Image: From, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Written by Henry Milner and John Richards

Vladimir Putin and his admirer Donald Trump have much in common. What has become clear is that both live in worlds of their own. In Ukraine, the destructive effects of this are there for all to see. In the United States, it constitutes a not-so-obvious potential threat to democracy itself.

In late 1949, George Orwell published his bleak dystopian novel 1984. He sensed his impending death from tuberculosis and was deeply pessimistic about the evolution of geopolitics. The optimism following the Allies’ victory over fascism had quickly degenerated into an ideological impasse. In 1946, Churchill introduced the image of an “iron curtain” falling over eastern Europe.

The parallel with present geopolitics is obvious. The geopolitical optimism of the decade following the fall of the Berlin Wall has disintegrated.

In a recent press conference convened by the Russian foreign ministry, Maria Zakharova, a senior Russian diplomat, was asked about 1984. She replied, “Orwell did not write about the USSR, it wasn’t about us. He wrote about the society in which he lived, about the collapse of the ideas of liberalism. And you were made to believe that Orwell wrote it about you.”¹

We are in an ideological hall of mirrors, with no obvious exit. If Zakharova has read the novel – which is doubtful – she is lying about Orwell’s intent. On the other hand, she is telling the truth in asserting a collapse of liberal ideas, now if not in the late 1940s. The liberal Russians who ran Russia in the 1990s created chaos. They presided over a dramatic rise in unemployment, expropriation of public assets by emerging oligarchs and a decline in life expectancy (from 65 to 58 for men and from 75 to 71 for women between 1985 and 1995). Boris Yeltsin yielded power to a KGB colonel who knew how to create an effective dictatorship that would enjoy majority support. Among his tactics has been near-total control of the media. The Economist has published a sample of typical of Russian media reporting on the war in Ukraine (see box).

The U.S. equivalent of Zakharova is Donald Trump’s persistent claim that liberal elites running the Democrats won the 2020 presidential election by electoral fraud. There is no credible evidence about major Democratic fraud that could have affected the results. On the other hand, there is irrefutable evidence that Trump attempted to win reelection by fraud. Perhaps, the most significant evidence is the recorded telephone call between Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and Trump.² Over a lengthy conversation, Trump attempted, unsuccessfully, to persuade Raffensperger to shift state vote totals sufficiently for Trump to win Georgia’s electoral votes.

The attempt at fraud is bad enough. More disconcerting is that, a year after the election, more than a third of Americans, including two thirds of Republican supporters, believe Trump’s lie. In December 2021, Ipsos conducted a professional survey on behalf of NPR. Table 1 shows results in response to the question “Do you agree or disagree voter fraud helped Joe Biden win the 2020 election?”

Most Russians will never learn how much they were lied to, though they will surely realize that, however legitimate the invasion, the cost in lives and rubles will have been too high. The effects of Trump’s lies in the United States will be harder to gauge. What if the two thirds of Republican supporters who believe in Biden’s “steal” of the 2020 election conclude that the 2024 election is valid only if their side wins? The future of American democracy is seriously in doubt.

Box 1: The Putin Show and Tucker Carlson Tonight

Excerpts from “The Putin Show: How the War in Ukraine Appears to Russians,” published in the Economist on May 17:

8:00 AM

You wake in your flat in a new high-rise on the outskirts of Moscow. Your ageing mother has left a copy of Izvestia, a popular conservative daily, on the kitchen table. Scanning the front page, you encounter familiar storylines.

“My ancestors defended the Motherland from Nazism, and I will defend it too”. So says Vladimir Mashkov, a famous actor. You read that “Azov”, a Ukrainian battalion with far-right ties, has left a trail of war crimes and civilian murders in its wake. According to the newspaper, British troops created and trained the group, fostering its Nazi ideology and adherence to neo-pagan cults.

You learn that Russian volunteer medics are hard at work in the Donetsk People’s Republic. Russians are saving lives in Ukraine.

You learn that Russia’s budget surplus reached 800bn roubles, thanks to plentiful oil revenues. So much for Western sanctions.

11:30 AM

You scan your phone while at work. The trending news tab on VK, Russia’s most popular social network, points you to a channel on the “situation around Ukraine”. The official explains that it is the will of the people of southern Ukraine to rejoin the motherland, and that Ukrainian rule has only brought repression and suffering.

You see officers of Russia’s security services capturing a Ukrainian Nazi sympathiser who planned a terrorist attack on Victory Day.
Early in the war reporting was triumphalist. Journalists implied the “special operation” would be concluded within days or weeks. Commentators questioned Ukraine’s statehood, warned of Nazis, accused the West of cultivating said Nazis and insisted the Ukrainian people were awaiting liberation. Many repeated one of Mr Putin’s first explanations for the invasion: if Russia had not made a preventive strike, it would have been attacked.

As the conflict has dragged on, the tone has become increasingly hysterical. The fighting is portrayed as but one front in a war with the West. Sanctions are proof of the West’s intention to bring down Russia.

Civilians in Bucha, a town north of Kyiv, were massacred by … Ukrainian soldiers. Western secret services arranged the bodies on the roads for journalists to find. Russian media “tell about a Mariupol where Russian tanks are met with flowers”.

Audiences are told that Russian troops have taken extra care to avoid civilian casualties, which is difficult because Ukrainian Nazis tend to hide in apartment blocks … why the operation is taking so long.

Russia’s existence as a nation, Russian history, Russian culture and the right to be Russian are under assault. Parallels with the Great Patriotic War tap into the memory of a righteous existential struggle against Nazism. Hosts evoke the idea of a holy war, telling viewers that God is on Russia’s side against the evil Western forces that encircle it.

6:00 PM

As you drive home, stuck in traffic along the Third Ring Road, you catch the news on the radio. The talk of biolaboratories seems fanciful, like something out of science fiction. But then so much of life since the pandemic began has been. You still aren’t exactly sure who Soros is, but if he is involved, it must be bad.

9:00 PM

After dinner, you watch a talk show hosted by Vladimir Solovyov. His monologue, delivered from a sleek studio, has a clear set of messages. The West seeks nothing less than Russia’s complete destruction, Mr Putin has the trust of the Russian people and it is time for you to show your support.

Channel One has replaced entertainment with extra current events … In place of daytime shows are programmes like “Anti-Fake”, where panellists dismantle Western “disinformation”.

Russians can still access unofficial information. Yet the bans have had an effect. Before the war, around 30% of Russians used Instagram each day. The share had fallen to just 10% by late April. Many Russians, especially older ones, do not have the means or skills to use VPNs, and Western sanctions have made paying for them tricky, too.

