In the spirit of encouraging progressive dialogue Democracy Under Fire is pleased to present this guest article by Jared Milne
In the last couple of years, various Canadian commentators have remarked on the new conservative narrative of Canada that Stephen Harper and the federal Conservatives have been creating. Much of this narrative centres around a new form of patriotism that emphasizes support for the military, the Canadian North, hockey and Tim Horton’s coffee. Now, with the Harper Conservatives having formed a majority government in the 2011 federal election, progressive Canadians like Murray Dobbin, Jim Stanford and Andrew Jackson are calling for a new progressive narrative that provides an alternative to the narrative offered by the Harper Conservatives and the more general political right. Carol Goar has written about an anti-poverty movement that she says is “out of step” with the people it tries to help, and Reilly Yeo talks about the need for innovative thinking in how government can work in a networked and global society.
Unfortunately, there are voices on the left that make this much easier said than done. Prominent American professor and public intellectual Ward Churchill called many of the victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks “little Eichmanns”, claiming that their deaths were a “befitting penalty” for the corporate oppression they supposedly engaged in. Canadian political writer and poet Robin Mathews called Stephen Harper a “psychopath” and compared him to Adolf Hitler. Noted progressive blogger Robert Day, more popularly known as Canadian Cynic, commonly directs personal attacks and insults against those he disagrees with. In one post, he has referred to the federal Conservatives as the “Stephen Harper Brownshirt Party” and called retired judge Frank Iacobucci a “cheap hooker”. In other posts, Day has referred to various female conservative bloggers and politicians as “cunts”. Members of the Occupy Movement have bragged about the “fun” they can have protesting on private property rather than working to earn a living, made up demonstrably false claims about major historical figures, and caused more general violence and hooliganism.
The problem with what these people have been saying and doing is that they make all progressives look bad by association. Their words and actions are used by critics on the right who try to discredit what progressives are advocating and tar all progressives as being hateful towards anyone who disagrees with them, advocating extreme policies and supporting violence when in many cases progressives do not. Progressives like Dobbin and Stanford are exactly right when they talk about the need for a new narrative that can better meet the realities of today’s politics, but any attempt to construct that narrative is only hindered by the likes of Churchill, Mathews, Day and the more radical members of the Occupy movement.
What could a new progressive narrative look like, if it were to have a broader appeal to Canadians than the words and actions of people like Mathews or Day? Much of the conservative narrative today centres around individual freedom, and its opposition to the government “control” that progressives supposedly want to exercise on individuals through government taxes and programs. In many respects, however, government intervention and social programs have actually increased the freedom enjoyed by the vast majority of Canadians.
It’s one thing to for someone to lose his or her job through incompetence, but quite another to lose it because of shifts in the economy or the company needing to downsize through the ineptitude of its management. In the latter case, Employment Insurance can help those unemployed people to pay their bills and participate in the economy while they are looking for work. Socialized medicine has freed many Canadian families from having to pay the incredibly high sums of money that their American counterparts must pay to that country’s private system.
Public education has allowed a greater number of people to better exercise their full talents and increased their career choices. Minimum wage laws have increased the purchasing power of the poorest people in society and allowed them to better participate in the economy. Workplace safety laws have decreased the injuries workers have suffered, allowing them to be more productive for their employers and earn more money for their own use. Environmental regulations can support tourist and fisheries industries and the people who work in them. A judicious combination of publicly available daycare spaces and tax credits for those parents who prefer alternate means of childcare can provide support to more parents than either initiative could alone, thereby allowing a greater number of parents overall to enter the workforce while their children are cared for.
In that way, the social safety net has in fact provided support to Canadians in many ways, providing them with more resources to exercise their talents and individual efforts. However, a new progressive narrative would also need to recognize that government action cannot and should not be the only solution to a problem, and can in fact make things worse if it’s not well implemented. Mel Hurtig and John Ralston Saul have both sharply criticized the conventional wisdom of free trade agreements, tax cuts and privatization. However, Hurtig has also derided the National Energy Program launched by the Trudeau government in the late 1970s as having been “poorly conceived, poorly explained and poorly defended.” Saul has also criticized the slowness, bureaucracy and lack of clarity of the Foreign Investment Review Agency, implemented in the 1970s to review the foreign purchases of Canadian companies.
