Canadians share progressive U.S. values

Viewing Canada - U.S. relations through the prism of supposed national self-interest has led many commentators to reject U.S. criticism of Canadian energy and environmental policies. Indeed, a recent Globe and Mail editorial goes so far as to denounce as a “threat” the view from Washington that Canada should get serious about dealing with climate change.

This is deeply ironic insofar as the vast majority of Canadians—78 per cent would—according to opinion polls, have voted to re-elect U.S. President Barack Obama rather than support his opponent Governor Mitt Romney if they had been given the chance.

Canada has long viewed itself as a more progressive country than the United States, more committed to the collective pursuit of the common good through democratic government, more supportive of paying taxes to support decent social programs and public services, and less wedded to the view that market freedoms are the only ones that really count.

But Obama’s recent inaugural address rang many more progressive notes than we have heard in Canada for quite some time, certainly from the Harper government.

The speech argued that “preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action” and that “social programs are the commitments we make to each other.”

It denounced growing income inequality, saying that “our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well, and a growing many barely make it.”

Obama’s subsequent state of the union address spelled out an agenda for the restoration of the broad middle-class based upon public investments, a transition to a clean, green economy as part of a strategy to deal with the fundamental challenge of climate change, higher minimum wages to help the working poor, and securing real equality of opportunity through major investments in early childhood learning.

Obama also underlined the world’s responsibility to future generations to deal with accelerating and destructive climate change.

The president concluded by saying that “We are citizens. ...  It’s a word that doesn’t just describe our nationality or legal status. It describes the way we’re made. It describes what we believe. It captures the enduring idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations; that our rights are wrapped up in the rights of others.”

Canadian progressives, indeed the great majority of Canadians, would applaud these sentiments. The key question is: why are they not embraced by our own government?

The Conservatives, let us recall, ripped up the Kyoto agreement and have done next to nothing to deal with climate change. They have failed to impose long-promised caps on carbon emissions by the tar sands and other polluting industries, and have portrayed opposition to their agenda as politically motivated, and, indeed, dictated by foreign interests.

It’s little wonder that many Americans think Canada is environmentally reckless when we have placed all our eggs in the basket of the expansion of oil and gas exports, over-riding entirely legitimate concerns regarding how we deal with the impacts on the environment and the interests of First Nations.

The Conservatives have signally failed to create the new middle-class jobs in a growing green economy which could have been replacing lost jobs in the hard-hit manufacturing sector. Our efforts are hugely limited in comparison to the strides that have been made south of the border, and voices calling for major new federal investments in public transit, energy conservation, and renewable energy have been rejected.

Far from talking about rebuilding the middle-class amidst rapidly increasing inequality, the Conservatives have launched a major attack on the right of the labour movement to participate in democratic debate; have undermined our Employment Insurance and public pension programs; and have delivered sweeping tax cuts to corporate Canada.

Far from investing in real equality of opportunity for all our children, the Conservatives scrapped the embryonic child care and early learning program they inherited from the previous government. Their social vision is confined to promising even more tax cuts largely tilted to the most affluent once the federal budget is balanced. 

In this dismal context, we are ill-advised to reject legitimate comment. Canadians can only hope that the progressive sentiments being voiced in the United States spill over to our side of the border.

This article originally appeared in the Hill Times. Photo: Center for American Progress Action Fund. Used under a Creative Commons by-sa 2.0 license.