Anger against growing inequality and cuts to public services

Just over a year ago, in May 2011, the Canadian Conservatives won their first majority government since 1988, although they had been a minority government for five years. Winning a majority has enabled them to start delivering on their long-held goal to change Canada fundamentally with a thorough neo-liberal agenda in favour of big business and the rich. Their policies are steam-rollered through, disregarding parliamentary niceties, as the Tories rule in the interests of one class - the rich!

With their majority in the House of Commons they cannot be defeated there; they will only be defeated by action outside of parliament.

After a year, the list of Tory attacks and ‘reforms’ is long and growing every day:

  • Cuts in public sector jobs and services, with 19,000 direct jobs going this year, with more to follow in the future. ‘Environment Canada’ is cut by 8%, losing $20 million a year, while the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has its budget cut by $115 million, more than 10%.
  • Legislated workers in dispute were forced back to work with imposed regressive contracts. The postal workers were forced to accept an imposed contract with worse conditions than Canada Post’s last offer.
  • Introduced further tax cuts for big business: On January 1, 2012, the tax rate for corporations was cut by a further 1.5% to 15 %, a gift to big business of nearly $3 billion, robbed from Canadian public services.
  • Undermined programmes for women, aboriginals and other oppressed sections of society: Examples include cutting all funding to Native Women’s Association of Canada, the First Nations Statistical Institute and the National Aboriginal Health Organization and cutting the budget of First Nations and Inuit health branch of Health Canada, when aboriginals have the worst health in Canada.
  • Increased spending dramatically on weapons and prisons: Canada is stepping up its imperialist aims with spending of $25 billion on 21 combat vessels and plans to spend somewhere between $15 and $30 billion on new jet fighters (the price depends on whether you believe the government’s low figure, the Auditor General’s or military expert’s high figure).
  • Attacked environmental laws and organizations: The government have announced plans to gut environmental protection and the streamlining of the environmental assessment process to make it easier for extractive industry projects to go ahead. At the same time the Tories are spending $8 million to attack environmental charities.
  • Raised the age of eligibility for Canada’s Old Age Security, support payments to retired people who do not have good pensions, from 65 to 67.
  • Abolished the wheat pool that gave farmers guaranteed prices for wheat.
  • Changed the rules on unemployment benefits (Called Employment Insurance in Canada) so they can force workers to accept low paying jobs or travel further for work.
  • Concentrated their policies to support short-term and environmentally damaging extractive industries including bitumen, oil, gas, coal, potash, minerals and timber; with virtually no development of downstream processing and value added jobs

The Conservatives have angered many Canadians but their strategy is to deliver enough policies to their core voters and hope the opposition remains limited to parliament, where their majority ensures that their legislation is passed. They also hope that the voters remain divided between the NDP and Liberals, and either a revived Bloc or possibly a new Quebec sovereigntist party, so that the Tories can win a majority again with 40% of the votes.

Quebec’s mass student strike

As well as the federal attacks, several provinces are continuing a right wing agenda. In Quebec the government has jacked up university tuition fees provoking a mass student strike, which started in early February and now involves over 200,000 students and has gained wide support from Quebec unions. The Quebec Liberal government then introduced draconian legislation to stop demonstrations. However the students did not back down and the government’s attack on democrat rights brought more people on to the streets to protest. This is a historic struggle for all of Canada (see: ‘Student strike movement reaches turning point’, 21/07/2012, socialistworld.net)

The Ontario Liberal government has also announced a budget with cuts to services, no pay rise for over 1 million public sector workers and attacks on their pensions. They are also looking to privatize services in the province.

In British Colombia (BC), the government has cut taxes for the rich and corporations, costing the public $6.6 billion a year and leading to cuts in public services. The BC Liberals (the conservative party in that province) have legislated to stop the teachers striking and are imposing a contract that cuts wages and the quality of education. It is not clear what the teachers will do in response, although they are discussing defying the government and taking illegal strike action.

There has not been the same huge anger at the banks in Canada as in the US. Although Canadian banks did get $125 billion from the Canadian government – it was called an ’injection of liquidity’, and US governments gave them $111 billion, very few Canadians are aware of the bailout. At a provincial and federal level, governments have cut taxes for the rich and corporations. The federal governments, both Liberal and Conservative, have cut taxes on corporations from 36% in 1988 to 15% today, cutting income to the public by around $40 billion a year.

Corporations will not invest

Yet, while taxes are much lower now, corporations are sitting on $859 billion rather than investing. On the other hand, Canadian workers have some of the highest personal debt in the world and real median family income has stood still since 1980 (around $48,000), although people are working longer hours.

At present, the Canadian economy is being kept afloat by the rapid exploitation of natural resources, for export, mainly to China and other Asian economies. The Conservatives claim their policies, such as gutting environmental regulations, are all about jobs. Their policies are job destroying. The Canadian dollar has become a petro-currency and risen in value due to oil exports. This has hit manufacturing hard, which has lost 500,000 jobs since 2003. On example is Caterpillar which, after getting large tax handouts from the Canadian government, demanded the workers at its London plant take a 50% cut in pay, which the union refused. So the company locked them out and then closed the plant firing nearly 500 workers and moved the production - to the US! Neither the provincial Liberal government nor Harper’s Conservatives lifted a finger.

At the same time retail is suffering as Canadians shop across the border in the US. The growing dependency on exporting raw materials – with virtually no processing – makes Canada highly vulnerable to a likely slowdown, even return to recession, in the world economy.

Illegal strikes?

Both the federal and provincial governments keep stopping strikes and imposing contracts that cut real wages, after unions have held successful ballots with much higher levels of support than the Conservatives got in the last election. At some point, the union movement, if it is to remain relevant in any sense will have to defy the government. A successful illegal strike is possible – it has happened before, and the best way would be with solidarity action from other unions. Will the NDP, under Mulcair (the new right wing leader), actively support workers defending their democratic rights against the dictatorship of the Conservatives?

Most Canadians still believe that the country is fairer than it is; their awareness is twenty years behind the ravages of the Liberals and Conservatives. Inequality, which previously was much less than in the US or Britain, has been increasing more rapidly than in almost any other country. Already there is growing anger against growing inequality and the cuts to public services. In a hint of what is to come, last year there were over 20 ‘Occupy’ sites across the country. Now the historic movement in Quebec demonstrates that resistance is possible – in fact, that is how the reforms under attack across Canada were won – and is necessary if the Tories and their big business backers are to be defeated. When most Canadians realize how much has been robbed from their wages, time and public services to feed the rich 1%, the anger, and action, will grow dramatically.

The situation in Canada today and future developments will acutely pose the question of the need of working people and youth for a political alternative to the pro-capitalist parties. Socialist Alternative (CWI Canada) stands for a mass democratic party of the working class, which is more than an election party and has clear socialist policies. In an article to be posted soon on socialistworld.net, we will examine the New Democratic Party and the potential and dangers it faces in the struggles that lie ahead.

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