Photo by Brian Lippincott via Flickr.

Owen Lippert lives in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where he has served as head of two US AID democracy projects. He was senior policy adviser to the minister responsible for the Canadian International Development Agency in 2007–08. John Richards is co-publisher of Inroads and works regularly in Bangladesh.

Bangladesh is not as poor as many sub-Saharan African countries (although less prosperous than India and much less prosperous than most countries of southeast Asia), not recently subject to civil war (in contrast to Sri Lanka and Nepal), and not in possession of nuclear weapons (whereas Pakistan and India are). Despite being the world’s eighth most populous country, more populous than Russia, Japan or Mexico, it is a country that the world ignores – except when disaster strikes. Then, briefly, the international media note the large number of people killed in the cyclone or drowned in the capsized ferry. Late last year a garment factory fire that incinerated more than 100 workers made headlines; this spring, it was the collapse of the jerry-built eight-storey Rana Plaza, a human-made disaster that killed a minimum of 400, probably 800, garment workers.

For anyone who makes the effort to visit and learn about Bangladesh, there is heartache. Five per cent of the world’s poor are within one day’s drive from Dhaka. Dhaka itself is among the world’s ten most populous cities, and was recently ranked by The Economist as the world’s most “unlivable.” Notwithstanding its ranking, nearly 20 million choose to live in Dhaka rather than the villages from which they or their ancestors migrated, and Dhaka has become over the last half century the cultural centre (with Kolkata in the neighbouring Indian state of West Bengal) of a major world language and cultural tradition.

Bangladesh demonstrates the best and worst in postcolonial politics and development policy. The best is the role played by very large NGOs (notably BRAC and Grameen Bank) in delivery of health and education services and microfinance. Thanks largely to them, Bangladesh’s population health indicators are second only to Sri Lanka’s among South Asian countries. The worst is the routinely corrupt, ferociously partisan politics that in the minds of many have discredited the value of democracy and given rise, as in Pakistan, to support for the army on the one hand and fundamentalist Islamist organizations on the other.

Politically, things do not change, a commedia dell’arte of similar political troubles played out again and again – rearranged, perhaps, but constant. The Awami League, the party currently in office, is led by Sheikh Hasina, daughter of the country’s first prime minister, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. While corrupt and administratively incompetent, Sheikh Mujib deserves credit for having led the country to independence in the 1971 “war of liberation,” allowing Bangladeshi to escape the equally corrupt but even more violent politics of Pakistan. He was assassinated in 1975. The Bangladesh National Party (BNP), the other large party, is headed by Khaleda Zia, the widow of another hero of the war of liberation. Her husband, who ran the country after the death of Hasina’s father, was assassinated in 1981. Since 1990 Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia have each given two terms of questionable government to the long-suffering people of Bangladesh. It is not a coincidence that Sohel Rana was able to build the Rana Plaza where and how he did, nor that two engineers of Savar municipality ignored the building’s cracks and declared it safe the day before it collapsed. Rana is a prominent local leader of the youth wing of the governing Awami League.

Talleyrand is reported to have said of the restored Bourbon royal family in the 1820s that they had learned nothing and forgotten nothing. He would have said the same of the political dynasties that have dominated Bangladeshi politics since 1971. They conduct politics as if in a zero-sum prisoner’s dilemma game. Each consistently attempts to inflict maximum pain on its opponent in the hope of winning it all. When the ensuing social chaos escalates to intolerable levels, either the army steps in or people console themselves that perhaps the parties, by repeating the same mistakes over and over, will finally learn to practise politics differently.

The last time the army intervened was in 2007. It cleaned up a rigged voters’ list and in late 2008 organized a reasonably fair election. Sheikh Hasina won. Now, five years later, the two major parties are again in campaign mode prior to the next election, scheduled for January 2014.

Sheikh Hasina has accused Khaleda Zia of disloyalty to Bangladesh, and invited her to emigrate to Pakistan. In turn, Khaleda Zia accuses Hasina of being an Indian lackey. Speculation has predictably started that the army will have to step in as in 2007. Were the campaign limited to verbal abuse, that would be politics as usual. However, Hasina’s electoral tactics include an unanticipated novelty: an international war crimes tribunal.

In 2009 she created this tribunal to prosecute selected “razakar.” The razakar are Bangladeshi who allied themselves with Pakistan in the 1971 civil war. Some of them participated in the brutal Pakistani army slaughter of Bangladeshi and, for understandable reasons, are despised. The tribunal may be labelled “international,” but it is a creation of domestic law and the choice of suspects to prosecute has been made by government-appointed judges. Conveniently, those chosen for prosecution are virtually all associated with Jamaat, the leading Islamist party, which is in an electoral alliance with the BNP. Jamaat can count on only 5 to 10 per cent of the vote, but that will likely be the vote margin between the BNP or Awami League in 2014.

We will never know exactly why Hasina established the tribunal. Her father feared that prosecution of razakar risked a dangerous polarization of the new country. Four decades later, maybe she thought that justice should be rendered even if long delayed. Maybe, even in 2009, she saw the tactical benefit of posing as the champion of a secular Bangladesh and embarrassing the BNP and Jamaat for harbouring old men who, in their youth, committed wartime atrocities.

The tactic has not worked as intended. Instead of rallying the majority behind the Awami League, the tribunal has aggravated the deep division in many Muslim countries between those (largely urban, more prosperous and more literate) who favour secular modern institutions and view political corruption as an unavoidable cost of progress and those (largely rural, poorer and less literate) who believe that the only solution to the rampant corruption and random brutality of the Bangladeshi state is creation of a moral Islamic order.

In February 2013, the tribunal found Abdul Kadr Mullah, a Jamaat leader, guilty as a young student leader of complicity in serious crimes and sentenced him to life imprisonment. Unexpectedly, the sentence catalyzed a “Bengal spring” – an equivalent of Tahrir Square in Cairo two years earlier. The media described it as a revival of the “Spirit of 1971.” Rather than accept Kadr’s sentence as justice too long delayed, tens of thousands, primarily young people mobilized by social media, gathered in Shahbag Square in central Dhaka and insisted that life imprisonment was not enough. “Hang the razakar” echoed throughout Dhaka from Shahbag Square and rallies held elsewhere in the city.

The Shahbag protesters maintained a nightly vigil and after several days Hasina decided to oblige – only to discover that, given the terms of the legislation establishing the tribunal, she could not. The law allowed appeal of a verdict but not a sentence. The law was quickly amended and applied retroactively. For good measure, the amended law enables a ban on organizations that support the razakar, a provision targeting Jamaat.

The battle has been joined.

The “Shahbag bloggers” have issued thousands of emails damning Jamaat for its pro-Pakistan sympathies and the links of its aging leaders with war crimes in 1971. Jamaat has damned Hasina for suppressing the free expression of Islam in politics and the Shahbag bloggers for blaspheming Muhammad and the Qur’an. Since the announcement of the verdict in Kadr’s trial, Jamaat has called repeated “hartals” – strikes intended to stop all commercial activity in the cities. Enforcement of Jamaat-called hartals falls to Chhatra Shibir, the well funded Jamaat youth wing. During hartals buses and other vehicles have been burned, violent demonstrations organized, highways blocked. The police have reacted aggressively. Jamaat has accused Hasina of using the police to enforce a secular one-party state. The death toll has mounted on all sides.

The Islamist movement in Bangladesh has money (some of it from wealthy donors in the Gulf states buying piety in poor countries), strong organizations and little restraint when it comes to using brute force and targeted killings. The Hindu, Buddhist and Christian minorities have suffered a series of house burnings, personal attacks, destruction of temples and the inevitable land-grabbing.

At time of writing (in April), the most recent major event has been the “long march” organized by an Islamic organization linked to Jamaat. Hundreds of thousands of the faithful marched on Dhaka from all corners of the country. Their demand is new legislation to prosecute those who blaspheme. The chant of the faithful was “God is great – hang the atheist bloggers.” Hasina has now dampened her rhetoric on behalf of a secular Bangladesh and arrested four bloggers on suspicion of blasphemy, but has refused to alter the existing law’s penalties. Other bloggers have shut down their sites. Does a bigger rally for hanging bloggers than one for hanging Jamaat leaders mean an Islamic revolution is imminent? Probably not.

Though Bangladeshi political culture places great faith in the 20th-century tradition of mass protests including hartals, the tactic that Gandhi invented in battling the British, the meaning of such events has passed into ritual. For four decades, all parties in Bangladesh have relied on violent street demonstrations and hartals. The parliament plays a marginal role. On the one hand, the youthful composition of the crowds in Shahbag and their determination not to be suborned by any political party symbolize a refreshing rejection of politics as usual. On the other hand, their demand, death for those who fought with the Pakistani army, merely repeats the politics of violent confrontation.

Human rights organizations, one might expect, would object to retroactive changes in the law to please the street as a poor way to create a secular society respectful of the rule of law. There admittedly do exist careful bloggers questioning both the Awami League and Jamaat. But it requires personal courage that borders on the suicidal for those inside the country to take on Hasina and the Islamists simultaneously.1

What of the international media? With the honourable exception of The Economist, no major international newspaper or magazine has undertaken serious reporting and analysis of the tribunal and its unintended consequences.

What of the tribunal judges themselves? They clearly have limited independence. This appears to be a tribunal that can issue only one verdict, guilty, and one sentence, death.

Sheikh Hasina and her followers cling to past fears and live in apprehension of the military (the Raj as reflected in Pakistan’s army), while Khaleda Zia and her followers cling to past prejudices and live in suspicion of India (the Hindu face of the British Raj). Neither seems to have accepted that times have changed and new approaches are necessary. In fighting the vaporous ghosts of colonizers past, neither is free. Both are vulnerable: one to disaffected urban youth who may no longer be willing to rehash old battles, and the other to increasingly aggressive “Islamist” youth who are spoiling for a fight.

Four decades after the war of liberation, Bangladeshi political elites have yet to come to grips with the meaning of political independence, the obligation to assume responsibility for their country’s social and political developments. When in opposition, political leaders treat those in power as agents of outside colonizers to be resisted with absolute ferocity. The government of the day is always portrayed as some combination of British imperial authoritarianism and, depending on who is in power, the malign self-interest of either Pakistan or India. Violent protest is justified as continuation of the struggle against concealed colonialism.

This was a view popularized by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, who thought individual examples of moral courage had no effect on the outcome. In our own era, however, Nelson Mandela has taught the lesson that freedom starts from within. The physical follows the spiritual and an individual’s moral courage does make a difference, indeed the critical one. Once you are free in your head, you are free.

Meanwhile, until Bangladesh’s leaders understand that responsibility is the price of independence, their country will not see peace.

Continue reading “The Eternal Colony”

Photo: Albert Hirschman (left), German Jew, economist, and lifelong anti-fascist, pictured at the 1945 war-crime trial of German general Anton Dostler. Image via Wikimedia. Edited by Inroads Journal.

A basic income recognizes unpaid work – and it’s cheaper than poverty.

Albert Hirschman lived a fascinating life. A German Jew, he fought in the Spanish Civil War and later helped the Emergency Rescue Committee in its efforts to help people like himself – Hannah Arendt, Marc Chagall, Max Ernst – escape Nazi-occupied Europe. He too became an émigré, making it to the United States. The political economist and moral philosopher found himself at Berkeley before joining the U.S. Army and the Office of Strategic Services, forerunner of the CIA. Hirschman ultimately ended up at Harvard and the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ.1

In The Rhetoric of Reaction (1991), Hirschman argued that supporters of any big new social policy idea can count on being assailed for three reasons. As his title implied, he was principally analyzing attacks from the right – scarcely surprising in light of his early life and general political leaning. Yet when it comes to mounting interest in a Basic Livable Income (hereafter BI), the assault is just as likely to come from the left.

Hirschman described reactionary arguments as based on jeopardy, futility and perversity: jeopardy in that the proposal would imperil other goals, futility in the sense that it wouldn’t work, and perversity because it is undesirable and generates unintended consequences.2

All three of these categories come into play in arguments against BI. With respect to jeopardy, hand-wringing by mild social democrats and many liberals reflects a defensive attitude – stoked by four decades of attacks by market fundamentalists – toward what remains of the paternalistic welfare state. This is backed by a canard: the old debating tactic of setting up a straw person, in this case the claim that BI boosters believe that a cash payment will solve all our woes. No thoughtful BI advocate ever uses this “silver bullet” argument.

Futility arguments describe BI as simply unaffordable. End of story. This even though there are myriad proposals for funding BI, the devil being in the details – a crucial one being reversing neoliberal attacks on progressive taxation via thoroughgoing tax reform.

Perversity arguments suggest that BI would give indolent slackers something for nothing. More on this below, but think for a moment of those of us who stand to get something for nothing when an inheritance comes our way. Canada is among a small number of rich countries with no inheritance tax. The deficit is inching toward $400 billion. The iconoclastic former bank economist Jeff Rubin figures that taxes will be going up: “The question is, who is going to pay them?”3

Here we address two of the principal objections to basic income: that it’s just too costly and that it will make people lazy.

We can’t afford it

This argument usually comes from the right. From this perspective, any (apparently) new government spending that does not support their own objectives is, ipso facto, bad. This critique fails to consider a brutal fact: we already pay mightily for poverty.

In 2019, Feed Ontario (formerly known as the Ontario Association of Food Banks) conservatively estimated that the annual financial cost of poverty in Ontario is somewhere between $27.1 billion and $33 billion. Its estimate of the total bill included health care costs, justice system expenses and the opportunity cost of forgone tax revenue. These costs are compounded many times over when children grow up poor. Others have estimated that the cost of reducing poverty is less than half of the estimated cost of doing nothing.4 Of course, none of these estimates considers the incalculable cost of the human suffering associated with poverty.

Perhaps it goes without saying that the way governments spend is always a matter of political priorities and tradeoffs. (Apparently, we can afford to buy pipelines to transport oil and subsidize the oil and gas industry, although the future of the planet depends on a rapid move away from a carbon-based economy.)

However, different kinds of BI have different costs. Just as the pandemic hit, the Basic Income Canada Network used the Statistics Canada SPSD model to estimate the costs of three basic income proposals. It found that with even mildly progressive tax reform, the current level of taxation is sufficient to provide all those who need it with an income floor of $22,000 for a single person aged 18–64. Beyond that, costs would increase dramatically to either include seniors or provide a basic income to all Canadians.

In the “negative income tax” model covering those ages 18–64, those in the top half of the income distribution would pay more, while all those in the bottom half would benefit from redistribution. Reallocation of funds from social and disability assistance and several refundable and nonrefundable tax credits means that the proposals would be almost self-financing.5 This model of basic income is different from a “universal” model – that is, a payment all citizens receive and then pay back if they don’t need it. Instead, the negative income tax would be universally and unconditionally available to all who need it – meaning anyone below an income cutoff – just as Medicare is available to all who need it. We support this BI model. Given the costs of poverty and the savings we could reap by eliminating it, we argue that this approach not only is affordable but would save us money in the longer term. As if we need an economic argument to resolve a moral and ethical issue.

It will make people lazy

Interestingly, this argument against BI seems to come from the right and the left. And while it rarely comes from those who have experienced poverty themselves, it is sometimes used by people living in poverty or close to it in an effort to show their own worth and avoid a stigmatized category, the undeserving poor. This can create moral distance from “those” people who would surely take advantage of a BI by loafing. The working poor are sometimes vociferous in expressing such beliefs: “I may be poor, but I have a job.”

Right-wing politicians have used this trope consistently in an era of growing job insecurity. In 1995 Mike Harris’s market fundamentalist Common Sense Revolution campaign in Ontario leaned heavily – and successfully – on a simple work-for-welfare message.

Zygmunt Bauman, like Hirschman an émigré intellectual, distinguished between producer societies, in which people’s identities were bound up with their role as workers, and the consumer societies that have developed since the 1970s. In a producer society, he noted, the poor could redeem themselves through displays of frenetic activity such as keeping a spotless home, thereby separating themselves from the “undeserving” poor who, apparently, were poor because they were lazy. In a consumer society, those living in poverty generally have no way to redeem themselves, because social status depends on consumption, which requires money.6

Living in poverty is hard and stressful work in and of itself. Juggling bills. Struggling to figure out how to put food on the table. Walking to and from medical appointments, the food bank and the grocery store. Moving house without a vehicle. Filing endless paperwork. When asked if BI would make him lazy, one participant in a Queen’s University research project, who was homeless, replied,

I don’t even have a chance to be lazy, right? I gotta carry around a big huge bag. I’m kind of sleepwalking from place to place. People that think it’ll make us lazy, I would say, try to come down here… it’s pretty rough. Even coming down for, you know, a couple hours a day, for a week, would be probably too much… I don’t think it would make us lazy. I think it would make us grateful.7

Yet the old moral objection of “laziness” lingers on. Never mind that an estimated 70 per cent of those living in poverty and 65 per cent of those who are food-insecure have paid employment – it is just inadequate to keep them above the poverty line and out of food insecurity. With the rise of the gig economy and precarious employment, many of the working poor have two or three jobs and still can’t make ends meet.8

In the aftermath of the 2008 global meltdown, McMaster University researchers, in collaboration with Toronto’s United Way, published a series of groundbreaking studies under the rubric of Poverty and Employment Precarity in Southern Ontario (PEPSO). Their investigation of growing inequality focused on the new labour landscape, which has been marked by a catastrophic decline in working-class power and the rise of humiliatingly precarious labour.

The data were conclusive. Based on more than ten thousand surveys and a hundred interviews over the course of seven years, the studies highlighted the alarming emergence of polarized income during a period of sustained economic growth. A split-level labour market had fractured Canada’s industrial heartland. The social scientists abandoned their usually cautious tone, describing how the “shocking portrait” and “stark picture” of the regional labour market had become clear. Only half of working adults reported being in classic “full employment” – the secure, full-time jobs with benefits that so many White working-class men had been able to secure in the postwar era that was now clearly over.

