ISSUES NETWORK - SOCIAL PROGRAMMES AND SERVICES
Prison Farm Closures: Another Un-Canadian Harper Policy
Kingston, ON - As the Tories take advantage of the incompetence of opposition parties, the Canada we know and love is slowly being whittled away to conform with what would otherwise be unpopular Conservative values.
Certainly, long-awaited changes to Employment Insurance have given the minority Harper government a friendlier, more marketable face, but the devil is in the details - and those details aren't pretty.
Take, for example, the closing of the country's system of six prison farms - from New Brunswick to Alberta - and the humane, rehabilitation opportunities these farms offer. Two of the affected farms are in the Kingston area - part of the minimum-security Frontenac and Pittsburgh Institutions.
As someone who was born and raised in this city, I remember driving by the medium-security, Victorian-era Collins Bay Penitentiary - or Pen, as we locals refer to it - which houses the Frontenac Institution. The idea that human beings were locked inside such a forbidding structure with its high walls and guard towers was horrifying to me.
At the same time, the sight of neatly-cultivated fields stretching beyond those walls gave me a sense that, at least, those unfortunate people were getting outside and doing something constructive.
More recently, I've noticed a sign advertising bedding plants outside the Pittsburgh Institution. The fact that criminals are cultivating flowers is also comforting.
Today, those who are protesting the prison farm closings have added their findings to my own impressions. Prisoners working on these farms clearly benefit from their labour by developing small-scale farming and food -processing skills.
Even behavioral problems are lessened as low-risk prisoners - there are approximately 300 across the country - adjust to a workday schedule, learn to accept responsibility, and develop a sense of accomplishment as they supply their fellow inmates with fresh food.
Regardless of this, Minister of Public Safety Peter Van Loan, responsible for the Correctional Service of Canada, has been quoted as saying: "... the prison farm model is outdated for the current era of capital intensive, technologically-reliant agriculture."
What century is this man from? Has he missed the raging debate over the unsustainability of pesticide-dependent, carbon-emitting, industrial farming? Does he not know that the movement is now toward local, often organic, produce and food self-sufficiency?
Clearly, he doesn't know - or doesn't care.
But others do. This is why, as part of a national campaign, the National Farmers Union, along with local Kingston groups, ranging from the Frontenac Cattlemen's Association to the Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul, are not only calling for a halt to the closures, but the farms' enhancement. The Union of Solicitor General Employees, which represents prison farm staff is also openly supporting this action.
These organizations want the federal government to take a more long-term view, re-orienting the farms toward more sustainable practices while integrating them where possible with the local farming community in the interests of prison food security.
It seems obvious that it would be preferable for inmates to contribute to their own food needs, rather than having it shipped in CO2 emitting trucks from afar. After all, under NAFTA, American companies would have the right to bid on any food-supplying contracts. Kingston inmates could be dining on produce from California, if Harper has his way.
It seems to me that the Tories want to end these popular and productive farm programs for two basic reasons:
First, they can add the millions of dollars, which the sale of these Corrections Canada properties would reap, to their balance sheet (a cash grab, according to some), making their fiscal management appear more effective.
Second, because this band of Conservatives under Harper is fundamentally anti-government and pro-market, they want to push the Canadian penal system closer to the more privatized, corporate-driven one found in the US.
(Anyone supporting the privatization of our correctional system should watch Michael Moore's new film, "Capitalism: A Love Story", which documents the obscene profits made by unjustly incarcerating teenagers in that country.)
I remember when I was a radical, anti-war, 20-year-old locked up for one month in Toronto's outdated Don Jail. Having nothing to do with our time, we inmates would listen to the daring tales of the more experienced prisoners - who would advise us on how to break the law more efficiently next time.
In other words, the place was a breeding ground. On the contrary, Canada's prison farms with their emphasis on training and rehabilitation provide inmates with positive work experiences which are the envy of many countries around the world.
Yes, the NDP has recently assisted in making the Harper government look more caring with its EI legislation. But we shouldn't be fooled. Across the country low-profile changes, like the prison farm closures, are being made that lessen the general welfare of our citizens - not only those behind bars.
It's time that the opposition parties pulled themselves together to stop this downward movement. If they don't do it soon, Canadians won't recognize their country and its various institutions.
Professor Opposes Privatization At Home and Abroad
Kingston, ON - It's amazing - and tragic - how a few greedy people can spoil things for the rest of us.
That's how I see the privatization of public services at all levels of government: federal, provincial, and municipal. And David McDonald, the director of Development Studies at Queen's University, agrees with me.
McDonald has been studying the effects of the privatization of basic municipal services in southern Africa - South Africa, Swaziland, Mozambique - and his findings are certainly not positive.
Privatized water, electricity, and waste management, for example, are more costly and less reliable than their public counterparts. There is also less accountability on the part of the private companies to their taxpaying customers.
Of course, McDonald's study of the African experience could be sloughed off as an irrelevant academic project. However, he sees parallels in Canada - and is making his concerns known.
Here in Kingston, City Hall is planning a review of public services and McDonald is already acting as an advisor to those who fear the worst - that certain local politicians want to privatize or semi-privatize essential services.
