If you woke up this morning and put your feet on the floor in Moosenee, Iona, Bella Coola or Longlac, then the chances are that your health is poorer than if you were greeting the day in any major Canadian city. Overall, rural folk have lower life expectancy, more injury, chronic disease and mental health concerns, higher rates of smoking, alcoholism and drug misuse and poorer perceptions of their own mental and physical health than Canadian urban dwellers. There are inequalities in health outcomes between rural and urban residents, as well as among other subpopulation groups in Canada. I argue for a more nuanced look at the unfairness of inequalities and what we can do collectively to find ways to address them.
Any project for social and economic equality in Canada faces a challenge: our primary collective lever for change, the state, is a confusing and complicated machine of federal-provincial relationships. Most advocates of a more egalitarian Canada are frustrated by this. Reform energies are lost in doing the “federalism foxtrot” of getting the federal and provincial players on side, while provincial desires to do things their own way conflict with the idea of all Canadians sharing the same economic and social rights. Since at least the 1930s, the dominant view of the equality-seekers has been to strengthen the federal government and its capacity to impose its agenda on the provinces. In a more muted form, Towards A More Equal Canada calls for “federal leadership.”
Canadians are awakening to the fact that income inequality is a seriously problematic trend that marginalizes large segments of society and threatens social harmony and progress. However, for Indigenous people, vastly inferior incomes are a longstanding reality that makes up only a part of a much deeper and broader inequality.
While the historical roots of this situation are vaguely familiar to most Canadians, they remain poorly understood. More importantly, an improved understanding of both existing conditions and desired outcomes must inform a markedly different approach to solutions if we are, as a society, to avoid making matters worse.
Towards a More Equal Canada nicely summarizes three recent discussions about equality: the question of why people should endorse egalitarian policies, or, as I would prefer to put it, why they should combat and try to reverse growing inequality; demonstrations of the nature and extent of inequality; and recommendations for equality-supporting public policies. In responding to Ed Broadbent’s request for reactions to the paper, I shall address a question it calls to mind put by the U.S. democratic theorist, Ian Shapiro: “why don’t the poor soak the rich?” (Daedalus, 2002. no. 1).