The Report Ends:

People tend to believe stories that reinforce their existing beliefs. Mere repetition can also make information seem more believable. In today’s Russia, those mechanisms are reinforced by violence and repression. Challenging or questioning the official narrative moves you out of your comfort zone and into jeopardy.

Of course, Donald Trump does not have Putin’s means of exercising mind control. The situation is rather one of a media environment favourable to his lies. Here we rely on some equally impressive reporting from the New York Times. The first is from a detailed study of the content of all 1,150 episodes of Tucker Carlson Tonight on Fox News published on April 30:

When you enter Mr. Carlson’s world each night, you are among his three million-plus viewers — and part of a Fox News audience that is 92 percent white and overwhelmingly older, according to Nielsen data. They are the “ruling class.” They threaten everything you believe in. They include Democratic (and some Republican) officials, members of the media, Big Tech executives, academics, sports and Hollywood stars, and others. Many … have been attacked in dozens or even hundreds of episodes.

Not only do they want to control you, Mr. Carlson warns, they want to destroy you and your way of life. They have various ways of doing this, he asserts, including importing immigrants from the “third world” to replace you with more “obedient voters.”

Another New York Times article examines the pervasiveness of lies about the 2020 election in state legislatures:

The Times’s analysis exposes how deeply rooted lies and misinformation about former President Donald J. Trump’s defeat have become in state legislatures, which play an integral role in U.S. democracy. In some, the false view that the election was stolen — either by fraud or as a result of pandemic-related changes to the process — is now widely accepted as fact among Republican lawmakers, turning statehouses into hotbeds of conspiratorial thinking and specious legal theories … Election and democracy experts say they see the rise of anti-democratic impulses in statehouses as a clear, new threat to the health of American democracy. State legislatures hold a unique position in the country’s democratic apparatus, wielding a constitutionally mandated power to set the “times, places and manner of holding elections.”

All is far from lost, the article concludes:

In most states, the lawmakers who challenged the 2020 results do not yet have the numbers, or the support of governors, secretaries of state or legislative leaders, to achieve their most audacious aims … It is only a minority of Republican lawmakers who promote the legally dubious view that they – and not the votes of the people – can select the electors who formally cast a ballot for the president in the Electoral College.

Continue reading “Ministry of Truth”

Photo: Maksim Sokolov, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Few events have provoked as much activity on the Inroads listserv as the occupation of downtown Ottawa in late January and February. Some participants in the discussion were on the scene in Ottawa; others observed from a distance. Taken together, their contributions constitute a running commentary on what is likely to be remembered as a defining event in Canada’s political life, whatever one’s perspective on it. What follows is a small sample of the discussion.

Philip Resnick | February 7

A History Lesson

As the blockade enters its second full week,
we discover, naive Canadians that we are,
that things are not nearly what we thought they were,
disdainful of Americans with their take no prisoners politics as we’ve been,
of Europeans who’ve so often proven their inability to get along,
of Latin Americans who’ve never quite figured out where things went wrong,
of the Chinese with their new model imperial dynasty.
Instead, we find ourselves stumbling as we go,
warily aware that the ties that bind this country together
are as thin as gossamer,
that city folk and country folk live in silos apart,
that endless harping on individual rights
can prove the bane of a functioning democracy,
that our leaders, in the crunch,
scurry to the nearest rabbit hole,
that this country proves just as problematic in governance
as the ones we’ve scorned.

Reg Whitaker | February 12

As the obscene spectacle of the Trumpist insurrection in Ottawa, Windsor etc. continues in the face of pathetic rhetoric and abject surrender by so-called policing and civil authorities, I have been increasingly struck by the generally unremarked hypocrisy that infects both right and left over protest that becomes civil disobedience that morphs into interference with the rights and safety of others and finally into outright insurrection.

There is a line dividing, on the one hand, dissent that can be accommodated by a liberal democracy from, on the other hand, forms of activism that erase that line and undermine liberal democracy itself. When the authorities style themselves as liberal and tolerant of free speech, which is of course admirable, they should be careful to note that exact line and be quick to bring to a halt “protest” actions that run over that line and threaten others and the community at large. In this case the authorities have largely abandoned any efforts to enforce respect for that line, with serious consequences for the practice of liberal democracy in the future. The lesson for any other group of people seized with self-righteous zeal about the truth of their cause, whatever it might be, is obviously “go for it.” Who cares about the collateral damage to innocent third parties or the democratic constitutional process, when the authorities will crumble in the face of your determination and selfish zealotry?

Just prior to the pandemic we had a dry run of today, only from the alleged left, in the “shut down Canada” campaign on behalf of a group of hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en opposed to the Coastal Gas Link pipeline that ended in rail and road blockades across the country. The Conservative Party then demanded blood and denounced the namby-pamby hands-off liberal response of the Trudeau government. They might have made major political gains out of this, but the pandemic intervened, shutting down the shutdowns. Today, of course, with a right-wing cause to champion, the Conservatives have hypocritically moved 180 degrees to a far-right support of the insurrectionist stance.

But leftists who demand that Trudeau Jr. emulate his father in the October Crisis and bring down maximum force on the “freedom” insurrectionists were often praising defiance of the law in “shut down Canada” two years ago. Hypocrites all.

Worse, there are ongoing defiance of the law environmental protests that continue apace with the “truckers’” mob. At Fairy Creek on Vancouver Island, near where I live, there has been an ongoing attempt, in defiance of a legal injunction, to blockade logging roads, demanding an end all old-growth logging immediately and forever, at whatever cost to the workers and communities affected by such a ban. More importantly, this is also against the express views of the two First Nations on whose lands the protests have been taking place, who have both demanded the protesters leave. The B.C. NDP government is trying to work with First Nations on whose lands logging has been taking place to develop Indigenous plans for logging, but the protesters dismiss this out of hand.

It is surely time for responsible people on all sides of the ideological divides to rein in their zealot colleagues and redraw the line that separates lawful protest and dissent and legitimate civil disobedience from actions that disrespect the constitutional process and endanger the health and safety of others. That means that when the line is crossed, authority steps in and disciplines the lawbreakers. It matters not at all whether you agree or disagree with the aims of the protestors – all that matters is the legitimacy or illegitimacy of their actions.

Frances Abele | February 12

Reg, I often agree with you and here see your point, but tonight it is very hard for me to focus on this issue. Downtown Ottawa is a long way from young environmentalists blocking roads. It’s mayhem. Food stores have been overrun by maskless gangs and have been forced to shut. Pedestrians continue to be harassed. Many of you will have heard about the arson attempt a few days back. Tonight on Bank Street a resident spotted two individuals testing whether using handcuffs would work to lock the doors on an apartment building. Fuel is being openly carried to vehicles and generators on Wellington and other streets. It’s one big dance party, with an edge of hostility coming from some yelling “Freedom” from the back of pickup trucks.