When you ask McDonald to define privatization, he gives you a straightforward, but necessarily complex, answer. Public services can be privatized or commercialized (a term he prefers) in several ways - and he believes the public should be aware of and concerned about all of them.
To sum up, there is full-fledged privatization which entails the outright selling of public assets to a private interest or interests. In other words, taking public assets and wealth and transferring them -- often at fire sale prices - into private hands.
The sale of CN Rail - now mainly American-owned - by the federal Liberal government is an example. So, too, was the sale of water services in the United Kingdom in the 1980s which McDonald describes as a "disaster."
However, there are several less blatant methods of privatizing.
For example, the French model has usually involved maintaining public assets while contracting out the day-to-day operation. As well, some governments have privatized only sectors of a service - from meter reading and bill collecting to construction.
Then, too, some public services have been commercialized within the government realm and run like a business with performance indicators, market-oriented incentives, and so on. The bottom-line is the first criterion - rather than the citizens' needs.
McDonald says this is often the first step toward full-scale privatization. The government is making the asset more marketable.
The Queen's professor is also very clear about why public services around the globe are being privatized. For one thing, he points out, this area is the "last frontier for mega-profits."
At the moment, for example, only about five per cent of the world's water services have been privatized. The remaining 95 per cent represents more than one trillion dollars in potential earnings. "A big pot of money" as McDonald puts it.
There is also the drive by governments to look good by cutting expenditures and reducing individual and corporate taxes. However, according to McDonald, the privatization of services often costs taxpayers more in the long run.
This can happen when the government no longer has the ability to provide a particular service - no staff, no equipment - and can be held hostage, more or less, by private concerns which boost their prices on a regular basis.
As well, there have been several cases in which private companies have proven incompetent or cut too many corners - less-skilled staff, lack of regular maintenance - and government has had to clean up the mess - often environmental - left behind.
This has happened when work in our national parks has been contracted out.
Finally, says McDonald, there are those who are simply opposed to the concept of "public" services whether they be schools, water, or welfare. For these people (many of whom are in positions of power), private enterprise is the modern, dynamic way to go.
Unfortunately, it may well be those things, but it has also proven inconvenient (at best) for many. McDonald says millions of Africans have had their water and electricity cut off since privatization.
And, we can't forget the case of Walkerton, Ontario, where seven people died and 2,000 people became ill because of E. coli after a private company failed to report positive tests for contamination - because such reporting wasn't mandatory!
Yes, experiences both here and in Africa seem to validate McDonald's point of view.
Indeed, it would be wise for all of us to remember that a society, a community, works best when its citizens - both corporate and individual - are willing to support good-quality services to all delivered by committed, well-trained, decently-paid public servants. (No, that's not an oxymoron!)
Cost sharing. Mutual benefit. That's what civilization is all about. There are no short cuts.
The Real Human Resources Scandal
Toronto - Call it an HRDC coincidence.
That's the only way to explain the appearance on my desk of a small pamphlet written - before Jane Stewart's folly - by a disgruntled, former Human Resources Development Canada employee.
Mike Clancy, who worked for HRDC between 1980 and 1997 and now lives in Stewart's riding, is trying to expose another, completely separate scandal behind the scenes at the benighted ministry - one which has affected more Canadians than the present debacle.
He writes: "My crisis of conscience came in my job under the federal Liberals ... My ministry, HRDC, knew in 1996 that denying Employment Insurance benefits to workers would create an obscene surplus of more than $20 Billion ... We were told to 'cut loose' people with disabilities, new Canadians, Canadians experiencing discrimination because of their colour, women returning to the workforce after having children, the working poor, and the illiterate because these people would cost more to serve.
"We abandoned Canadian families in their time of crisis.
"We made Canadians truly desperate."
Clancy points out that HRDC staff knew in 1995, when Finance Minister Paul Martin came out with his merciless deficit-cutting budget, that it was "totally unnecessary to cut social spending to balance the budget." (In fact, surpluses were already forecasted.)
He writes that he and others were told to become more entrepreneurial, that the age of universality and entitlement were dead "despite the constitution and despite the fact that citizens pay EI and CPP premiums." He confesses that: "As 'gatekeepers' we could now select those citizens 'worthy of investment' ... We were offered a bonus for EI premium dollars extracted from the region and sent to Ottawa unspent.
"That created a conflict of interest between our career goals as public servants and the basic needs of citizens ... We were empowered with the licence to discriminate, if that would send dollars back to Ottawa unspent."
Intrigued, I telephoned Clancy to get a sense of the man behind the words. He was humble, quiet, but well-spoken, and genuinely disgusted with what he and his fellow HRDC workers had done and were still doing to needy Canadians. He told me he had joined Employment and Immigration Canada - the precursor to HRDC - after suffering an injury as a letter carrier and one of his first jobs in the relatively-enlightened years of the early 1980s was to shred documents that were in any way discriminatory.
"Things were really opening up then," he recalled, describing his efforts to bring support groups, such as the March of Dimes and the Discovery Program into the small northern Ontario town of Kenora. "I also learned that every time I, as a government employee, made a decision it had a consequence."
