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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Thomas Lundén in Stockholm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Donald Lavery in Stockholm

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

Anders Tegnell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


From Jan Otto Andersson in Turku/Åbo, Finland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Postscript from Henry Milner

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

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

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

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

Peter Lougheed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by Charles Burton and Brett Byers. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading “Resetting Canada’s Approach to China”

Gerry Hassan and Eric Shaw, The People’s Flag and the Union Jack: An Alternative History of Britain and the Labour Party. London: Biteback Publishing, 2019.

Eric Shaw has frequently written for Inroads about U.K. politics, with special emphasis on the Labour Party. In early 2019 he and a colleague published a book on the changing attitudes toward British foreign policy among Labour leaders since World War II. This is a subject of historical importance, but also a subject immediately relevant given the Brexit debate and the foreign policy attitudes of Jeremy Corbyn and his close advisers. We decided to review the book through a series of email exchanges between Eric and me.

— John Richards

JOHN RICHARDS: The book that you and your colleague recently published is unique. I know no other book that attempts to analyze British identity and foreign policy over the last century in terms of the role of the Labour Party. Central to your analysis is categorizing the beliefs of Labour leaders into “traditional patriots”, “radical patriots”, “liberal internationalists” and “socialist internationalists.” Can you give readers a succinct idea of what you mean by each of these four categories and an iconic example of someone belonging to each? My own choices are Ernest Bevin for the first and, to be topical, Jeremy Corbyn for the fourth. Not sure of my choices for the other two categories.

ERIC SHAW: These are ideal types. In practice, most Labour politicians have exhibited features from more than one type, though one element tends to predominate.

Traditional Patriotism

I’ve called this strand of opinion “traditional” because it was largely an expression of mainstream patriotic thinking, albeit with a labourist inflection. It reflected a belief in British “exceptionalism”: that in its love of liberty, its pragmatic spirit, its tolerance and its robust parliamentary institutions, the British state possessed a unique capacity both for domestic progressive social reform and for exercising a benevolent influence on world affairs.

This respect for the institutions of the British state historically predisposed traditional patriots to a largely benign, if by no means uncritical, attitude toward the British Empire. While condemning the reluctance to reform and the occasional resort to repression, traditional labourist patriots regarded the Empire as a whole as a progressive and enlightened force. Indeed, though the post–World War II Labour government (1945–51) granted independence to India, Ernest Bevin, the pugnacious and immensely influential Foreign Secretary and an iconic figure of Labour’s traditional patriotism, was unwavering in his attachment to the longstanding Empire state axioms and objectives of British overseas policy.

When Labour returned to power in 1964, after 13 years in opposition, much of the British Empire had disappeared. Still, inspired by traditional patriotism, the party leadership continued to insist on the vital importance of Britain’s global mission and hence of maintaining a worldwide network of bases, installations and military forces – until stark economic realities belatedly compelled retrenchment. The influence of traditional patriotism lingers, not least with the continued attachment of many on the party’s right wing to Britain’s allegedly “independent” nuclear deterrent.

Radical Patriotism

This is the old radical tradition in which patriotism is equated not with the pageantry and pomp of Empire but with the long struggles of “free-born Englishmen” to break the chains of wealth, power and privilege.

The radical patriot par excellence was George Orwell. He made a much-quoted distinction between “nationalism” and “patriotism.” By “nationalism” he meant “the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests.” It was all about national aggrandizement, fired by the twin presumptions that one’s own country was better than others and had an absolute claim on people’s loyalties.

By “patriotism,” Orwell meant “devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people.” His understanding of patriotism also informed his ethical socialism, the belief that socialism was not an abstract, arid doctrine but the translation of working-class communal and egalitarian values into organized political and legislative action. Radical patriotism’s finest hour was the decade of the 1940s when, during both the fight against Nazi Germany and the postwar period of reconstruction, Labour tapped a popular mood in which popular patriotism was equated with the drive to social equality, articulated in notions of social citizenship and given legislative expression in the universal welfare state. Thereafter its influence faltered, though it has experienced a revival in recent years.

Liberal Internationalism

It is difficult to find one single figure who encapsulates liberal internationalism – perhaps Roy Hattersley, deputy Labour leader from 1983 to 1992, comes closest – but its influence has been pervasive. Its earliest advocates were radical members of the pre–World War I Liberal Party, most of whom defected to Labour after the war. It sprang from a critique of the rampant nationalism which, in the view of liberal internationalists, helped precipitate World War I; more broadly, it sprang from a deep unease with any form of patriotism. For liberal internationalists, any version of patriotism that eulogized the nation, asserted “my country right or wrong” or demanded unthinking obedience to the state was morally objectionable and politically dangerous, even disastrous. As the historian David Olusoga recently wrote, “The waving of flags, the chanting of chants and the surrender of individuality to the emotion of the crowd, none of this traditionally warms the liberal heart.”

Liberal internationalism exhibited a strong antipathy to overseas entanglements, to the piling up of armaments and the reliance on force as an instrument of policy. Whereas traditional patriots, such as Bevin, were eager advocates of nuclear weaponry because it enabled the U.K. to “punch above its weight,” liberal internationalists were sharp critics and were heavily involved in the 1950s Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and other antimilitaristic organizations.

Liberal internationalists were convinced that international conflicts could be most effectively resolved through international conciliation and recourse to the UN. Its spirit was clearly seen in vehement opposition by many in the Labour Party to U.K. military intervention in Iraq post-2003.

Liberal internationalism can also be said to underpin pro-European – now dubbed “Remainer” – sentiment in the Labour Party. The characteristic features are very similar: a preference for international cooperation over national self-assertion, a cosmopolitan outlook and a tolerant and outward-looking spirit.

Socialist Internationalism

This tendency emanated from Marxist doctrines that saw any form of patriotism as ideologically and politically regressive, and all claims to national identity and allegiance as specious. Politics was essentially the conflict between political formations expressing rival class interests and visions, and the only true loyalty of workers was toward their own class in their own and other countries. Appeals to national sentiment were spurious and meretricious, designed to camouflage the reality of irreconcilable class antagonism.

Socialist internationalism was confined to the more radical fringes of the Labour left, and of all the four strands has had by far the least influence on the party – until the wholly unexpected election of Jeremy Corbyn to leadership of the Labour Party in 2015. His many political pronouncements over the years have registered sympathy for what came to be the key precepts of socialist internationalism in the years after 1945: a belief that loyalties and solidarities of class trumped those of the nation, an ingrained suspicion of British patriotism in any shape or form, fervent opposition to imperialism (especially of the American variety) coupled with a fervent championing of Third World liberation movements and, perhaps most of all, a deep hostility to the United States and the Atlantic Alliance.

JOHN RICHARDS: It is easy to find examples of British imperial sins: the Opium Wars, the violent overreaction to the Sepoy rebellion in Delhi, the Boer War, the killing of 400 demonstrators in Amritsar. But arguably, the “traditional patriots” in Labour played a valuable role in aiding parts of the Empire to make the perilous transition from feudal or tribal society to modernity. Sidney Webb had a significant influence on the evolution of social policy in Sri Lanka (currently by far the most prosperous South Asian country). Stafford Cripps and Clement Attlee devoted a lot of energy to trying to halt escalating communal hostility in India in the 1940s and find a federal solution for Indian independence, based on the Canadian precedent. And Ernest Bevin was among the most astute participants in the Israel-Palestine conundrum.

One of the ironies of Labour under Corbyn is not only his rejection of any version of British patriotism but his advocacy of a crude “Third World” Marxism that lacks realistic analysis of actual Third World politics. A recent example is his unqualified support of Chávez and Maduro in Venezuela. His stance brings to mind Marx’s famous comment on Napoleon III: the reign of Napoleon I was ultimately a tragedy, that of his nephew a farce. Is the comparison fair?

ERIC SHAW: As I remarked earlier, our four categories are meant as ideal types. In practice, the actual makeup of politicians comprised elements from more than one category, and the politicians displayed significant variations even when one element was predominant. For example, Attlee, who had a longstanding interest in India, was more of a reformer and less committed to maintaining the Empire than Bevin, who was very much a dyed-in-the-wood traditional patriot. Incidentally, Bevin’s posture on the Israel-Palestine issue was mainly driven by his determination to maintain British paramountcy in the Middle East. Herbert Morrison, who succeeded him as Foreign Secretary, shared this outlook. The views of Stafford Cripps evolved in the 1940s, as he drifted quite rapidly from being leader of the left (influenced superficially by Marxist notions) to being one of the “Big Three” (with Attlee and Bevin) of the postwar government.

The implication of your question is that British colonial rule, with all its faults, has been unfairly maligned by left-wing critics who disregard its achievements. Given my scanty knowledge, I’m hesitant to make a judgement, but I am broadly sympathetic to your view. I also agree with your view of Corbyn. His perception of the world is a rather simplistic semi-Marxist one, in which players can be separated into two camps: the imperialists, driven by the United States and its allies, and the anti-imperialists. I suspect that Corbyn’s benign view of Vladimir Putin’s right-wing nationalist autocracy is influenced by the fact that it is a check on American power.

How far Corbyn’s views are shared among his supporters is difficult to say – they are very much a minority in the Labour shadow cabinet. Instinctive anti-Americanism has always been present in much of the Labour Party, a sentiment greatly strengthened by the election of Donald Trump. Corbyn’s view of the world would be echoed among the various Trotskyist and other far-left elements that have recently joined the Labour Party, and by some union leaders (notably Unite’s Len McCluskey). These far-left groups are a minority, even among the Corbyn left, and Corbyn’s enthusiasm for Chávez and Maduro, in my guess, is not widely shared.

A final point: what would happen to the conduct of British foreign policy if Labour were to be elected? My feeling is that there would be changes of some significance, but by no means as radical as some might anticipate. This is for two broad reasons. First, the bulk of Labour frontbenchers and MPs would not want a radical rupture from traditional alliances – certainly not the current shadow foreign and defence secretaries. Second, I cannot see how Corbyn could mobilize a coalition of forces willing and able to drive through fundamental changes in the teeth of opposition from the Foreign Office, the security and intelligence services and the military.

JOHN RICHARDS: Before we move to more recent events, what about Clement Attlee? Last year, Adam Gopnik (expat Canadian Jew from Montreal, now living in New York) wrote about Attlee, concluding that he played a crucial role in assuring that appeasement Tories did not prevail in May 1940, that his role in the communal war in India was constructive and that, better than any subsequent leader, he successfully contained the sectarian factionalism within Labour.1 What relevance if any does his legacy have for Labour in this century?

ERIC SHAW: Attlee’s standing is high at the moment. This is true in the academic community, where he was voted the best peacetime prime minister in the 20th century, and also within the Labour Party. John Bew’s much-applauded biography has reinforced this.2 In his lifetime, he was often overshadowed by other apparently more forceful and more charismatic figures, such as Ernest Bevin, Nye Bevan, Herbert Morrison and Stafford Cripps. But his reputation has steadily risen and his government is widely admired (among progressives) for achieving the most impressive program of social reform ever seen in the U.K.

On appeasement, Attlee did play a major role, though it should be said he very much articulated the will of the party. On India, this was an area where he had a longstanding interest. He understood that there was no alternative to independence and, eventually, partition. But given the bloodshed that accompanied partition, the solution was far from an unalloyed success. On the Middle East, Attlee had reservations about the U.K.’s global pretensions in the area – that Britain should strive to survive as the paramount power in the Middle East, as urged by his Foreign Secretary and close political ally, Ernest Bevin. He eventually gave way to Bevin. As a result, much money was wasted to maintain a policy that was unsustainable.

On factionalism, Attlee’s position was interesting. It was different from that of his successor, Hugh Gaitskell, though similar to that of Gaitskell’s successor, Harold Wilson. Attlee seems to have maintained a good relationship with the left’s leader, Nye Bevan and, indeed, in the early 1950s, when factional divisions deepened, he blocked a foolhardy attempt by the right to expel Bevan. He was by instinct a conciliator and a good listener, who placed a high priority on maintaining party unity. He believed in managing the party via deft compromise, give-and-take and mutual accommodation.

The relevance for today is striking – not least with the aborted attempt by some of Corbyn’s advisers this past summer to remove Tom Watson as deputy leader. Attlee was a pluralist, whereas the ascendant Corbynistas are democratic centralists. I don’t mean the degenerate Leninist version of democratic centralism. Corbyn’s leadership style is to make decisions by ramming through the majority view rather than striving for some form of consensus. Also, his style is impatient of dissent, insistent on its claim to occupy the moral high ground, and inclined to see opponents as being animated by self-seeking and opportunistic motives.

Nothing could be further from Attlee’s style of leadership.

JOHN RICHARDS: In 1973, under a Conservative government, the U.K. ultimately joined the European Economic Community (EEC), as the European Union was then called. Then as now, the Labour Party was divided and, when it returned to power the following year, it agreed to conduct a referendum on whether to stay in the EEC. In the 1975 referendum, two thirds favoured staying in. What were the major bones of contention among senior Labour leaders?

ERIC SHAW: In the early 1970s, Labour was more seriously and evenly divided over membership in what was then the EEC than it is now. Divisions ran roughly along left-right lines: the left was almost solidly hostile to membership and most of the right was in favour, but with a large section on the centre-right either oscillating or opposing membership. In retrospect, we can see that Wilson managed the differences deftly and with considerable acumen. His own position was often ambiguous and he later complained that he “waded in shit” to hold the party tighter while others flaunted their integrity and consistency.

There were three major sources of contention. The first was damage to the Commonwealth, particularly to the economic links with the white Commonwealth. The second was erosion of parliamentary sovereignty that EEC membership would entail. And third, many feared the constraints that EEC membership would place on Labour’s capacity to pursue a socialist economic program.

The first point was particularly important to Hugh Gaitskell, party leader from 1955 to his unexpected death in 1963. Shortly before his death, he made a forceful speech before the Labour Party conference in opposition to the U.K. joining the EEC. Most of Gaitskell’s followers, such as Roy Jenkins, disagreed strongly with his views, but a few on the centre-right (notably Douglas Jay and Peter Shore) remained strong opponents of membership, mostly on economic grounds.

The second point was shared by both left and right, but the most fervent exponent was Michael Foot, the leading left-winger and senior cabinet minister from 1974 to 1979.

The third point was confined to the left. In the 1970s, the left developed the “Alternative Economic Strategy,” which involved a highly interventionist industrial policy, a major extension of public ownership and, to combat the U.K.’s balance of payments deficit, import controls. To varying degrees, the planks of this program were not compatible with EEC membership. Tony Benn, who had recently shifted from a centrist, pro-EEC political position to a much more left-wing and anti-EEC one, became the left’s major champion.

The party was divided down the middle. Feelings were intense on both sides, though there was a very important balancing group, which was basically in favour of membership but had as its first priority maintaining party unity. This group included the party’s most formidable leaders: Harold Wilson, his successor Jim Callaghan, the guru of social democracy Tony Crosland and, from 1974, the Chancellor of the Exchequer Denis Healey,

Tony Benn first floated the idea of a referendum to reconcile divisions in the party. Most were dismissive, but Jim Callaghan presciently remarked that the referendum idea was “a little rubber life raft into which the whole party may one day have to climb.” Wilson in 1973 seized on this, committing a Labour government to “renegotiate the terms of entry” and then hold a referendum. The renegotiation was mainly a symbolic exercise but the government claimed it a success and the centre and right more or less united in favour of a Yes vote in the referendum.

In the referendum the Labour vote was split but solid Conservative and Liberal majorities gave a two-thirds majority to those backing membership.