Of course I don’t know that the arsonists are part of the invasion mob – or who obeys which of the six reported “organizers.” What I can say is that it appears that members of the Ottawa Police Service are aiding and abetting them. So, really, what else can the people live here do, but ask for federal aid that gets around the “command” of the Ottawa Police Service. As far as I can see, that’s the Emergencies Act. Any other suggestions?

Reg Whitaker | February 12


Ottawa is indeed in chaos and insurrection and, yes, absolutely a public order emergency should be invoked under the Emergencies Act, since the excuse for a police force have surrendered or are complicit with the insurrectionary mob. That the Prime Minister will not do so is appalling. Apparently he wants no more to be a real PM than the Ottawa police want to police.

My only point was to suggest there is a more widespread complicity in this breakdown of civility, order and the rule of law than today’s headlines would indicate.

André Binette | February 12

If Trudeau does not invoke the Emergencies Act within three days, he will completely lose control. The Ottawa police chief is clearly in over his head. This is actually worse than the October Crisis. The FLQ were a handful of amateurs. This is much more organized and widespread.

Gareth Morley | February 13

While the protests are a nuisance – in both the legal and the ordinary sense – it is over the top to compare them to kidnapping a foreign diplomat and killing a senior member of the elected government.

André Binette | February 13

The FLQ never talked about overthrowing a democratically elected government and they never bore swastikas. They did not use children as human shields. They did not have an irrational view of science.

Although the violent methods they used were unacceptable, they had some public support because they denounced serious and verifiable social injustice. Cries of freedom in this case are far less credible.

I think it is over the top to deny these basic differences.

Frances Abele | February 13

It’s true, thank goodness, that no one has been kidnapped and killed yet. But what is happening here is much more than a nuisance.

It’s true that the crowds have often been cheerful – BBQs, hot tubs, music, etc. But the angry bully boys are there too; people have been harassed and spat upon. As far as one can tell from close outside observation, there are some very bad people blended in. I wish I could estimate the proportion, but I don’t really have a basis for that.

Ottawa is a small city. Lots of people – including, by design, low- income people and recent immigrants – live near Parliament Hill. There have been semi-trailer tractors blocking their streets for over a week, idling and sounding their air horns virtually all night. Imagine being a frail senior or a recently arrived family with small children. Small businesses have closed because their staff are being menaced, sometimes with racist slurs. People who cannot afford to lose even a week’s pay have been unable to work for much longer – this is Week Three. There is a pretty widespread impression growing among people who live here that the police will not protect us.

Numerous spokespeople for the occupiers – and they have tended to be the rightwing ones – insist that they are not leaving until their demands are met.

So what do you suggest?

I am sure that in the longer term some sort of effective dialogue needs to be cultivated. Maybe not with the Proud Boys etc. (outside my wheelhouse to know how that could work), but clearly there are hundreds of other people who have joined them in Ottawa because they wanted to. I think they look so happy because they feel solidarity and they feel heard. The consistent slogan is “freedom.” Why do they feel like they don’t have it? Why are they not troubled by the uglier aspects of the message? Why is it so exhilarating to cause so much pain to fellow citizens? It’s complicated and very frightening.

Philip Resnick | February 13

The kidnappings of both James Cross and Pierre Laporte were serious threats to constituted authority, whatever André Binette may believe. Was the reaction of the Trudeau gouvernement excessive? The War Measures Act was a heavy weapon to wield, and 400 or so were caught up in the arrests that followed. But Pierre Laporte was murdered, and it took months for the authorities to finally track down the house where Cross was being kept and work out the deal which allowed the kidnappers exile in Cuba in exchange for Cross’s release.

As a graduate student at the University of Toronto at the time, I was passionately opposed to the proclamation of the WMA. But with hindsight, I note two things: (1) There was no attempt to prevent the pursuit of sovereignty by nonviolent means. Indeed, the Parti Québécois went on to win the 1976 election, and subsequently those of 1981, 1994, 1998 and 2012. (2) Two referendums were held, one in 1980 the other in 1995, with the PQ government determining the question, though with the fate of Canada as a whole on the line. And the federal government and the country as a whole went along with this.

In short, if Quebec is not independent today, it is not for lack of trying by the PQ and others, nor because of the proclamation of the WMA during the October Crisis.

None of this is meant to excuse the shocking lack of leadership to date by Justin Trudeau and the federal government in the trucker convoy challenge that has paralyzed downtown Ottawa for over two weeks as well as the major border crossing between Alberta and the United States. I wish he had a quarter of the backbone of his father.

André Binette | February 13

As a young man at the elite French-speaking Montreal college his father also attended, Justin Trudeau would have encountered young men and women who expressed resentment at Trudeau the Elder’s actions. He would have also likely seen a film celebrated in Québec, called Les Ordres, which has contributed to shaping collective memory of the October Cisis. That film is about the imprisonment, without any accusation of wrongdoing, of nonviolent artists and intellectuals.

There are about 200 survivors from that dark period. There are now mythical stories about their time in prison. I heard many harrowing tales. I was part of a team of lawyers who sought recognition of wrongdoing by the federal government in Superior Court in Montreal last fall. It so happened that the judge, who is considered a safe pair of hands by the federal Department of Justice in sensitive cases, was a former teenage friend of mine in Ottawa. He was exceedingly courteous and commiserating, striking just the right note, but of course the result was expected. He would not turn his court into a historical commission of inquiry into federal state secrets.

Frances Abele | February 13

What happened this weekend in Ottawa:

1. There is labour action. The Ottawa District Labour Council and the Public Service Alliance, along with several community groups, organized a counter-protest march on Saturday. Looked like a couple of thousand people. No violence.

2. This morning a truck convoy left the occupiers’ baseball stadium camp, planning to join the protest on the Hill by driving north on Bank Street. They were stopped by 25 community people (a dog-walking group) standing on the road at Bank and Riverside. Those people tweeted asking for support, and within a couple of hours there were over 1,000 people. The convoy-stopping group were polite and firm. They spoke to people in each of the convoy vehicles, and within a few hours had convinced all of them to go home, after surrending their gas cans, flags and decals. Apparently some of the people in that convoy had no idea that the protest was not supported by Ottawa residents. The counter-protesters also explained their concerns to the police who were standing around. Early on, the police told the counter-protesters to get off the road. They said no, politely, and raised the issues we have all had with the failure of police to protect people in Ottawa. Politely. Eventually the police worked with the counter-protesters to allow convoy vehicles to leave once they surrendered their flags etc. and promised not to join the demonstration by Parliament Hill.

