But the vision of Canada inspired in U.S.-based progressives by Michael Moore et al is very, very romanticized. And whether it is Americans echoing this view here in the States, or Canadians at home getting smug, I refuse to sit still and take the myth of the great liberal Canada.
First the good stuff: Okay, yes, the best way to judge these things is by the quality of life of ordinary people, and there are some ways in which genuine, material gains have been made in Canada that have not been made in the United States.
- The cause of queer liberation is a little farther along in Canada, with widespread inclusion of lesbian, bisexual, gay, and transgender people in human rights codes and increasing legal recognition of marriage between two people of the same gender. Also (keeping in mind that as a straight person I can never really know this for sure) there seems to be slightly more social space in the Canadian cities I've been in to be "out" than here in LA.
- Workers rights are, generally speaking, in a better position legislatively in Canada than in the U.S., though Alberta's labour laws are pretty harsh. This translates into union density that is about 30%, compared to about 13% for the U.S. The same basic problems plague the Canadian labour movement as plague the U.S. labour movement, but the balance of forces within the labour movement tilt a bit farther towards the progressive end.
- Despite more than a decade of neoliberal assault, the social safety net in Canada is still somewhat functional, including socialized medical care -- they're trying to privatize it, but haven't done so quite yet.
- There are still small corners of state funding for progressive research and community action, via places like Heritage Canada and Status of Women Canada.
- There is generally less violent crime and stronger gun control measures (even though the current government botched aspects of gun control in a major way, which will make it an easier target for the right for decades to come). As well, the prison population is far smaller relative to the overall population.
- The CBC does a decent job as a national, public broadcaster, particularly on the radio, though it still very much functions as a mainstream, mass media institution, with all that implies.
That's a pretty short list. It matters because it impacts on people's lives, but it is short.
At heart, though, the issues in Canada are much the same as the issues in the U.S., and oppression exists in both countries.
- Just like the U.S., the Canadian state is based on stolen land, broken treaties, and the genocide of this continents' Aboriginal peoples. There are proportionately more Aboriginal people in Canada than in the U.S., but they experience the same extremely high rates of poverty and racist treatment. There have been a number of high profile assaults by the state and racist white Canadians in the last ten or fifteen years on First Nations people demanding their rights -- Oka, Burnt Church, a stand-off out in British Columbia whose name I can't recall, and the state murder of Dudley George at Ipperwash come to mind. As well, over the decades there were semi-regular exchanges between the bureaucrats at the Department of Indian Affairs and those in charge of managing apartheid in South Africa. Attempts to extinguish Aboriginal title even to the small area of land they have left and to extinguish Aboriginal culture continue on the part of the federal government.
- Legislative and judicial gains notwithstanding, there's plenty of homophobia and heterosexism to go around in Canada. In the months before I moved from Hamilton to LA there was a vicious incident of gay bashing that left a gay man of colour with serious injuries. Since I left there was a raid on Hamilton's only bath house.
- The momentum around labour law is in the wrong direction -- in the mid-1990s there were three major provinces (Quebec, Ontario, and British Columbia) that had anti-scab laws. Those are laws that make it illegal for employers to bring in replacement workers during a strike. It is gone from Ontario and B.C., and I'm not sure about Quebec. In Ontario there was a truly draconian Employment Standards Act passed by the previous provincial government, doing things like making it legal for employers to force employees to work 60 hour weeks without overtime. Changes to labour law in B.C. under the Campbell government have made it the only jurisdiction in North America where child labour is legal.
- Wealth and income inequality are, generally speaking, on the increase in Canada. Notably, this inequality is racialized, leading to what some commentators have accurately described as "economic apartheid" in Canada.
- Canada has a long history of active cheerleading and support of U.S. imperialism, most recently with respect to the U.S. sponsored coup in Haiti. Canada stayed out of Vietnam but no nation other than the U.S. itself profited more economically from the slaughter of millions of people in Southeast Asia, and Canadian firms are profiting handsomely from U.S. imperialism in Afghanistan and Iraq.
- The tradition of fighting for civil liberties is not nearly as well developed in Canada as it is in the U.S. Though legislation similar to the USA PATRIOT Act was passed around that time in Canada, it has received much less attention from activists and the media. There are currently Muslim men in prison with no charges and no publically presented evidence and a great deal of apathy on the part of the public towards this injustice.