Fast forward to 1983: a left-wing majority in the National Executive Committee (Labour’s central committee) adopted a manifesto pledge committing a Labour government to quit the EEC – without a referendum. In the election that year Labour was crushed and the issue effectively disappeared – for a while.

JOHN RICHARDS: In 1983, Labour ran on a platform labelled by its Labour critics as “the world’s longest suicide note.” On foreign policy, it called for unilateral U.K. nuclear disarmament and withdrawal from the European Economic Community.

Two decades later Tony Blair, as Prime Minister, sent troops to Sierra Leone, an intervention that more or less worked as planned. For this initiative Blair was recently congratulated in an unexpected place, the New York Review of Books.3 However, Blair also actively supported the U.S.-led military coalition that removed Saddam from power in Iraq – a not so successful intervention.

How should Blair’s role be interpreted? Saddam was arguably a despot in the tradition of Pol Pot and other 20th-century genocidal dictators. Does this mean Blair was the epitome of the traditional patriotism category in Labour? On the other hand, many in Labour perceive U.S. and U.K. military intervention in the Middle East as unjustifiable support of the interests of multinational oil companies and of U.S. hegemony. Given this interpretation, should the conclusion be that Blair betrayed British left-wing traditions of support for national independence movements and multinational institutions such as the UN (which refused to support the intervention)?

ERIC SHAW: The first point to stress is the tradition of bipartisanship between the two major parties in the conduct of foreign policy. This was first established by Bevin in the postwar Labour government, with the endorsement of the bulk of the cabinet. It continued until the early 1980s. In effect, bipartisanship meant that Labour accepted conventional definitions of the national interest and security requirements. All this was very much in line with what I called traditional patriotism. The 1983 manifesto represented a major break, over NATO, nuclear weaponry and Europe, but this was soon abandoned.

Blair was responsible for three major interventions: in Sierra Leone, the Balkans and Iraq. Corbyn and his allies were consistent in opposing all three, but a majority in the party supported the first two, applauded as humanitarian interventionism. Blair justified a doctrine of liberal internationalism in his speech in Chicago in 2002, a major speech in which he urged the responsibility to intervene when basic human rights were being seriously and systemically violated. His position drew upon the traditions of liberal internationalism, which emphasized the humanitarian responsibilities of government, something that has always resonated within Labour ranks.

Iraq was much more controversial within the party. Partly this was simply a matter of scale – both previous interventions were localized firefighting, whereas the Iraq war was full-scale military combat, with massive casualties. A second point: the chief justification of British involvement was not humanitarian but the (alleged) threat posed by weapons of mass destruction, whose existence had, at the outbreak of war, not been conclusively proved (recall Hans Blix’s statement to the UN). Reservations about the wisdom of the action were by no means confined to the left – many within the Foreign Office shared them. Finally, the failure to secure UN approval was very important, given Labour’s (somewhat inflated) conception of the UN’s contribution to international cooperation and peacekeeping.

There is now a very large body of literature about why Blair was so keen to commit troops – he could have followed Harold Wilson’s precedent in Vietnam and simply offered diplomatic support. The crucial reason, in my view, was Blair’s desire to sustain “the special relationship.” My guess is that the security and intelligence services and the Defence Department, all with very strong links to the United States, would have lobbied hard for this. Cultivating the closest possible relationship with the United States was a cardinal principle of Blair’s approach to foreign policy, as it has been to his predecessors, and was seen as crucial to Britain’s security and military interests. It was also seen as the only way in which an economically much-diminished country could continue to bestride the international stage (“punch above its weight” in the much-used phrase) by acting, for example, as a “bridge” between the United States and the EU. In contrast, economic factors – oil – were, in my view, not of much significance for Blair.

JOHN RICHARDS: Corbyn’s foreign policy displays obvious links to the foreign policy pursued by Michael Foot as leader in the early 1980s. Like Foot, Corbyn is sceptical of U.K. membership in the European Union. He may have opposed the Brexit deal proposed by Theresa May, but he clearly favours some version of Brexit. For a Canadian audience, it would be helpful to describe his thinking about the European Union.

As we write (in late October), we do not know whether the U.K. will leave the EU during the latest deadline extension (to the end of January 2020). Corbyn faces a dilemma: the majority of Labour Party supporters favour continued EU membership, whereas Corbyn’s supporters favour some version of Brexit. In polls, Labour support has declined dramatically from results in the 2017 election – from 40 per cent to about 25 per cent in recent polls – and many Labour supporters have switched their support to the centrist LibDems, who now enjoy popular support near that of Labour. Let us leave aside the matter of the forthcoming general election, scheduled for December 12. What do you think is the probable fate of the Labour Party over the next decade?

ERIC SHAW: Let’s divide this into three questions: What, formally, is Corbyn’s public position on Brexit? What does he really feel about Brexit? And what do his supporters want?

Any answer to these questions must be a little speculative because we don’t have solid and reliable evidence. That said, my thoughts are as follows:

The position that Corbyn publicly affirms is that he wants a form of soft Brexit in which the U.K. remains a member of a customs union (not the customs union); that the U.K. should be “closely aligned” with, though not part of, the single market; and that a Labour Brexit should protect jobs, investment, and workers’, environmental and consumer rights. The problem with these vague conditions is that they amount to the U.K. being a “rule taker” and not a “rule maker.” In other words, Britain would be bound by EU rules and laws, but be in no position to participate in formulating the rules and laws.

In addition, Corbyn insists that Britain should have the right to pursue an interventionist industrial policy not constrained by EU regulations restricting state aids. The problem here is that if the U.K. is to be “closely aligned” with the single market, it will have to conform to state aid regulations.

A look into his past reveals that Corbyn has been a lifelong Eurosceptic. He has regarded the EU as embedded in free-market principles, allergic to state interventions and public ownership, and to a large extent a vehicle for the promotion of corporate interests. Whatever his exact views now, he certainly is no Europhile. He doesn’t appear to be disturbed by the U.K. quitting the EU, provided it is done on the “right” terms. Over the years, his emphasis on international solidarity has never extended to Europe. He has shown little interest in cooperating with Labour’s sister European parties. Further, the prism through which he views world affairs is the struggle between imperialism and anti-imperialism, and in that prism the EU’s position is at best deemed equivocal.

You suggest that “Corbyn’s supporters favour some version of Brexit.” It depends what you mean by “supporters.” If you mean rank-and-file Corbynistas organized in the Momentum pressure group, the majority of his supporters are emphatically Remainers. However, the Corbyn inner circle, his most senior advisers – such as Strategy and Communications Director Seumas Milne, Special Political Advisor Andrew Murray, and the head of Labour’s general election campaign, Karie Murphy – are all strong Eurosceptics, and very tepid about a second referendum. But in this inner circle, there are tensions. Corbyn’s longtime close political ally, the highly influential shadow chancellor John McDonnell, is increasingly associated with a strong pro-Remain and pro–second referendum posture.

Finally, what about Labour voters? Two thirds of those who voted Labour in the 2017 general election had voted Remain in the 2016 referendum; one-third were Leave voters. But to complicate matters, two thirds of Labour MPs represent Leave-majority constituencies. A significant number (though a minority) of Labour MPs with seats in the North and Midlands (traditional Labour strongholds) fear they will lose their seats if the party is closely associated with Remain and a second referendum. These, more than radical leftists, comprise the majority of Labour Brexiteers. The large majority of Labour MPs are themselves Remainers, who have been consistently warning (rightly) that the LibDems are siphoning off Labour Remain voters.

As for the future: it now seems that the 2017 election, which witnessed a major upsurge of support for the two major parties (over 80 per cent of the vote) was an aberration. We now have, in effect, a six-party system: Labour, Tories, Scottish National Party, LibDems, Greens and Brexit Party. Only the first three are guaranteed to win a significant number of seats (the SNP will probably win around 90 per cent of seats in Scotland).

Not only is the U.K. party system externally fragmented, but it is also internally so, with both the Conservatives and the Labour Party seriously divided internally. If the Tories win the December election – which is likely – they will (helped by their strong survival instincts) mend their differences. If Labour performs badly – which is likely – I anticipate a veritable civil war (helped by its “Thanatos instinct”) as the radical left digs in, blaming “the centrists” for the party’s defeat. The major problem for Labour is to find a credible leader to succeed Corbyn, who will certainly resign. If there is a no-holds-barred struggle for the succession, I can even imagine the party permanently splintering.

Continue reading “British Labour Looks Out at the World”

The observation that all politics is local is attributed to Tip O’Neill, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives in the Reagan era, but it could well be applied to Canada, and especially to the recent election. In the absence of an overriding national issue, regional and local factors played a large role in determining the outcome. An unpopular Conservative provincial government in Ontario dragged down the federal Conservative campaign in the province. The controversy over Quebec’s secularism law helped propel the Bloc Québécois to renewed prominence, but had no resonance in British Columbia. Strong showings by the Green Party in recent provincial elections in New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island carried over into the federal election. Issues affecting the energy industry in Alberta and Saskatchewan turned an already strong Conservative presence in those provinces into a virtual monopoly. Within regions, there were differences between urban and rural areas in Ontario, between the interior and the coast in B.C., between Manitoba and the rest of the Prairies, and between the various provinces in Atlantic Canada.

The story of this election is the story of how it played out in each of Canada’s five regions, as told in the reports in these pages.

From Atlantic Canada: click to read Liberal Resilience in a Hyperlocal Region, by Patrick Webber.

From Ontario: click to read Andrew Scheer Couldn’t Shake Doug Ford, by Paul Barber.

From Quebec: click to read The Return of the Bloc is a Mandate for Autonomy, not Sovereignty, by Eric Montigny.

From The Prairies: click to read Justin Trudeau’s Enduring Challenge, by Royce Coop.

And from British Columbia: click to read The Green Breakthrough That Didn’t Happen, by John Richards.

The Inroads listserv began in 1997 as a means to link Inroads readers and others interested in policy discussion. With nearly 130 subscribers, it offers one of the few chances for people of diverse views to grapple with social and political issues in depth. To subscribe, send an email note to listserv@lists.queensu.ca with the following in the subject and body of the message: subscribe inroads-l

On March 28, Quebec’s Minister of Immigration, Diversity and Inclusiveness, Simon Jolin-Barrette, introduced Bill 21, An Act Respecting the Laicity of the State, in the National Assembly. The bill, which proposed to prohibit the wearing of religious dress by some government employees, was the latest in a series of attempts – undertaken by Quebec governments of three different political parties over a period of almost a decade – to put the concept of laïcité into practice through legislation. Unlike previous initiatives, Bill 21 was passed by the National Assembly, on June 16, and it went into effect on the same day.

Even though the issue was not new, Bill 21 aroused strong passions and was extensively debated. A very active forum for debate was the Inroads listserv, where there was a lengthy exchange in late March and early April when the bill was first introduced. After sporadic comments in the intervening months, the debate erupted again during the federal election campaign when Prime Minister Trudeau and other prominent leaders said they might intervene in the Charter-based court challenge to Bill 21. This became a catalyst for the rise in the polls of the Bloc Québécois. Then, after another lull, the listserv was once more peppered with posts about Bill 21 in the days following the election.

Although one of the most eloquent voices opposing the bill on the listserv was that of a francophone Quebecer, and a number of participants from elsewhere in Canada with a longstanding sympathetic interest in Quebec supported the bill, the debate did demonstrate that this issue is viewed in very different ways in French Quebec on one hand and in English Canada on the other. Comprising some 200 posts between March and October, the listserv debate has, not surprisingly, been repetitive, and each side remains as convinced of the rightness of its position at press time as it was at the beginning. Still, there were some thoughtful arguments put forward, and some of the highlights of the pre-election round of the debate are presented here. This will not be the last word on the subject, and Inroads will be covering aspects of it in future issues.

The pre-election round began when Frances Abele drew the attention of the listserv to a September 28 article in the Calgary Herald by Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi.1 “There are those who say that this is about religious neutrality,” Nenshi wrote:

Make no mistake. It is not. This is a law that targets three groups of people: Muslim women who cover their heads, baptized Sikhs and Jewish men who wear a yarmulke. No other sizable religious groups in the province have to wear anything as part of their religious faith … What this ban says is that people of certain faiths, and only these faiths, can’t be trusted to do their jobs. It tells schools and municipalities that they can’t hire the best people. It says that kids in public schools can’t be exposed to people different than them.

Introducing Nenshi’s article, Frances wrote that she was “posting this because I think it can help us understand the different ways this issue is understood in different parts of Canada. I do appreciate the explanations that were offered by Arthur , Henry and others –progressive and good-hearted people who defended the bill, though none of you convinced me. Here is another progressive and good-hearted person whom it hurts.”

John Richards responded.

John Richards | September 29

Frances is not persuaded by those of us who support Bill 21. I am not without doubts about the law. Perhaps it will have unintended consequences and be used as an excuse for genuine bigotry.

Jewish fundamentalists have done bad things in Israel. Sikh fundamentalists have done bad things in India, in Pakistan and in Canada (most significantly killing over 300 Canadian citizens via bombs planted in two Air India flights originating in Vancouver). That said, let’s acknowledge the obvious: the main target of the law is Islamic fundamentalism. If Islamism – shorthand for Islamic fundamentalism – was removed from the equation, there would be negligible interest, in Quebec or elsewhere in Canada, in legislation.

While the primary target is Islamism, in a spirit of religious neutrality Bill 21 has also been applied to Jews and Sikhs, two other religious faiths that motivate some among the faithful to display their faith via articles of clothing. Furthermore, Bill 21 makes a symbolic move against Quebec’s Catholic tradition by removing the cross from the National Assembly.

Gareth Morley not only is unpersuaded by supporters of Bill 21. “Unlike Frances,” Gareth insists, “I am not willing to concede positive motives. Secularism is a nonsense principle.” Is it?

Bill 21 is a law inspired by the French tradition of laïcité. No doubt, some French and some Quebec proponents have racist motives but, from what I know of French and Quebec culture, the supporters of laïcité are not racist; they are primarily concerned about fundamentalist traditions of Islam and are searching for means to persuade Muslims to limit the scope of their religious faith – in other words, to separate Islam from Islamism.

France, the U.K., Belgium, Holland and Germany all have large Muslim minorities. Some of these countries have unambiguously opted for affirmation of secular values filtered by each country’s version of civic nationalism; others (such as the U.K.) have been more sympathetic to multicultural policy. In Europe, the distinction between pursuit of laïcité and celebration of multicultural tolerance is one of degree. At this point, no strategy can claim victory. All of these countries have been subject to Islamic terrorism over the last two decades and all face a serious problem of integrating a Muslim minority drawn to Islamist ideas.

While only a tiny minority have gone “all the way” and engaged in armed jihad, in all European countries Islamists have propagated a version of their faith that minimizes interaction with non-Muslims and preaches an interpretation of world events in which “Jews and Christian crusaders” are the principal source of human unhappiness. The French have probably been the most rigorous in attempts to understand the nature and appeal of Islamism.2

Nenshi is right that Bill 21 – like similar legislation in several European countries – calls upon Muslims to make a gesture of their acceptance of civic culture by removing religious symbols while at work. He then jumps to a ridiculous conclusion: “No other sizable religious groups in the province have to wear anything as part of their religious faith.” Who says these groups must wear external symbols of their faith? In my experience, in North America, most Jews, most Sikhs and most Muslims do not wear religious-inspired symbols. Nenshi would be more convincing if he acknowledged that those advocating that women wear the hijab (not to talk of the niqab or burqa) are often advocates of an unattractive and misogynist interpretation of their faith.

Perhaps laïcité, as practised in France and Quebec, will in the long run be shown to be inferior to multicultural celebration or some other strategy. In the short run, let’s acknowledge that there is a problem at the heart of 21st-century Islamic theology emanating from the Middle East – much as there was with Christian theology at the time of religious wars in 16th- and 17th-century Europe.