The data showed young people struggling with the brave new world of work as well as longstanding discrimination against women – particularly racialized women. PEPSO found that, among those who managed to get 30 to 40 hours of weekly work, women were paid 88 per cent of men’s annual wages. Racialized women earned 67 per cent of men’s wages. This was especially important in the Toronto-Hamilton area, where half the residents had been born outside Canada and 43 per cent were racialized.9

When Doug Ford’s new government cancelled the Ontario Basic Income Pilot (OBIP) a few weeks after coming to power in 2018, it destroyed the opportunity to systematically understand labour force attachment while on BI. During the election campaign, Ford had promised to see the OBIP through,10 while saying, “I believe in letting the market dictate.”

When researchers from McMaster University surveyed a convenience sample of about 21 per cent of the southern Ontario participants in the OBIP, they found that 80 per cent reported improvements in overall health, with 86 per cent reporting less stress or anxiety at home, 83 per cent reporting less depression, and 86 per cent feeling more positive about life in general.11 Given the high rates of mental illness associated with poverty and food insecurity,12 mental illness could easily be confused with “lazy.” The McMaster researchers quoted a 37-year-old woman who compared her mental health before and during the Pilot. Before the Pilot, she said,

(My mental illness) would really cause me to stay in bed or drain me of any will to do anything. When I got basic income, the stress was gone, and it was just easier … Knowing I had a purpose, and being able to make a plan, because the extra financial resources allowed me to do that, does something profound to your mental health.

The researchers also found that those who were employed before joining the OBIP continued to work while receiving basic income. For some, the security of basic income allowed them to take a chance to move to higher-paying, more secure jobs with better working conditions. They concluded, “For a significant number of participants, basic income purportedly proved to be transformational, fundamentally reshaping their living standards as well as their sense of self-worth and hope for a better future.” Hardly a recipe for laziness.

The results from the McMaster study fit with the results of every other BI pilot or cash transfer program. When people in poverty receive unconditional cash, they know how to spend it to best meet their needs and improve their situation. In the 1970s Mincome experiment in Manitoba, only two groups decreased their attachment to the workforce: new mothers stayed home with their infants and young men completed high school rather than dropping out to take a job to help support their families. Other research has shown that low-income Canadian families that receive cash transfers in the form of the Canada Child Benefit increase their purchases of childcare, food, rent and transportation, and decrease their purchases for self-medication – tobacco and alcohol.13

Conventionally, academic models of public policy change assert a rational process by which policy is made, and changed, on the basis of sound, objective scientific evidence. Increasingly it is clear that such models are naive; policy is more often made to fit existing ideological frameworks. Elected officials who believe that government and taxation are inherently “bad” and that the private market will fix everything will not be inclined toward measures that support public goods. Scientific “evidence” rarely serves to counteract ideologically driven beliefs; in fact, some research even shows, counterintuitively, that evidence that doesn’t fit with our existing ideological framework strengthens our existing beliefs, rather than changing our minds.

The idea that giving people money will make them lazy is a predictable outcome of the logic of the ideology of the rational, competitive economic man. This doctrine has it that “if people got what they needed without being forced to compete for it, then there wouldn’t be a reason for them to be disciplined. Therefore, it is immoral to give people things according to their need rather than pushing them to work for it. It is an incentive for people to be less than what they can be, and that does them a disservice. We are all rational, and if we build a system where it is rational to be lazy – then that’s the society we’ll get.”14 According to this logic, paid work means dignity.

Never mind that dignity is inherent in human nature. Or in unpaid labour, for that matter. Or that economics – particularly the neoliberal model, hegemonic for some four decades – has been built on highly questionable assumptions. For the most part, human actions are not the result of rational decisions based strictly on individual self-interest. That’s why we’re prey to a massive advertising industry designed to entice us to buy stuff we don’t need.

Recognizing unpaid work

Feminist economists have for decades pointed out that “the economy,” as measured in the GDP, ignores a whole other economy – invisible, taken-for-granted and usually uncounted. Canada is an exception. In the late 20th century, Statscan conducted national time use surveys, attempting to account for households’ unpaid labour. In 1998, Canadians spent more than 30 billion hours on unpaid labour, equivalent to an average of 24 hours per week for everyone over the age of 14 and accounting for the equivalent of 33 per cent of the Gross Domestic Product. This includes almost two billion hours of unpaid volunteer and community work. Almost two thirds of this unpaid labour was carried out by women.15

In a witty excoriation of conventional economic logic, feminist writer Katrine Marçal asks, “Who cooked Adam Smith’s dinner?” She points out that Smith failed to recognize that his mother cooked his dinner every night out of love, not self-interest. Her unrecognized labour allowed him to write the treatises that became the basis of the field of economics, including his famous notion that the butchers, brewers and bakers provided dinner not from benevolence but from self-interest. (Smith was also a moral philosopher whose Theory of Moral Sentiments emphasized empathy – rarely a factor in the equations of today’s econometric models.)

In the early 1970s, when the idea of a guaranteed annual income was popular, some feminists argued for “wages for housework” to recognize women’s unpaid household “labours of love.” White liberal feminists rejected the idea, being more concerned with access to the labour force, equal pay and abortion rights. Steeped in the doctrines of “economic man,” they actively sought to distance themselves from unpaid care work in the home.16

Yet although it is commonplace to explain that the word economics is derived from the Greek oikos, meaning home, mainstream economics has generally been uninterested in what happens at home. This despite gradual and encouraging recognition of household economics. The dominant approach tends to erase universal realities. Our welfare depends on bodies – human bodies that get hungry, sick or injured. Bodies that bleed, reproduce and age. Bodies that need sleep, cleaning and care. And let’s not leave out soul, that indispensable emotional and spiritual care – “Body and Soul” being more than a jazz standard immortalized by Coleman Hawkins.

Feminists have argued that the model of rational, self-interested economic man is an escape from these messy realities – an escape from dependency, insecurity, need, weakness, vulnerability, emotion. If you account for all the jobs a stay-at-home mother does, her median salary would have been about $235,000 CAD in 2019.17 A basic income would of course never adequately compensate for the unpaid labour of Canadians, but it would be another step in recognizing its invaluable contributions to families, neighbourhoods and communities, as well as “the economy.”

A century or so ago, Bertrand Russell – himself a proponent of a basic income – and John Maynard Keynes imagined that the day would come when we were wealthy enough that we would no longer need to work. We could focus instead on living a “good life.” Keynes calculated that by 2030, we would only need to work 15 hours per week, devoting the rest of our time to enjoying life, creating art, engaging in philosophy and admiring the lilies of the field (Lord Keynes was also likely counting on someone else doing the housework and cooking). In his famous essay “In Praise of Idleness,” Russell argued that “a great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by the belief in the virtuousness of work, and … the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work.”18

Real change has often centred on ideas whose time has come, ideas commonplace today that were once scorned as utopian. An end to slavery. Votes for men without property. Votes for women. Votes for Indigenous people. Universal health care. In his essay “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” Oscar Wilde wrote that “a map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at … Progress is the realization of Utopias.”19

Elaine Power is a professor in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. Her research focuses on poverty, food insecurity and health. Jamie Swift is a writer based in Kingston and the author of a dozen books, including The Vimy Trap (2017) with Ian McKay. Together they have written The Case for Basic Income: Freedom, Security, Justice, published in May by Between the Lines.

“Work, Idleness and Basic Income” is part of a larger debate in our Basic Income section of this issue of Inroads Journal. To read the other side of the debate, check out Basic Income Provides Dubious Benefits at a High Cost.

Continue reading “Work, Idleness and Basic Income”

Photo: Drapeau du Québec, Dooblem. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia. Edited by Inroads.

The following has been selected and edited from the Inroads Listserv by Bob Chodos. The Inroads listserv began in 1997 as a means to link Inroads readers and others interested in policy discussion. With more than 100 subscribers, it offers one of the few chances for people of diverse views to grapple with social and political issues in depth. To subscribe, write to Inroads at and we will add your name to the list. 

With his intemperate social media posts, University of Ottawa law professor Amir Attaran has been a focus of controversy on a number of occasions. In late March his tweets about Quebec were deemed “Quebec bashing” by Prime Minister Trudeau, “unacceptable” by Quebec Premier François Legault and “hate speech” by Bloc Québécois MP Alain Therrien. They also sparked what turned out to be a wide-ranging discussion of Quebec on the Inroads listserv. Some highlights follow.

Henry Milner | March 22

The Canadian Press reported that besides calling Quebec’s culture racist and dubbing the province the “#AlabamaOfTheNorth,” Attaran accused its nurses of “medical lynching” in regard to Joyce Echaquan, a 37-year-old Indigenous woman who died in a Quebec hospital in 2020: “He also referred to the RCMP as the ‘Royal Canadian Mounted Pigs’ in a recent post on an independent commission’s finding that Mounties dealt in a discriminatory manner with the family of Colten Boushie, a 22-year-old First Nations man who was fatally shot by Saskatchewan farmer Gerald Stanley.”

Systematic racism, Attaran said, “merely means you treat whites as supreme. And Quebec undeniably does so, as when a government hospital advertises for ‘white women only,’” referring to job postings for patient attendants at a hospital north of Montreal last fall. (In fact, the story was about internal email messages that a white staff member was needed to attend to a patient in Saint-Eustache, who “only accepts women of white skin colour.”)

Attaran later responded to criticism by a Bloc MP by calling the Bloc a “white supremacist party.”

Frances Abele | March 22

So your point is what, Henry? Attaran is rude? Arrogant? Fortunately, professors don’t get fired for those things. I would not use the words he did, but the real cause for outrage lies in what he was referring to: Joyce Echaquan was subjected to racist treatment as she died in a Quebec hospital. Many other Indigenous people can speak of similar treatment; sometimes they die of it, as did Brian Sinclair in a Winnipeg hospital in 2008.

The independent commission did find that the RCMP treated Colton Boushie’s mom in a racist fashion: when they went to tell her her son was dead, they asked if she had been drinking, smelled her breath and searched her house. Think that would happen at your house? I hope you never have to find out.

Louis Germain | March 22

Problem is, the only racist slurs that do not get condemned in Canada are those directed at the Québécois. If you uttered about Blacks, Asians, you name it, what is being said about Québécois, you would hear an uproar.

But against Québécois, nope.

Do you agree?

Anne Michèle Meggs | March 22

This is certainly true and has been for years. Back in the 1980s a friend took a letter to the editor published in one of the northern Ontario dailies and replaced references to francophones with references to Jews. It was pretty obvious the revised letter would never have been published.

Frances Abele | March 22

We all have different experiences and I don’t know how to answer your question about whether slurs against Québécois are never condemned. Doesn’t it depend upon where we are? In my own little world, which is pretty specialized, I can tell you that I rarely do hear them, and if someone dares to go there, there are objections. Probably I don’t follow the right people on Twitter, because until tonight I had no idea about Prof. Attaran’s comments.

Reg Whitaker | March 22

Louis writes re Amir Attaran’s attacks on Quebec, “The only racist slurs that do not get condemned in Canada are those directed at the Québécois.” I understand his sensitivity, but in this case Attaran’s recklessly extreme comments have drawn public rebukes from both the Premier of Quebec and the Prime Minister of Canada.

This gives Prof. Attaran once again one of his Andy Warhol 15 minutes of fame moments. The last time I looked the same guy was in the midst of a social media shitstorm for asserting that all Albertans should be punished for Premier Kenney’s sins by being cut off from federal pandemic assistance funding.

The guy is a congenital verbal extremist, but he is an equal opportunity extremist.

No, I can’t agree that racial slurs directed at the Québécois don’t get condemned.

And perhaps if we stopped paying attention to the likes of Attaran scattering insults left and right, we could also be spared sanctimonious pols like Legault and Trudeau pronouncing the obvious homilies in response.

Gareth Morley | March 23

Attaran’s comments are obviously intemperate but they are hardly racist. Even if we use the old-fashioned language in which French Canadians are a “race” (and why not, since we all know by now that race is socially constructed), he wasn’t talking about Acadians or Franco-Ontarians and he wasn’t excluding Anglo-Quebecers.

Certainly ethnic slurs against Québécois should be condemned. But this whole discussion does shed new light on the point that one person’s political correctness is another’s sensitivity to historic grievances.

Louisa Blair | March 23

Anti-French hostility is a reality. If you’d like to talk about anti-anglophone hostility I can do that too but I will be silenced just as quickly. The problem with calling anti-French hostility “racist slurs against Québécois” is that it implies that the only real Québécois are francophones de souche. I thought we had moved on from there in our understanding of what makes a Québécois/e. I defend my fellow Québécois/es against any criticism based on race or language – any race, any language (or is that straying outside my lane, as an anglophone Quebecer?). But saying that criticism of Quebec’s actions as a state (e.g. banning of the headscarf in the public service) is racist is to avoid level nation-to-nation debate and exclude a bunch of us from participating at all.

Louis Germain | March 23

When racist slurs are thrown at Québécois, I resent it as a Québécois, which includes everybody in Quebec. I have anglophone friends and my son is married to an anglophone Montreal Jewish girl. You know very well that those racist slurs are most of the time directed at francophone Québécois. My anglo friends and my son’s wife resent those as if they were directed at them, even though they know the slurs are aimed at francos.

Most franco-Québécois consider newcomers “real” Québécois as soon as they have lived here some time and, above all, have learned French. And use it.

Gareth Morley | March 24

Francophobia is a real thing in English Canada. It is not as salient as in the 1970s and 1980s, but it certainly crops up. But of course no one ever thought that the main issues confronting the survival of the French fact in North America were the subjective attitudes of English-speaking people. Certainly that wasn’t the analysis of Quebec sovereigntists. Rather, there were structural features of the North American economy and Canadian state that could only be remedied by independence or sovereignty-association. Why are structural approaches to racial disparities forbidden and outrageous?

Henry Milner | March 24

Gareth, what structural responses to racial disparities are you thinking of that are parallel to sovereignty-association?

Gareth Morley | March 24

Well, sovereignty-association was put forward as a constitutional solution to a structural problem from the perspective of the francophone majority in Quebec. I am not personally endorsing that solution, but it was based on an analysis of history, colonialism, the alleged failures of Canadian federalism, the political economy of North American capitalism, language dynamics and various other things that did not depend on the subjective attitudes of English Canadians.

An obvious analogy would be the various calls for recognition of inherent self-government rights of First Nations, but also claims for representation of all kinds of racial groups in positions of power, the professions and employment generally. There would also be structural claims about the role of the police and the justice system, curriculum, representation in culture and in the media and so on. I am not arguing for any particular analysis or solution, just saying that these depend on a claim of structural racial injustice, without being focused on subjective attitudes of individuals.

Steven Davis | March 31

Gareth, you said that sovereignty-association was primarily put forward “as a constitutional solution to a structural problem from the perspective of the francophone majority in Quebec.” I don’t think that this gets at the main reasons for sovereignty-association and the independence movement. Sovereignty-association was a way of making independence more palatable to the majority of French Canadians of Quebec (my attempt to translate Québécois de souche – alternatives like Quebecer, Québécois and francophone do not get at the community in Quebec which was the base of the independence movement), who were anxious about what could happen to them economically if Quebec separated from Canada.

This aside, one of the most important reasons for the majority of the French Canadians of Quebec to vote Yes in the two referendums was their feeling that their language and culture could disappear. Many French Canadians of Quebec (FCQ) believed during the height of the independence movement, and still believe today, that their language is under threat. If the language goes, so too does their culture and the continued existence of their community. Moreover, many felt, and probably still feel, that their language and culture are not respected both inside and outside Quebec. Even though most Quebec anglophones are functionally bilingual, I wonder how many go to French theatre, watch a French movie without subtitles, read a French-language daily newspaper, or have francophone close friends – in other words, I wonder how many really take part in French Quebec cultural life. Language was the fuel that drove sovereignty-association and the independence movement. The issues that are behind sovereignty-association and the independence movement are not then constitutional.

Further, you say that the independence movement “did not depend on the subjective attitudes of English Canadians.” I think that this is mistaken as well. During the height of the independence movement, many FCQ were aggrieved by what they took to be the attitudes and the behaviour of the Quebec anglophone minority. For example, francophones were told in many downtown Montreal restaurants and stores that they had to speak English to be served.

Another example: the large companies that wouldn’t hire FCQ. In 1962, Donald Gordon, then president of Canadian National Railways, which was headquartered in Montreal, was asked why none of the 17 CN vice-presidents was a Quebec French Canadian. He replied that promotions were made on “merit” and suggested that no FCQ met his standards. In response, there were demonstrations throughout Quebec and the FLQ planted its first bombs.

At the height of the independence movement, most Quebec anglophones weren’t very interested in learning French and were indifferent to French-Canadian Quebec culture. FCQ found the attitude of the anglophone minority humiliating and deeply hurtful.

Even though there have been changes in Quebec since the height of the independence movement, the emotions underlying it are still there. They are perhaps not as sharp, but they are just below the surface. Witness the reactions to Amir Attaran’s grotesque remarks, which were picked up by some of Le Journal de Montréal’s columnists. They regarded it as outrageous Quebec-bashing.

The same deep pride that fuelled the independence movement is still at work in Quebec – a pride in Quebec’s long history of 400 years, its culture and achievements. I think that without understanding these emotions, it is impossible to understand what has gone on in Quebec for the last 60 years.

Henry Milner | March 31

I think it useful to add the contemporary dilemma on language to Steven’s analysis. It focuses on the two or three years spent at cegep (junior college). Quebec law requires francophone, allophone and some of the (few) recent anglophone immigrants to attend French elementary and secondary schools. But English-language cegeps attract an increasing number of them as a means of advancing their English skills. Quebec law has tried to reduce the incentive for doing so by limiting the kinds of jobs that can require English-language skills. But it cannot escape the reality of English being the lingua franca in North America and beyond.

The threat to the French language lies in the possibility that studying at an English cegep will lead to their adopting English as the language spoken at home. This appears to be particularly the case for some allophones, but responding by limiting English cegeps to anglophones in effect punishes many young francophones who present no threat of linguistic assimilation.