3. Saturday night on Wellington Street and area was party time – mayhem as usual. Drinking, loud music, dancing, with no permits, of course, for any of it.

4. Our mayor, apparently acting on his own initiative, negotiated a crazy deal with Tamara Lich, one of the occupation leaders, under which the occupiers would be allowed to stay on Wellington if they moved off the residential streets. Not sure this will happen, as (a) there is no more room on Wellington for more trucks, and (b) Lich is already calling “the media” and Watson liars and apparently walking away from the deal.

5. We were all spooked by the news out of Peterborough that a truckload of guns (no bullets apparently) was stolen.

6. Let me repeat – the trucks and all the rowdiness are on Wellington, right in front of Parliament Hill, the PMO, etc.

7. It is extremely hard to know what is up with the Ottawa police, except that clearly they are not vigorously protecting us.

Harvey Schachter | February 14

Justin Trudeau, for all his fiery rhetoric and relatively quick response to the pandemic, has been a cautious prime minister. We’re still waiting for a decision on Huawei 5G, even though it would be easy to give. He had a lot of pressure from wise Liberals to concede on Ming but he let things play out.

He does let things play out.

He falls back, when not on political rhetoric, on process, and there are process issues here. The War Measures Act was formally requested by the Mayor of Montreal and Premier of Quebec. A protest has due process requirements; an insurrection, less so. But hot tubs at an insurrection?

I have been thinking of Mackenzie King in recent years as I watch Trudeau. I remain fond of Frank Scott’s poem:

The height of his ambition
Was to pile a Parliamentary Committee on a Royal Commission,
To have “conscription if necessary
But not necessarily conscription”,
To let Parliament decide

Not quite Trudeau. Different people, different times. But Trudeau in action usually seems more W.L.M.K. than Pierre Trudeau, although Pierre Trudeau knew how to stall as well.

In the late afternoon of February 14, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced at a specially called press conference that the Emergencies Act was being invoked.

Frances Abele | February 14

I’ve been listening to the press conference. Strikes me as a measured response. All over Ottawa, I hear sighs of relief. Citizens here have been calling for cutting off the funding and insurance for over two weeks.

I find myself in the odd position of appreciating Brian Mulroney (who is responsible for the new Act) and Justin Trudeau for judicious use of it. Maybe the only day in my life this has happened. I guess an occupation will do that to you.

Philip Resnick | February 14

His Father’s Son

Of W.L.M.K.,
F.R. Scott famously wrote,
“Do nothing by halves,
Which can be done by quarters.”
This of a man
who had promised a version of medicare back in 1919
and delivered only dribs and drabs
of social reform
during his long tenure in office.
And what might one say about J.T.,
who waited weeks and weeks
as the occupation festered
and border crossings were besieged
before finally acting,
but still afraid to let the military
play even a minor role?
“Why be half his father,
when a quarter would suffice?”

Reg Whitaker | February 15

Despite complaints from civil libertarians, leftists and environmentalists warning of an alleged slippery slope to authoritarianism, the government has offered what I take to be a reasonable rationale for proclaiming a public order emergency. The conditions are all met and the threat level takes on real meaning with the arrests and seizure of an arsenal of weaponry at the Coutts crossing. The so-called Freedom Convoy has a political or ideological agenda it seeks to impose upon Canada by threatening force if necessary, in the course of which it has already inflicted huge economic losses, not to speak of terrorizing and intimidating citizens of Ottawa. Local police have proved utterly inadequate or unwilling to cope with the challenge (the resignation today of the Ottawa police chief confirms this) and extraordinary federal powers are required to compel everyone from the police to towing contractors to simply do their job, which they have signally failed to do so far.

Gareth Morley | February 15

I don’t want to weigh in on any legal issues. I question the strategy though. What the government should be doing is splitting the extremists from the mass of people who dislike Trudeau and want to see the mandates loosen. This seemed to be happening but this declaration will almost certainly reverse that. It will vindicate the extremists in their fantasy about holding back a totalitarian government and legitimize that fantasy among the 30 per cent or so of Canadians susceptible to it. I can’t see what has been gained to make that worth it.

Frances Abele | February 15

Gareth, I think Reg is right. If you had been in Ottawa for the last 19 days, you would know why it was necessary. The police were not enforcing the law. There is lots of confusion about why and no doubt blame belongs on several heads. At this point I don’t care. To get the people who are terrorizing the downtown communities out of the city, a credible force was needed. Because of the powers Reg mentions, the solution need not be violent. Cutting off the money and insurance will help a lot.

I agree we also need to think about the aftermath, and especially understand better why the people who poured into the city each weekend to support the hard core were motivated enough to do that. It seems that they just don’t believe the news – not Global, not CTV, not CBC and certainly not me. They have been schooled in suspicion and mistrust. We really are toast as a democracy if we can’t find a way out of this.

Gareth Morley | February 15

I would like to understand how this is worse than, say, the Stanley Cup hockey riots in Vancouver. It was important to react to those in a way that didn’t make things worse afterwards. The B.C. government tried to come up with punishments that involved accountability but weren’t criminogenic.

The convoy was splitting and was losing its support among the much larger group that dislikes the mandates and thinks Justin Trudeau is the face of a woke authoritarianism that disdains them. I don’t think you have to share this perspective to understand it. I just fear that order was winning and Trudeau threw that away for a performative political victory.

Arthur Milner | February 15

Over the years, I haven’t seen many comments denouncing Trudeau for authoritarianism. More likely elitism (wokeness?) and insults that imply vacuity, inexperience and weakness. To some people, there is no greater insult than “drama teacher.”

He’s now being called authoritarian and the like for bringing in “heavy-handed legislation” against “peaceful protesters.” But in the long run, which accusation is more damaging to democratic government – weakness and an inability to maintain order; or authoritarianism?

Reg Whitaker | February 15


You are stretching an analogy well past the breaking point.

The Stanley Cup riot was a one-off tied to an a single event, the Canucks losing to Boston. Like January 6, these convoys are a scattered, ragged but semi-organized insurrection set on overthrowing government (that’s what they have said repeatedly). As with January 6, despite their patent inability to actually pull off a violent revolution, they (a) may well try again, perhaps with better organization, if not stopped dead now; (b) pose an intolerable burden of intimidation and fear on the majority of the population they have targeted; and (c) can inflict multibillion-dollar damage on the economy if their blockades continue and grow. For all these reasons, it was straightforward for Vancouver police to go easy and assume the rioters would return to being relatively law-abiding citizens in the days following. No such assumptions can be made about the politicized wingnuts of 2022.

Nor have I never heard that any of the Vancouver rioters were financed by multimillion-dollar donations from right-wing sources in the United States and Canada bent on building resistance to the liberal democratic state.