Gareth Morley | October 1

When I said laïcité is a “nonsense principle,” this is just a ruder way of saying what John says in his post. What is going on in the “real world” is hostility to visible Islam, with other religious minorities sideswiped and some rationalization. John, to his credit, recognizes that. But then he thinks this is okay, which is deplorable from my perspective.

The principle of “religious neutrality” is a real one. A liberal state should not be identified with any particular religious or antireligious perspective. But in the “real world,” no reasonable observer would conclude from seeing a crown attorney in Sherbrooke wearing a turban that the Quebec state embraces Sikhism. If this was the real concern, the strongest reaction would be against Christian symbols, although frankly Duplessis has been dead a long time. But as the relative reaction to Jagmeet Singh’s turban and Elizabeth May’s cross makes clear, the actual targets are minority religions associated with non-Europeans.

It doesn’t matter whether most members of a religion feel obliged to engage in a practice. If the practice is peaceful, then the state has no business banning it. Most Buddhists don’t meditate. Most Christians don’t put ashes on their forehead at the beginning of Lent. Most atheists don’t read Richard Dawkins or Karl Marx. That doesn’t make it any the less illiberal for the state to interfere.

Philip Resnick | October 2

The Charter of Rights and Freedoms heralded a major shift in Canada, with the courts coming to play a far larger role in the Canadian political arena than before. They were now in a position to override acts of Parliament in a way that had not been true until then, serving as a checking mechanism in the spirit of the separation of powers celebrated in the American constitution or in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen.

The Charter has also given rise to what my late colleague Alan Cairns once called Charter Canadians, a form of identity politics where individuals and groups will identify with specific sections of the Charter that speak to multiculturalism, gender equality or official language rights.

But it is worth remembering that there was an escape clause written into the Charter in the form of the notwithstanding clause. It was there because the then-premiers of Manitoba and Saskatchewan (one Conservative, one NDP), were fearful that the new powers accorded to the courts would undercut those of Parliament and the legislatures in cases where this might not be justified. And without these being spelled out in so many words, such cases might touch on core cultural and social values.

While some have chosen to elevate the Charter into the overriding feature of Canadian identity – Gareth seems to be one of these, along with figures like John Ralston Saul, Adrienne Clarkson and the editorial board of the Globe and Mail – there is reason to challenge this. For Canada, like any other country with its own specific history and cultural values, is not simply an empty slate onto which anything can be projected. And while religious toleration is certainly an important characteristic, it also need not come without limits. For example, female circumcision is still practised in many societies where fundamentalist Islam prevails. We would hardly want to legitimize it in Canada. In the same vein, I would argue, the burqa and niqab speak to practices in more traditionalist and patriarchal societies that most Canadians, including nonfundamentalist Muslims, find offensive. Why so? Because they undercut the equality between men and women that characterizes a modern-day Western society and the perfectly legitimate desire to see the faces of our fellow citizens.

Does this render us intolerant? Perhaps by the standards of extreme multiculturalism. But why should we bend over backwards to legitimize practices that come from another age and from societies so very different from our own? Or are our own core values so fluid and inconsequential that anything and everything goes?

I support much of what Bill 21 is about because it attempts to affirm the principle of secularism in a society, Quebec, which knew what religious dogmatism in the pre–Quiet Revolution era was all about. Like Henry Milner, I would have preferred to have excluded teachers from the total ban on religious symbols, but am more than comfortable with the general direction this legislation takes. And I say so because I do not consider myself a Charter fundamentalist.

Michel Seymour | October 2

I am not a Charter Canadian and I don’t need to rely on the Canadian constitution to find Bill 21 offensive. And I rely on the Quebec Charter only when individual and minority rights are concerned.

Of course, there is also a notwithstanding clause in the Quebec charter, article 52, equivalent to article 33 in the Canadian charter. There must, however, be very good reasons to justify violating fundamental rights and liberties of individuals and minorities.

These are protected not only by the Canadian and Quebec charters, but also by the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (article 18) and by the 1967 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (article 18). In both cases, we find the assertion that freedom of religion involves the freedom to manifest and express religious faith.

So what are the very good reasons supporting the obligation to remove the Islamic hijab, the Jewish kippa3 or the Sikh turban for a certain category of civil servants working for the Quebec government?

There are good reasons for not allowing the niqab or the burqa. We can simply appeal to issues of communication, quality of interaction, identification and security. Since these reasons have nothing to do with the interpretation of the meaning conveyed by religious signs, appealing to them is consistent with state neutrality. This issue is now being examined by the courts.

But what about the hijab, the kippa or the turban?

Anyone who interacts with women wearing the hijab in Montreal will find it baffling to hear that this religious garment is an expression of religious fundamentalism. The argument supporting such an outrageous claim is that religious fundamentalism is apparently revealed precisely in the refusal to remove the garment during working hours. What is presumably problematic is to treat this particular garment as part of one’s identity.

This argument against the hijab is based on the idea that religion is an entirely private, subjective and individual matter. It takes place only in the mind of those who exercise their freedom of thought and conscience. If this is the only acceptable way to live one’s religious experience, then indeed religious accessories are just that: accessories. They must not be seen as part of one’s identity.

However, there are different ways of living one’s religious experience: in private, in associations – and within an ethnocultural community.

Some live their religious faith through communal practices like Ramadan, Hajj, praying in the direction of Mecca or wearing a hijab, if you are Muslim. Or Hanukkah, Shabbat and Purim, if you are a Jew. Or Simran (meditation) and Sewa (selfless service) or wearing a kirpan and a turban if you are a Sikh. And these communal practices are often those of ethnocultural groups. Islam may be part of the identity of majorities in many Arab countries, as well as in Malaysia and Indonesia. Similar facts can be true of internal religious minorities.

Quebecers should know about this. For centuries, Catholicism has been part of French- Canadian identity. So it should not come as a surprise for us to see that subgroups within the Jewish, Islamic and Sikh communities in Quebec find it important to live their religious experience through community practices that partly serve to consolidate the bonds within their respective ethnocultural groups. This is how their religious practices have a bearing on their identity. They are intimately related to their ethnocultural identity.

This should not be seen as a novel claim. Religion has been connected with ethnocultural identity for thousands of years. It is a scientific fact of human cultural evolution; see David Sloan Wilson’s magisterial book Darwin’s Cathedral.4

So essentially, the whole issue relates to our ability to respect different postures toward religion (faith, agnosticism, atheism), different religions (Islam, Christianity, Judaism, etc.) and different ways of experiencing religion (privately, in religious associations and through different communal practices that serve to reinforce the bonds of one or many ethnocultural groups).

Various converging factors explain why we tend to be intolerant of Islam when it is practised for the purpose of reaffirming community bonds:

  • It reminds us of our religious past, and most Catholics, Protestants, agnostics and atheists in Quebec think that religion belongs to the private realm.
  • We are always influenced by France, and our debates have been formulated with the very same terminology and on the very same topics (including the burkini!).
  • The murders perpetrated by Al Qaeda and the Islamic State since September 11, 2001, have inspired fear. They have had an impact all over the globe and have induced a generalized Islamophobia.
  • Quebecers have a strong desire to distinguish ourselves from Canadians. If Canadians say that 2 + 2 = 4, some Quebec nationalists will want to argue that the answer is 5 just to mark a difference;
  • Some feminists believe that the ban on the Islamic headscarf is justified because it reflects the domination of Muslim men over Muslim women.

These motivations (and a few others) explain the popular support for Bill 21. And since the current Quebec government is populist, it was able to implement the bill. Notice, however, that these motivations cannot be invoked as arguments by a government that claims to achieve state neutrality.

But those who are in favour of Bill 21 really don’t care about state neutrality, even if it is a constitutive requirement for being a secular state. In any case, factors 1–5 are not very good reasons for allowing the state to violate fundamental individual and minority rights.

Arthur Milner | October 14

The state isn’t entirely abstract. It has representatives, people with actual power, some of whom carry guns, or gavels, or red markers. Some of us believe that not only the state but also the people who represent it “must be neutral in respect to religion.”

It’s none of the state’s business which religion you adopt and moreover you can adopt any religion you like in Quebec and still be a judge, cop or teacher. Further, you can be a judge, cop or teacher and wear anything you like – except while on the job.

If the state must be neutral with respect to religion, then so must its agents, so you can’t express your religion any way you like if you’re going to be a judge, cop or teacher. It’s not the state’s business what your political views are, but you still can’t wear an “I love Jagmeet Singh” pin in court.

John Whyte | October 15

Arthur Milner writes, “If the state must be neutral with respect to religion, then so must its agents, so you can’t express your religion any way you like if you’re going to be a judge, cop or teacher.” What good news for Canadian diversity that he was either less adamantly committed to this principle in a context not involving Quebec’s distinct society, or was less effective, when an injunction was sought against the RCMP to prevent it from allowing members to wear turbans.

But in truth, his statement is useful in setting out one of the bases for regulatory restriction on religious expression: such expression can compromise the state’s religious neutrality. The other bases for this restriction are, first, that it could inflict social harms, such as assault, animal cruelty or mutilation and, second, that it could implicate the state in imposing the establishment of a specific religion as a state attribute or character.

I doubt very much that, in Canada, we believe religious identification in a public servant’s public presentation destroys state neutrality. But I suppose that one could think that some religions compel their adherents to seek advantage for fellow believers at every turn. If so, one could see state neutrality as being compromised by having overtly Islamic teachers. But if that is what is feared, why stop at regulating visible identification through dress? Why not just bar Muslims from public office or function? On the other hand, if you don’t believe religion compels favouritism in public administration then there is no basis for thinking that wearing symbols of religious identification destroys neutrality – unless you think that revealing religious identity in public is always a sign of religious fanaticism.

But it can’t actually be fear of religious favouritism that explains Bill 21. Goodness knows we have had religious icons and garb paraded around public institutions forever, simply trusting in office holders’ and public servants’ disciplined commitment to neutrality (perhaps a trust not always warranted in the case of Christian influences). There is no evidence to support a new fear of embedding religious favouritism in public services through allowing public servants’ religious identification.

What is really going on in Bill 21 (setting aside the possibility of religious intolerance toward Muslims) is disestablishmentarianism – preserving the state from identification with, and promotion of, a specific religion. This is certainly a serious enough problem (and, in fact, continues in provincial “school choice” funding when public monies go to sectarian schools beyond those benefiting from a constitutional guarantee of funding). Bill 21, though, is rooted in a particular branch of disestablishmentarianism called laïcité – that is, severing the state’s connection, including any symbolic connection, to any religion.

While it is true that Quebec has a strong religious identity and that the privileges once held by a group have been relinquished agonizingly slowly, Quebec is not now sectarian and, in light of the secular spirit of the age, reaching into many religions, Quebec is not going to become sectarian. In the present context of public values laïcité, once noble and necessary, seems a strangely anachronistic and misplaced political theory with which to suppress Islamic dress. Of course, this may not seem like a legal argument – just a 21st-century social observation. But, as it turns out, social narrative often colours our – and judges’ – belief in governments’ justifications, and hence determines constitutional law. Laïcité is undoubtedly a political value but it is rooted in overcoming state religious favouritism, not in overcoming personal religious practice. It is a perverse use of the concept to muster it to suppress religious freedom to dress as one considers fitting when morality and risk are not at stake.

Of course, we won’t have a chance until 2024 to discover whether the policy of laïcité can override religious freedom. Bill 21 used both Canada’s and Quebec’s notwithstanding clauses which took away, for five years, any legal challenge based on the human rights of free religious belief and observance and religious equality. The constitutional challenge that is now proceeding without aid of the Charter’s sections 2(a) and 15 is unlikely to succeed – although, of course, I don’t know that for sure. In five years, however, assuming that the notwithstanding clause is not renewed, courts will find that Bill 21 violates clear Charter protections (I don’t know that for sure either) and that the suppression of rights cannot be saved by the courts finding that the risks of Islamic women teaching in hijab make the law a reasonable limit on Charter rights.

If a right is abridged, the jurisdiction seeking to impose the restriction must demonstrate on a balance of probabilities that the social costs the enacting jurisdiction claims to be meeting are actual and palpable. And the enacting jurisdiction must also show that the harms addressed by the regulation outweigh the harm of eroding the human rights of Muslim women who aspire to be teachers and other classes of public servant.

And if Quebec does then renew the notwithstanding clause, the longstanding political dynamic around Quebec’s distinctiveness will be again be in play, and this could continue every five years until a Quebec government recognizes that the danger of the hijab is less than the cost of this periodic values isolation.

Of course, human rights will ultimately prevail. But in the meantime, Canada, we have to ask: how are we doing with that justice thing that we are so proud of? Good states are grounded on justice and stability. Both of them matter.

Continue reading “Different Understandings of Quebec’s Secularism Law”

Sweden’s September 2018 election was a squeaker.1 The usual two blocs competed: the Social Democrats plus the Greens (Red-Green), supported by the Left Party (former communist), on one side; the Alliance of Conservatives, Liberals, Centre Party (former Farmers’ Party) and Christian Democrats on the other. The result was the narrowest possible victory for Red-Green, 144 seats to 143 for the Alliance, not counting the 62 seats won by the nationalist, populist Swedish Democrats (SD).

The same parties had been in the same situation in two previous elections. In 2010 the Alliance had formed a minority government based on the formula that the Red-Greens accepted: the largest bloc should rule, even if it constituted a minority. This was designed to keep SD out. In the next election, in 2014, the Alliance came out with fewer seats than the Red-Green bloc, again with SD holding a swing vote. And again, to keep SD from having any influence, the Alliance stuck with the agreement that the largest bloc should rule and let the Red-Green minority form a government under the Social Democratic party leader, Stefan Löfven.

This agreement was signed in the face of a protest from groups on the right. A revolt initiated in the Christian Democrats led the Alliance parties to revoke the agreement. Still, for all practical purposes, it was adhered to during that term of office, coupled with an expressed determination by the Alliance to topple the Löfven government in 2018 – at any cost! For many Conservatives and Christian Democrats, this meant a tacit understanding that it would be possible to govern with support from SD. However, the Centre Party and the Liberals ruled out that possibility. This was the context of four months of deliberations after the close outcome of the election.

Four Long Months of Deliberations

After an obligatory vote in Parliament right after the election, Stefan Löfven was ousted as Prime Minister but instead served as caretaker. After many weeks of exploratory talks with all parties, the Speaker of the Parliament (chosen by a coalition of the Alliance and SD) asked Ulf Kristersson, the Conservative leader, to try to form a government. Even though his proposal of a small minority government of Conservatives and Christian Democrats was accepted by SD, it was turned down by a majority in Parliament, including the Centre Party and the Liberals, who pointed out that four years of rule would require the consent of SD unless the Social Democrats tacitly supported the government. Although a group of influential Social Democrats urged their leader to “show real statesmanship” and let the Alliance govern in this difficult situation, he ruled it out. This meant there could be no Alliance-based government.

The inevitable result – after three rounds of voting in Parliament – turned out to be a minority Red-Green government supported by the Liberals and the Centre Party. This was based on an agreement comprising 73 points. Rather than taking part in the government to apply the agreement, which would have been normal in any other country, the Liberals and the Centre Party preferred to stay out. They feared that breaking the tradition of nearly 60 years of two-bloc politics would be seen by some of their supporters as betrayal. Instead, they could point to having succeeded in forcing the Red-Greens to adopt policies that the Social Democrats had vehemently opposed during the election campaign.