It was possible to show previous generations that sovereignty-association was the way to keep Quebec French; it is harder to do that today.

Louis Germain | March 31

Learning English, nowadays, is essential. It is the new “lingua franca” – rightly named “franca” after “French,” since French was then the language of diplomacy and communications the world over. English, now, is the lingua franca. You need English to sail around.

Many young people in Quebec today want to go to anglophone cegeps (and afterwards universities, why not?) to learn English. They are wrong because you do not need to attend an English school to learn English.

I live in Quebec City. I never attended an English school or university. Nevertheless, at 14 or 15 years of age I was bilingual. Two factors: (1) when I was 12, my parents sent me to an English summer camp in New Hampshire and (2) my father was a subscriber to Time magazine, Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report and Consumer Reports, which I would read with great interest. That is how I learned English. I became more fluent being a tourist guide during the summers of my university years.

So French Canadians of Quebec have enough means – magazines, plenty of English TV, Netflix, Spotify, continental immersion, etc. – to learn English. And be good at it. But at the same time, to keep their language and culture vibrant by living it, fully, convincedly.

According to demographers’ projections, if Quebec does not become a country, 30 years from now it will be another New Brunswick. I don’t want that to happen. Do you?

Claire Durand | April 1

The idea that demographers agree that “if Quebec does not become a country, 30 years from now it will be another New Brunswick” is absolutely not true, to say the least.

I just looked at the numbers again recently: (1) English is not making gains as a language spoken at home, as it did 50 years ago. (2) French is not making gains either, but this is because there are more immigrants coming to Quebec and they use their mother tongue at home, which is quite normal.

The real question is whether more people know French and use French outside their homes. The answer to this question is yes. Nowadays, for example, 80 per cent of the Quebecers whose mother tongue is English are bilingual. In fact, proportionally more English-speaking Quebecers are bilingual than French-speaking Quebecers. That was clearly not the case when the Parti Québécois was elected in 1976. In short, Law 101 worked.

Anne Michèle Meggs | April 1

Concerning Claire’s post, I think it’s misleading to suggest so categorically that all is fine for the future of the French language in Quebec. The editorial in today’s Le Devoir cites new studies published by the Office Québécois de la Langue Française published this very week. The signs of decline were already there in 2017, but extra projections and studies were done to determine where the real problem lies and how perhaps it can be addressed.1

The percentage of Quebecers speaking French at home (whatever their mother tongue) is expected to drop from 82 per cent in 2011 to 74 per cent in 2036. This is a pretty dramatic drop in the next 15 years. The number of workers who most often use French in the workplace on Montreal Island is 53 per cent. Many indicators of the move to English in various sectors (cultural, workplace, choice of cegeps, etc.) were laid out in the OQLF’s most recent Rapport sur l’évolution de la situation linguistique au Québec (Report on the Evolution of the Language Situation in Quebec), issued in April 2019.2

For years, defenders of the French language in Quebec have been blaming immigrants for the decline of the language and therefore calling for fewer admissions. The only positive aspect of the more recent discouraging studies and projections is that they demonstrate that even if Quebec stopped admitting immigrants altogether, the decline, while a bit slower, would continue. So calls are now less related to immigration and lean more toward measures such as restricting access to English cegeps and stricter enforcement of French in the workplace.

Certainly there are more nonfrancophones in Quebec today who declare that they can carry on a conversation in French. That doesn’t mean they do – at home, in the workplace or in public. And at the same time more francophones are declaring that they use English at home.

It will always be an uphill battle to protect the French language, even in Quebec, let alone in other provinces – whether Quebec is independent or not.

Claire Durand | April 1

Just to be clear, I had no intention of saying that there is no problem and that everything is fine. I only say that the decrease in the use of French at home is mostly in favour of other languages, not English. Twenty per cent of Montrealers speak three languages compared with 10 per cent of Torontonians. I think this is positive.

Second, the situation will evolve in this direction in years to come unless we think that Italians should speak with one another in French. I personally think that this was not the goal of Law 101 from the beginning.

The first question is: what problem do we think needs to be addressed? The second: what statistics could help us better understand the use of different languages in the public sphere, in the work environment, in different contexts, etc.? One thing is sure: mother tongue and language spoken at home are not the appropriate statistics to understand this. And of course, if Quebec enterprises engage in much more international commerce than 30 years ago and if we think that this commerce will – or should – increase, the use of English is likely to increase too, whatever we do. This does not mean that everything is fine and that there is no concern.

Anne Michèle Meggs | April 1

I have always said, as I did at the end of my post, that efforts to protect the French language will always be necessary, no matter the political status of Quebec, given the massive sea of anglophones in North America.

What would be different if Quebec were independent is that the language regime would be clear. Currently, two language policies apply in Quebec – the federal policy of two official languages and the Quebec policy of French as the official language. Signs on bridges in Quebec are bilingual, but on highways they are only in French. Such anomalies are numerous. A change to a single language policy regime would clarify the situation for immigrants. They would be immigrating to a French-speaking country with one official language. They would need to learn French to become a citizen of Quebec. (The Bloc proposed that French be required for citizenship in Quebec, but the Liberals voted against it.) French would be a condition for permanent residence.

One (last?) word on language indicators. The reason language spoken at home is followed so closely is for intergenerational reasons linked to the long-term vitality of the language. It has nothing to do with official government policy related to who speaks what at home. In any immigration situation, there will eventually be a move to the language of the host country, usually by the second generation. This is considered an indicator of the lasting strength of the language.

Louis Germain | April 2

Claire Durand is convinced that Quebec will not be another New Brunswick in 30 years if it does not become a country.

Francos in Quebec (French as mother tongue) amounted to 82.9 per cent of Québécois in 1986. In 2011, 79.9 per cent. In 2036 (Statistics Canada reference scenario), 70.1 per cent.3

French language spoken at home: in 1986, 81 per cent; in 2011, 81.6 per cent; in 2036, 74.4 per cent.

English language spoken at home: in 2011, 10.7 per cent; in 2036, 12.6 per cent.

Allophones: in 2011, 12.9 per cent; in 2036, 21.2 per cent.

Anyone can see that there is a trend. A trend that is slowly accelerating, particularly as a result of the education funding system. Whereas the Québécois English population amounts to 8.3 per cent, the English community receives 19 per cent of cegep funding and 25.4 per cent of university funding.

There are numerous other factors. Landing in Quebec, immigrants set foot in Canada, an English-speaking country. The lingua franca is English. No surprise that five years after their settling in Quebec, only 32 per cent of allophone immigrants have learned French. Quebec needs to become the host country. Otherwise …

New Brunswick is 33 per cent French right now. For Quebec to become another New Brunswick requires only that its French-culture population get down to 49.9 per cent. When this happens, the English-speaking Québécois will rule Quebec politically and culturally. This 50 per cent might not happen within 30 years. It might take 50 years or so. But during the lifetime of my grandchildren, the game will be over, for sure. Quebec will be a New Brunswick.

Claire Durand | April 2

Dear Louis,

I see that your expectations for the future are very pessimistic. And of course, it is possible to pick numbers that fit your beliefs. However, the reality is that there are numbers out there that do not support such a pessimistic view.

Sure enough, English has become the lingua franca and this will have an influence. But we need to examine the situation with a historical view. For example, for several decades in the 19th century Montreal had an English majority. Then it became majority French. Now, with immigrants coming from all over the world, it has become – mixed, but French is the common language, much more than it was in the 1970s when I arrived in Montreal from Quebec City.

In short, one cannot cherrypick the numbers that support a point of view, because other numbers support other points of view. Academically, we need to examine all the figures to have a complete view of the situation. And my examination of these figures tell me that it is not all dark, by any means.

Louisa Blair | April 2

As an anglophone Quebecer living in Quebec City I am following this discussion with passionate interest.

Claire, I’m interested to know what you think of the importance of the stats re majority language spoken outside the home vs. language spoken inside the home. You point out that the former is more important “unless we think that Italians should speak with one another in French,” but Anne Michèle pointed out that language spoken at home predicts the situation down the generations and that is clearly important too.

Louis says young people are wrong to want to attend English cegeps. I have difficulty with that. My daughter, born and raised in Quebec, speaks and writes both languages perfectly, and this attracts intense envy among her francophone friends who are not allowed to attend public pre-cegep English-language institutions. She also has a massive advantage on the employment front. An English summer camp in New Hampshire may not be enough for everyone – or affordable for everyone.

On francisation, I accompanied many refugees arriving in Quebec City in the early 2010s and it was very difficult for them to (a) find out about and (b) attend francisation classes. There is no immigration office in this city. Many refugees arrived from camps where they were living in tents. As there was no office where they could sign up, they were expected to access the information about francisation on the internet. This worked if they (a) were literate in French or English, (b) had a computer and (c) knew how to use it. Then they had to find daycare for their children so they could attend – an immigrant told me a week ago that the waiting list for daycare was two years. If Quebec is serious about francisation, there’s a simple solution here in Quebec City: one-stop shopping for getting your health card, getting your social insurance card and signing up for francisation, all in one go and at one place. I have helped and encouraged many allophone refugees and immigrants to take French classes, and have watched them give up because it’s so complicated.

Anne Michèle Meggs | April 3

I must admit I am quite surprised to read about the difficulty obtaining services for immigrants, and particularly refugees, in Quebec City. While during the austerity years the Liberals had closed the regional offices (the Ministry of Immigration is the only ministry of the Quebec government with its head office in Montreal, so Quebec City is a regional office in this case) of many departments, including immigration, the CAQ immediately reinstated regional services and has nine regional offices and 66 “antennes,” as the government calls them. There is a phone number for the Quebec City office on the site and a general phone number for all the department’s services.

Refugees in particular (not to be confused with asylum seekers) are literally met at the airport in Montreal by their private sponsors or ministry personnel and taken in hand with lodging, free winter clothing, diapers if necessary, etc. They are normally guided to French classes, although I’ve heard recently that it’s not easy to get and keep teachers during the pandemic so there may be a slowdown in access. Classes for public refugees are often specialized, because many are not literate in their own language. Virtual classes must be an even bigger challenge. There are specific government-funded community organizations in the receiving cities to accompany these refugees.

Clearly some are falling through the cracks, which is more than unfortunate.

Immigrants arriving as permanent residents at the Montreal airport, after passing federal immigration reception, are guided to the counter operated by the Quebec immigration ministry where they are greeted, receive copious useful information and are offered appointments for their health card or integration services or French-language evaluation, a precondition before signing up for courses. Many are not ready to set up appointments on the spot, and there is no obligation to do so.

Where I fear more and more problems will arise is with people arriving with temporary permits. These people are not directed to the Quebec immigration counter on arrival and could easily miss out on very useful accompaniment. Obviously, it is impossible to determine on arrival if they actually intend to stay in the country. These people are really at the mercy of their educational institution or employer or family and friends, if they have any, for help getting settled and accessing services.

Sorry for this administrative detail. The ministry is my old stomping ground; I felt it was important to clarify that governmental efforts are made. That being said, bureaucracy can be unnecessarily complex for anyone, native or immigrant, public or private. Newcomers definitely need to be accompanied. Hats off to Louisa for stepping up.

Claire Durand | April 3

Hi Louisa,

Happy to see an Anglo from Quebec City intervene!

On your first point, last time I saw data on this, it seems that allophones in Quebec tend to keep their mother tongue more than in other parts of North America. This is probably because they have family outside of Quebec in North America and their own language becomes the lingua franca. It is quite probable that they will not keep it for generations, but then the choice will partly depend on the language their kids learn at school. And now they go to school in French. Of course, since often part of their family speaks English, they will also speak English. Young Quebecers right now are much more bilingual than their predecessors.

On francisation, of course teaching French to people who arrive in Quebec, even from English Canada I would say, should be seen as essential. In Sweden, for example, immigrants are requested to learn Swedish during the first eight months after they arrive and they are paid to do so. Here, when they arrive through some of the immigration programs, they do not even have the possibility of learning French for free. If we are serious, this should be an essential thing to do: teach French for free to all immigrants who come in, and organize so that access to courses is made easy for those who work, or even who stay home. The idea that current immigrants who arrive in Quebec are not interested in learning French is not based on any reliable data.

Philip Resnick | April 6
La valse des langues

Le français, dit-on,
perd des plumes au dépens de l’anglais,
qui avance avec les pas de géant
dans un monde de plus en plus axé
sur les pôles de l’avenir,
mettant fin aux portes-paroles
de tous ses concurrents.
Néanmoins les tenants des langues,
même les toutes petites,
trouvent refuge dans la limpidité de leur vocabulaire,
les soubresauts de leur grammaire,
une convivialité de parole qui remonte jusqu’à leur naissance,
et ne céderont jamais leur droit à l’existence.

Continue reading “Quebec in the Cross-Hairs”

Photo: Matt Collamer via Unsplash. Edited by Inroads Journal.

The following article is part of our Basic Income Section in this issue of Inroads Journal, and is a rebuttal to John Richards’ Basic Income Provides Dubious Benefit at a High Cost.

We thank Professor Richards for his response to our article. His arguments against basic income conform rather neatly to Hirschman’s jeopardy, futility and perversity framework, outlined at the beginning of our original article. Moreover, Professor Richards does not seriously engage with the issues we raised. We are reminded of the Indian parable of the six blind sages who couldn’t agree on the nature of an elephant because each of the six was feeling a different part of the massive animal. A snake. A fan. A tree. A wall. A spear. A rope. What is an elephant? What is basic income?

Professor Richards explains that his thinking is informed by the recently released 500-page final report of the B.C. Expert Panel on Basic Income. Though the members of the B.C. Expert Panel say they “consulted widely” with “a variety of organizations representing different groups in society,” their report gives no indication that they themselves met with or spoke to anyone living on low incomes.

Not single women around age 60, living on social assistance or making do with multiple part-time jobs, who are so despairing and hopeless about their futures that they think about suicide as a way out. Not the people with disabilities living on wildly inadequate income assistance who apply for medical assistance in dying. Not the young people working low-wage jobs at fast food restaurants who can’t afford to take a sick day because they won’t be able to make rent. Not the low-income urban Indigenous people with addictions who started life with the legacies of colonial violence embedded in their biology through epigenetics and who get knocked down by racism at every turn. Nor does it appear that Professor Richards spoke with any of the low-income people, often with complicated lives, who might benefit from basic income. Among those involved in social policy reform towards poverty elimination, it is well accepted that the voices and stories of those living on low incomes can help us understand the problems in our current system and the consequences of proposed reforms.

Professor Richards endorses the B.C. Expert Panel’s emphasis on incrementalism. However, the problem with incremental social policy change is that is does nothing to disrupt or overturn the many problematic assumptions built into our current income (in)security system. As Professor Richards points out, the current welfare state is built on a particular ideological family form: a middle-class, heterosexual, nuclear family, with an able-bodied primary breadwinner who is the husband and dad and a stay-at-home wife and mother. Critics have long pointed out that the many people whose lives do not fit this model are not well served by the current system. It was conceived in, and designed for, a different century.

The B.C. panel’s report opens with high-minded ideals about treating one another “as equals deserving of our respect.” But in upholding the major structures of the current social assistance framework, they ignore that it is built on 19th-century ideas that low-income people are somehow different from the rest of us. They are lazy; we are not. They deserve their fate; we worked hard for what we have. They are morally degenerate; we are morally upright. They are stupid; we are smart. They are deficient; we know what they need. This division into “us” and “them” is notable in Richards’s extended quote from the B.C. panel’s report about reciprocity. There are “those who are beneficiaries” of basic income, and there are “those who are mainly paying to fund the supports.”

We don’t think this way about medicare, because we have all used it and can imagine using it again. Is it that hard to imagine that the beneficiaries of a basic income might also, at other times, be those helping to pay the bill? If we believe that low-income people are somehow different, we overlook the roles of chance, luck and contingency in who we are and where we end up in life. Moreover, as noted feminist theorist Kathi Weeks points out, “The fear that there will be free riders who receive a basic income is laughable given the truly massive levels of free riding on unremunerated labour, stolen property, public infrastructures, and privatised commons for which capital is given a free pass.”1

We don’t need basic income per se to end poverty in Canada. If we collectively considered it unjust and immoral that anyone live in poverty in this country, if we agreed that poverty wastes human lives and human potential, we could just eliminate it with livable wages, adequate social assistance, various income supports and public investments in housing, public transit and more. But we don’t, even though we know that investments in reducing poverty provide tremendous returns, individually and collectively. We prefer to maintain the illusion that some are deserving of adequate income and others are not. In his classic 1971 article, Herbert J. Gans described 13 social, economic and political functions of poverty that serve and benefit the nonpoor.2 Until we acknowledge and address the multiple ways that the nonpoor profit from poverty and dismantle our stereotypes about the poor, tinkering with the existing system through incremental reforms cannot move us toward “the more just society” to which the B.C. panel claims to aspire.

Finally, we are not surprised that most Canadians are not willing to pay more taxes to support basic income. Given the stagnation of wages for those in the bottom income distributions and the significant increases in income inequality, likely worsened by the pandemic, we don’t blame them. Nor do we expect “most” Canadians to pay. Following the Basic Income Canada Network’s “policy options” paper for financing basic income,3 we propose that basic income be implemented through progressive tax reform, such that all those in the lower half of the income distribution would benefit from basic income and those who are most able to pay would do so. This would reverse decades of tax breaks for the wealthiest and put us on a path to a more equitable income distribution.

Click to read the original article on the case for Basic Income, Work, Idleness and Basic Income, and the rebuttal to the article above, John Richards Responds. And while you’re here, check out the rest of the Basic Income Section in this issue of Inroads Journal!

Elaine Power is a professor in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. Her research focuses on poverty, food insecurity and health. Jamie Swift is a writer based in Kingston and the author of a dozen books, including The Vimy Trap (2017) with Ian McKay. Together they have written The Case for Basic Income: Freedom, Security, Justice, published in May by Between the Lines.

