While growing social inequality is the product of a multi-pronged economic, political and cultural offensive by corporate power across the neoliberal era, the systematic weakening of trade unions looms especially large in the story. After all, unions have served as the most basic organizations for protecting and improving the wages and benefits of working people (including the unorganized). It is hard to see, therefore, how we will reverse the growing inequality gap without a considerable revitalization of the union movement.
Nobel Prize winning economist and political theorist Amartya Sen points out that “every normative theory of social arrangements that has at all stood the test of time seems to demand equality of something – something that is regarded as particularly important in that theory.” Even extreme neo liberals such as Robert Nozick who reject the goal of distributive justice and favour a maximum role for free markets and a minimum role for democratic governments demand equality of individual rights to freely participate in an economy based upon predominantly private ownership of property and free markets. Capitalism is all about equal access to individual freedom to deploy labour and capital as individuals see fit, as opposed to pre liberal economic systems based upon slavery and serfdom.
If anything positive has emerged from Canada's rising inequality, it is that a bona fide discussion about "the Canada we want" is becoming a mainstream staple of political dialogue. Not only politicians and pundits but also ordinary Canadians have begun to make the connections between health and wealth, public services and social justice, economics and the social sphere, democracy, taxation and fairness. These issues, occupying public attention since the recession began in 2008 gained strength when the Occupy Movement shone a global spotlight on inequality last year.
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).
Inequality is often described as differential status among individuals or groups. However, places can be unequal too. Canada’s cities are sites of growing urban inequality, and it is entire neighbourhoods that are experiencing these changes. About 80% of Canadians live in cities, and that percentage is rising. What does inequality look like in Canada’s urban communities and on city streets?
Many of the growing social and economic inequalities visible in Canada today are rooted in, or enabled by, inequitable public policies. The impacts of policies on diverse groups of people are not adequately considered, and the result is often unequal access to programs and services. This inequality creates a problem of fairness (inequity). For example, in my city of Fredericton, NB, if you live in an apartment, you probably don’t have your recycling picked up. If you live in a house, your recycling is picked up every week. Your experience differs depending on whether you’re a renter or a homeowner. In our country, you may not have access to clean drinking water if you reside in a rural area where logging is a major industry. If you live in an urban area in Canada, you almost certainly have clean drinking water. You have a different experience depending on whether you have access to a good water treatment system, and whether you reside close to a natural resource extraction industry. In my city, my province, and our country, you cannot vote until you’re 18 years old. Access to an important piece of our democracy depends on your age.