Despite policy concessions, the result is a victory for the Social Democrats, who have continuously sought to undermine the non-socialist parties’ solidarity. They previously succeeded in reaching many specific agreements with other parties, mainly centrist but sometimes also including Conservatives, particularly on the issues of taxes, defence and energy. Though Stefan Löfven would probably have preferred a four-party majority government (with the benevolent support of the Left Party), and had to confine himself to cooperation on 73 points (with the grudging support of the Left Party, which had been kept out of negotiations altogether to meet the demand of the Centre Party and the Liberals), he did succeed in effectively breaking the Alliance.

The International Context

The Swedish deal should be seen in the current wider international context. In many parts of the world right-wing forces are gaining power.2 In Finland and Norway they have joined the government as coalition members, while in Denmark they have a decisive influence as supporters of the Right-Liberal government. Sweden, however, has managed to be one of the exceptions, along with France, Greece, Spain and Estonia where right-wing parties have been kept out of government.

One reason Sweden is among the exceptions is that the Swedish Democrats have neo-Nazi roots – which is not the case for the right-wing nationalists in its Nordic neighbours. SD has worked hard to distance itself from its past and has expelled its most compromised representatives. This has made it somewhat more acceptable to the Conservatives and Christian Democrats, but not the other parties who refuse any contact with SD. In public debate, Germany in 1933 is frequently evoked: first letting Hitler gain power, then losing democracy. The research of German-American scholar Jan-Werner Müller, who argues that European authoritarian parties have never won power without the support of the democratic political right, is influential. Others point to current examples (Hungary in particular) where a populist, right-wing party, once it wins power, takes effective control of the media and alters the rules in its favour.

The 73-Point Agreement

The agreement between Red-Green and the other two parties stipulates that the Centre Party and the Liberals are guaranteed complete access to all preparations, investigations, drafting and implementation of measures connected with issues covered in the agreement. Government budgets are to be prepared by the four parties together. The 73-point agreement has resulted in the establishment of more than 200 working groups involving all four parties. Unlike the 2014–18 Red-Green government, which relied on the parliamentary support of the Left, now the Left is completely left out. In the negotiations, Stefan Löfven even avoided being seen with Left Party leader Jonas Sjöstedt. The agreement says explicitly that the Left shall have no influence on policies during the coming four years, even though Löfven could form a government only by being able to count on the 28 votes of the Left Party.

After the agreement was struck, Löfven met with Sjöstedt to console him, and he promised that compromises negotiated with the Left between 2014 and 2018 would not be revoked. Sjöstedt afterward claimed that he has an agreement, on paper, which Löfven denies. Moreover, his ministers regularly assert that they will have no problem respecting the 73-point agreement “since it opens up new venues and possibilities.”

So how much of a right-wing agenda does this agreement have?

One obvious move to the right is abandoning efforts to limit profits of private health care, day care, elder care and publicly financed schools. Limiting such profits or even doing away with them altogether has been the goal of the Left Party – a goal which the Social Democrats and the Greens had worked to fulfill, although with mixed feelings.

Another obvious right-wing policy is doing away with the 5 per cent surtax on earnings. In addition, payroll taxes and taxes on small and medium-sized businesses will be lowered. Income tax deductions for services purchased by households are to be broadened. Add to this harmonization of taxes on wages and on pensions, which means lowering taxes on pensions. Social Democrats had argued against tax cuts altogether during the election campaign.

Labour market policies were a hot election issue. The Alliance had for many years advocated making it possible to pay lower wages (especially for the large number of immigrants) to stimulate job creation, as well as letting private employment agencies broaden their role at the expense of the State Labour Market Agency. Three provisions have a significant impact on the Social Democrats’ partnership with the labour movement:

  • collective agreements need not apply when government-subsidized workers are hired;
  • restrictions on firing workers will be eased; and
  • to promote labour mobility, unemployment benefits are to become more generous in the short term and less generous in the long term (modelled on the Danish model of flexicurity).

However, it is stipulated that reforming labour market laws is to be handled by the trade unions and the employers’ associations, and only if they are unable to reach an agreement will the government step in. Here, and throughout the 73 points, the agreement evokes the “Swedish Model” under which labour market issues are left to the unions and employers.

Another big bloc of reforms is directed at deregulating the housing market, and here too the Social Democrats have made concessions.

Two specific election promises by the Social Democrats are included in the agreement: a “family week” (subsidized leave for parents taking care of their kids when there is no school or day care) and training to promote labour skills and mobility. Moreover, some more general commitments come at the insistence of the Social Democrats: for example, that unemployment insurance shall be “opened to more wage-earners,” and “income differences shall be lessened.” These may lead to conflicts down the road, especially when passing the annual budget. In the end, however, the Centre Party and the Liberals will not allow the Conservatives and Christian Democrats with the support of the Swedish Democrats to dictate the budget.

There are also points in the agreement that all the parties have advocated: increasing the incomes of seniors, strengthening defence, improving communication infrastructure and coming to grips with several environmental challenges. Climate is mentioned throughout the document, and treated as a priority along with jobs. The Greens were able to get many of their climate policy measures into the agreement, including a climate budget (carbon dioxide emission reductions are specified in time intervals for various sectors of society), a ban on new gasoline and diesel cars from 2030 so that Sweden will be CO2-neutral by 2045 at the latest, and SEK 15 billion (USD 2 billion) in green taxes. The agreement demands that a climate budget and the ban on new gasoline and diesel cars also be adopted by the European Union, with CO2 emissions induced by consumption (imports) included in the climate budget.

A controversial proposal to build high-speed rail between the three major cities in Sweden is endorsed in the agreement. This is something the Greens have advocated for a long time, though others are less enthusiastic because of the high cost (SEK 200–300 billion) and the small CO2 reduction once CO2 emissions from construction are included.

The Centre Party has traditionally had its roots in the countryside. Among the reforms aimed at strengthening work opportunities that favour the interests of farmers, the most controversial – over which there has been political disagreement for decades – is reducing shoreline protection, and therefore public access, to allow for more housing in desirable locations. The agreement also supports allowing the production and sale of wine and spirits at farms.

The agreement endorses the priorities of the educational objectives of the Liberals, who have been especially critical of Swedish schools for being too lenient and disorderly. These priorities include reintroducing grades in the early years of schooling, expanding the program that gives good teachers higher wages, concentrating learning on facts and banning mobile phones from the classroom. In addition, there would be a ban on new religious schools, with stricter control of those that already exist.

There is only brief treatment of immigration policies, the issue on which the Swedish Democrats were able to gain support. While it will become slightly easier for family members to obtain the right to asylum, the restrictions that were introduced after the large inflow of immigrants in 2015 are to be kept for two more years, with the question of a long-term policy for asylum seekers to be delegated to a special parliamentary commission.

The agreement includes a number of costly measures combined with tax reductions. Furthermore, it limits deficit financing and requires a small budgetary surplus over the business cycle. This means that not all promises will be kept. There will have to be compromises within the coalition – including several very tough ones – during the coming four years.

What Can Be Expected For The Next Four Years?

Beyond the specifics, the agreement raises a wider question. Could the new political constellation mean the end of the traditional bloc cleavage? There is much speculation, but no one really knows. Clearly, the Social Democrats and the Greens hope for lasting cooperation with the political middle, and are willing to make concessions to achieve this. The Centre Party seems satisfied with the ongoing cooperation over many, but not all, political questions, though its official position is to return to Alliance cooperation for the next election.

On the other hand the Liberals, the smaller of the middle parties, are deeply split. Though Liberal leader Jan Björklund succeeded in winning a two-thirds majority in the party for the 73-point deal, much opposition remains, and it was reflected in opinion polls that led Björklund to announce his resignation soon after the agreement. The Liberals face a period of uncertainty. Some push for a renewal of the Alliance with the Conservatives and Christian Democrats, with the support of opinion leaders on the right who regularly attack the two middle parties for having “left the bourgeois family.”

The Swedish Democrats do not share this goal. They have a clear vision: to form part of a new conservative bloc with the Conservatives and the Christian Democrats. So far those two parties have rejected the idea. But some within them, at least, are ready to explore different forms of cooperation.

The Left Party is in a difficult position. Between 2014 and 2018 it managed to exert significant influence, supporting the Red-Green government from the outside. Now there is another Red-Green government, with a clear liberal agenda. Even with the votes of the Centre Party and the Liberals, this government does not command a majority in the 349-seat Parliament, and it would be defeated if the Left, with its 28 seats, voted along with the 154 Conservatives, Christian Democrats and Swedish Democrats.

But it is difficult to find any issue on which the Left would vote with the right-wing bloc, or to think of the Left ousting a Social Democratic–led government, although Jonas Sjöstedt has indicated that possibility. This threat is a gesture by the Left Party leadership to calm the dissatisfaction among its rank-and-file who opposed any form of support for the liberal-leaning Red-Green government – similar to its abstention on the vote on Stefan Löfven as Prime Minister.

Nor is all to the satisfaction of the Social Democrats and Greens. More leftist Social Democrats have formed an association within the party, the Reformers, with the declared goal of defending and promoting traditional party positions. Radicals within the Greens have broken away from the party and created a new group, Turning-point.

In sum, there is no clear indication of the future political direction of Swedish politics. The 73-point agreement might be the beginning of a change to more flexible party strategies – or it could just be a short break before the traditional patterns of cooperation return. However, a rift in the Alliance over such vital issues as resolute climate action and immigration was apparent even before the 2018 election, and was only inconclusively masked during the election campaign. The rift indicates that continued cooperation in the middle is a strong possibility.

Social Democrats had to make many important concessions – too many, say some critics on the left. On the right, those who were ready to offer concessions to the populists failed to gain enough support for such a move. Social Democrats were able to form a government not dependent on the populists. This meant holding on to power, always important in Social Democratic thinking, but also keeping the populists out. In today’s Europe of surging populism, this is no small thing.

Continue reading “Sweden’s Red-Green Government With Centrist Policies”

British Columbia: Western, But With a Difference

by Richard Johnston

Richard Johnston is the Canada Research Chair in Public Opinion, Elections, and Representation at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. His most recent book is The Canadian Party System: An Analytic History (UBC Press, 2017).

Setting the table

In the 21st century, British Columbia has been a major battleground, with a multiparty twist. At first glance, B.C. leans toward the western model, with the Conservatives the strongest party, the Liberals the weakest one, and the NDP usually in second place. But the Conservatives are weaker frontrunners and the Liberals stronger in third place than elsewhere in the west. Putting this together makes all three parties regularly competitive, and the number of three-way fights adds a random element.

B.C.’s internal geography is such that it has not one party system but four. Each of the three Canada-wide parties has strength in more than one region, but the relative competitive balance varies considerably across the landscape, as does the closeness of the battle. Bringing the campaign to B.C. does not mean bringing it to the entire province; most of the action is within an hour’s drive of the main airport. Figure 1 portrays these regions for 21st-century elections.

The basically self-defining region of Vancouver Island1 is the very heartland of the Canadian left and has been for more than a century. This partly reflects a history of capital-intensive primary industry and fractious labour-management relations. Increasingly important are unionized public employees, a key group in the Victoria-area ridings. As a result, the NDP is the dominant party. Not even its Canada-wide collapse in 2015 altered this fact. Its chief rival is the Conservative Party, which benefits from the island’s large retirement population. The Liberals’ 2015 surge made them competitive in the region, but barely so and probably not on a sustainable basis.2

In contrast, the Interior and North region is a Conservative stronghold.3 Most years, Conservative dominance in this enormous land mass has been as one-sided as in the prairie provinces, and with much the same political tone. The Conservatives lost considerable ground in the 2015 popular vote. The Liberals gained at the Conservatives’ expense but only enough to capture one seat. The NDP is the usual second-place party in the region, holding seats in ridings that share the labour-management history of Vancouver Island, but it is a distant second. This is the least competitive region in the province.

Together, Vancouver Island and Interior and North hold 20 of the province’s 42 seats. The other 22 are in Metro Vancouver. This area has a legacy of activism – organized labour, antipoverty action and environmentalism. More recently, it has pushed the margin on harm reduction, housing and sexual orientation. And it is Canada’s standard-setter for urban awareness of First Nations issues, and second only to Toronto for immigrant ethnic diversity. On these issues the City of Vancouver, in particular, leans left. But there is also a considerable reserve of social conservatism in the ethnic communities.

Metro Vancouver is arguably two regions, with the Fraser River dividing Metro North from Metro South. In Metro South, the Conservatives are a major presence, the dominant one for most of this century. The other two parties compete for second place, although 2015 tilted the balance decisively toward the Liberals. Metro North is the Conservatives’ weakest region. Even so, they are routinely competitive, as are the other two parties. All three parties, then, have reason for hope in the metropolitan regions. The fate of each depends not just on its own strength but on the relative balance between the other two.

Prospects for 2019

In recent polls, B.C. looks like Canada in microcosm. Even before the SNC-Lavalin affair, the Liberals seemed likely to lose ground, mostly as a result of the Conservatives narrowing the gap. The weakness of the NDP – reflecting the weakness of Jagmeet Singh – was probably good news for the Liberals, but this was offset by gains by the Greens. Then came SNC, which for B.C. has dual resonance. First, there are the old tropes about Quebec. These may carry less virulence in B.C. than elsewhere, and when it comes to pipelines the Quebec and B.C. governments are on the same side. But the central character in the affair, Jody Wilson-Raybould, embodied all that was so promising in 2015 – promise that seems betrayed. In the polls, the major parties have now reversed positions.

But B.C. may yet be one of the few places to resist a Conservative tide. Where the Conservatives have their greatest appeal there are no gains to be made. Liberal retreat on Vancouver Island may help the NDP. For control of government, it all comes down to the Metro regions. The Liberals have angered the right and disappointed the left, but there will be calls for anti-Conservative strategic coordination. Will they be heeded? And if they are, will any one party be the most credible coordination point? Or will fragmentation on the centre-left allow the Conservatives to run the table?

The Prairies: Liberals May Be an Endangered Species

by Royce Koop

Royce Koop is Head of the Department of Political Studies at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg.

For Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, harvesting support from the prairies must feel like trying to cultivate barren land. This was the case even before the SNC-Lavalin controversy rocked the government; it’s even more so now.

In the 2015 election, the Liberals scored four seats in Alberta, on the basis of 25 per cent of the vote, and one in Saskatchewan, with 24 per cent. The most recent Angus Reid poll places the Liberals at 19 per cent in Alberta and 14 per cent in Saskatchewan.4 In 2015, the Liberals won 45 per cent of the vote in Manitoba, picking up seven seats. Here the same Angus Reid poll places the Liberal Party at 24 per cent, a stunning drop. Many if not most of the party’s seats in that province are now in danger.

With only 12 MPs in the 184-strong Liberal caucus following the 2015 election, the prairies were never a force to be reckoned with in Justin Trudeau’s Liberal coalition. And while there is always the chance that Trudeau can turn the tide before the 2019 election, these polls suggest that the election may turn prairie Liberals into an endangered species.

Benefit from the Liberal Party’s prairie decline has accrued mostly to the Conservatives, who are polling above 50 per cent in all three prairie provinces. This level of support raises the possibility of a Conservative sweep, although some Liberal MPs with strong bases of local support, such as Saskatchewan’s Ralph Goodale, are likely to hold on. If Tory leader Andrew Scheer becomes prime minister after the election, it may be in part a result of near-solid support from the prairies.

The NDP may also be able to pick up a small number of seats as a result of Liberal decline, particularly in Manitoba where the party has experienced a recent slight boost in popularity. The most likely place for this to happen is Winnipeg Centre, the longtime NDP seat that switched to the Liberals while Trudeau was riding high in 2015. But a large-scale NDP breakthrough on the prairies under the leadership of Jagmeet Singh is unlikely.

