Humanist Perspectives: issue 181: Counterattack: Part 2: Everything's Just Fine

Counterattack: Part 2: Everything's Just Fine
by Henry Beissel


n the First Salvo of our Counterattack series, “Sham Democracy” (HP #180, Spring 2012), I have argued and demonstrated that the very democratic values on which our way of life depends have been perverted through the abuse of money. Democratic procedures that were painstakingly developed to guarantee that government should represent the people have been hijacked by powerful financial interests. Instead of acting on behalf of and in the interests of the community so that all its members can live in dignity as free citizens, our government has become an instrument for advancing the financial interests of powerful corporations and of a wealthy elite at the expense of the majority.

As Canadians we are prone to a certain amount of smugness when it comes to comparing ourselves to the rest of the world. We like to think of Canada as a country that is the envy of the world. After all, in a recent study of the world’s 178 nations in terms of the “happiness factor”, we ranked tenth. But such results do not reflect any enlightened social or democratic policies of our government; they are a function of our more complacent mindset, our relatively small population, and the seemingly endless open spaces we inhabit.

Can we really derive any satisfaction from the fact that child poverty remains above 12%, although previous governments promised to eliminate it by the year 2000; that around 640,000 children (1 in every 10) in Canada live below the poverty line? Or from the fact that the gap between rich and poor is rapidly growing larger in Canada, with the top 10% now collecting ten times the income of the bottom 10%? In fact, the top 0.1% collect 5.3% of the annual national income, ie. 53 times the average income, while a whole gallery of CEOs award themselves multi-million dollar bonuses annually on top of six- or seven-figure salaries. One has to be suffering from a severe case of elephantiasis of self-esteem to consider such self-serving practices fair. No one, absolutely no one, can justify these excessive incomes as recompense for honest labour.

During the 1964 flag debate that gave us the Maple Leaf (after six months of blustery nationwide controversy, which only government closure brought to an end), an American wit suggested that it would be fitting for Canada to have a flag that was a white sheet on which were written the words: Everything’s just fine. Sometimes an outsider is better positioned to take a nation’s pulse accurately. The man had a point. He put his finger on two of our national characteristics: modesty and conservatism. Unlike our American neighbours who believe life is a linear progression to the Happiness City of God, we experience life as a Homeric journey that, at the end of various adventures, takes us back to where we started from. And so we reconcile more easily to the world’s tribulations and imperfections. But there is a limit to our tolerance.

Is it really fine that students in Canada today, to finance their studies, face a debt load from anywhere between $10,000 to well over a $100,000? The average student debt to the Federal Government is now $27,000, and the total federal student loans owed is $15billion. This doesn’t take into account loans from provincial governments and other financial institutions. Is it really fine that our young people should start their professional lives with a crushing debt burden it may take them half a lifetime to pay off? Whatever happened to the idea that education should be free and accessible to all who qualify for it?

Is it really fine that our health care system is slowly crunching to a halt? That patients spend untold hours in doctors’ offices, hospital emergency-rooms and laboratories waiting, for examinations and consultations, to be relieved of their pain and suffering? Is it fine that some of them have to wait months for tests that may be a matter of life and death for them?

Of course if you can afford it, you can go down to the USA and get all these services at once – for a generous cash payment. Even in Canada, a two-tiered system has gradually established itself. If you need a lens replacement to cure a cataract condition in Ontario, you can, for an extra $300 out of your pocket, get a better, more reliable lens than the one supplied through OHIP. When I needed an ultrasound image for an injury a couple of years ago, I was given the option of waiting for three months to get it through OHIP or pay cash and get it done immediately.

There are private clinics for everything from audiology to urology all across Canada now. Indeed, dental care is available only in private clinics, a national disgrace surely. Since the objective of all private enterprise is the maximization of profits, doctors in private clinics are getting rich on the suffering of their patients. It also means that the rich have health care services that are superior to those available to the poor – superior in terms of the speed with which they are attended to and the individual care given them. Is that just fine? Do we really want the cruel and shameful health care practices that prevail in the USA to take root in Canada? Make no mistake: that is the direction in which we are moving.

Privatization is the mantra of the neoconservatives that now govern Canada – govern us, it is important to remember, with an absolute majority based on the support of around 20% of the people, a proportion that may be even smaller when the ‘robocall’ scandal is finally fully exposed.

