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October 5, 2011 / mike54martin

There’s Still Time to Change the Road We’re On

Canada has long been a country that has been a favourite choice for immigrants for a number of reasons. Those have included reliable social services, a safe and secure environment to work and live and the possibility of economic improvement. But most of all newcomers toCanadahave valued the sense of social cohesion and relative lack of a class or caste system that limited the potential of any citizen. Today all of those important aspects of Canadian society are under attack, not just for immigrants but for all of us, and worst of all we are losing our ability and tools to prevent it from happening.

The recent Conference Board of Canada report on the income equality gap inCanadasimply highlights this situation and the dangerous extent of the decline thatCanadaand Canadians are facing. In less than ten yearsCanadahas moved from middle of the pack in income equality to 22nd place out of 32 OECD countries. Perhaps even more worrisome is the fact that our rates are declining faster than even the United States and that this occurred while we were still growing our economy and creating tons of new jobs. What will it be like when our economy starts to stagnate as some believe is now happening?

The dangers of a growing income gap between the very rich in a society and the majority are real and well documented by both social scientists and economists. We run a genuine risk of higher crime rates, poorer educational outcomes, more health related issues and the development of an economic underclass that will erode our society from the inside out. The Conference Board report and others from the OECD are simply harbingers of what’s to come, the proverbial canaries in the coal mine.

They are now being echoed by some of the same people who have benefitted most from the increasing equality gap, people who know the consequences of continuing down this road. Very smart people, like Warren Buffet in theUnited Stateswho know that it is not only the right thing to do but a strategic business decision to have the very wealthy and the corporate elite pay their fair share. The voices in Canada have not been as loud but even the Canadian Council of Chief Executives has lately and somewhat reluctantly come on board with the idea of higher taxes for ultra rich Canadians in order to ameliorate the situation.

The problem is that we may be too far down the road to affect any more than a cosmetic change to this problem for a very long time. That’s because we as a society have removed or weakened many of the mechanisms that naturally prevent the equality gap and the resultant loss in social cohesion from occurring and growing. The two main arms to battle these issues have traditionally been taxation and public services and through progressive taxes like income tax and the creation of equally accessible public services Canada has since its inception maintained some sense of equality.

The past ten years have seen an almost complete abdication of the use of these tools to make our society more fair and in fact have gone almost completely overboard in the other direction. From 1997 to 2007 a full third of all income gains went to the richest one percent of Canadians and corporate taxes have fallen every year for the last ten years. The public service as an institution has been under a full frontal assault by politicians and right wing foundations for the last twenty years and very good and practical ideas like a national drug plan or a real child care program have been dead on arrival.

But even more discouraging to people who want a level playing field in Canada has been the on-going attack on the rights of working people to protect themselves in tough economic times. Today inCanadathe very right to collective bargaining is once again on the front burner and we have a federal government who does not hesitate to threaten to impose its will on the bargaining process through intimidation and legislation. Wisconsin is closer than we think and if governments like Brad Wall’s in Saskatchewan are re-elected or those like Tim Hudak’s are elected in Ontario we will see a similar result inCanada.

Other good ideas like a guaranteed annual and adequate income have very little public credence any more, having been battered and bruised by groups like the Fraser Institute and the Harper Conservatives. We are even in danger of losing such basic implements like minimum wages and I am no longer surprised when I see articles and op-ed pieces that claim that minimum wage laws actually hurt the poor.

The only good news is that as Led Zeppelin once famously said “There’s still time to change the road you’re on”. This will mean a radical shift in our thinking about taxation, public services, and the rights of ordinary people to have an equal chance at success. Let’s hope that somebody in Ottawa is listening.

Mike Martin is a freelance writer and consultant specializing in workplace wellness and conflict resolution. He is the author of “Change the Things You Can” (Dealing with Difficult People). For more information about Mike please visit:

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