Trudeau will also not be helped by the presence of three Conservative provincial governments in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. All three are relatively popular as well as hostile to varying degrees toward the federal government. Saskatchewan’s Scott Moe and Manitoba’s Brian Pallister have had their fair share of policy spats with Ottawa, and Alberta’s new Premier, Jason Kenney, recently rode to power in part on the basis of the time-honoured Alberta tradition of bashing the feds. Kenney may try to direct Albertans’ anger at the federal government into a campaign aimed at defeating the province’s remaining Liberal MPs, similar to the “Anything But Conservative” campaign promoted by Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Danny Williams in the 2008 federal election campaign.

The carbon tax is likely to be a prominent issue in the coming campaign, as gas prices have swelled in the wake of its recent introduction. The government of Saskatchewan has launched a constitutional challenge to Trudeau’s carbon tax, and Kenney’s United Conservative Party has gained intervenor status in the challenge. Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister left the federal climate framework in 2017 and opposes the federal tax, but did not apply for intervenor status. Trudeau and his candidates may be able to fend off attacks effectively by pointing to rebates provided to Canadians, but with three premiers lobbying hard against the federal tax they will face an uphill battle.

The carbon tax is but one aspect of wider economic concern on the prairies about affordability and unemployment. Despite a correction to the price of oil, economic growth in Alberta has slowed to a crawl and the province has a persistent unemployment problem. Having now voiced their frustration with Rachel Notley’s provincial NDP government, Albertans may be eager to similarly use the ballot box to unleash their anger on the federal government’s economic policies.

While SNC-Lavalin will drag down Trudeau’s reelection efforts throughout the country (with the possible exception of Quebec), it will have a special resonance on the prairies. The view that Trudeau took extraordinary steps to protect jobs in Quebec while passively allowing the natural resource sector in western Canada to decline is widely held. This leads to what will likely be the most important policy issue on the prairies during the 2019 campaign: the need to build pipelines to transport oil, and the perceived failure of the federal government to do so. Kenney’s threat to use “turn off the tap” legislation to restrict B.C.’s oil supply ensures that debates over pipelines will continue throughout the summer and into the fall election.

The results of the 2015 election are increasingly looking like a high-water mark for the Liberals which they are unlikely to achieve again. Prairie voters seem likely to turn their backs on Trudeau, but in so doing they may be left out in the cold if the Liberals are reelected.

Ontario: The Ottawa–Queen’s Park Dynamic

by Paul Barber

Paul Barber is a retired former public servant and journalist. He worked for the governments of Ontario and Manitoba, mainly in intergovernmental relations and constitutional affairs, and as a TV current affairs documentary producer in Winnipeg and for the program The Journal in Toronto.

Trying to establish Ontario’s place in the federation’s politics presents a paradox. Critically important, Ontario cast 37 per cent of all votes in 2015, contributing 80 of the Liberals’ 184 constituencies. However, having elected a small-l liberal prime minister that year, the same province proceeded less than three years later to select the conservative Doug Ford as premier. Justin Trudeau introduces a carbon tax while Ford leads a charge against it, going so far as to enact legislation to require stickers on gas pumps denouncing the tax. Getting a fix on Ontario’s prevailing ideological winds is no easy task.

Things were clearer in the 1960s and 1970s, when under Premiers John Robarts and Bill Davis Ontario was governed by a progressive version of conservatism that was quite compatible with the era of Trudeau the elder. Take education as an example. The Progressive Conservatives invested prodigious resources in all levels of education, particularly postsecondary. It paid off economically, and Toronto’s current prosperity is directly connected to those investments. As a producer with CBC’s Journal in 1985, I made a short documentary profile of a small high-tech firm in Toronto that had just sold its new design system for cars to General Motors. Why in Toronto? CEO Stephen Bingham said that the staff’s advanced technical skills were attributable to investments by Bill Davis in places like the universities of Toronto and Waterloo and Sheridan College.

However, a new hard-edged conservatism took over in the Mike Harris years of the nineties, prioritizing tax cuts and enthusiastically cutting education spending, although deep cuts to postsecondary were offset to some degree by tuition increases and private-sector support, particularly for elite universities such as Toronto and Waterloo. Those years featured strong economic growth imported from a boom south of the border (dubbed by economist Joseph Stiglitz the “roaring nineties”) aided by a continuously declining Canadian dollar that fell from about 72 cents U.S. when the Harris PCs took office in 1995 to 62.5 cents in January 2002. Conservatives mistakenly liked to think the growth was about them and Harris’s Common Sense Revolution.

The Dalton McGuinty Liberal government reversed Harris’s anti-education policies, earning kudos along the way from the OECD for its reforms. But taxes did not rise much, marking a key political and ideological success for the Conservatives. The government kept spending low in part by significantly postponing outlays for public services such as chronic care. When Doug Ford became premier in 2018, succeeding the seemingly progressive Kathleen Wynne (cap-and-trade, research on guaranteed basic income, changes to the sex education curriculum), Ontario had the lowest per capita program spending of any province despite the left-of-centre image Wynne cultivated, and low overall revenues per person, a tribute to the tax-cutting fervour of the Harris years.

Nevertheless, Canada’s largely conservative print media have misleadingly portrayed Ontario as a high-spending, debt-ridden basket case. Low taxes are a key contributor to debt, itself primarily a product of the financial downturn following the last recession. Compared to other provinces, per capita debt is relatively high but not the largest in Canada.

It is not always true that, as has often been said, Ontarians choose one party for Queen’s Park and send another to power in Ottawa, but it is true that federal-provincial political dynamics matter. A deeply unpopular provincial regime can harm the prospects of its federal counterpart. This is a clear and present danger for Andrew Scheer as evidence accumulates that some of Ford’s actions – making cuts to treatment of autistic children, increasing high school class sizes, slashing public health spending, rolling back local flood fighting capacity and libraries – are taking a toll on his popularity.

As if contrasting ideologies were not enough, we find that many of the senior personnel serving Trudeau, such as Gerald Butts and Katie Telford, were imported from Queen’s Park political circles, while Ford has surrounded himself with former Harper staffers, such as Jenni Byrne who served for a time as Ford’s principal secretary.

One key to the paradox perhaps is that Ontario, with a population of almost 15 million, is too large to have a single political culture. In the centre is Toronto – Liberal stronghold, political home to key Trudeau ministers such as Finance Minister Bill Morneau and Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland. Toronto’s suburbs, better known by their telephone area code 905, harbour considerable Conservative strength. The ambiguity of Ontario’s outlook seems rooted here: heavily Liberal in 2015 but mostly PC in the 2018 provincial election. This region is the political home of Jane Philpott of SNC-Lavalin scandal fame. However, scandals past have generated headlines but had little impact on votes.

Meanwhile, with the exception of tech centre Kitchener-Waterloo, the southwest, including London and Windsor, experienced post-recession some of the manufacturing stagnation characteristic of neighbouring American states. This bred discontent, although even here recovery has taken hold. There is longer-term stagnation in the north, also home to a large Indigenous population, politically a relative stronghold for the NDP. Eastern Ontario is a rural sea of small-c conservatism, except for Kingston and metropolitan Ottawa.

Trudeau the elder won three majorities, in the elections of 1968, 1974 and 1980. In between, however, he had a near miss in 1972, winning one more seat than the Tories (he continued to govern, propped up by the NDP), and a minority loss to Joe Clark in 1979. A key factor in the difference between the Liberal majorities and their poor results in 1972 and 1979 was fickle Ontario. The province was charmed by the Trudeau mystique in 1968 and 1974, while deep disappointment produced the minorities of 1972 and 1979. Having been weakened by scandal, Trudeau the younger may find history repeating itself in 2019. A potential key difference: Ontario’s provincial politics played no role in the elections of the seventies. That is not likely to be true this year.

Quebec: No Party Has Claimed Voters’ Hearts

By Eric Montigny

Eric Montigny is professor in the Department of Political Science at Université Laval in Quebec City.

In general, federal politics is not a priority for Quebeckers. They pay more attention to what goes on in the National Assembly in Quebec City and to specifically Quebec issues, and media coverage follows suit. Major shifts in public opinion between federal elections are rare. However, Quebecers are far from being loyal partisans, and there has been considerable volatility among voters since the 2011 election. In this context, rather than trying to predict what they will do in the next election in Quebec, I focus instead on analyzing the characteristics of the Quebec electorate and the issues that are likely to influence the vote.

A distinct party system

If only because of the existence of the Bloc Québécois since 1990, the distinct society that is Quebec expresses itself at the federal level through a party system very different from that of the rest of Canada. Quebec’s distinct media agenda also reinforces this unique party system.

From 1993, when it won enough seats to become Her Majesty’s loyal opposition, until 2011, the Bloc Québécois was the dominant federal party in Quebec. The 2011 election spawned a new period of instability, with the Bloc unable to elect even the 12 MPs needed to be recognized as an official party in the House of Commons. It was the victim at the federal level of the erosion of the Yes/No cleavage on the independence issue on the Quebec electoral scene.

With the NDP collapsing in Quebec, the Liberals expect to make gains to offset the losses they may incur elsewhere in the country. Will they be able to put forth a different message for Quebec than for the rest of the country, as they did in 2015? This time, both the NDP and the Conservatives have opted for the strategy of appointing Quebec lieutenants for leaders who are still relatively unknown in Quebec. Alexandre Boulerice plays this role for Jagmeet Singh, and Alain Rayes for Andrew Scheer. Meanwhile, after years of internal dissension, the Bloc Québécois chose a new leader, former Parti Québécois MNA Yves-François Blanchet, who hopes to restore the Bloc’s status as an official party.

Quebec is now a real battleground

With 59 seats out of 75, the 2011 election was the NDP election. With 40 seats out of 78, the 2015 election belonged more to the Liberals. As the 2019 campaign begins, no party can claim to have won the hearts of Quebeckers – even though Justin Trudeau seemed solid just a few months ago.

Early in his mandate, some pollsters were predicting a Liberal tsunami, as polls showed the party supported by one out of every two Quebec voters, a peak unmatched since 1980. However, polls conducted a few months before the election have revealed a crumbling of this dominance. In March, for the first time, a poll even showed the Conservatives and Liberals tied in Quebec.5

Justin Trudeau’s controversial trip to India represented the first breach in his image. Then, this winter, came his unsteady handling of the SNC-Lavalin crisis that shook his cabinet and led to the resignation of two of his ministers. At the same time, the Conservatives have been increasing their efforts to develop a real organization in some regions of Quebec.

The positioning of parties with respect to Quebec

In 2015, in a letter addressed to then– Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard, Justin Trudeau promised to establish “a true partnership between the federal government and the provinces.”6 He promised then to reinstate first ministers’ meetings on a cooperative footing. However, the arrival of François Legault’s new government in Quebec last fall has coincided with the emergence of several disputes between the two levels of government – on immigration, infrastructure, secularism and taxation. Only the issue of the environment seems to bring them together.

Strengthened by not having to face the voters for three years, the Legault government has adopted a strategy developed by former Premier Jean Charest: formulating a list of demands for the federal parties before a federal election.7 These include increased immigration powers and the introduction of a single tax return administered by Quebec. Only the Conservatives have been open to increasing Quebec’s autonomy on these two issues. After accepting the principle of a single tax return at its convention, the NDP then flip-flopped. For its part, the Bloc Québécois will try take up the Quebec government’s demands as its own.

After the NDP election in 2011 and the Liberal election in 2015, will 2019 mark a breakthrough for the Conservatives in Quebec? Will it allow the Bloc to regain its status as a major party? These possibilities illustrate the current volatility of Quebec voters at the federal level. If Justin Trudeau has disappointed many voters, his opponents are not drawing much enthusiasm. And yet, just as in the time of Pierre Elliott Trudeau and Brian Mulroney, how Quebeckers choose could have a decisive effect on who forms the next Canadian government. But what that choice will be remains to be determined.

Atlantic Canada: Beneath the Partisan Struggles, Two Competing Visions

by Patrick Webber

Patrick Webber works as a political adviser to the New Brunswick government.

A close Canada-wide battle is shaping up between Liberals and Conservatives, raising the possibility that Atlantic Canada could reverse the steady decline of its political clout, just as a smaller party can exercise greater influence in a minority government. In 2015 Justin Trudeau’s Liberals won all of Atlantic Canada’s 32 seats and nearly 59 per cent of the vote, beating their 1993 landslide (57 per cent and 31 of 32 seats). No one expects a repeat of 2015, and a former Liberal stronghold is now clearly in play.

Liberal woes in the aftermath of the SNC-Lavalin scandal don’t stop at the Quebec–New Brunswick border. With Trudeau already polling below his 2015 showing at the start of 2019, the year’s first quarter saw the Liberals tumble to a near-tie with the Conservatives (see table 1).

While Liberal prospects in Atlantic Canada remain stronger than anywhere else except Quebec, the electorate is volatile. In an average of two March 2019 polls, Justin Trudeau is still the region’s choice as prime minister but his lead has narrowed to just four points: 27 per cent compared to Conservative leader Andrew Scheer’s 23 per cent. As important, 38 per cent of voters – the highest level in Canada – chose “Don’t know / None of the current leaders” when asked who would be the best prime minister.8 A series of MQO Research polls released in February found the share of undecided voters ranging between 34 and 38 per cent in each Atlantic province.9

The Conservatives will target anglophone New Brunswick, a region that was crucial in returning a minority Progressive Conservative provincial government last fall, and the rural mainland of Nova Scotia. The Conservatives lost the New Brunswick ridings of Fundy–Royal, New Brunswick Southwest and Tobique–Mactaquac by less than 10 points in 2015; Fredericton, Miramichi–Grand Lake, and Saint John–Rothesay are second-tier Tory targets. In Nova Scotia, Central Nova and Cumberland–Colchester will be top Conservative targets. Bill Casey, Cumberland–Colchester’s MP for 21 of the last 31 years, sitting as a PC, Conservative, independent and Liberal, is not seeking reelection. Scott Brison, elected as a Progressive Conservative in 1997 before defecting to the Liberals, is retiring, which may open Kings–Hants to the Tories. South Shore–St. Margaret’s and West Nova round out the opposition’s second-tier targets.

Things are looking more comfortable for the Liberals in Newfoundland and Labrador and in Prince Edward Island, although that island province shows the Liberals have to worry about their left as well as their right flank. The Green Party, which has only existed for a decade, has made provincial breakthroughs in New Brunswick, with three of the province’s 49 seats, and in PEI, where they took eight seats in the April provincial election and now form the official opposition.

Speaking to a more pastoral brand of leftism than the more industrial-minded and ideologically strident NDP, the Greens are attractive in the parts of the Maritimes where a “small is beautiful” ethic has followers. They are helped by the relatively strong appeal of federal leader Elizabeth May. In a recent poll May was the only major federal leader to register a positive approval rating, with no other leader scoring better than a negative 19 per cent.10 Watch for strong Green performances across PEI and in Fredericton (which posted the second-best Green result east of British Columbia in 2015), though those campaigns are less likely to elect Greens than to shave votes from the Liberals and NDP to the benefit of the Conservatives.

The NDP is in a desperate situation. Between 1997 and 2015, there were always at least three New Democratic MPs in Ottawa; 2015 saw the NDP shut out across the region. Things have not improved, with only one candidate nominated as of late March, and no former MPs or star candidates recruited. Outside Nova Scotia provincial NDP organizations range from moribund to shambolic; in New Brunswick the party went from its best-ever result in the 2014 provincial election to just 5 per cent in 2018, its worst showing since 1974. Federal leader Jagmeet Singh is not gaining traction, and is the first choice of just 3 per cent of Atlantic Canadians for prime minister. Barring a local contest that defies electoral gravity, we can expect a second NDP shutout.

