Since Canada’s federal election last May, discontent has been growing against Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government. The Conservatives have been desperately trying to forge ahead with their laissez-faire, right-wing agenda of attacks on workers’ rights and cuts to services. Harper’s aim is to attack living standards and working conditions and to further boost the profits of big business. The Conservatives also want deter the workers and youth of Canada who want to fight back against the government and big business.
However, with the international back-drop of the financial crisis and the growth of movements against various governments’ austerity measures, the weekly announcements of cutbacks and attacks on workers rights are, in fact, building a base of opposition against the Conservatives throughout Canada.
In less than one year, in addition to cuts in services and attacks on workers rights, the Conservative government has also proved their utter contempt on many issues, such as for First Nation communities, women, and the environment. These are just some of the many issues that the majority of people in Canada feel strongly about. Many people have been shocked at the level of arrogance that Harper’s cabinet have had in pursuing their ’big-business first’ agenda. These cuts and attacks are, in turn, continuing to strengthen the very opposition Harper and Co hope to stop.
Only weeks after the federal election, members of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) took strike action to fight for improvements in pay and working conditions. What started as rolling strike action around the country, quickly escalated into a full lock-out of CUPW workers, which was provoked by the Conservative government. Harper claimed that the strike was “threatening to jeopardize [the] economic recovery [of Canada]” and shortly after the lock-out began, ‘back-to-work’ legislation was passed - another blow to the CUPW workers’ struggle. The Conservative government have been waiting for a chance to wage a battle with the CUPW, a traditionally strong union, to send a clear message to other unionized workers that strikes will not be tolerated. The same legislation was used at around the same time against proposed strike action of Air Canada workers.
The membership of the CUPW, as well as members from other unions in Canada, is continuing to campaign and fight for better pay and conditions, and have not been deterred by the Conservatives. Therefore, the potential for a campaign for better pay and conditions, as well as for increased trade union rights, is huge. Despite the Conservatives’ vicious attacks on the Air Canada and postal workers, the strong tradition of trade unionism and a high consciousness on the need for unions - and for the need to hold on to rights which were previously won by workers - runs deep throughout the working class of Canada.
Co-ordinated fight-back needed!
As a response to the unacceptable anti-union measures, a co-ordinated fight-back needs to be swiftly built by all of the unions. It is an urgent task that the weight of the workers’ movement is thrown behind a bold campaign to repeal the anti-union laws and other attacks to workers’ rights.
In contrast to some countries which have seen much of their key industries decimated by recession, Canada has, to a point, some ’strengths’ other economies may not have. Even after recent losses since the 2008 recession, the oil resources, manufacturing and agriculture industries account for a significant portion of exports and GDP. For example, according to USGS (United States Geological Survey), Canada has the world’s third largest oil reserves after Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. The excessive amount of money being made from the Athabasca oil sands has created a new modern-day ’gold-rush’, with thousands of men and women flocking to Alberta for the high-paying oil-sands related work. As a result, Alberta is now the fastest growing province in terms of population. In addition, mining and other natural resource-based industries also account for a significant amount of high paying and highly unionized work-places. However, alongside the service sector, all of these industries are extremely vulnerable to further slowdowns in the world economy, including the economies that Canada exports much of its resources to, such as China and the USA.
Governments’ contempt for environment
Linked to the oil sands, the Conservative governments’ contempt for the environment is evident. Its recent withdrawal from the Kyoto agreement is an example of this, as well as the government paying mere lip service to the environmental issues surrounding the oil sands. The exploitation of Canada’s large reserves of coal, natural gas, potash and other minerals and timber, all comes at a very high environmental cost.
Harper wants to ensure the complete free reign and domination of big business in the oil sands, regardless of the environmental cost. In addition, the government have started to carry out brutal cuts to Environment Canada, with over 700 scientific and research positions under threat. These attacks have resulted in many scientists losing their jobs and important projects, such as the internationally relied upon monitoring of the ozone layer being all but halted in Northern Canada.
There is a growing feeling of discontent among government-employed scientists, who are being ’gagged’ from being allowed to discuss their research and findings to journalists and others in the scientific community. The complete disrespect and lack of care for the environment by the Conservatives has angered many people, of all ages, in society and will continue to be a decisive issue in future society and elections.
Socialist Alternative (CWI Canada) stands for the democratic public ownership of the energy generating industries and for major research and investment into replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy. This needs to be linked at an overall programme for the environment, including a democratically planned, low fare, publicly owned transport system, as a part of an overall plan against environmental pollution.
The government’s lack of respect for First Nations’ communities has been shown in recent months over a crisis in the northern Ontario First Nations community of Attawapiskat. The community called a ‘state of emergency’ when it was revealed that many families were living in condemned housing, even when temperatures were starting to fall to -20oc. The government’s response, led by Harper and the aboriginal affairs minister, John Duncan, was an orchestrated, divisive campaign to try and shift the blame away from Harper’s inept government. Issues were raised over the accountability of the community leaders. However, these accusations came from the very people who actively oppose accountability when it comes to big business tax breaks, the environment and cuts to services.
Many First Nation communities are in crisis, failed by the past and present governments. Socialists support First Nation communities’ campaigns to have full access to quality education, housing, healthcare, jobs and training and a real future and support their struggles for land, cultural and language rights.