Continue reading “Elaine Power and Jamie Swift Respond”

How do we get out from under the zombie policy of drug prohibition?

A longtime student of the unintended consequences of drug prohibition, Craig Jones was Executive Director of the John Howard Society of Canada during the rollout of the Harper crime agenda and then of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws in Canada (NORML) until the legalization of cannabis. He was interviewed by email by Inroads editorial board member Gareth Morley, whom he would like to thank for offering substantive criticisms which improved this piece.

GARETH MORLEY: In July 2020, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police endorsed “alternatives to criminal sanctions for simple possession of illicit drugs.” Dr. Bonnie Henry, the hugely popular Provincial Health Officer in British Columbia, put out a report calling for decriminalization of people who use drugs back in April 2019 and Premier John Horgan has recently written to the Prime Minister about it. Do you think decriminalizing consumption of all drugs is an idea whose time has come?

CRAIG JONES: Before talking about the present moment, let me put a few things on the table about how we got here, because this issue is moving really fast.1 Some readers might think we reached the point where we are breaking mortality records every month because of a breakdown in public, specifically drug, policy.

The truth is that drug policy, legislation and enforcement in this country have from the outset been about demonizing and punishing drug users as a threat to good, regular people – as moral sanction for behaviour that violated late-19th-century Victorian norms and values. The original intent of the Opium Act of 1908, and all subsequent amendments to it, was to deter and denounce through punishment and criminal stigmatization. It was never about rehabilitation or recovery or reintegration of drug users, much less about minimizing the risk to them. What we today think of as “drug policy” was “moral reform” or “rearmament.”

Seen in its original context, the Opium Act is properly understood as an assertion of the social power of one group against a racial minority in the guise of responding to a moral threat.2 As G.E. Trasov wrote in 1962,

Marked hostility to the use of opium did not become apparent until the Chinese became competitors for jobs previously held by white people. During a labour shortage the Chinese were regarded as industrious, sober, economical and law-abiding. They were highly regarded as domestic servants and gardeners. However, when the railroad construction and “Gold Rush” relaxed its intensity and the influx of white people again produced a surplus of labour, the earlier friendly feelings toward the Chinese changed to hostility. There was a great demand that Chinese immigration be restricted or discontinued.3

Criminalization and legal sanction are expensive responses to any problem. There is no evidence that they are effective as drug policy, if “effective” means minimizing the health risks from drugs. What they do is perpetuate the ideological, moral and racial interests embedded in the original legislation, all of which could be summarized as the idea that a drug user is a threat to the rest of us, in need of punishment.

In this respect, Canada was in step with the global effort to control and regulate the trade in psychotropic substances.4 What emerged from a protracted tug-of-war among the professionalizing of doctors and pharmacists, the business interests of pharmaceutical companies, the national security interests of nation-states and the push and pull between moral entrepreneurs and their opponents was a regulatory regime targeting the supply of drugs arising from the belief that oversupply caused abuse. All parties wanted these substances available for scientific research and alleviation of pain, but they also wanted to capture the value-added generated by their production, processing and export. Supply suppression – at the source and on the street – became the operating principle and remains so to this day. By an accident of history, the responsibility for Canada’s supply suppression regime fell to the same people charged with its enforcement. Drug prohibition came to be an instrument favouring the bureaucratic advancement of law enforcement authorities.5

What we today call “drug policy” carries this burden from the intent of the original legislation: it’s about deliberately imposing pain, not minimizing risk. The lesson of our long experience teaches us that drugs are things people want to consume, with health risks they want to avoid. Drug policy, properly conceived, would try to help people avoid those risks without causing them more harm than the use of the drugs themselves.

So that brings us to the current crisis. On May 30, 2019, Statistics Canada reported “4,108 drug overdose deaths in Canada in 2017.” This represented an increase “from 5.8 deaths per 100,000 population in 2015 to 11.5 deaths per 100,000 population in 2017. The rise in mortality rate over this two-year period was 1.7 times greater than the increase over the previous 15 years.”6 Since the onset of pandemic 2020, the death rate has spiked alarmingly.7 In British Columbia this year, drug overdoses killed 554 people as of the end of May, according to the Globe and Mail.8 Quoting data from the Ontario coroner’s office, the CBC reported that “there was roughly a 25 per cent increase in overdose deaths from March to May 2020 compared with the same three-month period last year.”9 In Alberta, according to the same report, “the number of opioid-related calls to Emergency Medical Services went from 257 in March to 550 this May.” The pandemic has exacerbated an already serious crisis: isolation is dangerous to people with an opioid addiction.10

Why is this? Several reasons, all traceable to the problem of getting appropriate supplies and treatment for those who need them. The pandemic lockdown administered a shock to the established supply chain for illicit substances, interrupting supplies of heroin and provoking traffickers to substitute more fentanyl than they otherwise might.11 Drug traffickers don’t actually want to kill their clients, but they are not the most diligent chemists either. Fentanyl is considerably more potent than heroin, which means it is easier to conceal and secret across international boundaries. Because profit drives all considerations in black market economics, not purity or safety of the user, there is an economic incentive to substitute fentanyl for harder-to-acquire heroin. Fentanyl delivers “more bang for the buck,” so the spike in deaths is a product of users not understanding the potency of the drugs they’re purchasing on the street – a problem that a regulated market would resolve.12 These deaths are the unintended consequence of disruption to the opioid supply chain coupled with pressure for profits as traffickers and suppliers cook up concoctions in their home laboratories.

Additionally, the “shelter in place” requirement imposed by the pandemic inhibits drug users from using in safe injection sites where they can be monitored and overdoses reversed. Isolated from frontline harm reduction specialists, and from one another, they die alone when they could have been saved by prompt administration of naloxone. The psychosocial stress of lockdown – the severing of contact with social networks, co-workers, etc. that had been helpful to their recovery plus heightened anxiety about contracting the virus – has increased the incidence of relapse. June saw 175 preventable deaths in B.C., a new record.13

For people who study drug policy and its real-world effects, the time to decriminalize came long ago. What’s ironic about the timing is that when you talk to police managers in private – away from cameras and microphones and off the record – they were saying all this 20 or more years ago. Ask any student of drug policy reform how many times they’ve heard police say some variation on “we’re never going to arrest our way out of our drug problem.” So it would appear to me that the answer to the question “What will make police managers say – on the record – that drug prohibition does not and cannot work?” is “pandemic.”

GARETH MORLEY: What do you see as the major harms of prohibition?

CRAIG JONES: The most damaging harm is its effect on liberal democracy.

First of all, prohibition of a substance people want requires organized crime to meet the demand. As organized crime becomes increasingly powerful and violent, police and security agencies grow to address it. In effect, police and criminal organizations develop a symbiotic relationship. This empowers the two social forces most menacing to liberal democracy: organized crime and organized repression. One is interested only in profit, the other in growing its organizational ambit.

Public choice theory holds that police agencies will use the growing menace of organized crime to justify greater resources and enhanced surveillance powers.14 The United States is the poster child for a police culture that is at war with a large part of its own population because a war on drugs is in practice a war on drug users. Radley Balko has documented this ominous development and it is almost entirely driven by the war on drug users.15 The disproportionate effect of drug war policing is always on minority and marginalized communities. At its peak, the United States incarcerated 25 per cent of all prisoners in the world, despite having only 5 per cent of the planet’s population. The vast majority were sentenced for offences – possession or trafficking – arising from the supply suppression strategy of the war on drugs coupled with mandatory minimum sentencing laws.16

In addition, since the Reagan era, ordinary police forces across the United States have become increasingly battle-ready in response to the militarization and growing violence of drug traffickers gunning it out in the streets and neighbourhoods for control of markets.17 The lion’s share of drug-related violence arises not from drug use or the effects of drugs on users but from black market transactions – principally control over street-level markets. This is well understood among drug policy researchers.18 Because these disputes cannot be litigated in courts of law, drug traffickers employ violence and assassination of rivals: it is a replay of alcohol prohibition but on a much larger and more lethal scale.

Prohibition imposes a form of natural selection on traffickers: only the most ruthless and violent survive as the weaker and less efficient are weeded out by law enforcement. Prohibition, then, incentivizes an upward spiral of violence and disorder as the less capable are eliminated by law enforcement and the more efficient capture market share.19

Drugs, in particular, are incredibly profitable – which is why Mexican cartels are able to hold off the Mexican army, construct multiple air-conditioned cross-border tunnels, buy off the judicial system, bribe border officials, pay off lawmakers, lose a certain amount to seizure and still reap astronomical profits. In the process, of course, they kill thousands of innocent and not-so-innocent people through intercartel competition over supply routes and markets.

And finally, drug prohibition is, in theory, supposed to raise prices so that users migrate to less expensive and even legal substitutes, like alcohol. Indeed, the increase in price from farm gate to end user is impressive.20 But the overall trend since the 1990s has been a decline in price, with more actors entering the market along with an increase in purity. Furthermore, prohibition not only creates a globe-spanning underworld of violent criminality, social mayhem, failed states, mass killings and money laundering but also, as it turns out, provides cheaper and more potent drugs at the street level 21: “In 1979, a milligram of pure heroin sold for about $9 in today’s prices; today it costs less than 25 cents. Fifty grams of fentanyl – just over an ounce and a half – has the punch of a kilogram of heroin, and it’s way, way cheaper.”22 Why is this? Because prohibition compels traffickers to constantly reduce the physical bulk of any given product relative to its potency: reduced bulk improves prospects of successful transport to the end user but increased potency also increases the potential for overdose. It is for these reasons that The Economist refers to legalization as the “least bad solution.”23

GARETH MORLEY: How would you explain a “harm reduction” approach to substance use?

CRAIG JONES: When I put on a seatbelt or bicycle helmet, I’m not reducing the chance of a road accident, I’m reducing the harm that may arise from an accident. This is ordinary, garden-variety harm reduction and it’s uncontroversial. The same is true of substance use: a large percentage of people – we don’t actually know how large – use these substances with few bad consequences, as with alcohol, while a minority overdose or are poisoned by adulterants.

So a harm reduction approach to substances such as those killing users across Canada would make these substances available in doses that would alleviate the craving associated with addiction in as safe a way as possible. But this would only be a step toward recovery and rehabilitation. Harm reduction is about keeping people alive long enough to entice them into recovery and rehabilitation. It is about reconnecting people to affirmative networks of care and compassion. I am of the view that the opposite of addiction is connection: addiction is an extremely lonely state of being. Harm reduction offers the hope of reconnection with a loving and caring community if only we can keep the user alive long enough.

GARETH MORLEY: What do you say to concerns that decriminalization, let alone legalization, would increase substance use, especially of opioids?

CRAIG JONES: First, opioids are – and have long been – the last word in the management of physical and psychosocial pain. That’s their enduring appeal since at least the Bronze Age.24

Second, we have to get over the idea that “drugs” are the problem. Human beings are the problem and the drugs are, for some, a solution – it’s just that prohibition results in a toxic and often poisoned drug supply. Nobody endorses a lifetime of drug use as a solution to chronic pain or psychosocial displacement: human beings need love and connection and meaning and hope in their lives, but those things are not easy to come by for some people with complex trauma or mental illness.

Third, there is no evidence to substantiate this concern. People have other reasons for not becoming addicted to opioids other than fear of the criminal law. If criminal justice instruments were effective in the management of substance abuse problems, a hundred years of prohibition ought to have demonstrated that. Public health problems are manageable with education, prevention and rehabilitation. We should be less interested in what people put into their bodies and more interested in ensuring that it’s pure and unadulterated. We regulate the purity and toxicity of many other products, with great success, so why not these?

If, in the wake of decriminalization or legalization, we see an increase in opioid use – presumably because they’re no longer criminally stigmatized – then we’ve got to address the question of why we accept so much untreated psychosocial and chronic pain. In other words, we’ve got problems bigger than opioid use. People self-medicate, and always have, with a variety of substances and activities – food, shopping, sex, work, alcohol, Jesus – to make their lives tolerable. I’m certainly not advocating wider use of opioids, but I do think that we as a society have been dismissive of, even cruel toward, people suffering complex trauma and untreated or undertreated pain.

What if we discovered that some people could greatly improve the quality of their lives – maintain jobs, sustain families, be productive and contributing members of their communities – while addicted to safe and regulated opioids that did not kill them or require regular transport to an emergency ward? Would they be worse off? Would we? These are the kinds of questions that we should have the courage to ask, once drug use is stripped of its stigma.

Intelligent people governing a mature democracy ought to be able to ask themselves, “How did we get here and what corrective lessons can we draw from our errors?” That’s what we need to do in regard to all aspects of drugs, dependence and addiction. We need not stay imprisoned inside the prejudices and particular interests of another age. We have learned so much since the legislative foundations of drug prohibition were laid in the late 19th century. What, except path dependency and political cowardice, prevents us from applying that learning to our current situation?

GARETH MORLEY: Many people think that the increase in opioid use disorder in the last 20 years was due to overprescription of legal opioids by doctors, encouraged by pharmaceutical companies. Do you agree with this? If you do, doesn’t that suggest there are dangers in a legal market as well?

CRAIG JONES: There are dangers in every kind of market. The question is whether some markets are more susceptible to generating harm than others, and I think our experience demonstrates that unregulated markets are the most dangerous of all. Whatever we can do to shrink the power and influence of the black market, we should do. Overprescription of opioids has raged out of control across the United States, driven by a combination of rapacious profit-seeking corporations, political pressure to deregulate markets and lessen surveillance of opioid prescribing and the willingness of doctors to be bribed by Big Pharma.25 But there’s more to this story than the malpractice of doctors, the indifference of policymakers or the criminality of corporations, and reregulation along the lines I propose is not a panacea because there is no panacea.

What accounts for the demand for pain relief? Isn’t that question at the root of this crisis?

We have an epidemic of physical and psychosocial pain and opioids blunt the impact of that pain – until they become the cause of their own problems. Could it be that the winner-take-all political and economic civilization we have developed is as injurious as its critics claim? Why are there not less toxic alternatives to opioids for this kind of pain management? Why are there not more treatment options for people with chronic pain, chronic mental illness and complex trauma? The fact is that, once drugs were decriminalized and destigmatized, many people could manage their pain and reclaim their lives, if they were not in danger of overdose, fentanyl poisoning or incarceration for possession.

Bottom line: the demand for opioids – and other pain-mitigation remedies – is telling us something profound and important about ourselves. We need to get to the root of that and figure out what it means and how to address it. In the meantime, we ought to try to keep people alive, reduce the burden on our emergency medical services and relieve the police of a job they should not have to do.

GARETH MORLEY: What, from your perspective, would be the most effective way to address overdose deaths from fentanyl and synthetic opioids?

CRAIG JONES: The first thing would be to ask the users themselves, their advocates on the front lines and the people working in harm reduction and safe injection sites. I do not envision a single model for every community with an opioid epidemic. I suspect that individual communities will respond to their specific needs in their unique ways and some models will scale better than others. The most effective way to address overdose deaths is to find whatever works to keep people alive.

The second thing I would do is make available a supply of clinically pure heroin – or appropriate analogue – that people can use in supervised settings without risk of overdosing and establish the structures and institutions to provide rehabilitation and recovery from those opioids when and as people are ready to exit. Some, of course, will take longer than others – and there will be no one-size-fits-all method for transitioning people off opioids.

GARETH MORLEY: Criminal law responds to deeply held moral values in society more than to evidence. How do you think that can change?

CRAIG JONES: Parliament sets the criminal law and Parliament can amend it. Moral values change as our understanding of human affairs changes. In my childhood, it was scandalous for a black woman to marry a white man. Today it’s not even noticed except by a small cadre of retrogrades. Only a few years ago it was illegal for two people of the same sex to marry. Today we acknowledge same-sex marriage as a basic human right – and no serious person is advocating turning back that clock. There will always be small factions of people for whom any social change is unacceptable, but they ought not dictate social policy, which should be humane and compassionate and responsive to human needs.

Prohibition is immoral. It “works” for the wrong interests. If it actually reduced drug-use-related harm, one could make a case for it – but is there any evidence that we can make prohibition work if we give it another hundred years?

GARETH MORLEY: What would you like to see the government of Canada do?

CRAIG JONES: If you look around the advanced democracies, they’re all wrestling with how to get out from under the zombie policy of drug prohibition. It doesn’t work. It never did and it only enriches organized crime and expands police and security interests.26 First, I would give the United Nations six months’ notice that Canada is vacating the international Drug Conventions. Then I would like to see the federal government commission a panel of epidemiologists, public health specialists, addictionists and rehabilitation therapists to tour the country, visiting large and small communities, to ask “What’s the best suite of solutions for your community? How can we make that happen and what resources do you need?” They could visit Portugal and Amsterdam to ask “What would you do differently with the benefit of hindsight? What ought Canadians to learn from you?”

This has to be, as much as anything else, a public education initiative because prohibition has been protected by a bodyguard of lies, myths and misinformation. We have to explain to Canadians why a century of prohibition has not worked and walk together with them toward an ensemble of solutions tailored to the needs of our various communities. We have to prioritize compassion and evidence-based solutions, put the humanity of users front and centre and be unafraid to do the right thing. Is that a big ask?

Short of that, do this thought experiment: draw a circle around the drugs you can’t possibly imagine regulating – methamphetamine, crack, whatever – and those are the drugs you consign to organized crime.

The way I see it, public policy is about trading big problems for smaller and more manageable ones. Usually, evidence is necessary but not sufficient: political will – for which demand always exceeds supply – is imperative. As are luck and intelligence. We legalized cannabis – after a thoughtful and deliberative public consultation – and in so doing we relieved thousands of mostly inner-city and minority kids of the burden of a lifelong criminal record. That’s a big deal, because a criminal record forecloses all kinds of life options as one matures out of one’s cannabis-using years. Not only did the sky not fall, but no one is seriously arguing for its recriminalization. If we’re lucky and smart, we can do the same thing with opioids and prevent a lot of people from dying.