The 2019 election in Atlantic Canada will be a battle between competing visions of the region’s place within Confederation. In their 2013 book The Big Shift, Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson outlined a concept of Canada as a country divided between two visions. The Montreal-Ottawa-Toronto “Laurentian Consensus” supports robust federal programs to ease economic hardships in less fortunate regions. This means generous federal transfers and Employment Insurance programs for Atlantic Canada, ensuring support for this vision.

Juxtaposed with the Laurentian Consensus is the “New Canada” championed by western provinces and the growing and diverse suburbs of Ontario’s major cities. Less focused on offering economic life support, these centres prefer growth, aspiration and local control to complex, expensive and ineffective central government.11 Atlantic voices are starting to question the Laurentian model: debt, aging populations and sclerotic economic performance papered over by federal funds must change to a frugal, entrepreneurial and less development-averse mindset. Beneath the noise of the coming campaign, look to see this clash of visions – often within parties as much as between them – create an underlying dynamic that will influence political debate within the oldest and poorest of Canada’s regions in the years to come.

Continue reading “Up For Grabs”

The Inroads listserv began in 1997 as a means to link Inroads readers and others interested in policy discussion. With nearly 130 subscribers, it offers one of the few chances for people of diverse views to grapple with social and political issues in depth. To subscribe, send an email note to listserv@lists.queensu.ca with the following in the subject and body of the message: subscribe inroads-l

With a federal election looming, when the SNC-Lavalin affair erupted the political fallout was clearly at the top of people’s minds. But the policy and process questions underlying the public controversy were of perhaps greater long-term significance. What was the most appropriate way of dealing with the SNC-Lavalin case, criminal prosecution or a remediation agreement? To what extent should public policy considerations influence prosecution decisions? These were the questions that preoccupied the Inroads listserv, and the discussion rarely strayed from matters of substance, leading Arthur Milner to comment, “It’s too bad the media discussion wasn’t at this level. It would have died as a public issue in a minute and a half.” It began with a post from John Richards.

From: John Richards | March 7

To get to the point, here is my conclusion. By agreeing with the Director of Public Prosecutions that SNC-Lavalin be prosecuted and denied access to the remediation agreement (RA) option, Jody Wilson-Raybould made a serious political error and, arguably, a poor decision in terms of strategy for dealing with corporate crime.


SNC-Lavalin undoubtedly engaged in some major instances of corrupt corporate behaviour. SNC-Lavalin is not unique. Engineering firms working in badly governed developing countries frequently engage in corrupt activity. The present case concerns a $48 million bribe to Gaddafi’s family in Libya. Another major SNC-Lavalin exercise in corruption was to bribe the Bangladesh government to gain the engineering contract for a US$3 billion bridge over the country’s largest river. When the arrangement came to light, the World Bank refused to provide any financing for the project and several SNC-Lavalin executives were prosecuted. Unfortunately, on technicalities, the prosecution failed.

Determining public policy for firms engaged in countries such as Libya and Bangladesh is an interesting question. Should Ottawa construct a list of countries in which Canadian investments are banned? The list of banned countries would be long. Should there be some sophisticated regulatory entity that decides on “legitimate” bribery? Canada’s government sanctioning bribery is unlikely to be publicly acceptable. Should we continue with the status quo, which means essentially doing nothing unless the crime becomes subject to major public scrutiny?

Amendment to the Criminal Code

Several countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom, have adopted remediation agreements as the preferred instrument for penalizing corporate misbehavour. Presumably as a result of SNC-Lavalin lobbying, the government amended the Criminal Code in 2018 to enable RAs. Here is a passage (section 715.3 of the Criminal Code) dealing with the purpose of an RA and conditions under which its use is appropriate:


715.31 The purpose of this Part is to establish a remediation agreement regime that is applicable to organizations alleged to have committed an offence and that has the following objectives:

(a) to denounce an organization’s wrongdoing and the harm that the wrongdoing has caused to victims or to the community;

(b) to hold the organization accountable for its wrongdoing through effective, proportionate and dissuasive penalties;

(c) to contribute to respect for the law by imposing an obligation on the organization to put in place corrective measures and promote a compliance culture;

(d) to encourage voluntary disclosure of the wrongdoing;

(e) to provide reparations for harm done to victims or to the community; and

(f) to reduce the negative consequences of the wrongdoing for persons – employees, customers, pensioners and others – who did not engage in the wrongdoing, while holding responsible those individuals who did engage in that wrongdoing.

Conditions for remediation agreement

715.32 (1) The prosecutor may enter into negotiations for a remediation agreement with an organization alleged to have committed an offence if the following conditions are met:

(a) the prosecutor is of the opinion that there is a reasonable prospect of conviction with respect to the offence;

(b) the prosecutor is of the opinion that the act or omission that forms the basis of the offence did not cause and was not likely to have caused serious bodily harm or death, or injury to national defence or national security, and was not committed for the benefit of, at the direction of, or in association with, a criminal organization or terrorist group;

(c) the prosecutor is of the opinion that negotiating the agreement is in the public interest and appropriate in the circumstances; and

(d) the Attorney General has consented to the negotiation of the agreement.

Why Jody Wilson-Raybould was wrong

(a) At no time did Wilson-Raybould, as Attorney General, or the Director of Public Prosecutions provide a public explanation as to why SNC-Lavalin should be prosecuted and should not be eligible for an RA.

One point of agreement between Wilson-Raybould and Gerald Butts’s testimony to the parliamentary committee is that the time between the crown prosecutor deciding on prosecution and the Minister’s agreement to that option was very short, less than a week. The Minister apparently communicated her position orally to the Prime Minister. On the basis of the text of the RA amendment to the Criminal Code, it is hard to see why SNC-Lavalin was not eligible for an RA. As Butts summed up, “When 9,000 jobs are potentially at stake if SNC-Lavalin is found guilty and is banned for 10 years from bidding on Canadian government contracts, we are dealing not only with the law but with public policy.”

(b) The decision is immensely divisive in terms of pitting majority opinion in Quebec against majority opinion in ROC. According to poll results reported in the Globe and Mail on March 4, only 34 per cent of those in ROC favour resort to an RA, whereas 54 per cent of Quebeckers favour an RA. In ROC, the SNC-Lavalin affair has come to mean that corrupt Quebec politicians once again are using their influence in Ottawa to protect Quebec business interests. For the majority in Quebec, ROC hostility toward Quebeckers is once again on display. Ottawa is willing to spend $4.6 billion to buy a dubious pipeline company in western Canada to save jobs in the Alberta oil sands, but intends to drive a major Quebec corporation into potential bankruptcy.

From: Louis Germain | March 8

A remediation agreement allows a company to avoid a trial and conviction. It doesn’t allow the company to escape the consequences of its actions. It has to fire the executives responsible for the wrongdoing, put corrective action in place and implement it under supervision by an independent monitor, and pay heavy financial penalties.

The company as such – employees, retirees, shareholders, experts, etc. – is not responsible for wrongdoing by its executives. Except for the fines imposed on it, the company should not be punished if some of its executives have engaged in malpractice. An RA does not shelter the executives responsible for the wrongdoing from criminal prosecution. If the executives are not prosecuted – as, unfortunately, is most often the case – it is not because of the RA. It is because of the cronyism between politicians, leading figures in the justice system and economic “elites.”

The cause of the denial of justice that many people rightly condemn is this cronyism and not the RA, which is an excellent measure.

From: John Whyte | March 11

Prime Minister Trudeau did not apologize to former Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould for the relentless badgering she received from his office over her adoption of the federal prosecutors’ recommendation that SNC-Lavalin be prosecuted for corporate crimes and not be offered the alternative process of remediation – a process that would have led to heavy financial penalties but not to criminal conviction and exclusion from federal contracts for 10 years.

He did say, however, that he was open to considering the creation of a sharper structural division between those with direct prosecutorial responsibilities and those who do not have these responsibilities but who have opinions on how prosecutorial decisions can best serve the public interest. Possibly, this concession was implicit recognition of the legitimacy of the former minister’s concerns over relations between her and the government members who spoke with her concerning her decision.

At least one province has chosen to institute the high level of separation and immunity from political interference with prosecutorial activity for which many are now clamouring. Nova Scotia has created a prosecutorial authority that is not tied to the justice department. The legislation that created this largely independent prosecutions agency forbids any ministerial involvement with prosecutions except for a direction to the prosecutions department by the minister of justice that is made in writing and published.

The reason for a sharp delineation of functions is clear. Exercises of governmental power generally have coercive effects – taxation, zoning laws, market regulation and, of course, criminal justice. While none of these powers should be used to punish political opponents or grant favours to political friends, it is the highly repressive power to punish crimes that has raised the greatest concern over the partisan and wrongful use of governmental power. This concern underlies the case for prosecutorial independence.

Nevertheless, most provinces, as well as the federal government, have not adopted a formal regime of separation between prosecutors and the attorney general or, for that matter, other government members. There is good reason for this. As dangerous as partisanship in the administration of criminal law is, the lack of political accountability for prosecutorial decision-making can also be costly. Prosecution branches wield tremendous power over the lives of citizens and over the life of distinct communities; their decisions shape their governments’ effective response to social risk and social dysfunction. As much as any other government bureaucracy, they can cause social harm when they fail to pursue their function without consideration of the broader public interest. And indeed, almost all prosecutorial services do operate under conceptions of social interests.

It is not mistaken to build in some degree of accountability for the administration of criminal justice or to maintain some operational connection, albeit attenuated, between prosecutors and the political branch. The standard way of doing this is to have prosecutorial services work within a ministry led by a member of cabinet – the attorney general. This minister is accountable to the cabinet, although definitely not subject to direction on matters of legal interpretation and application.

However, there are legitimate political and social questions to ask of the administrators of criminal justice, including, perhaps indirectly, the members of the prosecutions branch. Are dangerous offender applications being used with due restraint? Are community justice, or diversion, programs – as alternatives to prosecution – being used and supported? Is the Gladue sentencing principle (criminal courts in sentencing are required to take into account life experiences of Indigenous offenders) being respected? These, as well as general questions about prosecutorial policies on charging, or about the general efficacy of criminal justice in keeping communities safe, are the kinds of legitimate questions that an attorney general is free to ask – and, in turn, can legitimately be asked about by cabinet colleagues and members of legislatures.

In short, if one wants criminal prosecutions to be guided by something beyond the established criterion for prosecuting (is it likely that a conviction can be obtained?), or if one thinks prosecutorial authority should be exercised with a wider understanding of social conditions and social need – for instance, through considering what sorts of responses to crime might stop the criminal justice system from turning a pattern of social dysfunction into the wholesale incarceration of young males – then political direction and political accountability become inevitable and appropriate.

It cannot be surprising that, if a legislative body, or a court, develops a policy for tempering prosecutorial decision-making with social and economic values, government members, seeing these as public interests, are bound to think they have responsibility for questioning whether the state’s criminal justice operation is meeting this criminal policy. And in this nation, government members do exercise this responsibility.

However, there may be a crucial distinction between raising a question over the effects of prosecutorial choices and becoming actively engaged with specific prosecutions. The latter will certainly give rise to suspicion of wrongful political meddling and breach of the rule of law. But even in individual cases, there might sometimes be reason to ask if the aims of criminal justice are being thwarted through the singular prosecutorial focus on what charge will succeed at a criminal trial as opposed to what prosecutorial decision best serves established social interests. But it is important to note that in developing new criminal justice policies (as in the remediation scheme that SNC-Lavalin sought to use) there is not usually any legislated limit on prosecutorial discretion – although it does occur.

What seems clear is that although prosecutors are often expected to consider the social and economic implications of their decisions, it offends the basic human right to prosecutorial independence if members of the government start to dictate what criminal charges should be laid and which criminal trial process should be used.

From: Russil Wvong | March 11

Howard Anglin suggests putting in place a formal process where the attorney general requests input from the rest of government, in writing, on any public interest considerations which the attorney general should take into account. In the U.K., this is known as a Shawcross exercise. For example, a Shawcross exercise was used in the case where BAE Systems was being investigated for bribing Saudi officials. The Attorney General eventually decided to halt the investigation. Key points:

  • The process is initiated by the attorney general.
  • Everything is in writing.

In contrast, in the handling of the SNC-Lavalin case, the communication was initiated by the rest of the government, not the Attorney General, and nearly all the communication appears to have been verbal.

From: Gareth Morley | March 13

The remediation agreement statute says that an organization is eligible for one only if the prosecutor “is of the opinion that the act or omission that forms the basis of the offence did not cause and was not likely to have caused serious bodily harm or death, or injury to national defence or national security, and was not committed for the benefit of, at the direction of, or in association with, a criminal organization or terrorist group.” There is also a requirement that there be a reasonable prospect of conviction (not an issue in this case), that the prosecutor be of the opinion that the remediation agreement is in the public interest (probably the sticking point so far) and that the attorney general consent (obviously not an issue if the attorney general issues a directive).

The attorney general can provide a directive to the director of public prosecutions under section 10 of the Director of Public Prosecutions Act. In doing so, the attorney general would have to say that he or she is of the opinion that the conditions are met. I could imagine that there might be litigation about this, but it would be unlikely to succeed since there would have to be proof of bad faith. The real issue would be political. Attorneys general do not tend to issue proclamations in relation to specific prosecutions. If David Lametti were to do so, it would no doubt be a big deal politically, but it would probably be the end of the matter legally.

Section 715.32 (3) of the Criminal Code says the “national economic interest” is not a factor that can be considered in deciding a remediation agreement is in the public interest. This language comes from an OECD agreement. The Clerk of the Privy Council, Mr. Wernick, testified that his understanding is that it refers only to the “national interest” as against other countries. Mr. Wernick is not a lawyer. The OECD has responded by saying this is nonsense. In practice, it will be up to the director of public prosecutions or, if there is a directive, the attorney general, to determine what “national economic interest” means.

From: Reg Whitaker | March 13

The SNC affair is nothing if not complicated. A couple of complexities to add to Gareth’s points.

The law on RAs as drawn up is not exactly clear on justification – it might even be described as opaque in parts. Most opaque of all is the matter of what criteria can be legitimately considered in taking this route. “National economic interest” is ruled out, but the “public interest” is not. I have no idea how one could conceivably construct a notion of the public interest that had no economic component, especially when we are talking about private sector corporations with inevitable impacts upon employment, GDP, government revenues, etc. Somewhat similar scepticism must be raised about a prohibition on “political” considerations. For any democratic government facing reelection, how can one possibly detach partisan political considerations entirely from public policy decisions? I mean, really.

From this murk I draw two observations on the present imbroglio. First, efforts to get Wilson-Raybould to change her mind are not necessarily as obviously nefarious as some have been claiming. Second, and more importantly, I would not advise any government to go down the RA route as it is almost inevitably bound to land them in just this sort of mess. Far better if they had just let the criminal prosecution of SNC proceed as the attorney general had indicated. But this leads to a glaring flaw in existing law, this time the corruption law.

The government is so concerned about a criminal conviction for SNC because its own law specifies a 10-year ban on government contracts in Canada: no discretion, 10 years if guilty.

As I understand it, they simply copied the terms followed by the World Bank, which has banned SNC from any work it sponsors for 10 years. But the World Bank’s guidelines are themselves outliers in relation to other legislation on corporate corruption. If the government had had the presence of mind in drafting this law to simply make the ban on government work a maximum of 10 years with the actual number of years to be determined by the courts, rather like normal sentencing, perhaps the spectre of SNC failing or leaving the country would not have been as threatening.