Abortion under attack
Some MPs have tried to re-open the issue of the right to abortion. For the majority of people in Canada, it is accepted that the right to decide when and whether to have children is a woman’s right to choose. After years of cuts, access to services depends a lot on where a person lives and the level of cuts in the area. Alongside the rest of the Canadian health care system, there are campaigns against further cuts and the push towards more privatization. Health care in Canada is seen by the vast majority of people as a right which must be kept in public hands. A look south of the border to the crisis in health care in the US is enough to deter many Canadians from any idea of privatization. The health care system needs a huge injection of money to improve services and to increase staffing levels. The government needs to be sent a clear message that the right to quality health care, including access to abortion and family services for women, is not for sale.
While crime rates in Canada have been falling for 20 years and have reached the lowest level since 1973, the Federal government is introducing wide sweeping changes to the law. This will see an increase in prison sentences at a cost of some $19 billion, most of which the provinces will have to find without extra money from the Federal government.
Nationally big business tax cuts, started under the Liberals, have continued, so that the tax rate that corporations pay on profits is now 15% compared to 28% in 2000. This has gifted the largest 198 corporations in Canada, $12 billion a year, which is taken from the people of Canada (see: http://www.policyalternatives.ca/sites/default/files/uploads/publications/National%20Office/2011/04/Corporate%20Income%20Taxes%2C%20Profit%2C%20and%20Employment.pdf). There have been similar cuts to corporation taxes by the provincial governments. In British Colombia (BC) alone, there have been losses of $3.4 billion a year due to tax cuts to the rich and corporations but poor people pay a bigger portion of their income in taxes than the rich (http://www.policyalternatives.ca/publications/commentary/decade-eroding-tax-fairness-bc). Yet Canadian banks and big business are not investing and were sitting on $859 billion at the end of 2011 (http://www.cbc.ca/news/business/story/2012/01/01/calgary-corporate-tax-cuts.html).
Inequality in Canada is growing more rapidly than in almost any other OECD country. The rich are getting richer while the median Canadian family income is stuck at $48,000 (allowing for inflation), the same as in the late 1970s. In contrast, Canada’s ‘Elite 100 CEOs’ pocketed an average $8.38 million in 2010, up 27% from a year earlier. They receive 189 times more than Canadians earning the average wage (the figure in 1998 was 105 times more than the average wage).
While cutting valuable services and firing workers, the Conservative government has money to burn on its pet projects. Harper wants Canada to become a key imperialist power, especially in the Arctic, so Canada’s military spending is now the highest in real terms it has ever been, at $23 billion, last year. The Conservatives plan to spend $30 billion on buying new fighter jets and $25 billion on new naval ships. The argument that “we” have to tighten “our” belts is not washing with people.
While cuts are being proposed in every province and territory, the government’s argument that there is not enough money to go round does not convince the majority of workers and youth. The wealth that exists in the country is immense, as can be seen by the vast amounts of money made from the oil sands and other resource industries.
The majority Conservative government is built on unstable foundations. They did not win a sweeping majority in 2011. Of all Canadians who voted in the federal election, less than 40% voted for the Conservatives. In recent weeks, a scandal has been developing over the claims that the Conservatives ‘mis-directed’ thousands of voters in over 30 constituencies, during the last elections. It is alleged that this was achieved through the use of “robo” calling, directing voters to go to the wrong or non-existent polling stations. In response to the scandal and cuts to services, there is a growth of discontent and anger amongst workers and youth. The Occupy movement gave a flavour of how widespread this feeling of discontent is. Those who attended the protests represented millions of people in Canada who, from the sidelines, supported the movement. Currently a huge movement of students in Quebec is taking place, fighting against an increase in tuition fees (see: ‘Quebec: Students take “indefinite” strike action’, www.socialistworld.net, 02/03/2012), as well as many other campaigns and struggles taking place across Canada.
The BC teachers started action at the start of the school year, fighting for a pay increase and for the re-instatement of funding cuts made to school budgets. They have been pushed into taking all-out strike action, for at least three days, from 5-7 March. The provincial government have already threatened to use ‘back-to-work’ legislation to try and stop an escalation of the teachers’ action. It is vital that the teachers’ battle is immediately backed up by decisive action by other unions and workers, to help ensure they are not isolated and have the best chance to win their demands. In turn, this would give a huge boost of confidence to workers in other provinces to continue their campaigns for better pay and conditions.
What is needed throughout Canada is a way of pulling together all of the various struggles and campaigns. At this stage, there is a lack of an inclusive and organized fighting back. Neither opposition parties, the Liberals and New Democratic Party (NDP), both of which are currently without official leaders and are going through leadership contests, offer working people and youth any real alternative. The NDP, which has social democratic roots, has moved to the right over the last decades, embracing the market economy and pro-capitalist policies. The NDP leadership sometimes tries to express some of the social anger building up within Canadian society while, at the same time, it is at pains to re-assure the ruling class that they will be a ‘responsible’ government should they come to power in the next period.
Yet it is clear internationally that capitalism is a system in deep crisis and there is no future for the majority of people on the basis of this rotten, profit-driven system. Therefore, the need for a socialist alternative, which can ensure the needs of the majority are met, alongside ensuring the protection of the environment, is paramount.
A clear and determined campaign must be launched for the formation of new mass workers’ parties in Canada and Québec, democratically built by and for workers, young people, unions and activists. There is an urgent need for a socialist alternative to the parties of big-business, to enable workers and youth in Canada to fight for and to win jobs and a living wage for all, decent education, healthcare and housing, and to actively and effectively oppose the rule of the rich elite, imperialist foreign policy and to struggle to fundamentally change society.