This pandemic crisis presents us with an opportunity to make some long overdue changes to failed policies that have imposed unnecessary and inhumane harm and suffering. Opportunity always accompanies crisis: if we approach this moment with the kind of thoughtful deliberation that infused the Le Dain commissioners,27 we can turn the corner on the zombie politics of prohibition. We can save lives. We need not careen blindly down the path of moral panic bequeathed to us by the generation of the Opium Act. We can do better. We must.

Continue reading “Finding Better Solutions to the Opioid Crisis”

Photo: Black Lives Matter Plaza, Washington DC. Victoria Pickering, Via Flickr.

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Police killings of African Americans had sparked protests before, but the scale of the response to the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police on May 25, captured on video that was to be replayed countless times, was unprecedented. There were ongoing Black Lives Matter demonstrations in cities across the United States, as well as in Canada and other countries. As the protests multiplied, many people sought a deeper understanding of a web of interrelated topics, from policing methods to high homicide rates in U.S. cities to the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. One forum where these topics were – and continue to be – discussed is the Inroads listserv. The following exchange from late August provides a sampling of the opinions expressed.

John Richards | August 27

The Chicago Sun-Times is running a special feature. Its journalists write up a short story on every homicide victim in Chicago this year, and have organized an interactive filter that enables readers to determine race, age, neighbourhood, murder weapon. As of August 26, there have been 477 homicides in Chicago: 334 Black, 37 White, 45 Hispanic, 61 not determined. On Mondays, the Sun-Times reports the number of Chicago gunshot victims and homicide deaths over the weekend. The latest weekend was more peaceful than the average: 66 gunshot victims, five deaths.1

The New York Times publishes occasional stories on homicides in large U.S. cities. Not surprisingly, Chicago has experienced the largest increase in homicides among these cities. The article concludes that the onset of the pandemic is a cause. The 2020 increase over the same dates in 2019 was “only” 16 per cent prior to the lockdown orders due to the pandemic, but 34 per cent from onset to mid-June. Spikes in homicides predate George Floyd’s murder. Chicago had the highest number of victims (433 by the end of June) among large U.S. cities; the second highest was Philadelphia (247). Overall, in 23 large U.S. cities, homicides in the first six months were 1,800 in 2019, 2,200 in 2020 – a 22 per cent increase.2

The police are part of the story. Over the first seven months of 2020, police in the United States shot to death 558 people (215 White, 111 Black, 71 Hispanic, 161 other or unknown). Relative to population, the police killings are three times higher among Blacks than among Whites.3

Beyond the obvious conclusion that homicide is far more prevalent in the United States than in other high-income countries, what explains these statistics? The “social justice” (Black Lives Matter) explanation boils down to slavery and White racism. This is a partial explanation, but inadequate. It cannot explain the large number of “Black on Black” murders, as in Chicago. The liberal media in Canada (e.g. CBC, the Globe and Mail) report fulsomely whenever the police kill a Black man. However, I have seen no Canadian and few American journalists attempting to explain this complex reality comprehensively. One of the best journalistic assessments I have read is German Lopez’s article in Vox, in which he cites a number of possible explanations:

  • the changes forced on people by the COVID-19 pandemic;
  • reduced policing in response to protests, as occurred after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 and Freddie Gray in Baltimore in 2015;
  • loss of trust in police that led people to rely more on street justice and other illegal activities to resolve disputes;
  • more gun violence resulting from a surge in gun buying, likely in response to concerns about personal safety during a pandemic;
  • an increased number of deaths because hospitals, overwhelmed as a result of COVID-19, were unable to treat victims of violent crime;
  • possible increased conflict because of boredom resulting from the pandemic (unemployment, closed schools, absence of entertainment, suspended support programs) – although this is speculative;
  • effects of the bad economy: people pushed to desperate acts, disruptions in the drug market, less state and local funding for social supports (this too is speculative).4
Gareth Morley | August 28

John points out that violence between young Black men in Chicago is unacceptably high and that it is higher than deaths from the police.

This is undeniably a fact.

But John wants to go beyond just an assertion of fact. He wants to say it is relevant in two ways:

  1. He says “Black on Black violence” cannot be explained by the theorists of systemic racism who point to the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow as defining America’s contemporary race problems.
  2. He at least implies that the extent of this problem should temper demands for a more accountable police force, including more restrictions on police use of force and more consequences for officers who breach those restrictions.

Unlike the facts, both of these implications are extremely deniable.

  1. There are many ways to draw a line from slavery and Jim Crow to high rates of violence within contemporary Black communities, just as there are many ways to draw a line from colonialism and residential schools to high rates of violence, including sexual and domestic violence, within Canadian Indigenous communities. Indeed, that is exactly what the proponents of claims of ongoing genocide are doing. Whether you agree with these accounts or not, it is just misunderstanding what is being said to think that antiracist activists, whether moderate or radical, are unaware of the fact of high levels of violence within their communities.
  2. Speaking in my own voice, I would say that it is precisely the lack of legitimacy of police forces – combined with their inability to rule by fear – that is a major explanation of the high levels of irregular violence. This is a lesson that goes back to Hobbes, Locke and Hume.

Young men killing one another over status is not a strange thing that requires special explanation. It is the standard of human history, as the Hamilton musical or a typical 19th-century Russian novel makes clear. If you live in a violent situation, you are likely to be taken advantage of unless you have a reputation for being willing to react violently when disrespected. Of course, if you live among young men who feel a strong need to project a reputation that they will react violently if disrespected, you live in a violent situation.

Hobbes’s solution to this was the Leviathan. If there is a monopolist on the use of force – and if that monopolist reliably uses force when retail violence is on offer – then there will be less retail violence. This seems to work, which is why Iceland today is not as violent as Iceland during the sagas.

But Hume pointed out that the Leviathan itself needs to rest on some form of consent. He rejected the “social contract” myth that the state originates in a universal act of consent, but he noted that it requires a broad coalition of the acquiescent and enthusiastic to repress everyone else. This coalition does not need to include everyone who is subject to the Leviathan. One approach to “order” is repression by external forces, as existed with respect to Black people in the Jim Crow south. To be sure, these forces may not care that much if there is violence among the repressed group, but they will keep it under some degree of control. They do not need any legitimacy among the people who are repressed because they gain their legitimacy within an external population from which they can recruit.

Another solution is to have legitimacy among the people who are policed based on a more or less justified sense that the force of the Leviathan is under some sort of popular control, mediated through legal institutions. If that is the prevailing view, then most people will cooperate with the police since they have no reason to fear them.

Neither situation prevails in much of America today. The police are not given the full ability to repress – “Giuliani time” in the (disputed) phrase of the NYPD officers who sodomized Abner Louima with a broom handle in a Brooklyn precinct. At the same time, they are not fully legitimate – an alternative “Dinkins time” in which elected officials could actually control their police forces.

In the old joke, when a physicist, engineer and economist are trapped on a desert island with a crate of canned goods, the economist proposes to “assume a can opener.” John is making the mistake of “assuming the can opener” of legitimacy when viewing force as an alternative to a genuinely bad situation. But how do you get to legitimacy when police react to demands for accountability with work-to-rule strikes – which of course have the effect of increasing crime rates? Isn’t it basic political economy that disputes have to be resolved somehow, and if the formal system isn’t reliable, informal violence will be used? As Locke suggested, this ultimately gets out of hand because everyone is a judge in their own cause.

If there are institutions in the South Side of Chicago that could get past this, aren’t they the Black church and the Black Lives Matter movement? Doesn’t the idea that the federal government is at war with these institutions and sees major political gains from their failure just make the problem worse?

Black Lives Matter Plaza in front of White House. Photo CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
John Richards | August 29

There is much to criticize among us economists but we display some virtues. One is to entertain a belief that many factors combine to determine outcomes. At its simplest, economists like to describe changes in some outcome, y, as a function of changes in x1, x2, x3 and so on. The relative importance of each variable depends on the magnitude of the relevant coefficient and the variance in the “x”s: y = a1x1 + a2x2 + a3x3 + … + . To the extent that there is an answer, it requires some sort of empirical assessment.

The logic of the Black Lives Matter movement – or “social justice” or Critical Race Theory – is that the explanation for the fact that violent Black deaths (y) far exceed those of Whites can be attributed to slavery and subsequent Jim Crow laws and practices (x1) and current White racist attitudes (x2) that support racist policing, policing that is viewed as illegitimate by the Black community. End of story. There is no need for a more complex explanation that entails additional relevant factors (x3, x4 and so on).

Gareth does acknowledge the fact that the great majority of Black homicide victims suffer from “Black on Black” homicide, not from the police. However, in his telling, Black on Black homicide is simply a consequence of present reversion to the Hobbesian war of all against all: “Young men killing one another over status is not a strange thing that requires special explanation. It is the standard of human history.” Implicitly, he is arguing that there are only two relevant variables, x1 and x2, and the only means to lower Black casualties arising from the Hobbesian war is to end all forms of White racism, the basis for policing inevitably deemed by the Black community to be illegitimate.

Gareth accuses me of ignoring the matter of legitimacy. I agree with him that a well functioning society requires some combination of powerful norms concerning sanctity of life and some means of legitimizing exercise of a police power. For Gareth, there are two sources of legitimacy in the Black community, “the Black church and the Black Lives Matter movement.” These are, I suggest, weak reeds to hold onto. I grant that religious institutions can play a major role in instilling norms that constrain violence, and in the U.S. context Black religious leaders have played a powerful, largely positive, role – from Harriet Tubman to Martin Luther King. (I’m not so sure about Al Sharpton and Malcolm X.)

As for Black Lives Matter, what is its contribution? Is it promoting some altogether different form of nonracist policing able to tackle the Hobbesian war of all against all? If so, I have not heard about it. In nearly all discussions this year of undeniable serious racial inequalities, I have found almost no academics or journalists analyzing “Black on Black” violence. Admittedly, some who do discuss such violence do so essentially to exacerbate White racism. In his 1968 presidential campaign, Richard Nixon successfully interpreted widespread violence associated with Black community protests as a threat to peace, order and good government in America. Trump is attempting a similar strategy in 2020. He too may succeed.

My “x3” variable is that of William Julius Wilson, a prominent Black sociologist whose early work at the University of Chicago emphasized the lack of decent employment prospects in inner-city Black neighbourhoods as key to understanding the high rates of homicide, women choosing to be single parents, and endemic drug use. Wilson’s explanation amounts to the necessity of a social democratic agenda of decent publicly funded education and preservation of near-universal employment at decent wages for those who want to be in the labour force. Such an agenda requires higher taxes than Americans have been willing over the last half century to accept. American society has not seriously tackled this agenda since the Great Society programs of the 1960s.

In any industrial society, a necessary condition for community harmony is an adult population with near-universal decent-quality secondary education and a majority with some form of postsecondary training (trades certification or university degree). Income transfers via welfare, free housing and so on are not an adequate substitute. In my (admittedly crude) interpretation of Maslow’s pyramid of needs, we all have “esteem needs” (prestige and feeling of accomplishment). If young men cannot achieve self-esteem via employment at a decent wage level, they are unlikely to form stable unions with women, and unlikely to assume long-term responsibility for raising children. They are likely to revert to a Hobbesian world of “young men killing one another” (to quote Gareth). Rahm Emanuel, a close confidant of Obama and former mayor of Chicago, understood all this, and did his best to improve schools and employment prospects for Black communities. Unfortunately, not much remains of his efforts. A mayor, however smart and innovative, cannot succeed if higher orders of government are ineffective partners.

Implicit in a successful social democratic agenda is that leaders of both majority and marginalized minority identity groups agree that this agenda is crucial. Singapore under Lee Kuan Yew is perhaps the iconic example over the last half century of providing high-quality social services and full employment, and thereby persuading diverse cultural groups (Malay, Indian and Chinese) – which in the mid–20th century had been engaged in armed conflict – to live in reasonable harmony.

An old joke about Pierre Trudeau and Jacques Parizeau summarizes the emergence of a social democratic agenda in mid-20th-century Quebec. Both grew up in Outremont; both criticized the victim ideology of traditional Quebec nationalists and condemned fellow Quebec leaders for tolerating religious-dominated unworldly schools; both wanted ambitious social democratic governments. There was only one small difference. Trudeau wanted one such government, in Ottawa; Parizeau wanted two such governments, one in Ottawa and one in Quebec City.

Gareth, do you see any element of a social democratic agenda in Black Lives Matter? I don’t, but maybe I am wrong.

george floyd memorial
George Floyd Memorial, South Minneapolis. Photo: Chad Davis Photography/Flickr.
Henry Milner | August 30

As I see it, real progress for the Black community can only take the form of a virtuous circle: Policies/programs/actions are instituted that help Black children break out of the self-destructiveness of the ghetto (drugs, crime …). Once they have succeeded, a sufficient number of them choose to invest their resources (money, contacts, knowledge, experience …) in areas (business, politics, media, schools, community organizations …) that further help Black children break out of the ghetto. And the circle continues. Hence, concretely, it is primarily a matter of channelling energies and resources at the community level where they can be most effective.

Where do defunding the police and Black Lives Matter protests fit into this perspective? Media-focused protests draw attention to examples of racist actions by police forces but also to those of looters and rock throwers. They serve an educational purpose, reminding people about the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, but in so doing they also serve to legitimate aspects of ghetto life holding back needed progress.

A useful discussion of these issues would weigh these factors based on actual evidence.

Bob Chodos | August 30

I hope economists understand that explanatory variables are not always independent of one another. Let’s take John’s “x3” – lack of decent employment prospects in inner-city Black neighbourhoods. Why are African Americans’ employment prospects inferior to those of White Americans? Why is their educational attainment lower? Why are they concentrated in inner-city neighbourhoods in the first place? And why is the sensible social-democratic agenda John advocates such a tough sell in the United States? Surely x1 (the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow) and x2 (ongoing systemic racism, which goes beyond White racist attitudes) are implicated in all these phenomena. In other words, x1 and x2 could be causes of y (disproportionate violent Black deaths) indirectly through x3 as well as directly.

Simon Rosenblum | August 30

One does not have to be an economist to agree with John that racial economic disparities in the United States should not be understood through a “one shoe fits all” type of explanation. Not even two shoes will do! Probably all of us agree that movement toward social democracy is where most of the necessary redress will come from. And the Democratic Party is headed in that direction.

I do however feel that John might be a bit harsh in his rather fulsome dismissal of Black Lives Matter. Admittedly the organization – which is not totally synonymous with the movement which bears the same name – can be more than a little problematic in some its rhetoric and policies, but one can detect some moderation as it becomes more mainstream in the American Black community. There is much in its evolving platform (ending voter suppression, stopping police violence against innocent Black people, strong investment in Black communities, etc.) that we surely can find common ground with. Yes, the devil is always in the details but I see no useful purpose served in writing them off. That said, criticism is necessary when we disagree – as we surely will – but their presence and evolution can be part of a solution. It needs to be.

Gareth Morley | August 30

I don’t have much to add to Simon here. “Black Lives Matter” is a movement and the organizations using that name have a complex relationship to that movement. By any reasonable account, they are broadly social democratic. There are a few more radical slogans – but the same could be said of the German Social Democrats’ Erfurt Program or the CCF’s Regina Manifesto. Most movements have a maximum program and a minimum program – and for BLM, the minimum program includes a larger public sector, investments in reducing pollution in poor communities, jobs guarantees and so on. If you look into it, even “defund the police” really turns out to be “deemphasize the use of force in law enforcement.” Poor and working-class Whites would benefit a lot from BLM’s program.

Generally speaking, Black Americans have been consistently social democratic since the New Deal – when many moved from the party of Lincoln to the Democrats even though New Deal programs often excluded them as the Democrats sought to sustain support in the Jim Crow south. By 1964, this transition was complete – and Black Americans have overwhelmingly voted for the most social democratic alternative in American politics ever since. Older African Americans concluded, probably correctly, that Bernie Sanders was unelectable, but that did not indicate a lack of support for more government spending or regulation.

While social science about the causes of violent crime is obviously complex and uncertain, activists inevitably have to take a simpler line. They encourage young Black men to stop shooting one another, arguing that in doing so they are performing systemic racism. That analysis isn’t wrong, although of course an econometric model would put things differently and emphasize other standards of causation and evidence. But the same kind of pedantic response could have been made in response to Tommy Douglas’s mice-and-cat speech. Activist rhetoric and social science models are just playing different language games.

If we agree that the police need legitimacy to be effective and that they lack it with certain racial groups – in Canada and in the United States – then there is no tradeoff between effectiveness and reform. The problem is that the police themselves respond to pressure to reform by going on de facto strike. The only solution is a big enough movement to make politicians take risks to try to break that resistance.

Garth Stevenson | August 30

The problems the Americans are suffering now might not exist if the Republican Party after the Civil War had stuck to its original plan of Reconstruction: break up the large estates of the slaveholders and give each Black family “50 acres and a mule” – in other words land reform. Ulysses Grant, an underrated president, tried to implement that program but made little progress during his eight years in the White House, although southern Blacks did have some political power during his administration.

In 1876 the Republicans reached an accommodation with the southern Whites who controlled the Democratic Party, which allowed the Republican candidate (Rutherford Hayes) to take the presidency although the Democrat (Samuel Tilden) had really won the election. The price of this accommodation was to give up Reconstruction and hand over the south to the people who had lost the Civil War. After that the whole country, north and south, was doomed to the misery that has lasted unto the third and fourth generation, and beyond. I am not hopeful that the misery will ever end, at least in our lifetimes.

By way of contrast look at Ireland, which was also dominated in the 19th century by a landowning elite that treated the native Irish as little better than slaves. The British government imposed land reform which paved the way for Ireland, apart from the northern six counties, to become the democratic republic that it now is. And I think even the six counties will join it within the lifetime of many who will read this.

The moral of the story is that political rights mean very little, and can easily be taken away, without some redistribution of economic resources.