The SNC-Lavalin discussion on the listserv was dormant for several weeks (replaced by an extensive debate on Quebec’s Bill 21 on religious symbols). But then on April 7, Frances Abele provided a link to Andrew Coyne’s column of the previous day, suggesting that it “is worth your time to read.” Coyne wrote,

It isn’t just that the prime minister and a phalanx of other senior government officials … quietly tried to derail the prosecution of a company with a long history of corruption and an even longer history of donating to the Liberal party; that they pressured the former attorney general, Jody Wilson-Raybould, to have prosecutors drop charges of fraud and corruption against the company in favour of a “remediation agreement” for which it had already been deemed ineligible; or that they did so, by the former attorney general’s account, for explicitly partisan reasons …

No, the real scandal is the determined – and, it would appear, largely successful – campaign on the part of the prime minister and his officials to normalize their conduct: as if monkeying around with criminal prosecutions was all part of the usual give and take of cabinet government, or at worst a misunderstanding between people who “experienced situations differently.”

But it isn’t normal. More, it must not become normal …1

This touched off another round of posts on SNC-Lavalin.

From: John Richards | April 7

Of course, governments should not “monkey around” with the Criminal Code, but let us avoid insults and think a little further about the matter. There are many dimensions to the issue.

The first dimension is the incompetence of the government in 2018 when introducing the Criminal Code amendment to enable use of a remediation agreement in cases of corporate corruption or fraud. The government enacted the amendment with minimal public discussion of its implications. Such a discussion should have elaborated on why the OECD considers remediation agreements to be in many instances a preferred means to settle cases of corporate fraud, provided there is admission of guilt. Remediation agreements are accepted practice in many countries, including the United States and the U.K. The government should have stated its intent to use a remediation agreement with respect to SNC-Lavalin, which was clearly guilty in its dealings with Libya – and several other countries.

The second dimension is to remind everyone that, in the Westminster parliamentary tradition, the Criminal Code is a political document. In his erudite contribution to the listserv, John Whyte (former deputy attorney general in Saskatchewan, former dean of Queen’s University law school) made the point that the government can legitimately amend the Criminal Code and thereby intervene in the judicial process. Such interventions should be rare, and should concern issues with broad public implications.

The third dimension is that SNC-Lavalin is, for Quebec, a “too big to fail” firm. It is one of the few firms operating primarily in French able to compete in an international context for major engineering contracts. It has provided thousands of desirable professional jobs for Quebecers obviously, but not only Quebecers. If the firm decides the Canadian legal system is too hostile, it may well decamp to another country that is not so intent on criminal prosecution as the only legitimate means of redressing corporate misbehaviour.

Too-big-to-fail firms present difficult public policy dilemmas. The response in the United States has been a major revision of corporate law bearing on financial institutions. There is more to be done.

The fourth dimension is corporate conduct in “weakly governed” countries. Political leaders in countries such as Libya pose extreme pressure to obtain bribes. Admittedly, the market in bribes thrives in such countries because there are well established markets – both eager recipients of bribes and willing corporate bribers. Regulating corporate behaviour in this context comes under the label of “corporate social responsibility.” As the SNC-Lavalin case illustrates, Canada has much to do in this domain.

Finally, for as long as I can remember, Coyne has displayed scepticism, if not hostility, to Quebec’s institutions and political preferences. Managing Quebec-ROC relations is a major responsibility of the federal government. He is the last person whose advice should be the basis of policy. The Léger poll in March was clear: three quarters of Quebeckers want a remediation agreement, as opposed to a prosecution. No doubt, in ROC the attitudes are the reverse. Coyne is doing his best to inflame.

From: Gareth Morley | April 7

To be fair to Coyne, he is not arguing against the government “monkeying around” with the Criminal Code – it is absolutely any government’s prerogative to bring in legislative amendments. The issue is whether a government can “monkey around” with an individual prosecution. That is a whole different kettle of fish. Whether there should be RAs, what the legal standards should be for giving them – these are questions of public policy and politics. Whether a particular accused person meets the standards – this has always been something that politics is supposed to be kept rigorously out of.

The British tradition has been that prosecution is an executive function as a matter of law, but there are conventions that mean that the attorney general is supposed to make these decisions nonpolitically and cabinet colleagues are not supposed to interfere. This example reflects the traditional British preference for leaving important principles that make liberal democracy function as tacit conventions, rather than explicit legal rules.

In both Canada and B.C., we have actually put some statutory rules in place, so that the prosecution service – while still part of the executive – is given independence when making these decisions. The attorney general is left the theoretical legal power to issue a directive in relation to a specific prosecution. However, this power has never been used, either provincially or federally. It is like the power of the governor general to dismiss the government or the federal power to disallow provincial statutes – or, arguably, the notwithstanding clause.

The dynamic that Coyne points to – and that is indeed worrying – is that if the Liberals respond to the SNC-Lavalin affair by arguing that it is perfectly appropriate in partisan politics to pressure the attorney general to interfere with prosecutorial discretion and fire her if she does not, then their partisans – or people who side with them for other reasons, such as their climate change or child poverty agenda – will tend to follow them. The British system only works as long as all members of the elite tacitly accept and reinforce the norms. If these norms are made a matter of partisan dispute, then they will not last.

This is precisely what was problematic about Trump firing Comey or calling on his Justice Department to investigate Hillary Clinton. At least 40 per cent of Americans will follow along because they are loyal to the Republican team for other reasons. Moreover, the opposing 40 per cent are likely to feel that they are patsies if they respect norms that their opponents break.

This movie does not have a happy ending. It is precisely because it is the natural order of things that people in power will use that power to gain advantage in the criminal justice system that norms against doing this are important. In Canada, the fairly swift punishment of the government in the polls suggests that the norm might (optimistically) be strengthened. I see no evidence that Quebec voters appreciate being told that they don’t care about corruption or depoliticized criminal justice. On the other hand, there is a substantial minority of Liberal voters (and obviously a majority of the Liberal caucus) who have learned the lesson that respecting prosecutorial independence is for suckers. The way these things work, if the Conservatives get into power and something similar happens, the lesson Conservative partisans will take is that turnabout is fair play. Pretty soon, the stakes in every election include whether your friends go to jail or have immunity from investigation.

From: Russil Wvong | April 7

I’m a Liberal supporter who volunteered for Jody Wilson-Raybould in 2015. I’ve been following the SNC controversy very closely, reading through all the testimony.

I agree with Wilson-Raybould and Coyne that prosecutorial independence is critical – the anti-Clinton chants of “lock her up!” at Trump rallies illustrate this. This is true even for cases like SNC where there are strong public interest considerations for pursuing a remediation agreement. The decision, based on weighing of public interest considerations among others, is to be made by the director of public prosecutions, not by the prime minister.

However, there are a few points where I would venture to disagree with Wilson-Raybould. On that basis, my take is that everyone involved was trying to do the right thing, but got their wires crossed.

Explaining decisions on prosecution

In a case like SNC where there are strong public interest considerations, the government needs to be able to defend the decision in public. Wilson-Raybould and Coyne say that the prosecutor and the attorney general are under no obligation to provide the reasoning for the decision, which seems unrealistic.

It’s clear from the recording of the phone call between Michael Wernick and Wilson-Raybould that as of December 18, the PMO didn’t understand what the Director of Public Prosecutions’ reasoning was in deciding not to pursue a remediation agreement. What were the considerations in the case which outweighed the public interest considerations? In the call, Wernick is repeatedly asking about the Director of Public Prosecutions’ reasoning. The section 13 notice which the Attorney General’s office forwarded back in September appears to have gotten lost, and the call concludes with the Attorney General saying that her chief of staff will forward the notice again.

According to University of Toronto law professor Kent Roach,

Prosecutorial independence should not be an excuse for prosecutors not providing reasons for important decisions. Indeed, the reluctance of the courts to intervene in matters of prosecutorial discretion … suggests that prosecutors can be more forthcoming about the reasons for the momentous decisions that they make without courts second guessing either the substance or adequacy of their reasons.2

Input on public interest considerations

Wilson-Raybould’s position appears to be that according to the Shawcross doctrine, other people within the government should not be talking to the attorney general about public interest considerations. I think that may be incorrect. Deputy Attorney General Nathalie Drouin raised the example of the Corner House (BAE) case in the U.K., which went through a couple of levels of judicial review. In that case the Prime Minister was making representations directly to the Attorney General, but the judicial reviews never commented on this. I thought the case was also interesting as an illustration of how the Shawcross doctrine works in practice.

External advice

Gerald Butts wanted the Attorney General to get a second opinion by seeking external advice. She thought this was improper. I’m not sure why.

Strengthening the independence of the AG

Anthony Housefather, chair of the parliamentary justice committee, has suggested that “what Canadians should be most concerned about is clarifying this for the future. We need to make sure that everyone is clear on what one can and cannot say to the attorney-general in the context of a prosecution, and in particular the decision on whether or not to enter into a remediation agreement, which is an entirely new concept in Canadian law.”3

I think one key reform would be to require that any input from the rest of government needs to be provided in writing. In the U.K., there’s a practice called a “Shawcross exercise” in which the attorney general canvasses the rest of the government and they provide their input in writing.

As a Liberal supporter, I’m not happy about the SNC controversy. But at the same time, I don’t want to sit on the sidelines and let the Conservatives win the upcoming election by default.

From: Gareth Morley | April 7

Thanks, Russil. If Liberal supporters generally react as thoughtfully as you just have, I don’t think we have much to worry about as a society. I do have a few questions and comments on your points.

  1. I don’t think it is workable to have a requirement that prosecutors publicly justify their decisions, especially in ongoing cases. This is litigation after all. A requirement that all information about prosecutions of public interest be made public would make it impossible to conduct trials fairly. Section 13 of the Director of Public Prosecutions Act requires the director to keep the attorney general informed.
  2. The “public interest” is one of the two factors every prosecutor considers at all times in a prosecution, along with “likelihood of conviction.” Governments will often issue guidance about a category of cases. I recall the Ontario NDP government in the 1990s said that spousal assault prosecutions were not to be dropped, except in extraordinary circumstances. The political process can legitimately push prosecutors in one direction or another for a category of cases, but it can’t legitimately push them over a specific case.
  3. External advice. I have no doubt that it is open to an attorney general to ask for external legal advice when he or she has doubts about what departmental lawyers are saying. One thing I do not understand in this case is what “legal advice” the PMO thought the Attorney General ought to get. The question before her was whether she should take the unprecedented step of overruling the Director on a specific prosecution. She read the section 13 materials and thought there was no basis to do this. I don’t understand where complicated legal issues come into play.
  4. Strengthening the independence of the attorney general. I personally do not think that reducing the responsibilities of the attorney general as minister of justice would make the situation better. The attorney general has to have a dual role as a part of the executive and as guardian of the rule of law. If the attorney general had fewer specifically departmental responsibilities, he or she would be a less important voice at the cabinet table. The flip side is that the departmental responsibilities of the attorney general / minister of justice may mean that this person has more trouble taking the fish-eye view of his or her own department, as compared with public works or defence. The thing about this tradeoff, though, is that it has nothing to do with SNC-Lavalin. This was clearly not a case where the Minister failed to keep her Attorney General hat on while thinking about Department of Justice business. This situation makes one worry that the goal is just to make the attorney general a more isolated figure in cabinet because he or she will have no programs or policy initiatives of significance.

On your suggestion of material being submitted in writing, I think there are two questions. Should it go to the director? If so, I have no huge problem with that on the understanding that the director is free to ignore it. Second, should it be public?

From: Russil Wvong | April 9

On the second question, I don’t think this material should be public (this could be used to try to mobilize public opinion one way or the other), although of course if the decision is subsequently reviewed, as in the Corner House case, it may eventually become public.

On the first question, I’m not entirely sure – I’m thinking of the Corner House case, but in the U.K. it appears that it’s the attorney general’s role to make the decision, whereas under Canadian law there’s a separation between the roles of the attorney general and the director of public prosecutions. My understanding is that part of the reason for this separation is to insulate the director of public prosecutions from political pressure, and so it seems reasonable to say that the attorney general would not necessarily forward written input directly to the director of public prosecutions, but might filter it, forwarding only those factors which seemed to the attorney general to be particularly important for the director of public prosecutions to consider.

Continue reading “Getting to the Heart of the SNC-Lavalin Affair”

Inroads’ leisurely twice-yearly publication schedule generally allows its editors a summer in which the journal is not a major concern. Not so this summer, however, as inflammatory tweets by columnist and editorial board member Garth Stevenson raised issues that the editors needed to deal with immediately. We decided to suspend him indefinitely from his position with the journal, but we also felt that the issues involved needed broader discussion, and on August 24 I posted the following invitation to the Inroads listserv:

In early August, Garth Stevenson, professor emeritus of political science at Brock University and Inroads columnist and editorial board member, posted an angry response on Twitter to the removal of the statue of Sir John A. Macdonald in Victoria, B.C. Then, provoked by those who took him on, he posted intemperate racist tweets regarding Indigenous people. The remarks touched off a social media firestorm, and Brock stripped Garth of his emeritus status.

While the media reports focused on the Brock connection, at least one noted Garth’s association with Inroads. And Twitter and Facebook posts called on Inroads to follow Brock’s lead. The core editorial team – Henry Milner, John Richards, Dominic Cardy, Gareth Morley and myself – immediately deemed Garth’s comments unacceptable. Garth apologized publicly, but after much deliberation, we decided that the appropriate action was to suspend him indefinitely from his position as columnist and editorial board member.

Some social media posts have been highly critical of Garth’s Inroads article on missing and murdered Indigenous women (Summer/Fall 2015). They insist that we expunge the article from the website. Inroads’ editorial team decided that his article provides credible evidence and reaches a reasonable, if debatable, conclusion. Some posts even go further, demanding that we expunge everything Garth has written. One teacher insisted she would make sure that no student ever cites any of Garth’s many books and articles.

While the Twitterstorm has abated, it poses many issues beyond Garth’s relationship with Inroads, issues at the centre of Inroads’ mission. How should we evaluate John A. Macdonald’s role with respect to Canada’s Indigenous inhabitants? What are the appropriate limits – if any – to public debate on Indigenous matters? What has been the impact of social media on public debate? We would like to invite a discussion of these issues on the listserv, and, perhaps, publish a selection from the discussion in the next issue of Inroads, due out in November.

— Bob Chodos
Managing editor, Inroads

My invitation attracted many responses. Some highlights follow.

From: Glen Koehn | August 24

I was among those disappointed by Garth Stevenson’s now infamous tweets, agreeing (with Garth himself, apparently) that they were intemperate and offensive. It’s understandable that Inroads has distanced itself from those comments by suspending him as an editorial board member.

Still, given that he’s apologized, the public shaming should come to an end at some point. There has to be a way back into the conversation for him. I for one hope that he will continue to post on this list with the rest of us private citizens.

From: Philip Resnick | August 24

The language in Garth’s tweets was intemperate and he was right to have apologized for it. I am not convinced, however, that Brock University was right in withdrawing his emeritus status as opposed to making it clear that they in no way associated themselves with his views. After all, if Garth were still an active faculty member, would Brock have been justified in firing him, or would there not be a fundamental principle of academic freedom at play – even if we did not agree with the particular views of the academic in question – that we would need to defend?

Aboriginal politics has become something of a third rail in Canadian politics. The historical record is certainly not a happy one, nor is the current status of Aboriginals as compared to other Canadians one of which we should be proud. But how far do we need to go to make amends? And to what degree do we need to take down icons who were an important part of our history because some of their actions are ones which have fallen into disrepute?

