They haven't managed it so far, but speaking as someone who grew up in small town southern Ontario, there is still plenty of room for them to make inroads there with the right organizing. That scares me.

On the up side, I think there are some structural features of the political landscape that argue against this movement being as successful in Canada.

  • In the U.S., nationalism drives a chunk of that movement. The corresponding radical right statists in Canada also use nationalism, but (bizarrely) it is U.S. nationalism -- particularly in papers like the National Post there is this weird worship of the United States. There are always going to be limits to how well "they are so much better than us" plays in any country.

  • Quebec is the most progressive polity in North America, and their particular position within the Canadian confederation and their willingness to destroy said confederation if it comes to that, places some limits. The right hates that fact, but the economic elites in the country do not want confederation dismantled so the threat of the seperatists, who have a strong (if not as strong as 30 years ago) social democratic strain, constrains the right too.

  • The existence of a genuine social democratic party in English Canada, however much I and others on the left have criticized them over the years, serves as an important placeholder in the public debate so that ideas that are taboo in the U.S. get voiced in Canada just because there are people in parliament who voice them. The Bloc Qubecois, the federal separatist party, is also brings social democratic ideas to the public via parliament.

All that having been said, neoliberalism marches on with the enthusiastic support of Canadian elites. Racism, sexism, homophobia and all the other interlocking hierarchies of power and privilege are fundamental to Canadian society. There is no guarantee that the radical right populist movement won't be energized by the success of their U.S. counterparts and manage to destroy whatever gains have been made by genuine peoples' movements in Canada, even if it is fair to predict that they won't be quite as successful. So you're welcome to come to Canada if you want, but you'd better be just as prepared to fight for justice and liberation there as here. And as much as Canada could always use new progressive and radical activists, I have a feeling that most of the world would rather see such social change work happen in the U.S. -- movements to end war and imperialism can have the greatest impact at the centre of the empire, and those most impacted by the triumph of the right domestically in the U.S. are the least likely to have any kind of escape available to them.


Scott said...

For another further evidence of the point made by the post above see this post on The Killing Train.

cul said...


First visit to your blog. Kudos for the lucidity of the the writing. I repatriated back the States last December after spending 35 years in various areas of Canada (the last 15 in the Vancouver area of BC) mainly for the purpose of trying to help prevent Bush from gaining a second term. My entire family lives here in central Florida and that has been the only sanity saving aspect of an otherwise majorly culture-shocking experience.

Though I concur with your points about the myth of Canada being viewed as some sort progressive cure all for what ails the hordes of depressed Kerry supporters, I have to admit that Canada looks better than ever to me and that I am seriously entertaining notions of returning there asap. But you raise a good point about the need for continued work here in the US as opposed to escape back to Canada, so I am a bit torn between the choices.

At any rate, thanx for the perspective of that piece. I've been meaning to write something on that topic myself lately, but you have done such a fine job, that I will use an excerpt or two from your post and make the appropriate links back to you instead.

Phaedrus said...

Canadian Lefty, thanks for supporting one of my theories about the world. To those lefties who think they're escaping the evil right by skipping to Canada, you're not. Who do you think truly drives the right? Where does their lavish funding come from? For that, where do you think the bulk of funding for the Dems comes from? Corporations. You think Canada doesn't have corporations? Every country does. If the world is a coal mine, the US is the 800-pound canary.
The US is the home of the the Great Satan of Corporatocracy. If you escape to a (slightly) more social democratic nation, you may lead a little better, easier life. But your children won't, not if we don't defeat corporatocracy in the US. The real fight's in the US and if you run from it, you become the worst kind of deserter. If you want to go to Canada or anywhere else to fight, fine. There's plenty of fighting to be done there. But if you want to go to escape the fight, then you're a race traitor. (I only recognize one race: Human.)

Scott said...

Both: Thanks for the comments!

cul: Thanks for the link!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this amazingly well articulated and educational piece of writing on the subject. I feel enlightened by your perspective.

Despite being a person who was raised in an extremely liberal family here in the U.S. where world affairs were constantly discussed, Canada is not the most frequent topic of discussion, except when being viewed somewhat wistfully in terms of the progressive aspects that it does offer. But I have to agree with you that as Americans, it is our duty to our country to stay and fight for democracy and the principles that progressives hold dear, here in our own country (not to go and fight in veiled wars as our government and right wing counterparts would suggest). To leave is to suffer defeat for a young person like me, but I can understand in a way, why my parents want to leave. They have recently talked of buying land in Spain and getting out of here. I think that as controversial and outspoken people, they have experienced a tremor of fear as they've seen people like Brandon Mayfield -- the attorney from Portland, Oregon who was accused of having a direct connection to the Madrid bombings and later released thanks to the Spanish government -- be taken to jail under the authority of the Patriot Act here in the U.S.

My dad said "the only difference between me and him is that he married a muslim woman, other than that we are virtually indistinguishable." Except that if you type my dad's name into Google, it is easy to see that he is an active liberal who not only opposes the government's longstanding imperialism and perpetration of violence, oppression and mayhem around the world, but he and my mother write about it earnestly on their websites and have attracted some very odd attention. I say odd because if I told you, you might call me a crazy conspiracy theorist. Anyone probably would. Let's just say that conspiracy theories about the CIA are far more than that. So my dad has expressed real concern for our freedoms in this country and I don't think he's conceding defeat as much as he feels that he would be protecting himself and his family from this tyrannical U.S. government by going to someplace a little more liberal, like Spain for instance. And I have to admit, it sounds damn good to me.

All the same, I am with Cul in vascillating back and forth on my thoughts about this.

Anyway, thanks again for such a comprehensive piece of writing that provides a different view of the comparison between the U.S. and Canada. I feel like I have two sides to the story now and that can never be a really bad thing.


Scott said...

August 23/06 -- I've noticed that this post still gets hit relatively often by searches, which is great, so I thought I'd maybe post a comment and link to later posts I've made which are on similar themes:

Changing Modes of Canadian Complicity

and several of the posts collected under

Federal Election 2006

A fair number of the book reviews sprinkled across the months also deal with related material, such as:

Repression and Resistance

Journeying Forward

Thunder in My Soul