Palestinians inspect the damage following an Israeli airstrike on the El-Remal area in Gaza City on October 9, 2023.
Palestinians inspect the damage following an Israeli airstrike on the El-Remal area in Gaza City on October 9, 2023. Credit: Wafa / Wikimedia Commons Credit: Wafa / Wikimedia Commons

The year 2023 began with the war-without-end in the Ukraine and ended with a flaming, brutal, raging war in the Gaza strip. 

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine early in 2022, Canadians had grown somewhat inured to that interminable conflict. What Russian leader Vladimir Putin believed would be an easy romp to victory turned out to be a tedious, blood-soaked stalemate, with no apparent winners, only losers all around.

As 2023 got underway, Canadians were far more focused on challenges at home than bombs and missiles far away.

There was healthcare for instance, a perennial preoccupation in this country. 

The COVID pandemic exposed some of the longstanding weaknesses of the healthcare system in Canada – a largely public system, which, to many Canadians, defines this country.

The lesson we learned from the pandemic was how stretched to the limit our healthcare services and facilities are, even under optimum conditions. There is no surplus capacity. And so, when challenges such as a pandemic strike, the system cannot cope.

COVID forced the cancellation of thousands of surgeries and other procedures and almost overwhelmed long-term care facilities in much of the country. Canada had one of the worst records for COVID deaths in long-term care homes in the entire world. 

We have known for a while that we have a severe shortage of family doctors in this country. COVID put that crisis in bold relief.

The solution to the family doctor shortage won’t come from simply, somehow, training and importing more physicians. It will require a root-and-branch re-thinking of our primary care system. 

Ford pushes private surgeries

One might think the challenge of providing a basic level of care for millions of Canadians who now lack it would be a priority for all governments.

That does not seem to be the case for Doug Ford’s Ontario Conservatives. 

They got 2023 rolling not with any new prospects for primary care, but rather with a plan to expand private surgeries in Ontario .

There is little evidence moving some hip and knee and eye surgeries away from hospitals will reduce the waiting times for hospital-based procedures. In the spring of 2023 the Parkland Institute, based in Alberta, released a study that showed the expansion of private health care in that province was harming the public system

The study states “the expansion of private chartered surgical facilities has diverted resources away from public hospitals and, in turn, reduced provincial surgical volumes.” 

In other words, in Alberta privatization has meant there are now fewer rather than more surgeries.   

Trudeau offers $46 billion to provinces for health care

A few weeks after the Ontario health-related announcement, the federal Liberals had one of their own. They put a comprehensive, ten-year plan for the federal contribution to health care on the table .

The new funding amounts to more than $46 billion, which sounds like a lot, but was not nearly enough for most provincial premiers.

They were looking for an increase of federal funding to the tune of $28 billion per year.

In the end, though, over the course of 2023, all provincial governments were happy to sign agreements with the feds for the $25 billion in new money which requires concrete commitments from the provinces on key priority areas.

Most notable of those priorities is increasing access to primary or family care. We have yet to see much action on that front from any provincial government. 

The current Trudeau Liberal government, with the prodding of its New Democratic partners, has been more active in health care than any federal government since that of Justin Trudeau’s father, more than four decades ago. 

Pierre Trudeau’s government gave us the Canada Health Act, which bans practices, such as extra billing, which could undermine the universal, public system.

Justin Trudeau, and his NDP colleague Jagmeet Singh, have not only accomplished the new health financing agreement with the provinces, they have an ever-expanding federal dental insurance program to their credit.  And by March of 2024, there will be at least a framework for a federal pharmacare scheme. 

Rouleau condemns the truckers’ occupation

In February of 2023, Justice Paul Rouleau issued his report on the federal government’s use of the Emergencies Act to end the 2022 truckers’ occupation of downtown Ottawa. 

Rouleau not only concluded that Justin Trudeau had legitimate reasons to invoke the seldom used Act, he was searing in his indictment of the occupiers .

“Many [Ottawa residents] experienced negative effects on their physical and psychological health and were legitimately concerned for their personal safety,” Rouleau wrote. “The fire hazards caused by open fires, wood piles, propane tanks, and jerry cans of fuel were constant. Street obstructions impeded access to critical public and emergency services. There were multiple reports of harassment, intimidation, and assaultive behaviour, to which law enforcement was often unable to respond.” 

Rampant inflation scares and demoralizes Canadians

In the spring of 2023, inflation took over the public agenda. Housing prices, food, prices, fuel prices – the rising cost of nearly everything had just about everyone worried.

Inflation was a consequence few had predicted would emerge after the lifting of pandemic lockdown restrictions. Pent-up consumer demand and disrupted supply chains conspired to boost price hikes to a degree we had not seen, in Canada, in a long, long time.

For nearly 30 years, since 1992, the annual Canadian inflation rate had not exceeded three per cent annually. Then, in 2020, it hit seven per cent and the public started to grow not only worried, but angry. 

Canadians under 45 have little or no memory of high inflation. An inflation rate over five per cent is a scary, new experience for them.

The Bank of Canada’s predictable response was to raise interest rates. And that strategy has worked to dampen demand and bring the inflation rate down to about three per cent (which, by historic standards, is still high). 

But high interest rates have meant punishingly high mortgage rates, and, indeed, higher rates for all kinds of loans. The Bank of Canada’s medicine has made the average Canadian even more restive and dissatisfied.

Galen Weston III defends corporate profits

Food price inflation tended to lead the price-hike pack, so much so that politicians got deeply concerned.

