Encampment of tents in Vancouver's Downtown East Side.
Encampment of tents in Vancouver's Downtown East Side. Credit: Ted McGrath / Flickr Credit: Ted McGrath / Flickr

There’s no question about it. Canada is facing a grave social crisis on multiple fronts.

The homeless crisis, the housing crisis, the deadly drug poisoning crisis, and the crisis of our overburdened health care system are all real. They also share a common cause.

Forty years of neoliberalism have brought us to where we are. 

Now one of the most prominent Canadian advisors to neoliberal politicians is blaming experts, academics and community advocates for the crisis. He calls for a street-clearing program of Canadian cities worthy of the Chinese Communist Party.

Writing recently in The Hub – a right-wing online publication that appears to have aspirations to establish itself as a kind of thinking man’s Rebel Media – Howard Anglin cites the calamities listed above and concludes, “the moral resolve of our governing class has weakened to the point that it is an open question whether they believe our civilization deserves to survive.”

Anglin’s calls for street-clearing

Anglin was prime minister Stephen Harper’s chief of staff before becoming principal secretary for Alberta premier Jason Kenney. He apparently longs for a firm hand to curb the disorder we can all see – his article is entitled, in part, A Return to Order: Canada is Crumbling

“One thing is certain,” Dr. Anglin argues, “if we want renewal — economic, aesthetic, intellectual, or moral — the people who created the problem cannot be trusted with the solution.” Actually, I agree with him on this point.

He is wrong, though, when he blames academics and activists – at least the academics and activists he has in mind – for the mess in which we find our cities, and increasingly our towns and rural communities as well. 

He continues, with tendentious passion: “Instead of responding with outrage and action, our governing class has doubled down on their failures, insisting that the right of every Canadian to squat semi-comatose in filth is such an essential component of human dignity that we cannot question it, let alone intervene.”

He is right about this in a way, too. But the error of our ruling class is not to recognize that even the mentally ill, the addicted, the immiserated, have human rights.

It was, and is, the step-by-step entrenchment of an economic system that has created a vast gulf between the immensely wealthy and privileged and everyone else. This is the system that is pushing an increasing portion of the majority further and further to the margins. 

There is a crisis of despair out there alright. But it will not be solved by the forced drug treatment, street clearing and mass imprisonment Dr. Anglin appears to be advocating – although, to be clear, his article is vague on outlining just how his policy solutions would be implemented. It spends most of the time passionately simply denouncing the symptoms of these crises.

Nevertheless, Dr. Anglin’s direction is clear enough:

“Some should be locked up for serious criminality; others (the majority) should be treated for their conditions for as long as that takes, and only let back into society when they no longer pose a threat to themselves or others. Some may be able to participate in community-based recovery programs when they are ready, but many others should be cared for outside the community, humanely and permanently.”

So where? In corrective labour camps

Neoliberalism, the real culprit

Funnily enough, in his colourful opening paragraphs, Anglin sails close to identifying the true problem.

“Street-level squalor has spread incongruously in the shadow of gleaming new glass and steel apartment towers, which contribute in their own way to a growing feel of social division and alienation in what was, until very recently, still mostly a city of wood, stone, and brick built on a human scale,” he writes, describing his – and my – hometown.

That is, of course, because the social division and alienation is real. The neoliberal economic order to which Dr. Anglin has devoted much of his life not only perpetrates it, but requires it. Neoliberalism’s reverse-Robin-Hood redistribution of wealth in favour of the richest is, as they say, a feature, not a bug.

Consider the current housing crisis bedeviling all Canadian cities, now creeping into its towns and rural regions. 

“The prevailing philosophy of neoliberalism is culpable, more than any one policy, process or decision is for the rise of homelessness in Canada’s urban centres over recent decades,” wrote Bishop’s University sociology professor Mary Ellen Donnan almost a decade ago.

“Neoliberalism not only informed the decision to eliminate Canada’s federal Affordable Housing Program, it falsely justifies the continuing neglect of the core social role of housing support and it has motivated decades of other social welfare cuts despite evident tragic consequences,” Donnan wrote.

If those tragic consequences were evident in 2014, it is undeniable that neoliberalism’s chickens are now coming home to roost. 

Arguably, the Conservative government of prime minister Brian Mulroney opened Pandora’s Box when it stopped new funding under the National Housing Act and then quit supporting low-income housing. The misery and evil set loose on Canada’s cities by that policy decision is now evident on Victoria’s Pandora Avenue, and in parks and streets across this land. 

“The steady destruction of social welfare began decades ago,” Donnan wrote. “Reductions of government spending on social supports have become deeper and deeper as, guided by neoliberalism, the policy priorities were debt reduction and low tax rates rather than human well-being.”

So, yes, strong measures are required. Courageous governments are desperately needed to deliver them. 

But the measures we need are not a Canadian Gulag and forced drug treatment for criminalized victims of neoliberal economics.

Strong leaders needed

“Contrary to what we are told by our experts,” Anglin concluded his piece, “restoring public order is not hard; governments have the legal tools to overcome activist objections to returning order to our streets. All it would take is the one thing our governing class lacks—the will to do it.”

This is true. 

But the program that we require starts with a return to fair taxation, a firm end to the concentration of wealth in the hands of a tiny percentage of the population, an end to the financialization of everything, including rental housing and health care. It requires an end to the alienation of almost everyone to one degree or another from the necessities of a decent life.

But what are the chances of that? In a society like Canada in 2023, with total elite consensus on the neoliberal order, across even the so-called Left, they are vanishingly small.

As the American philosopher and civil rights activist Audre Lord sagely observed: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

This being so, things are likely to continue to get worse no matter whom we elect. 

More people will be impoverished. Decent housing, let alone home ownership, will continue to be a fantasy for more Canadians. There will be more and increasingly crude calls for brutal repression of the poorest and most marginalized in our society.

So, yes, we need leaders with the will to do what is really needed. 

Where are they? Not in Anglin’s camp. 

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...