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Ten ways Canada can create its own Trump and Brexit phenomena

By Pieta Woolley

Working class rage. It’s likely both behind the rise of American presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump and the U.K.’s vote to leave the European Union.

Here, in North America, we don’t like to think of ourselves as having a class system. Instead, as author John Michael Greer writes in The Archdruid Report, we have four classes: the investment class, the salary class, the wage class and the poverty class. Of the four, he argues, the wage class has lost the most over the past 30 years.

Of course, Canada hasn’t seen anything like Trump or Brexit yet. But the conditions are ripe. Here’s a 10-step plan for provoking Canada’s wage-earners into pushing back.

1. Break the unions

Since 1981, the unionization rate among Canadian workers has fallen from 38 percent to 29 percent in 2014. Among men, it’s been even more pronounced — from 42 percent of 27 percent. But the general numbers mask a richer story. As University of Toronto law professor David Doorey argued in his blog, 30 years ago, union workers were “a cigar-smoking big guy” likely to work in forestry, mining or manufacturing. Now, the unionized workers that remain are largely female and in the public sector. In the private sector, unionization rates have fallen to under 20 percent. And tiered contracts — starting younger workers on a lower wage ladder than their seniors enjoyed — is common.

2. Spend on “green” feel-good projects; fail to address industrial dangers

Bike lanes in Vancouver, green roofs in Toronto and LEED-certified school in Winnipeg. There’s nothing wrong with any of these, of course. Plus, they are a great way to push limits and brand a community’s values. But environmental wake-up calls on a grand scale come in the form of the 2015 toxic fuel spill in the Vancouver harbour, the 2013 Lac Megantic railway explosion and many other one-offs that reveal how underregulated Canada’s big industry can be. This to the peril of ordinary Canadians. So does underregulating our imports, which can result in food contamination from frozen vegetables or cadmium in jewelry.

3. Create a multi-tier school system. Let post-secondary tuition rise exponentially

This range of policy makes it exponentially harder for young people from working homes to get the education they need to negotiate adult life. Fund private schools with tax dollars, let the less-stressed families in public schools have their own “French” classrooms. And triple average tuition fees in a generation.

4. Aggressively extend credit

While Canada avoided the American mortgage meltdown of 2008, we have a credit crisis of our own. Private debt is growing at five percent a year, as working Canadians assume more of it to pay for increasingly expensive homes, schools, fuel and food, not to mention blowing it on big-screen TVs and Mexican vacations, as some analysts suggest). The movie, Fight Club, had a compelling solution for this one!

5. Underfund palliative care and daycare

Ensuring good care for the vulnerable people in your life is a deep heart issue. When institutions are not up to the challenge, this is where rage happens. Fewer than a third of Canadians have access to palliative care at the end of their life. Most kids can’t get in to group childcare, and fees are crippling, especially in British Columbia and Ontario. So far, a national affordable childcare system is not on the horizon.

6. Humiliate the old, the fat, the poor, the rural, the religious and the disabled

Mass media does a great job of this on reality TV and in grocery checkout magazines. But so does policy, which offers disabled Canadians welfare-like support. That means often appalling housing and diets. For those who depend on Income Assistance or other government programs, the bureaucracy can be cruel on top of untenable rates. On isolated reserves, the humiliation-by-underfunding results in now predictable tragedies.  

7. Write policies that make housing unaffordable in cities

Allow houses and condos to be treated as investments by inviting massive foreign investment and failing to tax unoccupied homes. The Vancouver Sun’s religion reporter Douglas Todd offered an excellent (and brief) analysis, just after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited the city in June. This matters for those who choose to stay in cities because they may be forced to live in distant suburbs and dedicate much of their week to commuting. Or, they may choose to leave, separating from families, jobs and communities. 

8. Replace workers with technology

In the forestry sector, a single processor replaces at least 10 hand-fallers. A modern sawmill can do with 150 workers what it took 10,000 people to do 30 years ago. At banks, ATMs long ago replaced tellers. Self-serve grocery checkouts are replacing once-unionized clerks. Jeremy Rifkin’s 1995 futurist book, The End of Work: The Decline of the Global Labor Force and the Dawn of the Post-Market Era, predicted this but doesn’t offer much comfort to the 7.2 percent of Canadians who are unemployed — or the quarter of young Canadians who are underemployed.

9. Twiddle your thumbs on inequality

There’s no doubt that the top 10 percent of earners in Canada take home far more than the rest of us. We see it in their cars, their homes, their clothes and their ideas in the media. (Vancouver had itsa own Real Housewives TV franchise and Youtube show, Ultra Rich Asian Girls of Vancouver. And the Globe and Mail revealed in 2013 that it’s only interested in readers earning more than $100,000.) Granted, the federal government has pledged to do something. But what, besides boosting social programs?

10. Slam resistance as “ignorant.”

For two decades, anyone who brought attention to the massive changes in Vancouver’s housing market was branded as racist. It wasn’t until the Globe and Mail’s Kathy Tomlinson broke the story on shadow flipping, the South China Morning Post’s Ian Young waded in with his international finance investigations, and the Vancouver Sun’s Douglas Todd gained traction with his efforts to provoke a deeper, more inclusive discussion about ethnicity, immigration, spirituality and money that governments promised to react. That isn’t to say that there isn’t racism in Vancouver. There is. And that also isn’t to say that anything resembling a solution to the housing crisis has been agreed to. It hasn’t.

But maybe, thanks to the efforts of journalists, activists and communities, we’re about to get out of this one with a shred of grace.

Author's photo
Pieta Woolley is a writer in Powell River, B.C.
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