John Richards | August 30

Garth makes a good addition to the discussion: “Political rights mean very little, and can easily be taken away, without some redistribution of economic resources.” He recalls Ulysses Grant’s failed hope of providing freed slaves with “50 acres and a mule” in the context of land reform. In today’s economy, the equivalent is a decent education – which the United States does not provide in inner-city ghettos. For a century following the U.S. Civil War, its K–12 + college system was superior to those of almost all other OECD member countries. The system succeeded in integrating millions of European immigrants pre–World War I, millions of Asians post–World War II, and (with less success) millions of Hispanic immigrants. Over the years of Jim Crow, Black segregated schools were generally weak. Since the 1970s, the entire K–12 public system has been in decline – and shamefully has not provided inner-city ghetto communities with decent schools. The best evidence of U.S. education decline is to be found in the mediocre rank of upper-level secondary students (age 15) in the OECD Program for International Student Assessment.

Continue reading “Hobbes, Lee Kuan Yew and Black Lives Matter”

In September 2018, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, along with Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and International Trade Minister Jim Carr, sat down for a roundtable discussion in New York hosted by James Haass of the Council of Foreign Relations. Responding to a question about possible Russian intervention in the Canadian election, Trudeau explained,

Canada already has a fairly strong set of electoral laws … The big differences you guys might notice is you can’t donate more than $1,500 a year to a political party, and you can only make individual donations that are, you know, fully disclosed: no corporate, no union, no other donations … And our electoral district boundaries are determined … every ten years by fully independent commissions. So you get actual, you know, reasonable-looking electoral districts and not some of the zigzags that you guys have.1

If only it were true! In reality, Canada’s federal electoral districts are unequally distributed throughout the country via a provincially maintained silo system that favours some regions over others while thwarting any form of levelling of the electoral landscape. Electoral districts are a hodgepodge of unequal sizes determined by self-serving provincial commissions operating under arcane laws and rules that skew the overall fair distribution of citizen opinion. Canada’s electoral map is a giant tapestry designed to maintain old strongholds and deny emerging realities, one that distorts the democratic right of its citizens to fairly make their wishes known. The end result is that, as voters, many citizens are denied the basic principle of each citizen having an equally valued vote.

Since Confederation, the electoral map has continually evolved with new rules expanding the voting franchise and additional or transformed districts to accommodate population shifts. The secret ballot has been introduced, women have obtained the right to vote, property/means tests have been abolished, limits on electoral financing have been imposed, the voting age has been lowered from 21 to 18, fixed election dates have been mandated, advance voting has been instituted, eligible inmates in federal prisons have been allowed to vote, and the guarantee in the 1867 constitution that English-speaking Quebecers would have a 20 per cent share of representation from that province has been eliminated

Most recently, issues surrounding mail-in, electronic and absentee balloting, along with possible foreign interference designed to skew the vote count, confront Elections Canada. In this context, we cannot ignore the absence of a level playing field, of an electoral landscape that is truly representative. Wonky communications and difficult terrain are not as formidable as in the past and can no longer justify inequality in representation. New challenges surround our democratic mechanisms, and we should not shy away from opening the Pandora’s box of constitutional reform to create a level playing field of equal districts.

The Supreme Court of Canada and the façade of effective representation

Unlike the United States Supreme Court, which continually arbitrates and monitors election activities, Canada’s Supreme Court is conspicuously negligent in enforcing its own past decisions. In 1991 it discarded the well-established Churchillian principle of “one person = one vote = one value”2 and set into motion the unequal system of state-sponsored district distortions that characterize the contemporary Canadian electoral landscape.

In the Reference re Provincial Boundaries case, the Court was asked whether Saskatchewan’s setting a quota for the variation between urban and rural regions of between 15 and 25 per cent violated Section 3 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Writing for the majority in a split 6-3 decision, Justice Beverley McLachlin said,

The stated purpose of the right to vote in section 3 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is not equality in voting power but the right to effective representation. Our democracy is a representative democracy. Each citizen has the right to be represented within the government edifice. 3

Nowhere in the decision, however, does the Court define “effective representation” or “representative democracy” or provide guidance as to practical implementation when it comes to preventing gross deviations in the size of federal electoral districts. What the Court did make very clear was that boundary commissions could take into account geographical factors as well as the history, interests and position of minority groups when setting electoral districts. In the words of Judge McLachlin,

I adhere to the proposition … that “only those deviations should be admitted which can be justified on the ground that they contribute to better government of the populace as a whole, giving due weight to regional issues within the populace and geographic factors within the territory governed.”4

For the last 30 years, Canada’s federal electoral landscape has been governed by this Supreme Court decision and various constitutional and statutory provisions. Voter ranges are officially authorized up to 25 per cent but even that limit has been ignored (see table 1). As the table shows, across Canada federal electoral districts vary in size from Niagara Falls at 101,505 eligible voters to Labrador at 20,084.

Lax legal oversight and vague statements regarding communities, minorities and histories are wrapped around this vague dual principle of “effective representation” and “representative democracy.”

As a result, notwithstanding the fine-sounding words and terms, or the bland assurances of Prime Minister Trudeau, the basic principle of “one citizen, one vote of equal weight” is effectively absent from Canadian federal elections.

Institutionalized voter inequality

Every ten years following the census, Elections Canada must – under the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act (last amended in January 2019) – review all federal electoral districts. Separate provincial boundary commissions assess their federal electoral maps and propose alterations within their own boundaries. Essentially, each commission operates in isolation, and the electoral districts are not compared or contrasted with those of other provinces. The contours result from a variety of “special circumstances,” some emanating from court decisions and others embedded in the constitution. The most recent relevant legislation, 2019 amendments to the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act and the Canada Elections Act, recognizedspecial circumstances” including population shifts within a territory, ethnicity of an area, geographical location, history and minority considerations. In addition, three overarching circumstances are embedded in law: the Senatorial Clause, the Grandfather Clause and the Representative Rule.

The Senatorial Clause guarantees each province at least as many MPs as it has seats in the Senate, the numbers of which were determined in 1915. With a minimum of 30 seats – New Brunswick and Nova Scotia have 10 senators each, Prince Edward Island 4 and Newfoundland and Labrador 6 – Atlantic Canada is allocated considerably more seats in the House of Commons than its present-day eligible voter numbers warrant.

Furthermore, the Grandfather Clause, which guarantees that each province will never have fewer MPs than it had in 1985, works in conjunction with the Senatorial Clause to maintain an inflated level of representation for some provinces in the House of Commons. In sum, regardless of population decline and eligible voter loss, no province will elect fewer MPs than it had in 1985 or than its number of senators in 1915!

The Representation Rule is a typically Canadian construct that, according to the Elections Canada website,

will only apply to a province whose population was overrepresented in the House of Commons at the completion of the last redistribution process. If such a province would now be under-represented … it will be given extra seats so that its share of House of Commons seats is proportional to its share of the population.5

Elections Canada allocates electoral districts individually by province rather than by a Canada-wide calculation of eligible voters. The calculations are further complicated in that formulas are based on “population” rather than on “eligible voters.” At the present time, a detailed four-stage process determines each province’s districts:

STAGE 1: The provincial population (as determined by most recent census) is divided by the Electoral Quotient (established for the most recent redistribution at 111,166 people) and this leads to an initial allocation of electoral districts within each province.

STAGE 2: Elections Canada now applies the Senatorial and Grandfather clauses.

STAGE 3: The Representation Rule is applied.

STAGE 4: Finally, the total number of districts for each province is settled, thus arriving at a total of House of Commons seats for the next federal election.

Both the Representation Rule and the Grandfather Clause can be changed by a simple majority vote in Parliament. While the elimination of these two oddities will not magically restore a balanced electoral field across Canada, their removal would begin the process of electoral reform. As a result, the House of Commons would have approximately 317 seats rather than the present 338, established by adding 21 extra seats to selected areas. Of these additional seats, Quebec was allocated 6, the Atlantic provinces 9 and two Prairie provinces 6. British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario do not benefit, although together they contain more than half of Canada’s citizens. These provinces were underrepresented in the House of Commons prior to 2015 and will be even more underrepresented in future federal elections. The end result is that Canadian citizens in some regions have significantly – and increasingly – more political influence than others.

A Great Reform Bill for Canada

Several months before his unexpected election defeat in July 1945, Winston Churchill reminded his people,

The foundation of all democracy is that the people have the right to vote. To deprive them of that right is to make a mockery of all of the high-sounding phrases which are so often used. At the bottom of all tributes paid to democracy is the little man, walking into the little booth, with a little pencil, making a little cross on a little bit of paper. No amount of rhetoric or voluminous discussion can possibly palliate the overwhelming importance of that point.6

We have not followed the British model, from the Great Reform Bill in in 1832 which eliminated many of the “rotten boroughs” then anchored within the British political system to the reforms postulated by the Boundary Commission for England in 2018, which constitute a continuing effort to ensure balanced electoral districts and respect the equality of every voter.7

In her seminal treatise on voter suppression, Carol Anderson identified two main types of gerrymandering, both of which she categorized as “lethal.”8 The first, which she termed “racial,” dealt with ways and means to keep ethnic and racial minorities from being fairly represented via the electoral system by swamping their geographical areas with other groups or separating their enclaves to dilute their impact. The second type was “partisan” (religious, cultural, linguistic) gerrymandering tied to party affiliation.

What is described here might be termed a third type of gerrymandering, one that is state-sanctioned. Whatever justification there may have been in the past for favouring less populated regions, under emerging technologies that – as we have learned while confined during this pandemic – allow us to meet online, these inequities are no longer acceptable.

In sum, Canada’s landscape is not, as Prime Minister Trudeau asserted, “reasonable-looking.” It is time to embark on a Canada-wide creative democratic journey to strike down the Representation Rule and the Grandfather Clause via legislation and the Senate Floor Rule/Senatorial Clause via constitutional amendment, and draft a Great Reform Bill of our own.

Jon G. Bradley is a retired McGill University Faculty of Education professor and co-author of Making Sense: A Student’s Guide to Research and Writing in Education (Oxford University Press, second edition 2017). Sam Allison is a retired senior secondary school history teacher. His latest book is Driv’n by Fortune: The Scots’ March to Modernity in America, 1745–1812 (Dundurn, 2015).

Continue reading “Canada’s Unreasonable Electorial Districts”

Edited and introduced by Henry Milner, with contributions from Thomas Lundén, Donald Lavery, Jan Otto Anderson, and John Erik Fossum.

In late March, we learned that Sweden, in its response to the COVID-19 pandemic, did not intend to “lock down” the population and mandate social isolation. Instead, Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s head government epidemiologist, and Johan Giesecke, Tegnell’s mentor, argued that a modest set of regulations (for example, protection of centres for the elderly) and good common sense among Swedes was preferable. Sweden became a notable outlier in the global fight against the novel coronavirus.

Many speculated, as did Simon Rosenblum on the Inroads listserv, that the Swedes were “only fooling themselves and will pay a price for their delay in implementing the necessary public health measures.” More widely, we wondered how this “model” progressive country could be lined up with Donald Trump and Brazil’s Bolsonaro in resisting lockdown. Why was Sweden deviating so dramatically from its Nordic and northern European cousins? This was unexpected. The Nordic countries have much in common and are closely linked through binding Nordic and European cooperation, with a long history of policy learning from one another. As John Erik Fossum notes in this section, they share high levels of trust in government, which plays an active and transparent role in macroeconomic governance and public welfare to attain a fair and equitable distribution of benefits and burdens.

The COVID-19 pandemic tests the very fibres of modern societies and economies, including the four Nordics (Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland – Icealnd is not included here because of its small size). In comparing their responses to it, we can gain an insight into the resilience and pertinence of the Nordic model. And Inroads is in an exceptional position to do so. As regular readers know, over the years we have published many insightful contributions on relevant issues from well-informed correspondents in the Nordic countries. I approached four of them, and what follows is based on their responses updated through to late April.

They were asked to describe the steps taken in their own countries and in the Nordics more widely, and, in that context, address the various aspects, as well as outcomes, of Sweden’s approach. To begin, we should note that numbers may more accurately reflect reality in Sweden than in other countries. Every Swede has a 10-digit personal number and is required to self-identify with this number, validated by an ID card, at every contact with authorities and medical professionals. This means that Sweden systematically checks the list of people who have tested positive for the virus against the population register. Every time the government discovers that someone who had the virus has died, that person is registered as a COVID-19 death if it happened within 30 days of the diagnosis – even if the cause of death was cancer or a heart attack. Other countries typically only count a death as caused by COVID-19 if a doctor so concludes.

We should also note that the proportion of immigrants in the Swedish population, at about 15 per cent, is larger than in most European countries. In Norway and Denmark, immigrants make up roughly 10 per cent of the population, while in Finland the proportion of immigrants is half what it is in Sweden. Still, the comparison with its neighbours makes clear that Swedish numbers, as presented in the chart, are higher than they should be. And we want to know why. It is not, as in certain countries with comparable numbers, that Sweden lacks for hospital beds or ventilators. In fact, the number of COVID-19 patients newly admitted to intensive care units stabilized as early as March 23. Quite early, in mid-April, the Swedish government announced that testing was to be ramped up to a respectable 50,000 to 100,000 tests per week.

For a Canadian from Montreal, there is something almost déjà vu in these numbers. If we average the Nordic numbers, they are similar to Canada’s. And Quebec is similar to Sweden.

There is a clue in these numbers that helps us make sense of Sweden’s results. Roughly half of Sweden’s deaths are in the Stockholm region, as is the case for Montreal vis-à-vis Quebec. Sweden proved especially vulnerable because, like Quebec, a large proportion of the elderly in the metropolitan area are in care centres, which are often staffed by new immigrants. While Quebec’s numbers were especially high because many of these workers work in more than one institution, the Swedish high numbers primarily reflect the fact that many of the staff were from communities living in densely populated ethnic suburbs – the places where people were least likely to follow, or even be aware of, suggested guidelines about physical distancing and self-isolation.

At the time of writing, Tegnell and Giesecke have resorted to the argument that, in the long run, after second and maybe third waves of COVID-19 cases, Sweden’s strategy will prove to be as efficient in saving lives as a lockdown. Why? In Sweden, a higher share of the population will have been exposed to the virus than in locked down countries, and this will provide an element of “herd immunity.” Finally, they predict that, in locked down countries, public support for unlocking will rise and generate intense conflict with those favouring lockdown. Swedish authorities may be right, but this seems doubtful. Second-wave fatalities in other countries are likely to be better kept in check since there will have been much more testing and contact tracing by then. In the first three months of 2020, Sweden’s excess of deaths compared to the same period in 2019, as well as its decline in its GDP, was greater than that of its neighbours. This is not to suggest that all Swedish choices were erroneous: it seems likely that keeping younger students in school was, on balance, a good decision, since evidence shows that periods of schooling lost by children with poorly educated parents and without access to elite schools are never made up.

What follows, in edited and updated form, are contributions from John Erik Fossum, Thomas Lundén, Donald Lavery and Jan Otto Andersson on and off the Inroads listserv in the first three weeks of April, ordered by country rather than by the date they were originally submitted.

From Thomas Lundén in Stockholm

Sweden has for a long time had a structure of governance different from most other countries. The ministries are small, and their role is to develop and introduce legislation. Linked to each ministry are several state agencies whose responsibility is to implement the legislation with, in theory if not always in practice, a strict boundary between ministry and agency. As stated on its web page, “The Public Health Agency of Sweden has a national responsibility for public health issues and works to ensure good public health. The agency also works to ensure that the population is protected against communicable diseases and other health threats.”

Government ministers are often accused of ministerstyre – that is, intervening in the agencies’ duties, with journalists often instigating them to do just that. In the COVID-19 case, the measures have been taken by the Public Health Agency with the State Epidemiologist as spokesperson. If and when the agency (like others) finds it necessary to involve the legislature, it can do so, and this has happened recently since some laws had to be changed. So far, Swedish policy has effectively been set by the medical experts, with the government voicing support for the measures taken. These measures include distance education for upper-level institutions, with schools for those under 15 remaining open so that parents can work and kids are kept off the streets; a ban on visiting care homes for the elderly; and rules requiring cafés, bars and restaurants to offer table service only and limit crowding by spacing out tables. All meetings involving more than 49 people are banned, with people gathering advised to leave an empty chair between participants.

In addition, the Public Health Agency has put in place a set of recommendations for individuals that are supposed to be followed, although they aren’t being legally enforced. These include that people work from home if able to do so, keep a distance from other people in public spaces, and stay at home if sick. Clearly, Swedes reduced their mobility substantially, even without police enforcement. Cell phone data show that the inhabitants of Stockholm reduced their trips to the most popular Swedish holiday destinations during Easter by around 90 per cent.

There are some alarming signs: in the Stockholm area, several homes for the aged have been hit by the infection, in spite of seemingly rigid measures. Forty-two per cent of deaths took place in nursing homes for the elderly – deaths that in many countries and some U.S. states would not appear in the data. Moreover, concentrated among the victims were elderly Somali immigrants who, though information was soon provided in most of the immigrant languages, are both difficult to reach and, unlike native Swedes, tend to live together multigenerationally. And immigrants are overrepresented among nursing home workers.

In my opinion, it is a mistake to link the unacceptably large number of deaths in Sweden to our policy vis-à-vis COVID-19. It rather reflects a deficiency in the treatment of people who are very old and/or have multiple pathologies, in institutions or at home. Their medical, social and nutritional needs have to be met by far too large a number of individuals, many of whom work part-time, are not eligible for paid sick live, and are immigrants with a lower knowledge of Swedish language and culture. If a home for the aged is served by 50 different people, one who is infected and not protected may be enough to cause deaths.

At this point we cannot say that the “Swedish model” of relative openness under strict recommendations has not been successful: the number of infected people without serious illness has grown, hopefully reaching a level of stability and immunity, while the hospital side has been able to cope without using the emergency hospitals provided by the military. Where failure lies is in the integration of a large immigrant population, both service providers and receivers. This is bad enough.