Philip Resnick | February 16

The Abyss

Watchman, what of the night?
— Isaiah 21:11

The abyss would seem to be as wide
as the country’s raging rivers,
each side knowing all too little of the other,
the one convinced of the disdain
with which those within city walls
look down on their condition,
though they labour in the heat and cold
to keep their kinsmen well supplied
with the necessities of life,
the other side adjusted to the comforts
and discontents of urban living,
with a certain insouciance in navigating
a global age’s shifting values.
A gap that two years of pandemic with its restrictions
has only widened,
as some of the freedoms and ease of movement
we all took for granted
were slowly chipped away.
One side now flies the flag
as a symbol of defiance,
the other the same flag
as a reaffirmation of the country’s underlying values,
as each awaits the watchman
to announce the ending of the night.

Gareth Morley | February 16

When conservative Canadians see Trudeau as authoritarian, it is in the sense that they think he wants to coercively impose an upper-middle-class urban morality on everyone. This is what “virtue signalling” means, I think. It is particularly galling because he doesn’t seem like a morally serious person, but someone who was handed everything and just talks his way out of consequences. A rich kid who leaned all the right things to say, but one who is going to impose a narrow provincial ethic in the name of universal morality.

I hasten to say that I don’t share this perspective. But I do get why his sense of superiority is grating.

trucker convoy
Photo: Aquarium h2oCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Henry Milner | February 19

By next week the protest will have fizzled. For the protesters this will have been a great success. A small group with little popular support for their actions (though they expressed the feelings of many that Canada and the provinces had been too stringent in applying pandemic constraints) managed to attract the attention of the city, country and world for three weeks.

It is media attention that makes all the difference. There have been many protests here and abroad, some much larger than this one, that got a fraction of the media attention. They got it because they used big trucks and other vehicles to disrupt, in Ottawa and on the bridges. Had they simply sat in in front of Parliament Hill or provincial legislatures without vehicles they would have won little media attention and fizzled on their own.

It surely isn’t difficult to draft and pass legislation to make using vehicles to disrupt normal activities so costly in terms of fines, loss of permits and jail time if necessary to prevent this in the future.

Frances Abele | February 20

I agree with you about the trucks, Henry, and also the remedy.

But there are other lessons to be learned.

1. I have been unsettled by the way in which far-right nutbars maintained leadership of the occupiers, which numbered more than 5,000 on the weekends. How is it that that many people were not unsettled by swastikas and the statements of leaders preaching sedition? Something to understand there.

2. We have to think about the U.S. influence. I watched as false news was created here in Ottawa and picked up by Fox and countless right-wing social media – for example the case of the woman (not) trampled by a police horse. It did not help that the New York Times got events seriously wrong, so wrong so repeatedly that I have cancelled my subscription. Their “take” too fed the right-wing imagery. All this shows that we are not really separate from the dumpster fire that is U.S. domestic life. So what is to be done?

Arthur Milner | February 20

The police action on the Hill, which I’ve spent a lot of time watching, was pretty great. Very calm, ordered, patient – but in two days they cleared Wellington Street. (When the cops smashed the windshield of a big truck, it was a pleasure to see a great many other big trucks pull out.) Clearly, the cops learned from the disastrous G20 experience. The calm, slow, methodical action on the Hill required a great show of force, with cops from a many jurisdictions. From what I understand, the emergency legislation expedited the participation of various police forces.

Everyone acknowledges the participation and leadership of far-right individuals and groups, and also U.S. participation and influence, but we seem reluctant to acknowledge the participation and leadership of religious extremists. Three “experts” on political extremism, just now on CBC Sunday Magazine, never mentioned religion as a motivation of the Freedom truckers. Would that be impolite? Do people occupying for religious reasons have greater rights under the Charter than people occupying for political reasons?

Clearly the occupiers had been assured that what they were doing was legal and there was no way the police would intervene. The three-week occupation reinforced their beliefs. Most, it seems, were absolutely stunned when the police actually intervened. Religious or secular, delusions run rampant.

It will be interesting when various bodies review mistakes made and why the Ottawa Police and administration were paralyzed for so long. My suspicion is that a woke Chief of Police combined with many racists among the police rank and file led to inaction.

Frances Abele | February 20

Look, folks, the occupiers are not truckers. Please stop perpetuating this myth, which does not help us understand what happened and indeed is still happening. Ninety per cent of Canadian truckers are vaccinated, the Canadian Truckers Association early on condemned the occupation in very strong terms, and for the last three weeks a surprising range of working truckers tweeted their opposition to the occupation. As a social group, people who own those big rigs, or are trusted to drive them, are intelligent and well informed. They need to keep working – and certainly cannot afford to take three weeks off.

From what I have been able to see, Arthur is quite right – a substantial chunk of the occupiers are people from big-box churches who are deeply confused about which country they live in and about science. They seem quite prone to breaking into tears when confronted with information, and indeed some were evidently shocked to find themselves on the wrong side of the law. I have a hunch that is who brought their kids.

Then there are the people it is hard to like – mainly young men, and some women, who probably do not have steady jobs. They bulked out the disco dance parties, took their shirts off to dance in front of the cameras (why?), harassed women and young service staff, bullied pedestrians, and are happy to hate Justin Trudeau. The mockery of Justin Trudeau, for instance their tendency to refer to him as “Justine,” does look like class resentment to me, but also plain old male rivalry – he’s pretty, he’s privileged, and he’s in charge. (Is that why they kept taking their shirts off?)

But: I saw also a lot of funding and a lot of organizational skill behind this. On the first day, I saw a woman and her kids in a car, by appearance working-class, flying a beautiful big flag on an expensive pole. How did she afford it, and so quickly? There were tons of those around town. Throughout there was a steady supply of fuel, food, saunas, entertainment and, yes, cash money, until that was cut off. Much more than the people we could see, I am worried about the people we did not see, who funded this.

There did seem to be people, especially those who came on weekends, who were simply fed up with the restrictions. Some might have been baseline libertarians. Others are ordinary Conservatives, exasperated with how we have all been living, and not convinced by the science. It’s hard to tell how many people signed on because they wanted to press all governments to relax the public health measures. Honestly, though, I don’t think people in this last group would have stayed for the show this weekend. They are people who usually obey the law. It is very unfortunate that Candice Bergen, Pierre Poilievre & Co. are condoning lawlessness in an effort to corral the votes of this group.

I probably missed some fractions of the occupiers, but these are the most obvious ones to me.

Geoff White | February 20

As is Frances, I am an Ottawa resident, pleased to see the occupiers peacefully dispersed.

As to the virtues of invocation of the Emergencies Act:

1. It enabled the assembly of a concentration of police forces from across the country and gave them enforcement powers without jurisdictional complication.