In other words, he realized that when a person was given benefits in a time of need it had a positive affect on that person's health, home life, social standing, the potential of his or her children, and more. If that person was refused benefits, the opposite was true. Clancy admitted that, as a public servant, it was "wonderful to intervene in people's lives" and do good.
But the glory days soon came to an end. Clancy remembered hearing about management-training sessions in 1993 (just after the Liberals came to power). A large, American consulting firm was brought in to tell about a new way of delivering public - now called "client" - services. In 1994, HRDC staffers were told that they could ignore directives concerning equity and entitlement.
Slowly, steadily, the old, humane ways of thinking were being dismantled and new, ruthless ways were being introduced, as the Liberal government insisted on applying the efficiencies of business where, claimed Clancy, they didn't belong.
Another stage in the development of the vicious New Think of the ministry, recalled Clancy, occurred when then-HRDC-minister Lloyd Axworthy identified certain UI users, such as fishers, as "abusers." After that, it was not uncommon for one UI applicant to accuse another of being an "abuser." It was, said Clancy, a divide and conquer tactic on the part of the government.
In the meantime, HRDC public servants were "keeping their heads down and their mouths shut," he said, because they, too, were facing potential unemployment as more than 5,000 were "downsized." It was a difficult, demoralizing time for most employees.
"We were told we had to accept change," noted Clancy. "We were willing to accept change, but not unethical change."
He recalled being criticized more than once for enrolling a disabled person or a single mother in a training course - because that person was not a likely candidate for work and would be a waste of dollars.
"We were told to 'sell the sizzle, not the steak,' which meant that people could come into our offices and use our computers, but we weren't supposed to help them with anything that would cost money. The fancy new equipment was a front for the withdrawal of services. It was well thought out, very systematic."
Clancy said he used to apologize to "clients" he had been forced to turn away when he met them at church on Sunday. Now it's time the Liberals and their high-ranking bureaucrats apologized - at the very least - for more than one HRDC scandal.
Pre-Y2K: Get Ready for the Year 1900
Ottawa - I have a solution to the impending "Year 2000" computer crisis. Leave the programs alone. At midnight on December 31, 1999, allow them to flip back to the year 1900. After all, we are reverting to the turn of the century in many of our attitudes and policies - so let the date reflect as much.
Yes, those were good years. The high tariffs of John A. Macdonald's National Policy were having what many considered the desired effect - foreign investment was pouring across the border from the south. Singer Sewing Machine, Edison Electric, American Tobacco, Gillette, Swift's, Parke Davis, Coca Cola were all helping to "Canadianize" the American economy, accounting for a faster-than-normal growth rate here.
Between 1900 and 1922, foreign direct investment (FDI) in Canada rose from $1,232 million to $5,207 million. By 1914, there were 450 branch plants and subsidiaries in the country. We didn't seem to care who built what or where. Cash-strapped municipalities (sound familiar?) were tripping over each other to lure investment to their vicinity. Free land, loans, cash incentives were all laying the groundwork for what one historian called "a northern extension of American industrialism."
Now, at the end of the century, we are again opening our doors to businesses of all kinds from big-box retailers to health-care providers having rid ourselves of any credible investment review process. We are told they will bring jobs, security, and the money we need for better social programs. (Unlike 100 years ago, however, we have no high-tariff wall and there's no longer a need for branch plants. Now, much of the foreign investment is geared to the takeover of established Canadian firms, but the desperate, indiscriminate nature of the "growth" is similar.)
What about social policy during those earlier years of heady expansion? I'll let the late historian Kenneth McNaught describe the downside of turn-of-the-century thinking: "The values of a market economy went virtually unchallenged while prime urban land was deeply disfigured by railway yards, shipping facilities, and the monstrosities of late Victorian industrial architecture. These and other sins, such as cheap row-housing and clap-board tenements provided their unhappy evidence that new countries do not always learn the lessons provided by older lands."
Indeed, social programs, such as unemployment insurance, pensions, Medicare, even widely-accessible hospitals, schools, universities, and libraries weren't even a glimmer on the horizon. The federal government often hid behind the constitutional division of powers in order to avoid or postpone the introduction of humane legislation. Even R.B. Bennett's Depression-era "New Deal", advocating, among other things, unemployment insurance, a minimum wage, and maximum hours of work was struck down after Mackenzie King referred it to the Supreme Court. It infringed on provincial jurisdiction.
Finally, the Rowell-Sirois Commission was established to make some sense of federal-provincial relations. Fortunately, for the future of the country, the commission concluded in 1940 that the Fathers of Confederation had had no desire to see federal hands tied. It recommended giving Ottawa the powers it needed to establish national programs. It also envisioned a system of grants distributed by Ottawa to the provinces to help maintain an equitable standard of education and social services across the country.
What are we seeing today? The demolition of Ottawa, the decentralization of everything from social housing to the environment to pre-Rowell-Sirois levels, and the dwindling of federal transfer payments to the provinces for health and education. How quickly we forget!