In March, a House of Commons committee summoned the corporate leaders of Canada’s major food retailers to Ottawa to answer some tough questions  .

The biggest of the food giants is Loblaw’s and its CEO Galen Weston III tangled with NDP leader Jagmeet Singh.

Singh pointed to a report from a group at Dalhousie University. It concluded that in 2022 Loblaw’s earned excess profits of about a million dollars per day.

In the five-year period preceding 2022, Loblaw’s best profit was $180 million per year. For 2022, it was a whopping $436 million. 

Weston was not in the slightest embarrassed. In fact, he tried classic gaslighting techniques on the committee. 

First, he said he was not necessarily in agreement with the Dalhousie group’s figures. Then, for good measure, Weston claimed nearly all of Loblaw’s big profits came from beauty products, not food.

Later in 2023, the Loblaw’s chief came back to the committee. This time, he was blunt and candid. Big profits for food corporations were not a bad thing, Weston said, they were only an indication of corporations in a free market economy “operating as they should”.   

Poilievre cultivates his nice side and cashes in on discontent

The politician who appears, at this point, to have gained most from economic discontent in the land is Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre. Canadian Press just named Poilievre Canada’s Newsmaker of the Year. 

Over the course of 2023 Poilievre undertook a major image make-over. He shed his glasses, substituted a t-shirt for a shirt and tie, and featured his charming wife and adorable children in TV ads that tout the Conservative leader’s softer side.

In speeches, Poilievre borrowed a leaf from NDP leader Singh and talked empathetically about the hardships and economic struggles of ordinary folks. 

Poilievre’s solutions amount to eliminating government regulation and axing the carbon tax, which, because of rebates, generally benefits lower- and middle-income Canadians. 

But if opinion polls are to be believed, the new Pierre act seems to be working.

The next Canadian election, mercifully, is a long way off, in the fall of 2025. 

South of the border in the US, where a huge proportion of voters seem prepared to put Donald Trump back in the White House, the next election is less than 11 months away. 

But that’s a whole other story, for another time.

Then there is global warming

The year 2023 also witnessed the hottest temperatures on record for Canada (and many other places).

In Canada, global warming resulted in the worst forest fire season anyone can remember. Smoke from fires in eastern Canada was so intense it invaded not only Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal, but New York and Washington, D.C. 

Nobody can remember a time when millions of the citizens of urbanized North America had to stay home because of wildfires thousands of kilometres to the north.

In June, when Ontario NDP leader Marit Stiles asked Premier Ford to acknowledge the connection of climate change to wildfires, he answered: “Approximately 50% of the fires are started by lightning strikes; the other 50% are people starting campfires and not putting out the campfires properly. So I’m asking every Ontarian: Please do not light any campfires.”

Ford could not so easily slough off the scandal that broke out over his government’s attempt to open up parts of the protected Greenbelt that surrounds the most populous part of southern Ontario.

When news broke that there appeared to have been favouritism in selecting lands to be developed, Ford tried to get past it with a couple of resignations.

But the revelations kept coming and, in the end, Ford decided to do a full one-eighty and put an end to the whole enterprise.

The Greenbelt is safe, for now. 

Ford pulled the plug on a policy to which he had been firmly committed because he was worried about further revelations which could come out. But Ford still has lots to worry about. 

There are a number of ongoing investigations into the Greenbelt affair, largely focused on the Ontario government’s relationships with real estate developers (many of whom are Conservative party donors).

Bloodshed in Gaza overshadows all

It is hard to wish anyone peace and goodwill at this time, against the background of the horror afflicting the people of Gaza. 

The war there started on October 7 when Hamas – a group whose ideology borders on life-negating nihilism – engaged in a sneak attack on (mostly) civilians who either lived or happened to be near the Israel-Gaza border. 

That unprecedented act of terror left more than 1,200 dead, and made hostages of hundreds more.

Hamas’ leaders were recklessly indifferent to the ultimate impact their October 7 attack would have on the more than two million people in Gaza. They knew their actions would almost certainly invite a massive response from Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right Israeli coalition.

Israel took the bait. It retaliated with unalloyed ferocity, killing, up to this point, something like 20,000 civilians, most of them women and children. 

Almost worse than the death toll is the total destruction of much of Gaza’s infrastructure, including hospitals. The United Nations now says there is a real prospect of widespread starvation in Gaza in the coming weeks and months. 

For Hamas, in a perverse way, everything is working out according to plan. 

For a few days in October, Israel had the unqualified sympathy of the world. Now, it is making itself into a pariah. Even normally soft-spoken Canada is willing to criticize Netanyahu’s brutal tactics.

Some violence-prone revolutionaries of an earlier era would use the phrase “heighten the contradictions” to describe terrorist-style actions which invited a brutal and repressive reaction from the authorities. Such a reaction, those revolutionaries reasoned, would show the masses the true face of their class enemy.

Hamas’ leaders have never stated that “heightening the contradictions” between the occupiers and the occupied was their goal. 

They must have had something like that in mind, however, because what their October 7 action has wrought is the most sanguine and horrific heightening of contradictions possible.

For this writer, this ugliest of ugly wars, in a crowded, tiny strip of land along the southern Mediterranean coast, overshadows the memories of everything else that happened, in Canada and around the world, in 2023.

Still, despite our shared gloom at this dark time, I wish you all a safe and peaceful holiday season. 

We’ll talk again in 2024.

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...