One final point. To understand the Swedish approach, we should note that we are sensitive to the dangers of overly rigid measures leading to a reduction of trust in public institutions and, as we can see in Hungary and Poland, rulers potentially taking advantage of this situation to impose dictatorial rule. History may also be a factor. An insight here was provided in a newspaper column on April 6 by Uppsala political science professor emeritus Leif Lewin, replying to articles critical of the Swedish position as a manifestation of its being ¨peace-damaged” (i.e. naive and not understanding the gravity of the situation) as a result of having stayed outside of wars. Lewin’s article was entitled “No, it’s the others who are war-damaged.” He responded that Sweden’s neutrality during World War II entailed hardships which, in meeting them, gave rise to a consensus involving almost all parts of society. It is the other Nordic countries, he argued, where the wars and occupations during the war left scars that make solutions based on consensus less effective.

From Donald Lavery in Stockholm

The Swedish government has followed the recommendations of the Public Health Authority (PHA) concerning restrictions very closely. The Minister of Social Affairs recently commented that the government has carefully deliberated each measure it has taken and has judged the recommendations of its experts on their own merits, in effect responding to critics’ dissatisfaction with what they see as the government simply rubber-stamping what the authorities recommend. Generally speaking, there has been practically no political debate about the restrictions that have been introduced on the advice of the health authorities. The three right-of-centre parties as well as the Left Party have chimed in on this. On the other hand, the government has been criticized for the measures it has taken to keep the economy going.

Anders Tegnell

The dry, matter-of-fact approach of Anders Tegnell, the head epidemiologist at the PHA, has endeared him to the Swedish people. In the polls measuring popular trust in various institutions, the PHA has had a high ranking. Tegnell’s approach was echoed by Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, who was quoted as saying, “We are going to number the dead in the thousands. We might just as well get used to the fact.” According to Tegnell, the PHA does not focus on providing prognoses for the number of dead: “That is not what we consider to be most important; it is more important that health services get figures about how many people need intensive care and the like. We have been using models the whole time to do this. The number of deaths depends on so many different things that all such figures are very, very difficult both to calculate and to interpret.”

In the early period at least, the ability to test whether people have been infected with the virus has been inadequate in Sweden. The PHA has had to establish priorities with an eye to keeping health services running. In this regard Iceland stands out among the Nordic countries. Home to one of the world’s leading biochemical firms, and with a population of only 360,000 people, Iceland has set up a testing regime that has reached a much larger proportion of the country than anywhere else, making it available for free for anyone who wants it.

The Swedish position was defended in the main Stockholm Daily Dagens Nyheter in an interview with Johan Carlson, head of PHA. Here are some excerpts I have translated.

I try to tell politicians how important it is that measures are accepted by the population. That way people are more likely to follow them … There is no law that parents must have their children vaccinated. There is no law to prevent doctors from prescribing too many antibiotics. Nevertheless, work better than in many other places …

In the Nordic countries my colleagues … and I have been very much in agreement … have had a different impact on policy …The Danish authority for the prevention of infectious disease made a public statement to disassociate itself from the business of closing the border, which is meaningless in the struggle against the epidemic.

The key is not the number of people who die from the coronavirus. The key is what we see after four or five years. What effect will the outbreak of the coronavirus have on the health situation in Sweden on the whole? Each year 850,000 people are hospitalized – we must take care of all the other ailments as well. To what extent will corona push these aside? … And how will the psychic health of children be affected? That is one of the reasons we are against closing the schools. Many children live in broken homes, under difficult social conditions. School is their lifeline …

Many countries have an authority that is solely responsible for the prevention of infectious diseases. We have an agency with a wider mandate that includes both prevention of infectious diseases and public health. We have it built into us to ponder this balance, to see the whole picture. I think that this is a great advantage. We are forced to lift our gaze.

In views expressed in an interview on April 22 in Svenska Dagbladet, Frode Forland, the director for the prevention of infectious diseases at Norway’s Public Health Institute, the closest equivalent to Sweden’s PHA, suggests that in taking charge early of measures to check the novel coronavirus, Norwegian politicians adopted a rhetoric – Prime Minister Erna Solberg talked about “beating down the infection” (“slå ner smittan”) – which the experts maintain is unrealistic. Forde’s comment recalls the quote from Johan Carlsson that he and his colleagues in the other Nordic countries differ not on content but in their impact on policy.

We should not assume that Swedish political leaders understate the severity of the challenge. As the Prime Minister put it on April 22, “The road ahead is long, and it will be rather a question of months than of weeks before the crisis is over.” Unlike in the United States, understandably, the coronavirus crisis seems to have provided an opportunity to take and bring the Swedish nation together. On the economy, the government has proposed a system of temporary support to employers and self-employed workers to continue employment during short-term layoffs. It has been made easier to qualify for unemployment insurance, which is restructured to provide greater financial security. More funding is proposed for the Swedish public employment service to allow more people to participate in employment training and other programs improving labour market access and ensure equivalent service levels throughout the country. More spaces are being provided at universities and other institutions of higher and vocational adult education.

Prime Minister Löfven even replaced the party pin on his lapel with a Swedish flag during his regular press conferences. The result was a record-breaking increase of 6.8 percentage points in the SvD/SIFO poll for his Social Democrats, up to 30.6 per cent. According to SIFO, because of the outbreak of the coronavirus the political debate has been completely dominated by the issues of the economy, unemployment and health care. That development particularly favoured the Social Democrats, who gained voters from almost all the other parties as well as among abstainers. The populist Swedish Democrats are 11 percentage points behind, tied with the Conservatives for second place.

To take the necessary measures, the government has had to negotiate with the other parties to pass a bill that gave it the needed powers to limit restaurant and public transit use and the like, and such measures must nonetheless be presented within two days to the parliament, which can rescind them. Unlike in the case of Finland, the Swedish constitution does not have a provision to allow the government to take emergency measures in times of peace. Finland, with its terrible war experience, kept such a clause, which the government applied in no uncertain terms. In addition, while Sweden disbanded its civil defence after the Cold War and sold off the stockpiles of medical supplies and food it had maintained since World War II for emergencies, Finland assessed the risks differently and kept its stockpiles, finding itself now in the enviable position of having adequate supplies of protective clothing for medical workers.


From Jan Otto Andersson in Turku/Åbo, Finland

Despite its affinities with Sweden, Finland more closely followed Norway, Denmark and Germany. Nurseries, schools and universities were closed, and students had to follow distance education. However, young children of parents engaged in necessary work were allowed daycare and education as they would be normally. Groups were limited to 10, with working from home becoming the rule. Restaurants were only allowed to offer takeout food. The metropolitan region of greater Helsinki (Uusimaa/Nyland) was isolated for 19 days. Cases outside the region are still few. Skiing resorts were closed, and all who arrive from abroad – even Sweden – are quarantined for two weeks. People over 70, or with respiratory diseases, are urged to stay at home, but also, if possible, to go outside for a walk. Shops remain open, but sales have been considerably reduced, and the streets are rather empty. Nature walking tours have increased perceptibly, and mass migration to summer cottages has raised critical comments. Restrictions will be gradually reduced by mid-May, but all big summer festivals will be cancelled.

Finland has a ministry of social affairs and health and a public research organization, THL, which has been consulted by the government on all restrictive measures. Cuts by earlier governments have reduced the reliability of THL’s assessments of the ongoing situation, which have been the subject of some criticism.

Gallup polls showed 70 per cent of Finns think that the restrictions are the right ones, with 84 per cent satisfied with Prime Minister Sanna Marin, who heads a centre-red-green coalition government. As in Sweden, her Social Democrats have benefited at the expense of the populists, known in Finland as the True Finns. But there is an economic price to pay. The Finance Minister calculates that Finland must take up to €20 billion extra in loans this year, with state indebtedness expected to rise from 60 to 80 per cent of GDP. Like other countries, Finland has started to give support to firms and individuals hurt by the restrictions and not covered by the general welfare system. Services, especially hotels and restaurants, along with cultural workers, are the most affected. The trade union federations and employer organizations agreed to make temporary layoffs easier and to relax conditions for unemployment benefits.

Finland is constrained because of its slow recovery from the financial and euro crisis. Unlike the other Nordics, it adopted the euro from the start. (Denmark linked its krona to the euro, but is not a member of the eurozone; Sweden kept its monetary independence and was able to steer clear of the euro crisis; Norway, not a member of the EU, can use the revenue from its oil industries as an economic stabilizer.) Moreover, among European countries, Finland was the most affected by the sanctions directed towards Russia.

Finally, Finnish exports are dependent on machinery and other investment goods as well as shipbuilding, both badly hurt by the economic depression. The building of luxury cruise ships could be affected as the companies have been shaken by COVID-19 incidence on board. The shipyard in my hometown of Turku has orders for eight ships until 2025. The 20,000 employees continue to work on these orders – but for how long?

From John Erik Fossum in Oslo, writing about developments in Denmark as well as Norway

In Norway, the government seems to have gone further in the lockdown than what the experts advised. This is in part simply because the economic repercussions were not as great, the government in Norway having more financial leverage as a result of the massive petroleum fund. That is not the entire story though, because it does not explain the fact that Denmark preceded it into serious lockdown. Indeed, part of the story is simply that Norwegian politicians copied Danish policies.

Differences in political culture help us understand the contrast between Denmark and Norway on one side, and Sweden on the other. Both Denmark and Norway are generally speaking more nationalist than Sweden, which has traditionally been more internationalist and open to foreign influences. Hence, other things being equal, it is easier to get cross-partisan agreement for a lockdown in Denmark and Norway than in Sweden.

Very extensive support measures were put in place to deal with the effects of the shutdown, though in Norway the emergency legislation instituted as required in the constitution was quite different from what the Solberg government initially proposed. Alert law professors first drew attention to the hasty, secret deliberations between the government and leaders of the opposition to forge the new legislation, as well as the danger of giving the government extremely wide powers, which sidelined parliament’s legislative role. Evidently, the professors won the attention of the opposition, who scaled down the government’s emergency powers considerably, forcing the government to go back to parliament to have the legislation extended on a monthly basis.

To a large extent, like Finland and unlike Sweden, Norway and Denmark locked things down, preventing the virus from spreading by minimizing contact. Fearing that a rapid spread of the virus would overburden the public health system, lockdown was instituted to ensure that the public health system could deal with the infection over time. This strategy is highly interventionist in people’s lives and typically requires invoking a set of exceptional measures available only in emergency situations during which governments are granted special authorization.

The Swedish strategy has also been to prevent the virus from spreading so quickly that the health system breaks down under the burden, but it differs from the other Nordic countries in the means used to achieve that goal. It combines recommendations to the general public and regulations affecting those prone to (spreading) infection, but all placed in the context of the broader socioeconomic and psychological effects of a period of lengthy shutdown. It is not the same as what we saw in Britain and still see in Brazil, Mexico, parts of the United States and, inconsistently, from Donald Trump – that is, downplaying the hazards and the need for a coherent, science-based and publicly orchestrated and conducted response, and instead leaving responsibility to local and regional authorities.

Finland, Denmark and Norway on one side, and Sweden on the other, produced a comprehensive public response anchored in expert knowledge. This was most visible in Sweden, though not all Swedish epidemiologists agreed with the position of chief epidemiologist Anders Tegnell. Sweden’s refusal to go further in locking down the economy may be due to its being more attentive to economic expertise than the others. Such expertise is typically less supportive of state intervention and more sensitive to international openness, though in Norway at least, many economists take a different stance, for instance opposing membership in what they consider to be a too neoliberal European Union.

The main concrete difference between the two strategies is in the invocation of emergency powers. Denmark was first to introduce such legislation (adopted by a unanimous Folketing on March 12, 2020, and due to expire on March 1, 2021). It allowed the minister of health and elderly affairs to require persons assumed to be infected to isolate themselves, and authorized the government to prohibit large gatherings of people and block access to means of transportation. The legislation also provided the authorities with increased tracking options, including rules obliging people to provide information. On March 14, Denmark closed its borders and shut down kindergartens and schools. One month later, Denmark, like Germany, Austria and Switzerland, relaxed lockdown rules. It allowed daycare centres and elementary schools to open, followed by hairdressers, beauticians, dentists and opticians, who are required to sanitize the work area between clients.

Norway basically followed Denmark’s approach, introducing emergency legislation on March 18. Nevertheless, there was more controversy surrounding the Norwegian version and the legislation that was adopted was less comprehensive, with the timeframe shortened from six months to one month. As I write, the government wants to extend the legislation. While some opposition parties have voiced reservations, it is likely that it will be renewed.

A measure specific to Norway, with its large northern hinterland, was a prohibition on persons seeking to stay in their vacation homes when these were located outside the municipality where they lived. This measure was urged on the government by municipalities where these are more numerous than permanent homes and where it was feared that the limited medical capacity could not deal with a large influx of infected people.

Both Denmark and Norway introduced wage compensation to allow people to keep their jobs during the lockdown. The Danish arrangement is slated to expire on June 9. Both the Danish and Norwegian governments introduced measures to compensate businesses for income losses. In these measures, we see clear elements of the Nordic model: tripartite cooperation between government and organizations of large employers and employees. Significant resources were channelled into the economy as well as the health sector, and both Denmark and Norway have shown a clear commitment to sheltering people from fallout from the measures.

In this they rely on a key feature of the Nordic model: trust. The Swedish strategy is primarily one of the government trusting the citizens to follow its recommendations. For their part, Norway and Denmark’s social distancing and lockdown strategy called on high levels of trust and sense of community and belonging. Public communications included reassurances from the government that it trusts the population to put up with the lockdown for the greater good. The Norwegian statements sought to couch this paternalism in positive terms: Prime Minister Solberg labelled the fight against the virus a collective “dugnad.” This is a word used to depict “voluntary” work that housing and other cooperatives organize to address community needs. Clearly, this has been working. In a recent poll, 77 per cent declared that they supported the government’s handling of the coronavirus. The main governing party, Solberg’s conservative party (Høyre), saw a dramatic rise in support between mid-March and mid-April (up from 17.9 to 25.2 per cent).

Even if we operate with two different coronavirus response models, we should not overstate Sweden’s differences from Norway and Denmark. Norway stands in between Denmark and Sweden historically, in that it was ruled by Denmark from 1389 to 1814 and by Sweden from 1814 to 1905. There have been no internecine wars in the Nordic region since 1815, and the three Scandinavian countries’ languages are fully mutually understandable. Language is therefore also a factor explaining why the Danish and Norwegian responses are so similar, and why emulation happens so frequently. In this case Norway copied from Denmark, whereas in the postwar period it constantly looked to Sweden as the model welfare state.

Postscript from Henry Milner

As I write, Denmark and Norway have joined Austria, Switzerland and Germany, among others, in beginning to end the lockdown, with shops and schools reopening. Norway is set to return to normal by summer. Sweden is sticking to its guns but, as in Quebec, cases continue to emerge. When it coms to the pandemic, so far, Denmark, Norway and Finland are the countries that can legitimately lay claim to constituting the Nordic model.

As the only province in the country without a sales tax, Alberta is an anomaly in the Canadian federation. Both citizens and governments have celebrated this peculiarity as a central component of Alberta’s identity: the Alberta Advantage. Alberta’s oil wealth is certainly a significant contributing factor to its failure to implement a sales tax, but it is not the whole explanation.

Alberta has faced numerous opportunities where the adoption of a sales tax would have been a sound policy decision. A sales tax minimizes tax distortions in the economy, is preferable to the taxation of things we want more of (such as income) and, especially in Alberta’s case, is vastly superior to relying on volatile resource revenue. Nevertheless, provincial leadership has actively resisted such a policy choice and continually worked to entrench the lack of a sales tax within Alberta’s broader identity and political culture.

Alberta did adopt a sales tax back in 1936. At the time, Alberta’s finances were in poor condition. With the Great Depression and drought affecting Alberta’s primary industry, agriculture, deficits were increasing and debt was accumulating. A marginal sales tax of 2 per cent was adopted to help stem the bleeding. The tax brought in millions of dollars in additional government revenue; however, significant pushback led to its repeal a year and a half later.

Peter Lougheed

Fast forward to the early 1970s and we see the emergence of the Alberta Advantage narrative, although it would not be called that until the early 1990s. The 1973 oil shock dramatically increased the price of oil and, along with it, Alberta’s resource revenue. While Alberta’s public finances had been much healthier since the discovery of the Leduc oil field in 1947, the first oil shock dramatically altered expectations about the lucrative nature of this industry for government. Peter Lougheed’s Progressive Conservative administration responded by cutting taxes, increasing spending and – unable to spend all the windfall revenue that was pouring in – establishing a provincial savings fund (the Alberta Heritage Savings and Trust Fund) to set aside some of the excess revenue for a future date.

As Alberta Provincial Treasurer Gordon Miniely said in the legislature on February 7, 1975, “After allowing for the substantial tax reductions and new expenditure programs contained in this Budget, I estimate that $1.5 billion will be available by December 31, 1975, for transfer to an Alberta heritage trust fund for present and future Albertans.” While Lougheed is often praised for his farsightedness in establishing the fund, the government was literally in a position where it could not spend tax revenues fast enough. What is less well known is that by simultaneously cutting taxes and increasing spending and using resource revenue to plug that gap, Lougheed planted the seeds of what would later become known as the Alberta Advantage.

When oil prices dropped less than a decade later, the Heritage Fund was the provincial government’s first target. In 1983, it began withdrawing 100 per cent of the annual returns, while simultaneously reducing the government’s contribution from 30 to 15 per cent. Then, when oil prices utterly collapsed in 1986, resulting in a 20 per cent loss of revenue, the government ceased all contributions to the Heritage Fund. The Progressive Conservative government, now under Lougheed’s successor Don Getty, patted itself on the back for its foresight in establishing the Heritage Fund, misleadingly arguing that this was exactly why the fund had been created.