2. Organizers were deprived of financial and physical assets, which was vital, not only in taking resources away, but in punishing organizers and participants in a way they will remember. Their confiscated assets may be available to pay for some of the damages they caused.

3. Combined with the city’s and province’s declarations of emergency, invocation of the Act injected a necessary quality of urgency and purpose into the imminent police action.

Listserv contributors may wish to criticize the particular judgement call of invoking the Act, but I think it should be judged on its positive consequences. The required inquiry and debate may identify failings leading up to the occupation and identify any overreach if any. But I do not imagine that the door to casual future invocations of the Act has been opened.

An incoherent rabble’s occupation of Canada’s capital was effectively defused and dispersed, to the relief of the vast majority of this city. It is often the restoration of order and the experience of being restrained that encourages careful reflection. The animus against government is not of the sort to be changed by reasoned argument alone – or even at all.

Joe Murray | February 20

The unified command drawing officers from the RCMP, OPP and local forces in many provinces including Ottawa, Hamilton, Edmonton, Vancouver and Quebec did a very professional and commendable job in ending the protest in Ottawa.

We’ll find out later exactly how many external officers were used compared to the 1,800 requested by but not provided to the Ottawa Police in the weeks leading up to the invocation of the Emergencies Act. We also need to understand more of the backroom discussions between the police services and three orders of government that were involved in the long delay in commencing the operation.

Given the “success” of the Freedom Convoy demonstration tactic of blocking roads with hard-to-remove vehicles, we need to review the toolkit available to the Canadian state to respond. Is it really necessary to use the biggest warhammer in the national security toolkit to deal with some trucks on city streets?

When the main charge against the leaders of the group that caused the Emergencies Act to be invoked is the property crime of mischief (yes, mischief!) we have to wonder if the law and institutions and personnel and preparations are fit for purpose.

The optics of lending some of the Army’s tow trucks might have been awkward, but still preferable to forcing tow truck operators to provide services. A couple of bases stock them, and it’s only a ten-and-a-half-hour drive from one of them in the Maritimes to Ottawa. There were likely other legal means of enforcing contractual compliance of the firms on retainer by Ottawa. Governments should purchase tow trucks for civil powers to have on hand when needed, as they do with Bailey bridges.

Gareth Morley | February 20

Geoff may be right, but I still don’t see why this couldn’t have been done with more active local policing. People have been writing reports about better coordination between Parliamentary security, Ottawa police and the RCMP for decades. Ontario’s Civil Remedies Act provides for ways of going after property said to be instruments of unlawful activity, if that was truly necessary.

The big problem is that the Emergencies Act polarized what should have been a local law enforcement issue and also sent the international signal that we are prepared to suspend the normal operation of law over what almost any country in the world would regard as a trivial amount of disorder. I recognize that this sounds dismissive to Ottawa residents, but I find the comparisons to even the FLQ crisis (which itself was overreacted to) to be hyperventilating.

The PMO saw this as a good wedge issue and wanted J.T. to look tough. I honestly don’t believe there is a more serious justification for it.

Frances Abele | February 20

Gareth, the occupiers were openly preaching sedition, threatening to hang the Prime Minister and flying the Confederate and Nazi flags. None of us could know how well armed they were. (So far the police report finding only an unknown number of long guns in their possession.). It is surprising to me that you feel confident in judging that none of this warranted federal action through the Emergencies Act.

I frankly care a lot less about how we look to imagined international observers than how the crisis was dealt with here. I am sure that the future inquiry will find that the Ottawa police should have acted more quickly and that the Mayor, City Council and Police Services Board should have too. But they did not. They seemed to be paralyzed.

Arthur Milner | February 20

“When the main charge …” Joe wrote, is “mischief (yes, mischief!) we have to wonder if the law and institutions and personnel and preparations are fit for purpose.”

In 1968, 114 of us were arrested for occupying the Simon Fraser University Administration Building. We spent the night in jail.

We all snickered when we found out that we were to be charged with “public mischief.” Then we found out it was an indictable offence that came with a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison. In the end, most of us pleaded guilty to the summary offence of mischief and paid, I believe, a $250 fine.

So perhaps if the crime had a name worthy of 14 years in prison, the Emergencies Act would seem more fit for purpose.

Reg Whitaker | February 20

The use of the Emergencies Act was bound to be controversial. None of the objections strike me as terribly persuasive.

From a number of sources, some of whom are reasonably well-informed, I have heard the criticism that the Act is overreach and unnecessary since normal police powers were already adequate for the task and had succeeded in clearing the Windsor and Coutts border blockades. I find this quite unpersuasive.

The refutation of the “unnecessary” argument applied to Ottawa lies in the shocking but undeniable fact that the main police force with jurisdiction to control the Ottawa occupation, the Ottawa Police, had failed abysmally to deliver on even the minimum of their job description, to provide policing of unlawful activity and ensure the safety and protection of citizens and their property. That failure was reflected in the resignation of the police chief, resignations and turmoil on the Police Services Board, and behind this a Mayor and City Council that sometimes resembled the random flailing of a chicken with its head cut off.

The reality was that in the absence of the federal government taking charge, there was no prospect of a coordinated multilevel police response to the unendurable and unjustifiable occupation of the nation’s capital by a mob of honking, defecating yahoos, backed by well-organized and well-financed right-wing hate networks, many from Trump’s America. When those who actually claim to be insurrectionary call for the overthrow of a democratically elected government and its replacement by a “citizens’ government” (i.e. them) and camp out, in their intention permanently, right outside the Prime Ministers Office while waving “FUCK TRUDEAU” signs, there is surely a national public order emergency, which accords closely with the definition of such in the Emergencies Act.

Let me specify a number of areas where the powers of the Act have proved effective and crucial to the resolution of the crisis:

1. Federal coordination of three levels of policing and a larger number of policing and security agencies. The bumbling ineffectiveness of the Ottawa Police on their own was in stark contrast to the remarkably well-disciplined, well-organized and well-planned removal of the trucks and protestors from central Ottawa. As a quasi-military operation this was extraordinarily successful, with a minimum of force deployed and that only in response to aggression from a few protestors. Decapitation of the leadership, patient herding of the protestors into places with escape routes open to those who would leave and arrest for those resisting, getting the trucks out while taking down full information on licensing and ownership for future action, etc. – all this might in theory have been carried out by the Ottawa Police. But everyone knows they were incapable of doing it on their own, without the additional resources and coordinated planning and direction of the whole operation from the federal level.

2. Securing a perimeter around the central core and strictly controlling entry and exit from that perimeter. Without emergency powers, freedom of movement is a right. Police cannot normally tell person X they are allowed to proceed into central Ottawa but person Y is not allowed, simply on the say-so of police. But under the Act they have that power and it was very effectively used to control the situation.