Rather, it could be said that society functions best through a combination of individual initiative and collective action, through the participation of both governments and markets, each complementing one another’s strengths and compensating for one another’s weaknesses. Private charitable donations and government programs can, at the best of times, combine to support a greater number of those in need than either one could on their own. Private citizens with their own sources of power and wealth, independent of any government, can act against the type of government encroachment seen in Communist Russia or China, while government programs and laws, when they’re properly implemented, can support the liberty of the less powerful.
A progressive narrative can offer a strong criticism of the current market-based consensus that has led to marked increases in poverty among Canadians and that by and large has not had the “trickle down” effect that its advocates have promised. However, a new progressive narrative can and should acknowledge also the good that comes of individual effort, independent of government action.
A new progressive narrative can also offer a number of strong rebuttals to the Conservative claim that their party is best suited to managing the economy. It is worth remembering, for instance, that it was the Opposition parties who forced the Harper government to implement the stimulus package that would become Canada’s Economic Action Plan that helped stimulate the economy and create jobs. Many of the sound regulations that have kept Canadian banks from suffering the fate of their American counterparts were not put in place by Harper, but by previous governments.
On the other hand, Stephen Harper claimed during the 2008 election campaign that, if there was going to be a recession, it would have happened by now. The Harper government has broken its promise not to tax income trusts and drastically increased the national debt and made the tax system more complicated to the point where even Finance Minister Jim Flaherty admits that the tax system is more complicated than it used to be. Many of the tax credits introduced by the Conservatives are harshly criticized by conservative pundits and think tanks, who do not believe that these credits are achieving their goals. Various conservative pundits and bloggers are also becoming increasingly frustrated with Harper’s fiscal mismanagement.
A new progressive narrative would also need to address some of the criticisms directed towards it by the political right. Condemning all capitalists and businesspeople as cruel and uncaring of others is just as unfair and untrue as condemning all progressives and leftists as destructive Black Bloc types. After all, people who own organic grocery stores, occult or bong shops and vegan restaurants may not be known for holding conservative views, but they are risking their own money and capital in setting up businesses that they own and from which they make their living and provide jobs to others. Many Liberal and NDP candidates over the years have been business owners themselves. Vive Le Canada founder Susan Thompson, for example, previously founded and owned Hell N’ Back Welding and later ran for the federal NDP in Alberta. Rather than adhering to the stereotype of the latte-sipping elitist that’s commonly associated with the NDP, Thompson was an entrepreneur who founded her own blue collar company.
These people are, in a sense, capitalists just as much as any business executive who works in a Calgary or Toronto office tower, albeit on a smaller scale. In turn, many of those business executives also donate both their time and their money to any number of worthy causes, their own private initiatives complementing the government’s efforts. Think of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, or the work of someone like Melcor president and CEO Ralph Young. Lumping such people in with less ethical and less compassionate businesspeople doesn’t help anyone. Even the likes of Jonathan Kay, managing editor of the conservative National Post newspaper, talked about how reasonable he found many of the solutions advocated by Linda McQuaig and Neil Brooks in their book The Trouble With Billionaires. His problem was not so much with what McQuaig and Brooks were advocating, but rather the general disdain they seemed to hold for rich people as a whole.
Similarly, blanket condemnations of industries like the Alberta oilpatch will not win support for a progressive cause. Most people in the oil industry are no different than anyone else in that their main goal is simply to earn a living. When it comes to changing the way energy is developed in Canada, many people working in the oil industry would want to know how any changes proposed by progressives would avoid damaging or costing them their livelihoods. This perception among many people in Western Canada that progressive parties do not support their regional interests is one of the major reasons they have tended to support conservative parties at the federal level, such as with the rise of the Reform Party under Preston Manning.