There are other similarities. At the beginning of the century, we had no publicly-owned transnational rail service much to the frustration of western farmers. Instead, we had the CPR and two new money-losers, the Grand Trunk Pacific and the Canadian Northern, which depended on hand-outs from Ottawa. In 1917, the federal government began to nationalize and consolidate the latter under the name Canadian National Railways. By 1922, CNR was the largest company in the country.
Today, we have no remaining public transcontinental rail-line and farmers are up in arms because they are not being well-served by the private companies. Their grain isn't getting to port.
A century ago, as new energy sources, such as water were being harnessed, there was vigorous debate about their status should they be public or private? Early on, Ontario's bountiful supply of power from Niagara Falls was controlled by three companies - two of them American. To people living in small towns across Ontario, municipal leaders and small manufacturers, it didn't seem right that nature's power sources should be controlled by and profit so few. Besides, rates were too high and service too poor.
Thus began a movement for "people's power," designed to gain public control over the province's utilities and by 1910 the public Hydro-Electric Power Commission was ready to provide light to the town of Berlin (now Kitchener). But wait. Now the Harris government plans to privatize all or part of Ontario Hydro. It's as if the same forces who fought the popular power movement have risen after a nine-decade hiatus. Have they been waiting in the bushes all this time?
Yes, and they can't wait to get back to 1900!
Telecommunications Changes on Horizon Won't Benefit Consumers
Ottawa - We had just settled ourselves nicely in our new home a couple of months ago when the first phone bill arrived in the mail. Surprise! The hook-up charge for our new service (someone mysteriously did something in an office somewhere) was a soaring $50 - a very unwelcome housewarming gift.
When the federal government began to deregulate the telephone industry, Canadian consumers were told to expect cheaper, better service - but I challenge anyone to explain how that $50 charge is an improvement over the past. And what about the increasing charges for directory assistance (we will soon be paying for new listings as well), the incomprehensible phone bills, that obnoxious voice which comes on the line after a busy signal, and the ceaseless advertising for our long-distance dollars? All this is better?
Candice Bergen go home!
I have been told that we are now being charged a small amount every month for 911, the emergency service that once seemed a citizen's free right, and that we also pay a premium for touch-tone service, even though rotary phones are no longer really an option. In other words, deregulation seems to be more synonymous with bilking the public than providing a better world. (Long-distance charges have dropped, but most customers don't make enough such calls to allow these savings to outweigh the new expenses.)
That is why I am concerned about a new bill - C-17 - making its way through Parliament that will further "liberalize" the growing telecommunications industry. The bill amends the Telecommunications Act and the Teleglobe Canada Reorganization and Divestiture Act, in order to bring Canadian legislation in this area in line with yet another international trade agreement.
The telecommunications agreement, concluded last February at the World Trade Organization (WTO), takes effect next January. (Evidently, with a schedule that tight, the government is assuming there will be no barriers to prevent the bill from going ahead.) To fully comply with the agreement Canada has to get rid of two once-publicly-owned monopolies - that of Teleglobe Canada in the overseas telephone service and Telesat Canada in fixed satellite services. Bill C-17 does this and opens both companies to foreign investment. (It also allows more foreign-owned companies to offer services generally on facilities that are majority Canadian-owned.)
This is an important part of the bill - which will probably be swamped by government promises of increased competition, better service, more jobs, and expanded access for Canadian companies to foreign markets. (Have we heard this before?) After all, it was Telesat which pushed this once-proud country into the forefront of the new telecommunications technology by launching the world's first commercial domestic geostationary communications satellite in 1972. That harbinger was named Anik A-1 after the Inuit word for "brother."
But those were the days before globalization began to erase national borders - and pride. Now, Telesat is seen as an old-fashioned monopoly, a barrier to competition and innovation with no place in a new economy which refuses to discriminate against dollars because of their origin. In the desperate rush for growth, increased productivity, and a position at the top of the global heap, countries are scouring the world for the big bucks. Hence, Chretien's Team Canada tours.
Teleglobe, according to a recent business magazine, seems poised to go for "a piece of the action in a dazzling array of high-tech, high-finance ventures that would literally circle the globe." On the other hand, when the WTO agreement (and Bill C-17) further open Canada's doors to powerful U.S. competition, Teleglobe, according to one Canadian telecommunications specialist, will be "in deep trouble" if its domestic clients don't stay loyal.
Looking back at the history of telecommunications in Canada is revealing. In the early years of the century, the Laurier government, under great pressure to provide Canadians with cheap, universal phone service, considered national public ownership for the country's phone lines. Instead, it opted for greater regulation of the private sector. However, in 1907, both Manitoba and Alberta heard the pleas of angry consumers and went for public ownership. Now, ninety years later, the open market - very open - is seen as the solution. (Do we have to relearn the lessons of the past?)
What does all this have to do with the cost of a phone call - or phone hook-up? Ironically, I read the recent debate in the House of Commons on Bill C-17 - before it was sent to a parliamentary committee - while waiting at the Ottawa bus terminal. As I absorbed Liberal Industry Minister John Manley's claims that "liberalization of Canadian telecommunications" had "already greatly benefited Canadians ...", I was conscious of the passers-by. I began to wonder how some of them, who looked as if they could barely afford a bus trip home, were coping with the new service charges?
