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Ryan Painter

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Canada's Path Towards Ending Inequality

Posted: 10/17/2012 6:26 pm

If the Occupy Movement has added anything to our conversation about politics and society it's that the 1 per cent has, over the last 30 years, been accumulating more then it's fair share of wealth. This is easily quantifiable; today the 1 per cent takes nearly 14 per cent of the national income. In the 1980s they took 7 per cent. That's a doubling of its share and who knows what another 30 years will bring if we continue on the death by a thousand cuts path that we are currently on? In the meantime while workers productivity has increased, wages have stagnated. The Center for the Study of Living Standards reported in 2009 that between 1980-2005 productivity increased 37 per cent while wages remained relatively stagnant, increasing for fulltime workers an average of $53.

This was one of the key points highlighted in a recent publication by the Broadbent Institute, a public policy think tank named for former New Democratic Party of Canada leader Ed Broadbent. The policy paper entitled Towards A More Equal Canada, highlights the problems of inequality in Canada, how we got to where we are, and how we can move forward.

It's not only the accumulation of wealth by a top tier of elites that's the problem. One problem is the dismantling of our societal structures put in place over decades as equalizing forces for those who weren't born with silver spoons in their mouths. Simultaneously, the few opportunities that exist for some to break free from their economic realities are being fundamentally dismantled, and in record time.

The arguments for the increase in the one per cent's share of income are numerous, but can mainly be linked to the prioritization of corporate profits: As Natural Resources critic for the NDP Peter Julian cleverly puts it, our "rip it and ship it" mentality. In other words, we are drawers of water and hewers of wood and have been since Wilfred Laurier first attempted a reciprocity agreement and was shot down (enter western alienation). Back then, the rip and ship mentality was opposed by Conservative businesspeople and key figures in the Liberal party. What a difference a century makes.

We sell our resources, do little in the means of adding value to them, and then cut our services (and taxes due to public perception and manipulation) in order to balance our budgets and decrease our debt. We haven't come far from the first echo of reciprocity championed one-hundred years ago. What a sad state for Canada to be at in the 21st Century.

Even our technology sector has been sold off en masse over the last decade. We saw the dismantling of Nortel without so much as a peep from government. We very nearly lost MacDonald Dettwiler (Can't lose that beloved Canadarm). As reported in the Globe and Mail this passed July, Hi-Tech companies made up 41% of the TSX in the year 2000. As of this summer in a huge decline, the Hi-Tech sector made up only 1.4% of the TSX. Last year alone 45 Canadian tech companies were bought by foreign buyers.

The result of joining these realities with the dismantling of the social programs and restructuring of EI benefits to insure lower salary payouts, then combining them with the elimination of social advocacy groups for women and community organizations ensured by funding cuts is a recipe for the most dangerous form of governance: Governance that has so limited itself that it is harmful to its citizens.

The decline in the relevance of unions cannot be understated, either. Unions continue to be able to represent their workers and gain them fair wages and benefits. Last month, the Canadian Labour Congress released a report called The Union Advantage which cited two important stats: unionized workers make on average $5.11 an hour more than non-union workers and as a result, the union advantage adds almost $800 million a week to the Canadian economy. Private sector unions and their benefits (importantly pensions) have been slashed and now the Harper government is taking on public sector unions.

In a recent development, the federal and BC provincial governments are backing corporate Canada in taking on the wages of skilled workers by signing off on temporary foreign workers from China to come to BC and work in our mines. These temporary workers will be forced to work at lower wages without safety and health guarantees. This fundamentally undermines Canadian labour standards and like in previous years, is an attempt to force down the gains made by unions and workers.

The Harper government has thus succeeded on pitting workers against each other, and turning the benefits unions have wrought for their workers into resentments from the broader population. This, in turn, has created a struggle between workers and the resulting depression of wages and benefits, causing a race to the bottom and eliminating the effectiveness of worker's advocacy.

While governments from the 80's and 90's do bare the brunt of the responsibility for putting us in the inequality nightmare we are in today (through cuts to social programs, corporate tax cuts, cuts to provincial transfers, cuts in unemployment assistance to name a few), these governments still by and large agreed with the idea of Canada and held out that government had a role to play in the daily lives of citizens.

Not anymore.

What we see now is the complete divestment of government from its responsibilities to keep Canadians safe. We saw it just a few weeks ago with the XL Foods meat plant E.coli crisis, when no straight answers could be had from government or the company. Is it any surprise that the architects of the Walkerton tragedy are also a part of the federal Conservative cabinet and that the result of trusting in corporate accountability and self-regulation resulted in people getting sick?

The name of the game is this: our federal government is now more a business facilitator then a public protector and insurer of equal opportunity. Things look to get more dire the longer this current government remains in power in Ottawa.

Up until six years ago, Canada was focused (mostly) on navigating the waters of economic stability and public safety. The only difference between now and then is that our current government has disabled all of our monitoring equipment and we are now sailing blind. We have no idea where the mines are, and when we hit them, we aren't equipped to deal with the damage.

 

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