Another issue a new progressive narrative would have to address would be specific issues that the political right has managed to claim as its own and which still matter very much to Canadians. Carol Goar has pointed out that the Conservative justice reforms have a lot of appeal to lower-income Canadians who feel threatened by drug dealers and violent young offenders. While it is true that overall crime rates are falling, it is still a sickening state of affairs when sexual offenders are sentenced to house arrest and probation for sexual assault or time served for possession of child pornography. Many Canadians remain unconvinced of progressive approaches to justice, and a new progressive narrative would need to provide more details on how it would deal with violent and sexual offenders.
Perhaps most of all, however, a new progressive narrative would have to avoid, as much as possible, the type of insulting language used by the likes of Churchill, Mathews and Day cited earlier in this essay. This is in fact an area where open-minded progressives and conservatives could come together in establishing a more constructive dialogue between all parts of the political spectrum. This new dialogue would also work against the more radical elements on both sides whose interest is in demonizing or destroying one another, rather than providing sound governance that benefits all Canadians. It is one thing to have a legitimate political disagreement with someone, but quite another entirely to want to demonize them for having different views, or hating them simply because of their general political allegiance.
Sadly, this tendency remains as strong as it has ever been, indulged in by people on both sides of the spectrum. The latest manifestation comes in the debate over the foreign funding of Canadian environmental charities, when Senator Mike Duffy accused many of these groups of somehow being “un-Canadian”, impugning their patriotism for having dissenting opinions.
There is, however, a more positive dialogue that many of us who have a strong interest in politics frequently overlook. It’s the dialogue between many everyday Canadians who live, work and volunteer together, even when their beliefs cross partisan lines. They support the same hockey teams, they volunteer for the same organizations, and attend the same churches, all in spite of whatever political differences they may have.
In talking to many of my fellow Canadians, I’ve noticed how many of them defy the stereotypes one would expect. Self-made entrepreneurs and rural farmers have voted for or even run for the New Democratic and Liberal parties. Conservative supporters have voiced their support of the handgun registry even as they decry the long gun registry, and have voiced support for banning smoking in bars and a fully public health system. University professors and civil servants can support the Conservatives just as readily as the Liberals or the NDP. Political advocacy organizations have had executives made up of Liberals, NDPers, Red Tories and Blue Tories who work together for a common goal. Municipal candidates who are card-carrying members of the federal Conservative party have been supported by lifelong Liberals and NDPers who admire the candidate’s competency. In all these cases, they respect one another’s beliefs and don’t hold the other person’s political beliefs against them.
A new progressive narrative, one that speaks up strongly for itself but that avoids the stereotyping and demonization so common in Canadian politics these days, can make an invaluable contribution to building the new dialogue that is needed and in trying to build common ground among Canadians. It’s important to remember that many people vote for their chosen parties simply because they feel these parties are best suited to managing the country. People who vote Conservative can and frequently do show compassion for the poor and care for the environment, while people who vote Liberal, NDP or Green can and frequently do put in long hours of hard work and show entrepreneurial spirit.
Stereotyping people based on the parties they support doesn’t contribute at all to establishing any kind of a positive dialogue, and in many respects these stereotypes aren’t even true to begin with. From everything I’ve seen, those ordinary, hardworking Canadians who stop at Tim Horton’s for a coffee on their way to work or get up early on Saturday morning to take their children to hockey practice are just as inclined to vote Liberal, Conservative, NDP or Green depending on their individual beliefs. Indeed, a 2010 study by the Globe and Mail specifically found that drinking Tim Horton’s coffee doesn’t necessarily make you a Liberal, an NDPer or a Conservative-it simply makes you a Canadian.
Helping us to remember this is the greatest service a new progressive narrative could do for Canada and for all Canadians, whatever their political views.
Mel Hurtig, The Vanishing Country: Is It Too Late To Save Canada? Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2002. Page 112.
John Ralston Saul, A Fair Country: Telling Truths About Canada. Toronto, Ontario: Viking Canada, 2008. Page 215.
Jared Milne is a writer, researcher and public servant living in St. Albert, Alberta. His major interests including Canadian unity, nationalism and history, particularly regarding how Canada’s incredibly rich past has affected the present we live in today.