Certainly, consumers have seen a proliferation of new telecommunications toys, gadgets, and features over the past few years. Many are enjoying the convenience of cellular phones. And Minister Manley wants all Canadians to have access to "the electronic highway and the information economy by the year 2000." But, as we face a growing number of poor Canadians in this increasingly-divided society, aren't we going to see many citizens move in the opposite direction where they could become known simply as "the phoneless"?
Canada has a two-tiered health care system.
KINGSTON - At a posh conference on the future of health care held in Toronto recently, several people let the cat out of the bag. Speaker after speaker declared that Canada now has a two-tiered health-care system - in spite of claims to the contrary.
Writer John Ralston Saul was the first to refuse to mince words. He began his keynote address with a quote from a federal cabinet minister who, like others in the government, insists that Medicare is in good shape and Canadians have nothing to worry about. Saul went on to describe our elected representatives as "the intellectual voice of the citizenry," noting that it is "not useful if they lie to us." He warned that the distance between government and the people grows when elected officials "don't experience what the people experience."
And what kind of health care are the people experiencing? Saul gave a personal example: When an elderly friend became incontinent after days of near neglect in the hospital, Saul asked the nurses if they would put diapers on the poor man. He was told that such things had to be purchased privately. In other words, certain basic comforts are now only available to those who can afford them.
Former Ontario Premier Bob Rae also refrained from indulging in denial. He pointed out that increasingly drugs, home care, and private nurses are only accessible to the rich - making the present system two-tiered. This is particularly tragic because, as Rae pointed out, "health care is a metaphor for Canada itself." (In other words, we now have a two-tiered nation.)
But perhaps the most poignant words came from former Liberal health minister Monique Begin who helped bring about the Canada Health Act in 1984 with its promises of "universality" and "accessibility" - among other things. It is true, she declared, Canada now has a two-tiered system and that system, unwanted by a large majority of citizens, was entering "by the back door through home care," because certain costs, such as drugs, are not covered by Medicare.
Obviously frustrated by the short time allotted for her speech, Begin began to list a number of other policy options that pose even greater dangers to our national, public health-care system under the guise of reform: the voucher system of health-care payment, devolving health care to the regional level without ensuring it is covered by the Canada Health Act, and the addition of "affordability" and "sustainability" to the five basic pillars of the Canada Health Act.
It was sad to watch this well-meaning woman - admittedly a voice from a gentler time (although not that long ago) - trying desperately to save our besieged Medicare system from further erosion. It was evident that she fears there is worse to come.
The words of Begin and the others were still ringing in my ears when I returned to Kingston to be met with the health-care realities in this - and many other - city. First, I found a flyer in my mailbox advertising a seminar on long-term care for the elderly with the following dire words: "Canadians are increasingly faced with the necessity of arranging for personal services at home for themselves, or for their aging parents ... What are the costs? How will the costs by paid for, e.g. Sale of Home? ..."
My 74-year-old aunt who also received the flyer asked me if I had seen the paragraph about selling the home to pay for long-term care. "I'm just glad I've already sold my home," she told me in a worried voice - although how that knowledge will help her face the future I have no idea! (Interestingly, one of the promised speakers at the seminar is a marketing co-ordinator with Westbury Canadian, a Royal Bank subsidiary. Needless to say, some very wealthy corporations are going to get even wealthier as health care is thrown more and more into the marketplace.)
Then there was a headline in a community paper: "Home-care cuts create hardship for area residents." A disabled, elderly woman who lives alone and receives a visit from a publicly-funded home-support worker once a week was interviewed about her concerns. The woman stated that, in spite of her very limited budget, she would make every effort to hire a home-care worker to help her bathe and clean her apartment when private care became necessary. It would be difficult, she was quoted as saying, "but I don't want to be dirty. I want to be nice and clean."
Incontinent elderly men without diapers in our hospitals, disabled widows worried about their ability to bathe and keep clean. Such is the Canadian health-care reality at the end of the 20th Century - and Begin is right, there are signs that things will get worse as the people who broke the system offer dangerous solutions to fix it.
Shame, shame. Two-tiered shame.
"Social Union" is a Nice Way of Describing Decentralization
Kingston - As a loyal Canadian, I, like so many others, eagerly took part in the referendum on the Charlottetown Accord a few long years ago. I voted "No" because I believe this country needs a strong federal government and the decentralist features of the Accord made me nervous. However, I wasted my time when I cast my ballot. My vote meant nothing.
That is the conclusion I have come to after reading about the recent federal/provincial/territorial negotiations for "social union." Indeed, the majority of Canadians who, like me, reacted negatively to the Charlottetown Accord have a perfect right to demand an explanation. Why were we consulted if the policy direction we rejected - decentralization - is being brought in non-constitutionally through the back door by a group of politicians, bureaucrats, academics, and conservative lobbyists?
