Living unfree in Canada

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Photo taken in Vancouver's Chinatown on July 7, 2019. Image: Art Crimes/Flickr

The liberal ideal is to live free. 

Canadians enjoy freedoms protected within the Constitution; but that does not prevent far too many Canadians from living unfree, lacking daily necessities and left aside by economic and social injustice.

Ignoring our fellow citizens who are homeless or destitute serves to humiliate the poor. Marginalized citizens stay quietly in line, unable to live free for want of basic resources, and unwilling to challenge society at large. 

As Frances Fox Piven has argued, the poor and their allies have the power to disrupt, occupy government offices, take to the streets, demonstrate, attract media attention and make society pay attention.

The power to disrupt and rage in protest has been a powerful weapon in creating social change.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced governments to impose major disruptions themselves. Elected bodies have decreed self-isolation; closed stores, schools, restaurants and hotels; and shut down tourism and airline travel, throwing millions out of work.

The government-organized disruption has brought out into the open a badly hidden secret: in a very rich society, as many as one-half of Canadians lack basic economic security. 

Canadians are living unfree because of part-time and precarious work, underemployment, household and student debt, food insecurity, and an absence of affordable housing.

Included in the unfree Canadians are Aboriginals, people of colour who suffer from systemic racism, and those subject to mistreatment due to patriarchy, ageism, ableism or other forms of active discrimination.

Temporary foreign workers are left without any social protection, or avenues to citizenship. And, since 2008, Canada has been admitting more migrant workers each year than official immigrants. 

Liberalism has been reduced to individual economic freedom: the amount of freedom being measured by the sum of wealth and income. The noble aspiration of expanding human capabilities has been twisted to exclude social freedom for every citizen.

The liberal ideal has been restated in neoliberalism as freedom to buy and sell, invest and save, and to exercise property rights. 

For a liberal, the role reserved to government is to assure that equal opportunities are available to each one to make her or his own way. 

Citizens are born with the capabilities and capacities necessary to thrive in the world, and elected representatives have a duty to ensure people can make the best of what is available to them.

Urged on by the NDP, the Trudeau government has assisted people to deal with the disruption adopted to protect society from COVID-19. Wage supplements help businesses hold on to employees; an emergency payment of $2,000 a month compensates those who have lost income from work; small supplements aid seniors, and loans provide a cushion for business owners.

For the socialist left, the dynamic between the dominant class and the oppressed, rooted in the workplace, defines politics: workers confront capitalism in all its manifestations. 

Building coalitions of those exposed to the vagaries of uncertain work, low wages and inadequate social protection is a necessary step in the process of constructing alliances with elected officials. 

Contesting the subjugation of the state to corporate profit-seeking at the expense of democracy requires masses of people engaged in public action. 

Political parties and representative democracy proved useful for social insurance and protection of civic rights, but have proven unequal to the task of democratic will-formation needed to transform politics in a world economy dominated by less than 200 giant transnational corporations, or even to regulate the 100 TNCs that account for 71 per cent of global greenhouse-gas emissions.  

Social anxieties and dislocation have been accompanied by citizen self-exclusion from electoral politics. The non-voter is the main feature of first-past-the-post riding contests across Canada. 

In response to the disruption that is not going to disappear as the virus recedes, the main task is to remake the economy so as to eliminate the sources of injustice. Building democratic space inside the economy is a pre-requisite for flourishing of social relations based on justice for all. 

The pandemic lays bare the weaknesses of Canada. A generalized social injustice demands that we reflect on what we can do to strengthen our society, and expand our freedoms. Faced with the magnitude of economic and social failures, the citizenry at large needs to respond. 

Duncan Cameron is president emeritus of and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.

Image: Art Crimes/Flickr

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