I am no Donald Creighton loyalist when it comes to John A. Yet without him, there might never have been Confederation and the country of which I am thankful to be a citizen. Aboriginals tell us they do not want non-Aboriginals appropriating their legends, but in return, I am not comfortable allowing some of those who claim to speak in their name to totally denigrate ours. Leonard Cohen’s first book of poetry was entitled Let Us Compare Mythologies. I am appending a poem I wrote on the Macdonald controversy which asks the question “Dare We Compare Mythologies?”

Where Garth is concerned, I see no reason why he should not continue to be a subscriber and participant in the Inroads list, provided that the basic rules of civility we are all supposed to respect are observed by him as well.

Dare we compare mythologies?
For generations we were taught
Macdonald was the nation-builder
– corrupt, it is true, a tippler to boot –
yet the one whose perseverance
built a railway
and forged out of petty British colonies
a continent-wide framework
which has found its place,
a respectable one by and large,
in the larger comity of nation-states.

For First Nation advocates in our day
past humiliations live on
and the racist barbs and brainwashing in residential schools
must be rooted out
as those who led the charge
are held directly to account.

Non-Aboriginals must also cease appropriating their myths
or putting in doubt whatever tales may have been handed down
from mouth to mouth
to constitute their version of the past.

But how far can we go in rethinking ours?
For history in the Western mould,
for all its archival carapace,
has also got its share of tropes,
legends which we embrace
no less doggedly than First Nations theirs.

Is there some middle way,
the sempiternal Canadian search for a compromise
when arguments flare up
and protaganists threaten to resort to bloodshed or to fists?

Or must we simply face the cold hard facts
– we will have our myths, imperfect though they are,
and Aboriginals, for all of their
disdaining ours, their own?

From: Henry Milner | August 25

Of course, I was appalled by the content of the tweets, but what I found truly worrisome about the Stevenson case is the way an institution like Brock University immediately responded to a cyber campaign. No investigation, no chance for the accused to apologize, to try to make amends or explain.

We too at Inroads faced a minor version of a “tweetstorm” that amounted to cyberbullying (including calls to remove immediately all articles on any subject that Stevenson had ever written) — but we did not publicly respond immediately. Despite some disagreement, we worked hard to come up with a reasoned position we could all live with as set out in Bob’s posting. Nevertheless we were under pressure to meet a self-imposed deadline due to the barrage of cyberbullying on social media.

We then placed on Facebook a statement the five of us could live with after having exchanged many communications, contacted Garth, looked at the record of his relevant contributions and spoken to others in the Inroads community.

But Inroads has the luxury of being relatively immune to cyberbullying given that – except for special projects for which, on occasion, we have applied for and received government grants – we are self-sufficient. How many institutions are there that give in to such cyberbullying? What does this tell us about the possibility of real dialogue on controversial issues like Indigenous policy, immigration, controversial historical monuments?

From: Frances Abele | August 25

I’d like to suggest that we separate the two issues mingled in Phil’s post.

There is first the question of what Garth said and his apology. I don’t follow Twitter and I did not see his outbursts, only the newspaper extracts. He reportedly told someone he hoped that person would die a painful death, and according to the National Post, “In one now-deleted tweet cited in published news reports, Stevenson wrote that Victoria was removing the statue of Macdonald ‘to appease some snivelling aboriginals who probably never did a day’s work in their lives.’” I would not call these statements “intemperate.” Wishing someone who disagrees with you dead is nasty or perhaps borderline crazy. The appeasement statement is racist.

Concerning the statues, I am in agreement with Michael Rice, who according to news reports first objected in 1992 to the Bank of Montreal’s plaque commemorating the killing of an Iroquois chief by the founder of Montreal. His idea was not that the plaque be removed, but that the bank should put up another plaque explaining that the Iroquois were not “fighting for nothing” but were trying to defend their territory. He wanted to make the history commemorated by the plaque more accurate and balanced. For reasons not reported, the bank decided not to do this, but rather to expunge the plaque. There might be a case for removing some statues, but generally I think they represent real opportunities to educate Canadians about their history, and to symbolically own up to the tourists who might look at them. This would mean, in the case of the first Prime Minister, writing factually about Macdonald’s ideas about Indians. To omit this information – which is an important part of the origin of our country – is deplorable.

From: Simon Rosenblum | August 25

As a very casual reader of the Inroads listserv I find myself somewhat perplexed by the decision of the core editorial team to suspend Garth Stevenson indefinitely from his positions in the Inroads community. It is not the decision as such that I disagree with as I can well understand why people would not want to be closely associated with Mr. Stevenson. An editorial collective surely has the right to decide when an individual has crossed a line that makes further association impossible. But the postings from Bob Chodos and Henry Milner do not explain the suspension in that manner. Rather one reads that “we were under pressure to meet a self-imposed deadline due to the barrage of cyberbullying on social media.” And because of cyberbullying Inroads makes its decision, or at least the timing of it? That does not strike me as particularly brave, principled or appropriate.

From: Philip Resnick | August 26

A short reply to Frances’s post.

Where Garth is concerned, his language was indeed intemperate. Intolerant, if you wish, racist if you wish. But once we open up that can of worms, we will quickly discover that intolerance and racism are not the exclusive domain of any one group. The left can be as intolerant, in its way, of views with which it disagrees as the right. Ethnocentrism and racism are not exclusive to any one group. Dare I suggest that Aboriginals are no more innocent in this regard than Caucasians or any other group? To the degree that Garth has apparently apologized for his vituperative language, I think we should accept it with good grace.

As for the Macdonald statue, there is a case for including some of the negatives along with the positives in our commemmoration of figures of the past. But I really don’t think we should be using historical figures situated in their time and place to fight the battles of today. Moses Finley, an eminent scholar of ancient Greece driven into academic exile in the U.K. in the 1950s by McCarthyism in the U.S., once remarked that it was too easy to dismiss ancient civilizations holus bolus because of such institutions as slavery. I think the same applies, within reasonable limits, to Canadian politicians of two centuries ago.

From: John Richards | August 26

In his post, Bob Chodos refers to social media calls for Inroads to disown Garth’s Inroads articles, in particular his article on the inquiry into murdered and missing Native women. An instructor at Carleton University posted to Facebook a comment explaining why she felt obliged to ban her students from citing Garth’s article in writing their essays: “ kept coming up in their search results, and they were excited to cite a professor from their own university, but there was just too much stereotyping, callousness about a very serious issue, and misguided use of statistics to be able to unpack in tutorials or office hours.”

I played a role in editing the article, but I had not read it for several years. I reread it, and I recommend others do the same. The core of the article is a summary of the statistical results of the 2014 RCMP study of 1,200 missing and murdered Native women over the last quarter century. In the case of Indigenous women, husbands comprised 29 per cent of murderers, other family members 23 per cent, other family intimates 10 per cent, acquaintances 30 per cent and strangers 8 per cent. The comparable distribution for murderers of non-Indigenous women were husbands 41 per cent, other family members 24 per cent, other family intimates 9 per cent, acquaintances 19 per cent, and strangers 7 per cent. The basic conclusion of the RCMP study is that the difference between the two distributions is minor. For both groups of victims, strangers comprised fewer than 10 per cent of the murderers. Garth refers to Robert Pickton, the white serial killer in British Columbia, many of whose victims were Native women. He insists, rightly, that non-Indigenous murderers of Native women are not typical. The Facebook post refers to Garth’s “misguided use of statistics.” However, nowhere in the post is there a specific mention of any misuse by either the RCMP or Garth.

Garth poses a crucial, if controversial, question: why are Indigenous men so violent (which is not to excuse domestic violence perpetrated by non-Indigenous men)? In 2011, the homicide rate among Native women was five times that for non-Native women.

Garth’s conclusion is not racist; he essentially takes up the argument made by Pierre Trudeau in the 1960s. In 1969, Jean Chrétien, at the time minister of Indigenous affairs, published a White Paper which advocated the phasing out of all reserves. Garth underestimates the psychological difficulty of a transition from a rural tribal culture to an urban culture. Jean Allard, the iconoclastic Métis ex-MLA said much the same in “Big Bear’s Treaty” (Inroads, 2002, pp. 108–169).

From: Dominic Cardy | August 26


I supported Garth Stevenson’s indefinite suspension because I don’t want to work with or be associated with racist views. We were being asked to express our collective opinion on a news story. From my perspective there wasn’t anything to debate: Garth’s comments and his wishing someone who complained about that racism to suffer a “painful death” didn’t reflect well on Inroads, and he had to leave. Garth is welcome to hold and express his views, and I believe he has every right to them, but Inroads has the same right to disassociate itself from them. Not because those views are unpopular, or not politically correct, but because they’re flat-out racist.

There’s nothing brave or principled about caving in to pressure but there’s equally nothing brave or principled about defending the indefensible because of that pressure. I like Inroads because it challenges conventional wisdom. That project is undermined when, as in this case, an author takes on the orthodox opinion around the inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women with hard data, but then says he believes Aboriginal Canadians are lazy, uncivilized whiners.

If we don’t want government controlling our speech then civil society and individuals have to police themselves. I supported Inroads suspending Garth for the same reason I oppose laws restricting hate speech: determinations of right and wrong should be made, whenever possible, by citizens and not the state. On this occasion the responsibility to take a decision fell on the editors of Inroads. I think we made the right one.

The editors agreed: we had no intention of censoring past content from Garth or anyone else, as long as it stood the test of impartial review in terms of factual accuracy. The idea of a university professor banning citations on anything other than those grounds is horrifying.

From: Frances Abele | August 26

I really appreciate the readiness of the editorial collective to explain themselves, and also to share their differing and thoughtful views on a difficult matter. I know the decision-making can’t have been easy.

And for the record, I don’t agree with my Carleton colleague. I don’t think students should be protected from obnoxious points of view. They should learn how to understand and, when they disagree, to contest.

From: Patrick Balena | August 26

Like Frances, I don’t follow Twitter, and I have seen only the published extracts of the inflammatory tweets.

Unlike Frances, I don’t have much of a problem with inflammatory language. As far as I can see, Garth lost his temper, insulted a lot of people, and told them to go to hell.

I think that Garth used a racist trope, when he implied that Aboriginals don’t work. That does bother me, all the more since I have just returned from the B.C. interior, where people such as the Cheslatta and the Tahltan have been undergoing no little exertion and danger to save their homes.

In a professional or official capacity, Garth’s pronouncements would be unacceptable, and I would expect them to lead to some sort of discipline. Even then, to summarily strip someone of his honours was a gross overreaction that had much more to do with the panic of university administrators than with the offensiveness of the tweets.

Garth does not hold public office, nor did he make those statements in the lecture hall. Admittedly, a tweet is not exactly private communication – it is a broadcast.

I think we all know that a big hazard of social media is that offhand remarks and heated retorts can be made instantly global. The person who tweets does so in private, but the tweet is not private. Living in such a world, we can either condition ourselves to be permanently decorous, as if we were in public and on the job all of the time, or we can accept that, occasionally, some of us will blurt out something nasty, impolitic and embarrassing.

For my part, I would rather tolerate the nastiness, and accept that in today’s public virtuality I am likely to encounter speech and behaviour which I would never like to witness in traditional “meatspace.” Being a cultural relativist, a liberal and a leftist, I would rather loosen my standards and lower my expectations than have imposed upon us all a perpetual regime of self-monitoring. Therefore I think that the sort of apology that one would make in personal dealings is satisfactory and appropriate for one’s Twitter misdealings. If Garth apologized, that’s enough.

Finally, I think Inroads is wrong to suspend Garth. I think Inroads has bowed to pressure. Has Inroads published anything racist? Why should Inroads beg pardon?

I do not defend Garth’s tweets, but I defend the man himself. Just this spring, I enjoyed a brief exchange with him on this listserv. I will not shun him now.

From: Dominic Cardy | August 26


We do agree that Brock acted with surprising haste. I have no problem with Inroads taking quick action because we’re a small private publication and we can decide whom we want to be associated with. I don’t want to be associated with someone comfortable making public declarations like the following:

“The city of Victoria is removing the statue of Sir John A. Macdonald to appease some snivelling aboriginals who probably never did a day’s work in their lives, and then they will hold some kind of pagan ‘cleansing and healing’ ceremony whatever that means. I hate that city!”

“Fuck you Justin and fuck your ‘Indigenous’ friends, who never even developed written languages or invented the wheel but are now acting as if they own this country. And it is people like you who give them these ideas.”

“You son of a bitch I hope you die painfully. Who the hell do you think you are?”

“To hell with your cleansing, blessing and healing. The so-called first nations seem to be taking over this country and it will soon be unfit for civilized people to live in.”

When I get angry, my “offhand remarks” don’t extend to comments like the above. I hope yours don’t either. Again, I think Garth should be allowed to say whatever he wants, I just don’t want to be associated with his comments. I’m a small-l liberal and Inroads has always been a small-l liberal publication. Garth didn’t just step over that line – he vaulted across it.

From: Reg Whitaker | August 29

I have hesitated to join in this discussion for the same reason that I did not actively participate in the editorial board decision to suspend Garth, even though I was made fully aware of the debate at the time. First of all, as a fellow columnist at Inroads, I did not think it appropriate to participate in a decision to suspend him. Second, as an old colleague and friend of Garth, going back four and a half decades now, who has increasingly found myself at odds with his contemporary views (readers of this listserv will be witnesses to the increasing acrimony of my exchanges with him over the past year or two), voting on his status would be something of conflict of interest.

I do agree with the decision, however. His social media posts cannot be interpreted as anything other than racist. While this was not true of the missing and murdered Indigenous women article in Inroads, which was evidence-based even if one disagreed and there is no reason to give in to social media bullies by withdrawing it from the website, his comments on Twitter and Facebook have compromised his future role at Inroads. If we continued to publish him we would inevitably be seen as condoning crossing a line of civility and decency.

That out of the way, I think the act that precipitated his intemperate outbursts, the removal of the Macdonald statue from Victoria city hall, was questionable, although not for Garth’s reasons which I take to be completely hostile and unsympathetic to First Nations concerns. Instead I would argue that one can fully understand and accept that First Nations have a valid case that Macdonald’s role in what was then called Indian policy should be recognized as deeply destructive, yet at the same time insist that there was far more to Macdonald’s historical significance to Canada than this role alone. Might it not have been better to have placed a plaque indicating the darker side of his leadership while leaving the statue in place as recognition of his contributions to building the nation (and keeping it out of the USA, no small achievement)?

Just carting his statue away – or the related efforts to erase his name from schools, etc. – signifies that nothing else counts except his admittedly negative role in the treatment of the Native peoples. That in turn plays into the hands of the anti–political correctness culture warriors who denounce the way “They” are taking away “Our” history.

Unfortunately, there is a tendency for rightly aggrieved groups to seek out villains, individual historical actors on whom anger can focus rather than on the more diffuse and complicated social and economic forces at work. But knocking down or defacing a statue does not really achieve anything positive. If anything it diverts attention from the real issues. Nor do I think that turning cartoon heroes into cartoon villains does much to clarify and redefine history for a contemporary generation. It just sets off more skirmishes in the ghastly culture wars that are causing so much damage to liberal democracies these days.

From: John Richards | August 29

I make an economist’s observation on the nature of social media. The arrival of social media has dramatically lowered the cost of making a fool of yourself or turning yourself into a pariah in polite society. Tsar Nicholas II was a determined anti-Semite. However, it required his access to a secret police bureaucracy before he could “broadcast” to the world the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It required less than a minute for Garth to “broadcast” to the world his spur-of-the-moment racist comments on Twitter. I am prepared to make allowance for intemperate, even racist, comments made in intimate discussion in the heat of the moment, provided the speaker can acknowledge the error of his ways and provides “evidence-based” rationales for his public statements.

Continue reading “The Garth Stevenson affair”