To advance its privatization agenda, the government is now busy promoting the new ideal citizen – the entrepreneur. It offers instruction in courses and kits on how to start and develop a successful business, ie. how to maximize profits. A society of profiteers – is that what we want? Is the mercenary opportunist now the idol of our fair nation?

Governments need to privatize, they often tell us, because there isn’t enough money for them to pay for education, health care, public transport, etc. But that’s not true. In 2009, the federal, provincial and territorial governments collected $189.2billion in personal income taxes, and $50.3billion in corporate income taxes. Add to that the various property, consumption, sales and other taxes, and the total amount the governments collected was $633.622billion. A tidy sum, don’t you think? It amounts to approx. $20,000 for every man, woman and child in the country. That wouldn’t take care of everyone’s medical and educational needs?

Ah, but our governments have many other expenditures – for infrastructure, administration, defence, to name a few. Fair enough. So, the problem comes down to settling priorities. And there’s the rub! The priorities are set behind closed doors by people in cabinets. Even they often merely enact decisions made in corporate boardrooms. The people are never consulted. Take the case of the F-35 fighter jets. Defence Minister MacKay told us they would cost $14.7billion; the Prime Minister assured voters during his election campaign that the planes wouldn’t cost more than $14.7billion. Both men lied. The Auditor General established that the real cost is at least $25billion, likely more – and they knew it.

Snatches of President Eisenhower’s 1960 farewell speech haunt me: we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. Given our government’s eagerness to ape American policies, one does well to ask where the decisions that promote war and buy war machines are really made.

The fundamental question is: do we really want to spend $25 or $30billion on warplanes when that same money, or just a share of it, could be used to improve our health care system or lighten the debt burden weighing on our students? It’s all a question of priorities. We were never consulted on them. I put it to you that the PM and the Defence Minister lied about the true cost of the F-35s because they knew that the majority of Canadians have other priorities. Keeping in mind that Peter MacKay saw fit to fly home from a fishing trip in a Canadian Forces helicopter, are we really content to leave priority decisions to men (or women) with the ethical sensibilities of crocodiles?

Are we content to allow such a government to lead the nation into an environmental catastrophe? Because that’s what is happening when we turn our backs on the international community that is trying to establish practices less devastating to the environment, turn our backs on the warning of the world’s leading scientists that our planet is in serious trouble if we continue on the growth-at-all-costs path – trouble so serious that, in the opinion of some scientists, it threatens the very survival of our species. Instead of reduced greenhouse gas emissions, Canada’s have increased since 1990 by about 20%, the highest growth in the G8. We are now seen not only as one of the worst polluters, but also as an opponent of the urgent changes required if we want to avoid the collapse of our environment.

What I’m trying to demonstrate is that everything is NOT just fine in Canada. The issues I’ve raised are only the proverbial tip of the iceberg. As our sham democracy operates now, the cards are firmly stacked against the people. There is no public consultation or even honest information. While it is true that we are currently in the hands of arrogant autocrats, the problem is systemic. Our government, whether Liberal or Conservative, no longer reflects the true aspirations and values of the people, because our very electoral procedures are not responsive to what Canadians want. A system cannot be corrected if its procedures are fixed to prohibit corrections. That’s why civil unrest is growing across the country.

More and more people are fed up with the rich growing richer and the poor poorer, with governments that take them into senseless wars, environmental disaster, and economic austerity, as they pay themselves handsome salaries and provide for opulent pensions, while the army of the unemployed grows and seniors face shrinking or disappearing pensions. In their frustration, people are taking to the streets since that’s the only option they have to effect change. It’s a sure bet that the ‘Occupy’ movement will continue to grow stronger and more universal.

As I write this, ten thousand students are marching in Montreal to protest against another hike in tuition fees. Already they’re beginning to see that this is only part of a larger malaise. The time has come when Canadians are no longer content to say meekly: Everything is just fine. They’re beginning to shout out loud with Peter Finch in Network, a 1976 film that may yet prove prophetic: I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore! That’s what the new generation is writing on our flag today, and they’ll carry it through the streets of our towns and cities across the country until things change. And change is coming, one way or another, and we hope it’ll come peacefully through Gandhi-style civil disobedience, foreswearing violence, but committed to a world of social justice among free and caring individuals.

Henry Beissel is a poet, playwright, essayist, translator, and editor who has published over 30 books. He is Distinguished Emeritus Professor at Concordia University, Montreal, and now lives in Ottawa.