Actually, Canadians might well be forgiven if their first reaction to "social union" is simply: What the heck is it? Certainly, the details have yet to be worked out, but "social union" is based on the concept that the federal government will allow the provinces greater control over social program spending and administration. (Perhaps, this move to devolve power and hand over control is more worthy of the term "social disunion." How far can we stray from universal programs with national standards before the relatively humane social structure we have created collapses completely?)
Of course, this is being done under the guise of "renewing the federation," bringing in more "accountability" for social programs and ending "duplication" of services. The plan - overseen by the Federal/Provincial/Territorial Ministerial Council on Social Policy Reform and Renewal - is to come up with a "social union framework agreement" to better clarify the roles of the various governments in taking care of Canadians' needs in the areas of health, education, and income security.
There is no doubt about it - all the above buzz words and phrases sound good. But again, as someone who voted "No" when last asked my opinion on (among other things) weakening the federal government, I believe there are several aspects of "social union" which must be addressed - or exposed. After all, this policy direction has the potential to diminish, possibly destroy, much of what our caring society has built up over the past thirty years.
For one thing, why don't Canadians know more about "social union" - a policy shift which will probably have an enormous impact on their daily lives? Justice Minister Anne McLellan, who chairs the Social Union Committee of Cabinet (yes, there is one), recently wrote that "social union" required "transparency" and "engaging Canadians, providing opportunities for their input into the development of policies and programs ...." This, too, sounds good, very good - but has anyone asked you for your thoughts on whether the country needs "social union"?
Then there's the learning-from-history angle. During the depression, some municipalities and provinces simply didn't have the revenue-generating capacity to come to the aid of their citizens. These local and regional governments needed outside help to avoid bankruptcy. Hence, the slow-but-steady move toward social programs on a national level; it was decided that the country worked best when we all pulled together. So now, do we really want to turn the clock back and establish a loose, survival-of-the-fittest network of local and regional programs? (The federal share of program funding has already dropped to a dangerously low 15 per cent!)
And who is behind "social union" - since it is obviously not the majority of Canadians who know so little about it? The political impetus is coming in large part from Ontario and Alberta, neither of which has a great track record in the areas of compassion and social program spending and support. But there is something else at work in this country, something outside the political arena.
A few years ago, the Business Council on National Issues (BCNI), which represents the top 150 corporations in this country, called for major decentralization of federal powers - everything from forestry and mining to tourism and social housing. That has all been done (rather quietly); apparently, social programs were next in line on the BCNI agenda. It is not surprising that big business, which dislikes both taxes and regulation, wants a small federal government - but do the rest of us?
(With free trade, harsh deficit cutting, the privatization of government agencies, and more under the BCNI's belt, there is little wonder that long-time Business Council head, Tom d'Aquino, has bragged that governments "have adopted the agendas we've been fighting for in the past two decades.")
Finally, there is what I call the "Going, Going, Gone Theory." It is based on the experience of those federal programs, such social housing, which have already been devolved to the provinces (Going). In places like Ontario, social housing has now been passed on to the municipalities (Going) which, in some cases, can't afford to fund desperately-needed housing projects (Gone). Is "social union" the beginning of the end (Gone) for health care, public education, and social assistance?
The debate over decentralization is a crucial one. Former Prime Minister Trudeau put it this way: "You can't decentralize a country any further if you want to have a country, a people." However, I fear that "social unionists" are relying on Canadians' ignorance and apathy to push their plan through. Let's surprise them - just as we did with the Charlottetown Accord!
We Need More Medical Freedom of Choice
Kingston - Having been immersed in the Canadian health-care system for the past two months due to the illness of a loved one, I have a simple question: Why are toxic, often-harmful therapies covered generously by public health insurance while those that are non-toxic and relatively safe don't even qualify?
Perhaps you've wondered about this yourself after paying large sums of money for herbal remedies, a much-needed massage, or the advice of a naturopath - all of which have helped maintain and/or restore health for generations in China, India, and Europe and are becoming increasingly popular in this country.
It seems to me, as I pay hundreds of dollars for naturally-based remedies and treatments not endorsed by the government and the medical establishment, that I am supplementing a dangerously narrow and inadequate system with my hard-earned money. (The list of such treatments is scandalously long, including vitamin supplements, the very foundation of good health.)
Generally, the hospital-based therapies I have grown to suspect, such as surgery and synthetic drugs, are free - funded by my taxes and yours, but herbal and natural alternatives must be paid for privately. Why then should I or anyone else relying on alternatives pay taxes to prop up Medicare?
Don't get me wrong. I fully support our publicly-funded and -administered health-care system. Despite recent battering by federal and provincial governments, it continues to be one of the best in the world, I'm told. But, as knowledge about gentler, more holistic therapies for a variety of diseases emerges, it is obvious that Canada is dragging its feet - refusing to embrace what is effective, less invasive, and cheaper.
(I don't mean Canadians themselves are backward on this subject. On the contrary, a recent report by the Advisory Panel on Natural Health Products noted that "Canadians are becoming increasingly willing to shoulder more responsibility for their own health. With this trend has come a new awareness of health products and practices profoundly different from the conventional Western medical and pharmaceutical model.")
