Narrowing the income gap in Canada
FTLComm - Tisdale - December 9, 2010

We as a species are not particularly good at learning lessons from our history. One of the main reasons for this deficit is that we have a tendency, simply not knowing what happening in the past. Oddly enough, history is not rated very highly by the business oriented society in which we live and as a consequence, our society is threatened with the unfortunate fate of repeating past mistakes.

It is a sad fact, that the topic being dealt with here, seems to have been the formative motivation for most political ideology, both today and in the past. Capitalism, socialism, communism and feudalism are all essentially economic political systems. The purpose here is not to grind an axe, or advocate some economic/political view, instead, there is a need to approach this topic from a strictly social perspective. What are the over all effects of there being a very small number of very rich people and a really huge number of very poor people, while at the same time a shrinking number of people who would be considered the middle group.

When you view a movie from one of the historical periods like the Russian, or French revolutions, or perhaps read in the paper about some the horrible civil unrest in places like
Sri Lanka, or what seems like most African countries, the question always seems to pop up. What would prompt people to kill one another, or even more troubling, place themselves in situations like public riots, where they are in danger of being killed?

The most recent civil unrest in North America, on a really big scale, was in the late 1960s when blacks took to the streets of
Detroit, Watts and Newark, burning buildings, fighting with police and effectively shutting down the production and commerce of their communities. These events, though tragic for some, were very mild, compared with some of the unrest that has occurred in other places and in other times.

It would seem that a person who feels that hope is gone, or is going fast, will move from discussion to violent action. The people who could see nothing changing for the better, in those riots of the 1960s, joined with each other, knowing full well that their lives would be in danger, but doing nothing, was just as dangerous. This was the case in
Russia in the first two decades of the twentieth century and it was the case in France between 1789 and 1799. Rioters take to the street when they have nothing to lose.

We in Canada are a long way from such desperation and that is exactly how we want it to be. There are however, a lot of Canadians who are very desperate. Canada's First Nations people are at the point where they may well feel they have nothing to lose. The only thing preventing them from taking to public violence, is they are a small proportion of the Canadian population.

In the midst of the
Great Depression, Canada came very close to that tipping point, where taking to the streets seemed like the only alternative. I have talked to people who were present at the Regina Riot that ended the On to Ottawa Trek on July 1, 1935. It was a grim situation and I remember looking at the bullet holes in a federal building on eleventh avenue. That building is no longer standing, but the desperation that was vented in that riot, shaped Canada's social and economic landscape.

To the south of us the
unemployment rate in the United States is hovering nationally at about the 10% mark, the highest it has been since 1950. Fortunately, that is well below the 25% range during the height of the Great Depression when Americans, though desperate, did not engage in wholesale civil unrest. We need to understand that though 10% or 25% are big numbers, they are national figures and the local city by city, or state by state conditions can be significantly much higher.

It is important to call attention to the American scene because their problems seem to gravitate north and if we look at trends, we can see that the very few Americans who are very wealthy, control most of the country's wealth and those who are very poor, are powerless. Not only are they poor, they
rarely engage in the political process.

A British social scientist,
Richard Wilkinson, is on a speaking tour here in Canada and is in the process of sounding the alarm about Canada's rapidly accelerating gap between high and low income earners. He makes the point that things get bad for everyone rich and poor alike when such a wide spread develops. Quality of life for everyone declines, life expectancy declines and the society's stability is threatened. Wilkinson is not the first to sound a warning like this as the statistics collected by StatsCan has been showing this trend and the federal government agencies have expressed their concern.

You will find a short bibliography at the bottom of this story and it would be a good idea to skim through these resources which, for the most part, are not political chest thumping. We all need to know that what makes Canada a great place to live and raise a family is in danger because of simple inequality of income and the people who are most affected, are the First Nations people and new Canadians. New Canadians seem to be forced into the lowest income bracket. These two groups are not only at the bottom, they are falling further and further behind each and every year. This is not good. It is not good for them and it is not good for us all.

For a moment, we ought to consider the reason a large poor population is a bad thing. As a society, we have come to depend on each other as tax payers to foot the bill for defence, government services likes roads, bridges, our social safety net and health care. Government can and does a lot for its people. Some suggest it should do more and some suggest it should do less, but either way there are costs to running a democracy and as a country, we all would like to be able to afford the luxury of low debt and positive growth.

We had those things until the recession kicked out the economic foundation of balanced budgets. With large numbers of very poor people, as a responsible society, we cannot let people in a democracy die of starvation and tolerate homelessness, so we provide those in need with relief. That money has to come from some where, or we can borrow it from the future in the form of debt, which is what we are doing right now. Ultimately, the money borrowed, must be paid back and that burden, almost certainly kills off hope of prosperity to which we aspire to one day. It makes much more sense for the poor not to be so poor so they can pay taxes and together, the whole of society can support the services it needs.

Greece is in a desperate financial situation, just as is California because their people are drastically under taxed. Ireland is in financial trouble because it has been giving away its wealth, even the money it borrows, to banks and industry which are not paying their fair share. The down and dirty fact is that taxes are a good thing. Americans don't think so, but it is the way a society can pay for the costs of being a society. Your income, property and sales taxes, pay for our children's education, the roads we drive on, the medical treatment we receive, the police intended to keep law and order, the armed forces who do the bidding of our country on a world stage and our taxes pay for the emergencies that come to our country, community and sometimes our neighbours in the world.

We must consider what we might do to even things up. Laws and government interventions, though a part of the whole process, need to be something that we all can socially and politically tolerate. What we need is good people, willing to enter public life and advocate for the people whom they represent. Your job, as a member of a democratic society, is to evaluate those who run for public office and determine in the individuals you vote for and support are well meaning folks, who will act out of responsibility to the principles of fairness to all people, not fairness to the rich, fairness to the poor, fairness to the corporations, but fairness to all. That's a tough objective, but one that is achievable.

Here in
Saskatchewan we have had in the last sixty years politicians who say they are this or that political believer but ultimately their party affiliation has not been particularly significant. Liberal Ross Thatcher carried on the traditions of CCF premier Douglas, Allan Blakeney an advocate of socialism acted like a corporate manager when he had to, Conservative Grant Devine wanted his province to prosper, NDP Roy Romanow accepted the challenge of paying off Devine's extravagance. Lorne Calvert walked down the middle path and when a monopoly was about to take over the potash industry Conservative Brad Wall said no. Every one of those people had their flaws, but everyone of them, when it came down to it, acted in the best interest of being fair to the people of Saskatchewan and what more could be asked of them.

Pierre Elliott Trudeau preached to Canadians about having a "just" society. For that and that alone he needs our reverend respect. John Diefenbaker put an end to capital punishment and demanded that all Canadians be treated equally as he would say that there must be no hyphenated Canadians. How do the federal politicians, not the parties, but the politicians themselves, how do they stack up to these Canadian values. Are they advocates and supporters of fairness and equality, if they are not, find representatives who are.