- Even though the mayors of Canada's ten largest cities declared homelessness a national disaster in 1998, the response by the federal government has been largely cosmetic (a program to shore up emergency services and a rental supply program that will benefit mainly the middle-class, at least in many provinces) and some provincial governments have hardly responded at all. According to advocates around one person per week dies on the streets of Toronto in the winter, but the real causes of the crisis -- poverty, lack of affordable housing, and lack of support services -- are not being addressed in any substantial way by the state.
- The Canadian state has long been an aggressive promoter of the institutions of neoliberal capitalist globalization, and has actively pushed very regressive positions in negotiations. Canada, just like the U.S., benefits from the global economic system that sucks money out of most of the world and pours it into the already-industrialized countries.
- The prison population in Canada is disproportionately racialized people, particularly Aboriginal people. Racialized communities in Canada experience racial profiling, experience police shootings, and have had to mobilize over the years against systemic racism in the criminal "justice" system. Despite this mobilization, things are probably worse than they were a decade ago in terms of institutional safeguards, at least in Ontario.
- While less scary than George W. Bush, our current Prime Minister, Paul Martin, is no picnic.
- In elections in Ontario in the last decade, poor-bashing has often been a successful electoral strategy.
- Abuse and murder of women by their male partners is epidemic in Canada, just like it is in the U.S.
- Even though we have the CBC, corporate media consolidation is much more advanced in Canada than in the United States, and community media (particularly progressive community broadcast media) is much less well developed in Canada.
So there you go. I could go on. It plays out a bit more mildly in some ways in Canada than in the U.S., and those differences can have real impacts on real people, but the basic oppressive structures which confrot social movements in the two societies are similar and interconnected. Canada has had the privilege, through its history, of being a small and unimportant appendage to empire, either British or U.S., so people with some privilege in Canada gain from all of the oppression that these empires wreak on the world (and the oppression Canadian elites wreak at home) but with leeway to be somewhat more liberal. But the struggles are the same and the direction is the same.
I think, incidentally, that there is definitely room in Canada for the radical right populist movement that dominates politics in the U.S. to gain ground. They haven't managed it so far, but speaking as someone who grew up in small town southern Ontario, there is still plenty of room for them to make inroads there with the right organizing. That scares me.
On the up side, I think there are some structural features of the political landscape that argue against this movement being as successful in Canada.
- In the U.S., nationalism drives a chunk of that movement. The corresponding radical right statists in Canada also use nationalism, but (bizarrely) it is U.S. nationalism -- particularly in papers like the National Post there is this weird worship of the United States. There are always going to be limits to how well "they are so much better than us" plays in any country.
- Quebec is the most progressive polity in North America, and their particular position within the Canadian confederation and their willingness to destroy said confederation if it comes to that, places some limits. The right hates that fact, but the economic elites in the country do not want confederation dismantled so the threat of the seperatists, who have a strong (if not as strong as 30 years ago) social democratic strain, constrains the right too.
- The existence of a genuine social democratic party in English Canada, however much I and others on the left have criticized them over the years, serves as an important placeholder in the public debate so that ideas that are taboo in the U.S. get voiced in Canada just because there are people in parliament who voice them. The Bloc Qubecois, the federal separatist party, is also brings social democratic ideas to the public via parliament.
All that having been said, neoliberalism marches on with the enthusiastic support of Canadian elites. Racism, sexism, homophobia and all the other interlocking hierarchies of power and privilege are fundamental to Canadian society. There is no guarantee that the radical right populist movement won't be energized by the success of their U.S. counterparts and manage to destroy whatever gains have been made by genuine peoples' movements in Canada, even if it is fair to predict that they won't be quite as successful. So you're welcome to come to Canada if you want, but you'd better be just as prepared to fight for justice and liberation there as here. And as much as Canada could always use new progressive and radical activists, I have a feeling that most of the world would rather see such social change work happen in the U.S. -- movements to end war and imperialism can have the greatest impact at the centre of the empire, and those most impacted by the triumph of the right domestically in the U.S. are the least likely to have any kind of escape available to them.