Under Premier Getty, the Alberta government held spending constant and had the lowest spending growth in the country. Regardless, continued deficits added to a growing level of debt. The plan to hold spending and allow the economy and revenues to recover was a prudent one and worked well until another recession hit the province in 1991, which caused the deficit to grow dramatically. This pushed the public’s appetite toward a more aggressive approach to dealing with the growing levels of debt, and Getty retired shortly thereafter.

In 1992, former journalist and Calgary Mayor Ralph Klein, a relative newcomer to the Progressive Conservative Party, succeeded Getty. The 1993 provincial campaign was fought primarily over how best to deal with the large deficit and growing debt. Surprisingly, it was not a battle over spending cuts versus tax increases, but massive spending cuts versus brutal spending cuts. Klein, campaigning largely against his predecessor’s record, defeated the Liberal Party and ushered in a program of spending cuts that soon became known as the “Klein Revolution.”

The ongoing deficits and growing debt offered the government an opportunity to alter the fiscal regime and add some revenue sources, but for reasons of both ideology and political culture (as noted, even the Liberals were unwilling to touch the revenue side) they chose to stick to the spending side of the budget. Klein then doubled down on this particular fiscal regime by rebranding it the “Alberta Advantage.”

As stated in the 1993 Alberta throne speech: “Unlike some others, my government will not try to buy prosperity through higher taxes. Instead, it will build on Alberta’s existing advantage of low taxes and its free enterprise spirit to develop the most competitive economy in North America. The government will strengthen the Alberta Advantage and sell it aggressively around the globe.” Following this ideological logic, between 1993 and 1997 the Klein government cut spending by approximately 20 per cent. With the fortuitous arrival of additional resource revenue, the government also balanced the budget earlier than anticipated.

During Klein’s tenure as premier, two opportunities arose for the Alberta government to reassess its fiscal regime: the 1994 Tax Reform Commission and the 1998 Tax Review Committee. In both cases, the reports did not recommend the introduction of a sales tax, even though all the other provinces had such a tax in operation and the federal government had recently established its own sales tax, the Goods and Services Tax (GST), which played an instrumental role in improving federal public finances during the mid- to late 1990s.

A year after the 1994 commission tabled its report, the Alberta government went so far as to introduce a bill stipulating that no provincial sales tax could be adopted without a provincewide referendum. In tabling the bill on March 6, 1995, Provincial Treasurer Jim Dinning stated, “I have often said – and I remember saying this – to a number of people across the country that if one looks very closely at the Alberta flag to your left, Mr. Speaker, if one looks very closely at the wheat sheaves and the wheat fields of that flag, if you try to look very closely and turn it on its side, it says: no provincial sales tax.” Clearly, the lack of a sales tax was increasingly entrenched within Alberta’s political identity, through the idea of the Alberta Advantage, according to which the lack of provincial sales tax is a blessing for the province.

Much more recently, in 2015, the surprise election of the Alberta NDP presented another opportunity to overhaul this fiscal regime in a context of growing provincial deficits triggered by the fall of oil prices the previous year. To address this situation, the NDP made some revenue changes, notably instituting mildly progressive income tax rates in place of the previous 10 per cent flat tax. Yet once again, like the Liberals during the 1993 provincial campaign, a left-of-centre party refused even to consider a sales tax. NDP Premier Rachel Notley only went as far as the 1998 Tax Review Committee, suggesting that the issue might warrant further discussion – “but not right now.”

Despite the persistence of provincial deficits and against the advice of many economists and policy experts, Premier Jason Kenney has not embraced the idea of a provincial sales tax since his United Conservative Party came to power in the spring of 2019. On the contrary, he drew extensively on Alberta Advantage rhetoric to justify a major cut in the provincial tax rate. Although his government’s first budget did introduce an indirect (and hidden) increase in personal income tax through the freezing of tax brackets, his approach to fiscal balance, like Ralph Klein’s more than 25 years ago, is centred on spending cuts rather than on the creation of new revenue sources, including a provincial sales tax.

The Alberta Advantage rhetoric that Kenney clings to is problematic from a policy standpoint because it makes it even harder for the provincial government to introduce the sales tax the province badly needs to foster fiscal sustainability, balance the budget and reduce its dependence on resource revenues. To make a case for a provincial sales tax, Alberta policy experts need to argue that underutilizing the province’s fiscal capacity, which the government is doing now in the absence of a sales tax, is a long-term fiscal disadvantage that stands in the way of both revenue stability and policy sustainability.

In March 2020, an oil price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia sparked a massive drop in oil prices shortly after Alberta released its budget based on an estimated US$58 per barrel oil price – the actual price on March 30 was US$14.10. Kenney stated that “all options were on the table” to address the growing deficit. Yet when pressed about a provincial sales tax as one possible option, Kenney replied that he could not “imagine a dumber thing to do.”

To be fair, the combined economic pressure of the oil price crash and the COVID-19 crisis present real challenges for the economies of Alberta, Canada and the world. However, in the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis, serious consideration will need to be given to alternative sources of revenue for Alberta. Moreover, as global efforts to mitigate climate change increase, demand for fossil fuels will inevitably peak. This will only increase the fiscal pressure on the province, and a sales tax will be an increasingly likely policy option for alleviating that pressure. The current crisis appears to represent the best policy window to date, and only time will tell whether Alberta is able to adopt a provincial sales tax, or whether the entrenched political culture of the Alberta Advantage will prevail once again.

Written by Charles Burton and Brett Byers. 

With the election behind us and a new political reality in Ottawa, the real work is about to begin for our political class.

Policymakers must now grapple with issues of consequence, such as how to grow Canada’s economy, how to manage affairs with Indigenous peoples and how to mitigate the impacts of climate change. Despite the importance of those questions, another is being asked with increasing urgency: how should Canada reshape its engagement with China to mitigate China’s growing challenge to Canada’s security and to its commitment to a rules-based international order?

Ever since the arrest of Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou on an extradition request from the United States in December 2018, Canada-China relations have been at an all-time low. Authorities in Beijing retaliated against Canada by curtailing the import of major agricultural products, including canola seeds and all meat products, worth billions of dollars in sales for Canadian farmers. China also arbitrarily detained a Canadian diplomat on leave, Michael Kovrig, and North Korea–based entrepreneur Michael Spavor, who have been left languishing under the harsh conditions of China’s brutal detention regimen. This detention includes hours of harsh daily interrogation, disorienting sensory deprivation and no access to legal counsel or due process of law.

Beijing is intent on sending a clear message: if Canada wants to enjoy the economic benefits of an enhanced relationship with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), then Canadian political interests must take a back seat to the will of the Chinese Communist Party.

To some, this seems like a radical departure, and to many, the breakdown of relations come as a surprise. After all, what happened to the positive engagement that decades of governments on both sides of the Pacific had sought to engender? Where is the goodwill Canada fostered by acceding to China’s wishes when it came to issues like Taiwan, trade and investment relations, toleration of the PRC’s many domestic violations of human rights and support for rogue regimes including North Korea and Venezuela?

The truth is, our old way of thinking about Canada-China relations is built on the same flawed premise that has characterized many international relationships with the PRC. Successive governments of both political stripes have naively assumed that if they simply appeased Beijing in the right way, or simply engaged in optimal fashion, they could work with China as a partner of equal esteem and enjoy preferential access to China’s burgeoning markets.

Indeed, an entire subclass of supposedly smart policy advisers have risen through the high offices of Canada, promising that they alone possessed that ineffable knowledge and tact necessary to deliver this idyllic and harmonious relationship with Beijing. Businesses with deep ties in China have long urged Ottawa to yield again and again to Chinese Communist interests to foster a positive and mutually beneficial economic relationship. Our political class has been all too eager to believe this soothsaying.

Clearly, though, given the current state of affairs, the supposed collective naiveté of our political class is no longer an acceptable excuse. The Chinese Communist Party has revealed its true character; it has laid bare its ambitions and dispelled once and for all the myth that it is willing to act as a good-faith partner for “lesser nations” like Canada. China itself has, through its own actions, disabused us of the notion that Canada could be considered an equal partner by the PRC. Rather than feign ignorance, we must decide how to reshape our relationship to meet China’s threat to Canada’s political autonomy and economic integrity.

We must first reconceptualize our goals and basic strategy when it comes to Canada-China relations; a lack of fundamental guiding principles around our China policy plays a large part in explaining why Canada is in its present mess. This effort ought to be guided by a core belief that Canada should place its national interests as they pertain to security, prosperity and values first. The desire to work with the PRC must be set against whether or not such engagement would reciprocally benefit Canada.

Canada’s role as a middle power must be put in context. We may be the weaker party in a bilateral relationship with China, but we are in a strong multilateral position as a democratic nation in the Indo-Pacific. Our strategy must strongly realign us with regional allies who share our values to coordinate a concerted response to China’s flouting of the norms of international diplomacy and trade.

What is needed is a measured, principled and forward-looking China strategy that is complementary to the efforts of our key allies and based on the goals and aspirations of Canada. In terms of concrete policy implications, this strategy manifests itself in a number of different ways.

Let’s first consider economic policy. At present, there is a sense that Canada is disproportionately reliant on China economically, which has allowed Beijing to apply economic coercion tactics against us to secure the release of Meng Wanzhou. There is some substance to this concern. As many countries have learned the hard way, we ought to avoid increasing trade reliance on China through an asymmetrical free trade agreement, and should seek to diversify away from China and toward more predictable, fair and likeminded markets in the region.1

More than that, a new Canada-China strategy should consider the limits of China’s economic leverage. As a recent Macdonald-Laurier Institute report makes clear, the kinds of goods that China imports from Canada are naturally constrained, whereas the kinds of goods we import from China are largely available in other markets.2 This is to say that Canada has some significant advantages and China is taking some serious risks in this dispute.

We should be bold in countering China’s economic coercion. An effective new China strategy would recognize that Beijing takes these sorts of economic risks precisely because Communist authorities believe we lack the conviction to push back. Ottawa can strengthen insurance programs to help businesses and individuals mitigate the risks of Chinese reactionism; we can level greater scrutiny against Chinese companies that engage in intellectual property theft; and we can withdraw from the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Indeed, backing out of the AIIB will help ensure that Canadian resources aren’t being put toward President Xi Jinping’s “Belt and Road” initiative, with its elements of enabling corrupt dictatorial regimes and debt-trap diplomacy.

Coupled with diversifying our trade, moves of this kind would send a clear message to Beijing and would meaningfully serve to protect Canadian economic interests. They should be considered in a measured and reasonable fashion, employed strategically to shift our linkages and dependencies away from the PRC when necessary and beneficial.

We also must see China’s economy for what it is. It is state-directed, if not state-owned; reliant on intellectual property theft to support innovation; and propped up by CCP favouritism and corruption. We cannot engage with China as though it were a normal market economy.

We must be wary of Chinese companies and their efforts to integrate themselves into our free and open market economy, particularly when it comes to critical infrastructure and information technology. Not only is our intellectual property at risk, but in the case of companies like Huawei and their proposed involvement in 5G telecommunications infrastructure, our national security itself is under threat.3

We must ban Huawei’s involvement in 5G. Anything less is a capitulation of our security interests to the PRC. Such a move would communicate to the authorities in Beijing that, if they want to participate in our economy, they must first change their ways to align with liberal universal values and global norms.

Security considerations go beyond domestic concerns. The PRC is engaged in a massive military effort that threatens the peace and stability of the Indo-Pacific region. Take China’s island building in the South China Sea, corresponding with a rapid increase in funding for the People’s Liberation Army, Airforce and Navy. This aggressive activity aims to expand the regime’s regional dominance, largely at the expense of Canada’s important partners.

We must be clear-minded about the nature of the threat that China’s destabilizing activity poses to the world order and the global peace and prosperity it underpins. While Canada is of limited military means, we can play an important role in initiating, participating in and supporting our allies in regional freedom of navigation missions. We should continue training and security exercises with partners in the region.

This will strengthen our relationship with likeminded allies and help Canada engage China multilaterally with greater strength and leverage. Working with partners on matters like security, Canada will be less isolated as it pursues a measured foreign policy agenda based on our national interest.

Diplomatic cooperation ought to extend beyond security to all diplomatic efforts and activities. In resetting our approach to China, we must engage more actively and with greater sophistication with the Indo-Pacific region at large, including Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. This includes closer coordination with traditional allies like the United States and Australia, as well as partners with whom we have had recent relationship challenges, such as India.

Canada has much to offer the Indo-Pacific. Using our endowments could strengthen our hand in dealing with China. For instance, we possess abundant natural resources, particularly oil and natural gas. Our partners in the region, like Japan, are dependent on energy resources from the unstable Middle East. There is a serious opportunity for Canada to integrate itself into the region through the export of much-needed energy products. In turn we could leverage our energy exports into a better and more important seat at the table when it comes to seeking partners for a unified strategy toward China.

As a nation of immigrants, our people-to-people ties with many countries, from India to the Philippines to Taiwan and others, are robust and positive. We should leverage this soft power to maximize our formal and informal linkages in the region. Canada can better project itself as a member of the Indo-Pacific community, ready and willing to work with likeminded countries.

Canada must consider the benefits and messages sent by rethinking its Taiwan strategy. While such a move would be received with typical vitriol from Beijing, Taiwan is a natural ally that shares our values and with which we enjoy positive (albeit informal) bilateral relations. If Canada were to work more closely with this island nation, it would put China on notice that its aggression and coercion undermine its own strategic interests.

Canada has a lot of latitude when it comes to engaging with Taiwan, through supporting Taiwan’s meaningful inclusion in international forums or closer security cooperation. It has been observed that Canada’s rigid interpretation of the “One China” policy is out of date and out of line with the policies of many of our allies.4 Canada could support Taiwan’s admission to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), taking a leading role in increasing the region’s economic diversification away from mainland China.

Taiwan carries another benefit that too often goes unobserved. There is no government more resilient in the face of China’s coercion efforts than that of President Tsai Ing-wen. Working more closely with our counterparts in Taipei could help yield insights into how Canada ought to approach its relationship with Beijing.

Efforts to remake our China strategy should not be limited to the international stage. There are avenues to be pursued domestically which are just as important. To start, when China arbitrarily detains Canadians, we cannot sit on our hands. Kidnapping Canadians must be met with a measured, proportional response to disincentivize future bad behaviour. This could include returning any known Chinese intelligence agents operating on Canadian soil. Our intelligence agencies are largely aware of who these individuals are, so this could be done with relative ease.

We must crack down on harassing, coercive, corrupt and covert activities by agents of the Chinese state against anyone in Canada. This starts by enacting new, tougher laws against foreign interference, as well as investing in intelligence and policing services to enforce these rules. Furthermore, Ottawa must end government collaboration with China’s United Front Work Department, and must urge provincial governments to do the same. When it comes to designing our approach to combating foreign influence and interference, we can look to Australia for what such laws could look like, and what failures Canada ought to avoid.

Canada must uphold its multicultural values by paying greater heed to issues affecting Chinese Canadians and Chinese international students. We have a duty to protect them from foreign interference, coercion and bullying at the hands of an authoritarian power, often through the United Front Work Department. We owe it to these individuals, who have chosen to call Canada home or made an effort to engage with our society through their studies, to provide the full benefits of a free and open society unimpeded by the control of an authoritarian power.

This requires engaging directly with the diaspora community and making every effort to provide opportunities for integration. It also requires monitoring and scrutinizing universities and other institutions which receive foreign money to ensure that it is not creating undue influence, particularly over Chinese nationals and Chinese Canadians.

As former Ambassador to China David Mulroney has explained, Canada has a blind spot when it comes to Canadians acting as foreign agents.5 Beijing has swayed Canadian opinion leaders of all stripes, including former high Canadian government officials and politicians, who now act as de facto lobbyists for the Chinese Communist Party. To change our China strategy in the long term, we must establish a registry of foreign agents and place restrictions on the titles and positions agents can hold while cashing cheques from foreign regimes.

Canada must act as an impartial, consistent and dependable voice when it comes to calling out Chinese human rights abuses. This includes the important step of immediately condemning excesses by the police in Hong Kong, calling for an independent inquiry into their excessive use of force, and stating clearly that any police or military crackdown in Hong Kong would carry serious consequences. Moreover, Canada must continue to highlight the plight of Uighurs, Tibetans, religious minorities and other persecuted peoples within China. We should weigh the value of Magnitsky sanctions against officials responsible for egregious human rights violations.

None of this is to suggest that Canada ought to disengage from China wholesale. Such a position is neither realistic nor optimal. But it is just as foolish to engage blindly as to disengage blindly. We must be open as a partner when the PRC adheres to international rules and norms, but we must not accept coercion or belligerence from Beijing against us, our allies and the international system.

This reshaping of the Canada-China relationship is a moral imperative and serves as a much-needed pushback against Beijing’s aggressive, revisionist agenda. Only by working with our allies to impose measured and proportional consequences for bad behaviour can we hope to inspire positive behaviour from China. If we fail to stand up for ourselves, Beijing will have every incentive to continue rolling over Canada and our allies.

As Canada asserts its interests through a newfound China strategy, policymakers should expect pushback from the PRC. This is a regime sensitive to any slight and all too eager to throw its weight around when it thinks it is to China’s advantage. This is not a reason for us to back down. It is a demonstration of why we must stand up. An authoritarian regime committed to imposing its will over democracies is the sort of regime we cannot afford to appease.

Finally, such a strategy rethink benefits the Chinese people. They are as worthy as any other to experience citizenship in a free and open society. That dream may be far off, but sustained international pressure will check China’s authoritarian ambitions, encourage positive behaviour and lead, in time, to a brighter future for the Chinese people.

The policies outlined here could be considered part of a new China policy: some first words in the conversation, not the last.

A measured and principled approach to China is ultimately of the greatest sustained benefit first to Canada, then to Canada’s likeminded allies and ultimately to China itself. With a new political configuration in Ottawa, the pursuit of a remade Canada-China relationship is of the utmost importance to Canada’s future as a free, democratic and prosperous nation. Naiveté about China’s global intentions can no longer be our excuse.

Continue reading “Resetting Canada’s Approach to China”