Take the approach toward cancer, the disease which kills more people in Ontario than any other and is spreading across this country like an invisible grassfire. It costs more than $100,000 to treat a cancer patient in most hospitals today. At the same time, there are a growing number of claims that cancer can be beaten more naturally and much less expensively. But can I or any other Canadian citizen turn to those cures with the backing of my public health insurance system? Definitely not! If you don't follow the conventional route of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation (cut, poison, and burn), you are out of luck.
(Of course, if you can foot the bill yourself there are all sorts of options. This, however, creates a two-tier system where the rich run off to comfortable foreign clinics while the not-so-rich are fed a diet of quick-fix chemicals in dingy cancer wards.)
And it might get worse. Recently, the Chretien government attempted to impose tighter regulations and higher licensing fees on natural health products. After an outcry, Health Minister Allan Rock cancelled the new policies and called on the parliamentary Health Committee to look into the matter. The committee's report is expected soon, but some fear Liberal committee members plan to make life difficult for alternative options -and the citizens who are demanding those options.
At the same time, there have been claims that the federal Health Protection Branch (HPB), which was expanded after the thalidomide tragedy years ago, has been weakened so badly by budget cuts and lay-offs that it is now virtually in the hands of the big drug companies. This does not bode well for the future of non-pharmaceutical products which pose a threat to the profits of the drug manufacturers. How are they going to be approved for the marketplace by a hostile HPB?
What we are witnessing right now is a battle between two diametrically-opposed methods and philosophies of healing. On one hand, there are medical therapies and remedies which can be tightly controlled, such as surgery and patented synthetic drugs, and are, therefore, highly profitable. On the other, there are hundreds of traditional cures which have been in the public domain for centuries - and cannot as easily serve the bottom line.
It all comes down to freedom of choice in health care - something Canadians certainly do not have at this point.
Public VIA Rail in Danger
Ottawa - Whither VIA Rail? Or perhaps the question should be worded more forcefully: Wither VIA Rail? Because, in spite of its general appeal, Canada's public passenger train system appears to be dying a slow death - its days numbered.
VIA's problems are serious enough to have attracted the attention of the federal government, and the Standing Committee on Transport is busy examining the future of train travel. One witness recently told committee members in no uncertain terms that "the future of VIA Rail and passenger service in this country is in your hands." There seems to be agreement that, as a Member of Parliament warned, "no decision" on how to fix VIA would be tantamount to a decision to "kill" it.
Some give the service two to four years under the status quo.
What has gone wrong with VIA since it was founded by the Trudeau government in 1977? To begin with, it is not a Crown Corporation and has never been given a mandate by Parliament - to, for example, maintain a viable (make that VIAble!) national passenger network. Instead, it was a cabinet creation and appears to have been too vulnerable to political whims.
More recently, VIA has suffered from enormous cuts in government subsidies - from $388.9 million in 1992 to $170 million this year. To deal with this drop in funding, the organization has slashed its workforce by 33 per cent and cut its capital spending by more than 50 per cent. Now, most of VIA's "rolling stock" - locomotives, passenger cars - is between 15 and 30 years old, requires increasingly-costly maintenance, and needs replacing.
VIA officials were faced with a tough choice between expanding customer services in order to increase revenues or upgrading infrastructure. They chose the former.
Some might argue - I certainly do - that the beginning of the end for VIA Rail as a proud national institution came with the elimination of passenger service in western Canada and other regions. In the 1980s, the southern line from Thunder Bay to Regina and Calgary disappeared followed by the Edmonton-Calgary and Winnipeg-Thunder Bay lines. Cape Breton lost its passenger service in 1990; Newfoundland, which hasn't enjoyed train travel for years, has even lost its freight rail.
The experience of sitting beside a picture window, munching a ham sandwich, and watching the world go by has virtually vanished for many Canadians.
Ironically, as the less profitable lines were closed, one of the most lucrative -Vancouver to Calgary through the southern Rockies - was sold to the private sector. Rocky Mountain Tours is now selling tickets for, among other things, upscale two-day excursions, including hotel accommodation, at more than $1,000 and doing well. Tourists love the scenic new packages.
I hate to quibble, but wouldn't it have been better to allow VIA to improve its facilities and reap those profits, thus becoming less dependent on government funding in the long run? Indeed, why wasn't it?
Unfortunately, all Canadian rail passengers - sometimes referred to as "people freight" - might have to get used to a private system, if this is the option favoured by the Transport Committee and the government. Such a move should not come as a surprise. The Liberals have privatized airports, the air traffic control system, ferries, harbours, and CN. (With no tracks of its own, VIA must rely on CN and CP for a right of way. Now, the majority-U.S.-owned CN - no longer a tool of public policy - is, like CP, hesitant to displace its highly-competitive freight business with VIA's passenger cars.)
Another possibility for VIA is the British method of franchising routes. In other words, a patchwork passenger rail network overseen by the government (which, unlike here, still owns the tracks) and run by individual franchisees. At this point, even those who support the concept admit that the British system (with more than 20 franchise routes) still has some kinks to work out. A recent study noted that the system is still highly dependent on government subsidies, has lower customer satisfaction, is less efficient and no safer. We should think twice before we consider following in Thatcher's footsteps.
