Institute for Public Affairs of Montreal
The Challenge of a National Stirring

The Populist Vision of a New Political Plurality
Beryl P. Wajsman 9 August 2004  

There is a new political plurality in Canadian politics that has yet to fully articulate its charter or anoint its champion. A new political alignment of hard-headed economic self-interest that believes that the notion that the large economic problems of Canada have been solved, and all that is now required are small adjustments and some minor technical tinkering, has been proven bankrupt and foolish.


It is composed of working men and women, disaffected ethnic minorities and native groups, and the poor, whose problems are not managerial and technical, as many bureaucratic end economic theorists argue, but political and distributive. It is a coalition of economic class. It is the greatest challenge to the Martin administration and continued Liberal hegemony.


Mr. Martin has raised great expectations through rhetoric. It must now be seen if his government recognizes the reality that the real divisions in this country are not between races nor generations nor language groups, but between the rich who have power and those who have neither power nor property.


The new reality is that the pact of the have-nots, with the added weight of the labor, women’s, cultural and social action movements, buttressed by the idealism of the young, has created a new national stirring that is just now being felt.


Its anger wells up with each new revelation of the governmental culture of entitlement on all sides and at all levels. Its agenda addresses the issue of wealth and power being not only unequally held in Canada, but also inequitably. After several generations of attempts at reform, the concentration of wealth in this land has steadily increased. Seventy years after the economic collapse that led to the Great Depression, the 20% of our population who controlled 80% of national assets in 1932, has been replaced by a mere 4% holding the same control.


While successive governments have dithered with pork barrel touchy-feely programs that now amount to more than the defense budget, and others have instituted so many corporate grant and subvention programs that their expenditures exceeded the monies spent on U.I., welfare and pensions in some years, forty per cent of our working men and women have no more than two weeks salaries to their names mostly as a result of the high taxes to pay for government waste. Through all this, the core social security safety net has been allowed to deteriorate. While in 1960 pensioners could count on funds that would pay for roughly 50% of the standards they had while working, today government supports equal barely one-third.


While a pitifully small percentage of Canadians have a net worth of over $5,000, almost 20% of individuals earning more than $100,000 annually and some 25% of corporations that actually make profits, are able to take advantage of tax loopholes to avoid paying anything more than negligible sums in taxes. Loopholes that are responsible for Canada's Tax Code growing from some 350 pages in the late seventies to over 1,000 today. Yet the brunt of enforcement by Revenue Departments is felt most keenly on the necks of working men and women and small businesspersons who not only carry the bulk of tax payment penalties but also of tax reporting procedures.


The critical issue for the new populism in this country  is the primordial injustice that should arouse our compassion and concern---the perplexing paradox of an economy of abundance producing only a thin veneer of affluence.


Conceptually and historically this new populism differs from traditional Canadian progressive political development. It is a broad national frustration, not merely a yoke holding several factions together into a temporary alliance. The new populism is pragmatic, knowing full well that winning elections is only half the battle because so many promises have yet to be fulfilled and so much power rests beyond the reach of the electoral process. It mistrusts the technocrats who have failed so spectacularly so often. It is participatory, believing change is generated from below. And it does not fear to ask who holds power---and by what right?


Most importantly it realizes that traditional approaches have been compromised and calcified through a dependence on rhetoric instead of an involvement with, and engagement in, everyday reality. An everyday reality that prizes hard work, loyalty, and endurance, and rejects ingratitude, false piety and lack of courage.


This new pragmatic populism recognizes that a certain degree of inequality is inevitable. As regrettable as it may be, the rich and powerful will, too often, be able to bend the acts of government to their will. But there is now recognition that our very laws have added additional artificial advantages to the preferences past generations of the privileged have already enjoyed and inherited. As the rich become richer and the potent more powerful, on the backs of the labor of the humble who have neither the time nor the means to secure like favors for themselves, there is a call being made on the stake of the commonweal of the country.


The new populism recognizes and rejects the old politics of division where alienation of natural allies was encouraged by political leaders who used that division as the keystone of the edifice upon which they built their political careers. It asks why the nature of the Canadian social contract has had its vision dimmed, its goals diminished, its philosophy undefended and its very spirit deadened.


It believes that what is needed is the enactment of an activist populist vision not merely the adoption of an anti-plutocrat vocabulary. It is not about semantics. It believes in the need to challenge interests, not merely balance them. To have the capacity to see the world through the eyes of its victims. To learn to understand intuitively that the less educated are not less intelligent and that the less affluent are not any less human. It is a political coalition fighting for equity and equality, fairness and fraternity.


That the agenda of this new populism is both morally and intellectually imperative at this time is clear. But more to the point, if this new government  is populated only by those who can pronounce well turned phrases but are too timid to engage with the people on the ground, its potential will be betrayed. This is a time for the politics of conviction-not the platitudes of consensus. This is not a time for measuring of focus groups and governing by polls. The price of that kind of timidity will be dear. It may well compromise  the credibility of the Liberals as a governing party. Democracy’s greatest gift to the people is hope. And that hope, particularly in times of challenge, must never be mortgaged to expediency.


The severe pocketbook issues afflicting all underscore the urgency of a political agenda based on economic justice. From the assembly line worker who hates his job but has no alternative, to the ethnic small business owner whose taxes have soared out of all proportion to the services received, to the elderly eking out lives on social security, to the newly poor who have lost a lifetime of savings in a catastrophe, to the working poor fed up with the rich getting richer while they work longer, to women and the visible minorities tired of being the last hired and first fired, to the newly enfranchised young turned off by the hypocrisy and mendacity surrounding them.


This administration must remember that the just society which men of goodwill seek to build is predicated on a recognition of an equal claim on the stock of welfare of the land by all, and that this recognition has not yet found full expression in the social contract between the government and the people.


In our land today there are too many in positions of executive responsibility driven by shrivelled spirit and hostile heart that fear the future, mistrust the present and invoke the security of a comfortable past, which, in fact, never existed. The leadership of this new government must demonstrate the ability, tempered only by  the experiences of reason and judgment, to increase the amount of justice and freedom and opportunity which all people deserve.


It is not enough for a great Party of power and principle to view electoral success as it’s sole end. This does not fully meet its duty. It may be unconventional in Canadian politics to make this point. But the times we live in are unconventional. The challenges at home and abroad are unconventional. And they demand renewed vision and renewed vigour.


It is not enough for the new faces in this government to be merely pleasant and presentable. The times demand courage and the times also demand character.


This new administration must not merely oppose other parties and platforms, but must propose new policies and purposes. It must demonstrate that it stand’s with those whose trust in the people is qualified only by prudence and not with those whose mistrust of the people is qualified only by fear.


It will succeed only by manifesting the faith that our progress as a people is predicated on the notion that we have a sovereignty over our democratically elected representatives unencumbered by any conditions of special considerations to property or power, privilege or preference, and that all Canadians can, through the exercise of their suffrage, exact their full share from the bounty of society’s wealth to which their labor has so much contributed.


Mr. Martin must ensure that his  government and his party march to meet the future with proud banners bearing clear emblems of progress and not ones whose only image is a question mark, bearing in mind that the true path of leadership does not lie along the top of a fence. It climbs heights. It speaks truths, clearly proposed and candidly proclaimed.


This must be the way of response to the new national stirring. To raise people up from poverty. To reconcile private interests with public rights. To attack monopoly. To reward enterprise, but not with untrammelled privilege and preference. To exalt the individual over ruler or regulation. This is Canada’s true liberalism. This is the signature of our society. Sure in the knowledge that justice is not in heaven nor beyond the sea, but in our hearts to dream and in our hands to forge.