Organized around the theme “Advancing Democracy and Social Justice in Canada: The Next 30 Years,” the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives celebrated its 30th anniversary with a conference featuring progressive activists, thinkers and organizations on Nov. 18.
The gathering was an opportunity to mark three decades of advancing progressive ideas and to reflect on the challenges that lie ahead. After spending the day taking in presentations from a line-up of insightful speakers, here are some themes that resonated with me.
In his introductory remarks, CCPA executive director Bruce Campbell looked back at the organization’s beginning and provided context for the presentations. The question of power was central to the group of activists and academics who founded the CCPA, driven by concerns about the powerful business push to replace Keynesian consensus with a neoliberal model. Business was creating new think-tanks to advance its agenda, said Campbell, seen in the creation and funding of groups like the Fraser Institute and the C.D. Howe Institute. The CCPA was created to counterbalance this agenda, and to serve as a platform for progressive voices to stage challenges with well-researched data.
In spite of these and other countervailing efforts, the free-market model has dominated policymaking, guided by the principle “the market knows best.” Financial elites who caused the current economic crisis and benefitted from trillions of dollars of publically funded bailouts continue to make record profits and pay themselves exorbitant salaries, while public services and social programs endure ongoing cuts. As Campbell observed, this has wreaked havoc in Canada and worldwide, creating a disastrous series of consequences, including escalating the financial crisis, deepening recessions, attacking UN-mandated human rights, weakening wages, undermining women’s rights, endangering the planet, damaging social protections, and concentrating wealth, to name but a few. The overwhelming result has been the worsening of inequality and the erosion of democracy.
Contributing to this grim climate is a Conservative government that has silenced voices critical of its actions. In his presentation, Amnesty International director Alex Neuve called this, “the big chill” and described the siege on advocacy and dissent currently underway. Punitive, vindictive measures from government to silence those speaking out means that the space for advocacy and dissent is drastically shrinking, and Neuve outlined a lengthy list of organizations and individuals affected by arbitrary funding decisions, cuts, and intimidation (a very abbreviated list includes the Court Challenges Program, the Canadian Arab Federation, Peter Tinsely, Richard Colvin, Paul Kennedy, Linda Keen, the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, CIDA, the Status of Women). He concluded that the Conservative government’s ongoing attempts to control information, expression, and dissent undermine the three fundamental freedoms underlying democracy — freedom of expression, association, and assembly.
As Campbell pointed out, many of our current problems stem from the government getting its policy advice from these business think-tanks. Campbell cited CCPA figures indicating that, over the last four years, three business-driven think-tanks — the Conference Board of Canada, the Canada West Foundation and the C.D. Howe Institute — have received 12 times the level of funding received by all existing non-corporate-funded think-tanks combined.
In his presentation, political studies professor Paul Saurette examined the context of this “think-tank sphere” or “battle for ideas” and the consequences of the massive growth of what he called the “ideological persuasion industry.” Saurette noted that there has been significant growth in the number, budget, and capacity of think-tanks, as well as the way they receive and use funding — more money is given to think-tanks over grassroots organizations, it is given without strings attached; the organizations themselves are both more partisan and responsive to issues of the day.
Right-wing think-tanks are not primarily research institutions, according to Saurette, because their principal mandate is persuasion, with research used as a tool to this end. The result has been a pernicious shift in the values that inform public policy, toward market fundamentalist values — for example, “equality” has been refigured as equal access to the market and “choice” has been transformed into consumer choice.
In the face of such increasing threats to democracy and the growth of inequality, the next decade is critical for advancing an alternative vision, said Campbell. “This is a time for progressive forces to seize the moment presented by the (financial) crisis, to go on the offensive, articulate a vision, a cogent set of policy ideas,” he argued.
Extending this call to action in her keynote address, journalist and author Linda McQuaig called for progressives to fight back against the growing inequality created by an increased concentration of wealth in our society. The left needs to capture public anger in response to the financial crisis and channel it towards creating more equality and social justice, said McQuaig. Drawing from her recent book, co-authored with Neil Brooks, The Trouble With Billionaires, she argued that the concentration of wealth at the top is not a side issue but is in fact the root of the problems that we face. As long as a small financial elite has a surplus of wealth and power, they will use their political clout to block progressive reforms like income redistribution and social programs crucial to income distribution. McQuaig called this the Robin Hood paradox — the richer the rich get, the less generous they are to everyone else.
Through the financing of right-wing think-tanks, lobby groups and media ownership, the wealthy continue to push an agenda that justifies the increasing concentration of wealth. McQuaig urged progressives to question the integrity of such an agenda: “What we need is a campaign to challenge the moral legitimacy of such a small group having such a large share of national resources and therefore so much clout within society.” Central to this campaign is the restoration of a progressive income tax system. McQuaig argues that the introduction of an inheritance tax would help reduce the wealth of the elite, and produce enough revenue to create an educational trust fund valued at $16,000 for every Canadian.
In the process of mobilizing, it is also important to consider what “progressive” means in Canada, especially for marginalized groups. Reflecting on her own experience of growing up in a first-generation immigrant family, Atkinson Foundation executive director Olivia Nuamah suggested that the experiences of many individuals, especially people in the lowest economic classes, are missing from Canadian society. Social justice efforts need to include people’s lived experiences and strive to transfer power, so that individuals can speak for themselves. Speaking about the inequality experienced by Aboriginal women, Native Women’s Association, Sisters of Spirit director Kate Rexe argued that policies today are not based on evidence or the experiences of people, and called instead for policies that reflect the importance of community and the holistic aspects — spiritual, mental and physical — of people’s lives.
Despite the challenges ahead, the conference carried a message of hope for the advancement of social justice and democracy. The key is to find ways to mobilize and channel energy into effective action.
Reflecting on the next 30 years for the CCPA, Bruce Campbell concluded with the message that, “our role at the CCPA is as an ideas forum; however, for these ideas to carry the day they need to be translated into action, through the broadest possible alliance of civil society organizations, engaged citizens, and political allies. When established elites fear the consequences of a far-reaching bottom up social movement, then this is what will ultimately bring about real social change.”
Michelle Gregus is a graduate student in Communications at Carleton University, where she studies media, culture and food. She joined rabble in 2006 as an intern and recently has started working as an editorial assistant in the Columns section.