3. Use of the financial power to freeze bank accounts and seize assets of funding organizations, revoke truck licences and potentially seize the vehicles. These were weapons that preempted many from staying on the line out of fear of personal financial catastrophe if they persisted, and therefore did much to defuse the entire protest. But such powers are not readily available without emergency legislation – and rightly so, as few would wish to see the state holding this kind of power over people’s livelihoods.

The latter points to a saving grace of the Emergencies Act, its reviewability and its temporary nature. The invocation of the Act has to be approved by Parliament, and reviewed by Parliament which can at any point revoke its application – not an inconsiderable matter in a minority Parliament. The Act is also reviewable by the courts, and it is clearly specified that its use is subject to the Charter of Rights.

Finally, the Act goes out of existence automatically after 30 days if not renewed. Anything the government might want to extend would then have to be passed like any normal legislation through Parliament.

If these powers are excessive, there is ample opportunity to restrain their use, hardly justifying the charges of tyranny. The Emergencies Act is temporary, it’s working well, and it will be gone shortly, along with the emergency.

Gareth Morley | February 21

We had to declare a national emergency to

1. Procure tow trucks

2. Get police agencies to talk to one another

We should not care about the long-term consequences of lowering the bar for emergency. Canada will not make any diplomatic complaints about emergencies being declared in similar circumstances. We should also not care that this has unified the antiregime elements and divided those in support.

The October Crisis seems like a good benchmark because it was clearly more serious, an emergency declaration had more and broader support at the time, and it still seems to have been an overreaction in retrospect. Innocent people were caught up in it. But the Prime Minister got to look like a tough guy, so that’s what’s important.

Harvey Schachter | February 21


You keep coming back to this point about the Prime Minister looking like a tough guy.

He certainly came under attack initially for not doing anything – for leaving a leadership gap. (And for his rhetoric, perhaps intended to be tough-guy, perhaps just defensive or jabbing at the Conservatives).

But he insisted he would never call in the military, not exactly tough-guy. And he didn’t. Heck, calling in the military is standard tough-guy stuff and easy to do.

After what many people considered too long a time for inaction, he brought in the Emergencies Act, with some consideration to not being overly broad.

Hardly tough-guy. More like moving from supposed inattentive dupe to action-oriented leader.

I’m not saying that tough-guy thoughts never come up in the PMO. In fact, unfortunately, too many people consider tough-guy leadership as equivalent to leadership and so politicians respond. But it would have been easy to be tough guy a lot earlier rather than a wimp for nearly three weeks.

Arthur Milner | February 21

Also, Gareth, you write “Get police agencies to talk to one another,” using emphatically dismissive language.

From what I understand, it would have been possible to bring to Ottawa other police forces – the Sûreté du Québec, for sure – but it would have taken longer. How much longer, I don’t know. And I’m not sure about the RCMP, the Ontario Provincial Police or Ontario municipal police forces. Maybe someone could find out.

But it wasn’t about “talking to one another”; it was about bodies on the ground.

Gareth Morley | February 21

You don’t need to invoke the Emergencies Act to get police departments to shift bodies to one another. It happens all the time. Powers under the Criminal Code are given broadly to peace officers.

Ottawa has had issues about coordination around policing of protests at or near the parliamentary precinct. That is a longstanding issue. I am not at all dismissive of talking between the RCMP, OPP, Ottawa Police and the Sergeant-at-Arms ‘office. If I was dismissive, it was of this being a justification for invoking the Emergencies Act.

Putting armed forces on the streets would have been worse, no question. But lending tow trucks would not be a big deal either.

I apologize to those who think it is unacceptably cynical to see this as politically motivated. Declaring an emergency is an inherently political act. It seems to me to have been a counterproductive one from the point of view of getting together a broad front of a party of order, something that I think was happening and that this foreclosed.

Emergency powers are necessary but they need to be used carefully. I don’t see that here.

Reg Whitaker | February 21

With respect, Gareth, I have to say that you are trivializing this very serious matter, trivializing both the threat and challenge posed to order and the case for emergency powers.

There are reasons to see the threat of the “Freedom” convoys as at least as serious or arguably more serious than the FLQ threat in 1970. The latter certainly posed a threat to the safety and lives of individual diplomats and politicians, and to the legitimacy of a Quebec government wavering in the face of terrorist intimidation. The convoys have already caused somewhere in the vicinity of $1 billion in lost business over the border, the discovery of weapons and plans to kill RCMP officers, and an occupation of the nation’s capital by a self-described insurrectionary force that was not only undermining the legitimacy of the national government unable for three weeks to put this challenge to rest, but also making the lives of ordinary Ottawa citizens intolerable – with no guarantee that if firm action were not forthcoming, the threat would not gather force in various new locations.

The remarkable transformation of Ottawa policing from bumbling ineffective ineptitude (and/or perhaps barely concealed sympathy for the insurrectionists) pre-Emergency to the remarkably professional manner in which the mob and their trucks were cleared out on the weekend is itself the best testimony to the need for the emergency powers, which, yes, do include compelling tow truck operators with contractual obligations to the city to do their job which they had been refusing to do. In an occupation anchored in heavy trucks blocking off entire streets and areas, this is manifestly not a trivial matter.

Both in 1970 and in 2022, there was a clear potential for a crumbling of authority and the decline of the rule of law in the face of an uprising ready to pounce on and exploit state weakness. In 1970 and today, that potential has been resolutely reduced by firm action. The difference is that in 1970 the War Measures Act was a blunt instrument bringing down maximum force without calibration, with no accountability and no framework of constitutional rights to protect the targets of state actions. The situation in 2022 is different, a calibrated time-limited legal instrument with accountability to Parliament and subject to the Charter of Rights.

I don’t see any long-term diplomatic consequences for Canada. The next time a foreign government declares an emergency that is manifestly a threat to public order, brings down a legal response that is time-limited, proportionate and accountable, and polices the crisis with the same kind of professional and measured methods deployed in Ottawa, then Canada will have nothing to criticize. If foreign emergencies don’t meet this standard, we will be just as free to criticize as we have ever been.

Joe Murray | February 21

Reg dismisses the argument that “the Act is overreach and unnecessary since normal police powers were already adequate for the task and had succeeded in clearing the Windsor and Coutts border blockades.” The argument is actually that existing laws are sufficiently powerful, not that their use was already successful. It’s necessary to prove they aren’t sufficient in order to declare an emergency under the Emergencies Act and still be acting within the rule of law. A government could introduce and pass a new law, but that’s not what Trudeau chose.

Reg also maintains that “the powers of the Act have proved effective and crucial to the resolution of the crisis” in a number of specific areas. The claim that the powers are crucial, meaning it couldn’t be done without them, is relevant.

The first area is “federal coordination of three levels of policing and a larger number of policing and security agencies.” It is not clear at all that this couldn’t happen without the declaration. Second, Reg cites “securing a perimeter around the central core and strictly controlling entry and exit from that perimeter.” This has been done legally numerous times without the Emergencies Act, including in Quebec City and Toronto. Finally, he mentions “use of the financial power to freeze bank accounts and seize assets of funding organizations, revoke truck licences and potentially seize the vehicles.” I believe, having scanned it today, that FINTRAC legislation could be used for a threat to national security, which can exist and be investigated without declaring an emergency under the Emergencies Act.

Reg Whitaker | February 21

Joe notes that police have secured perimeters “legally numerous times without the Emergencies Act, including in Quebec City and Toronto.” Quebec City and Toronto were one-off international conferences. Canada is obligated to guarantee the safety of Internationally Protected Persons, which describes foreign delegates to conferences hosted by Canada. The RCMP as the federal police force have particular responsibilities in this regard but responsibility extends as well to other forces, provincial and municipal, which have jurisdiction at the conference site. Exactly what authority this conveys is a matter of dispute. Suffice to say that for such conferences, a lot of leeway has been given policing to define security perimeters, but just for that conference. Charter challenges around unreasonable restriction of freedom of movement are possible.

The Emergencies Act is also subject to Charter review, but it clearly gives short-term power to establish enforceable perimeters, which was done in Ottawa which otherwise lacked the special authority of an international conference. Without that authority, protestors might well have had a valid claim for freedom of movement and the perimeter would have been rendered useless.

Joe also suggests that “FINTRAC legislation could be used for a threat to national security” to take coercive financial measures without invoking the Emergencies Act. Actually it has long been argued persuasively that FINTRAC lacks sufficient resources and sufficient powers to do an adequate job of tracking and stopping money laundering and tracking terrorist funding under normal conditions. Out here in B.C., a commission of inquiry and our provincial government have identified and strongly criticized the feds’ weakness on money laundering. FINTRAC’s powers are very likely to be augmented in the near future with amendments to the mandating legislation. For now, they were not up the job at hand – hence the need for emergency powers.

Obviously there are arguable and plausible points to be made against invoking the Act. Some of these were made in the debate in the House yesterday. I just think that the arguments for invoking time-limited accountable emergency powers are rather more plausible, and under the circumstances of an insurrection against democratic government and an intolerable burden upon peaceful law-abiding citizens of Ottawa: better safe than sorry.

Continue reading “The Occupation of Ottawa”

Smoky orange sky over the Golden Gate Bridge as 2020 wildfires rage on in California.

If there was ever a time to reconsider the logic and purpose of the carbon tax, it is in the wake of the severe weather events that caused so much damage in British Columbia in 2021.

Proponents of the present “revenue neutral” carbon tax, where the revenues are dedicated to rebates or the reduction of income and other taxes, see the carbon tax solely as a means of providing incentives to reduce fossil fuel use and associated greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. A revenue neutral carbon tax addresses the criticism that a carbon tax is primarily a “tax grab”; however, it ignores the fact that the GHG emissions generating the carbon tax revenue in fact impose costs, which government directly or indirectly will have to pay.

Encouraging households and business to reduce emissions is critically important. And imposing a carbon tax, as virtually all economists will tell you, is an economically efficient way to do that.¹ But the expenditures government must make to deal with the widespread damage caused by severe climate events, like the November flooding in British Columbia, are huge. And the investments that need to be made in public infrastructure and services to enhance the preparedness and resilience of utility, transportation, municipal and other government services to mitigate the damage of future events are even greater.

The obvious question is: Why shouldn’t the costs of mitigating and addressing climate-related damage be paid by the activity most directly responsible – use of fossil fuels that generate GHG emissions?

The present federal carbon tax is $30 per tonne of CO2 and generates nearly $3 billion annually. The federal tax is scheduled to rise to $50 per tonne in 2022 and reach $170 per tonne by 2030, in $15 per tonne annual increments. With a revenue neutral carbon tax, none of the current or increased revenues from higher tax levels will be available to finance the ever-growing costs governments face as a result of the climate change we are experiencing.

Pictured: The town of Lytton BC, before and after being destroyed by fire during the heatwave that set an all-time Canadian heat record of 49° Celsius. Before image from Province of British Columbia, via Flickr. After image from Anna Richards.

The November “atmospheric river” produced record rainfall in 48 hours over much of British Columbia. One consequence was massive flooding in the Fraser Valley. The mayor of Abbotsford has estimated repair of local dikes and compensation for destroyed infrastructure in and around his city will reach $1 billion. Probably, the cost of repairing and strengthening damaged rail and road infrastructure elsewhere in B.C. will amount to an additional $5 to $10 billion. As an initial estimate, the costs generated by record rainfall in B.C. are several times the current annual carbon tax revenue. That estimate ignores the climate-related costs of more severe forest fires, deaths due to heat waves and climate-related costs elsewhere in Canada.

Right now, financing remedial expenditures will come either at the expense of needed and almost universally underfunded health, education and other public services or through increased income, sales and other taxes. Ottawa has initiated a revenue neutral carbon tax schedule on the legitimate rationale that such a tax will reduce GHG emissions. But there is an equally legitimate rationale, based on the principle of “polluter pay,” to increase the carbon tax sufficiently to cover climate-related costs We shouldn’t be asking hospitals and schools to forgo needed funds, or workers and business to pay higher income taxes, to pay for these costs. We should be expecting those most directly responsible to pay.

We need a carbon tax per tonne of CO2 at least as high as required to cover the costs reasonably linked to GHG emissions. This in turn requires a more rapid increase in the carbon tax than the federal government is currently planning: annual increases of $30 instead of $15 per tonne over the 2023–2030 period. And it requires abandoning the revenue neutral policy in order to dedicate the carbon tax revenues to offsetting climate change–related costs.

With annual increases of $30 per tonne, the carbon tax would reach $290 per tonne by 2030. At that level, the tax would induce both significant substitution away from fossil fuels and significant revenues from remaining fossil fuel use.

You don’t need economic theory and price elasticity estimates to justify the tax. You just need the common-sense requirement that costs must be paid for, and those responsible should pay. You might find a lot more understanding and support for a rapidly rising carbon tax schedule if the revenue was targeted for climate-related costs.

For more from our Inroads 50 feature on climate change, click to read Getting Serious About Climate Change, by John Richards.

Continue reading “A Carbon Tax that Pays the Cost of Climate Change”

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).

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