Even if the government uncharacteristically veers away from the total sell-off or franchising of VIA, the writing is on the wall. About $700-million dollars will be needed to replace the decrepit rolling stock, and the government is determined to keep its subsidy at the present rate - or, ideally, lower. There's no doubt that private sector companies, such as Bombardier, are eyeing this future equipment purchase with delight, and, if the government can't or won't foot the bill, some kind of public-private arrangement is inevitable.
Caring Canadians, watching VIA with concern, have called on the government to create a Crown Corporation with a strong mandate to improve public train travel (serving airports, for example) based on long-term funding commitments - even at the present relatively-low level. But all signs indicate a move in the other direction.
Sadly, another piece of the country's public infrastructure is about to be derailed.
Student Demos: It's Time to Listen
OTTAWA -- The student demonstrations held across the country earlier this month and in New Brunswick more recently took me - a former "sixties" campus radical - on a quick trip down memory lane. The placards, the passion, the fearlessness, the conviction. But does anyone listen to what these young people are saying and why they are taking to the streets?
Although media coverage has been superficial at best, I get the sense that these protestors are a far cry from the silly, idealistic flower children we once were. These kids are smart. The word naive just doesn't apply. Where we droned endlessly about peace and love and quoted Chairman Mao, they talk transfer payments, corporate profits, and tax expenditures.
In fact, that is why reports of the students' national Day of Action let them and the rest of the country down. Most coverage concentrated on the dramatic storming of the Ontario Legislature (which one article claimed was provoked by security forces). This is sad because student planners worked hard to give their protest as much substance as possible - and few Canadians were privy to their message.
What these angry and frustrated young people are trying to convey is a feeling that society has become blatantly unfair. As cuts are being made to various crucial social programs, including post-secondary education, in the name of deficit reduction, large corporations are not paying their "fair share" in taxes. Even at a time of record profits and outrageous executive salaries.
The students are right. According to Statistics Canada, thousands of profitable corporations pay little or no taxes - thus robbing the government of badly needed funds. In fact, Canada's corporate taxes now account for only eight per cent of all tax revenue. (The burden has been pushed onto the backs of ordinary citizens. No wonder we're hurting!)
Remember when NDP leader David Lewis crossed the country denouncing Corporate Welfare Bums in the early 1970s? Well, those bums were relative angels then, paying about 28 per cent of total taxes. In the 1950s, they paid 46 per cent!
A press kit put out by the Canadian Federation of Students in preparation for the Day of Action pointed out that corporations owe about forty billion dollars in what are called deferred taxes. This is true. Tax deferrals allow businesses to depreciate the value of their assets faster for taxation purposes than for their own books. While this is being done, a company can postpone or defer tax payment. A clever corporation can keep deferring taxes ad infinitum.
It hasn't been lost on the young minds of the Canadian Federation of Students, the group that organized the protests, that there is a certain amount of hypocrisy behind the debt and deficit fight - which is threatening their futures. The CFS noted that in late 1994 eight large companies organized a conference on the debt, calling for deeper cuts to social programs. At the time, these companies, including MacMillan Bloedel, Sun Life Insurance, and Dow Chemical, owed more than one billion in deferred taxes. (Perhaps the companies were talking about a credibility deficit?)
The issue of taxation has always been a thorny and complex one, but the students have come across some interesting aspects of our tax system which are worth noting. They point out that tax expenditures or "loopholes", especially for corporations, are a hidden form of social program that is rarely examined and poorly controlled.
"There are no means tests for the corporate sector, as there are for UI or welfare recipients. All corporations can access these 'tax expenditure' programs regardless of how much profit they make," says a CFS leaflet. Again, the students have hit on something. According to the Ministry of Finance, tax expenditures for corporations and individuals totalled $90 billion dollars in 1991. That's $30 billion more than federal transfers to individuals and the provinces for social programs. But who's counting?
As students see the quality of their education and their lives generally deteriorating, it's not surprising that they are asking questions. And it's even less surprising that they are fed up when they come across facts and figures like the above. This isn't good. Our young people are our future. How can we as a society expect them to feel anything more than contempt and cynicism when their valid concerns and criticisms are ignored? Students of the nineties certainly don't have flowers in their hair, but many do have well-developed ideas about the kind of world they want to live in. Let's listen.
Super RRSPs Aren't That Super
Ottawa - I couldn't believe my ears. There he was, Garth Turner, former Conservative Revenue Minister, lecturing to a crowd of 400 souls on how to avoid - yes, avoid - paying taxes. His advice? A Registered Retirement Savings Plan (RRSP), what he called "North America's Best Tax Shelter."
Sixty-six per cent of Canadians have no RRSP, Turner told his listeners. That's why there are $150 billion dollars worth of unused RRSP contributions. Put your assets under a bubble and protect them from taxation, he urged. Buy now!
The message was well-delivered and a little frightening. Turner noted that in the Ice Age people lived to the ripe average age of 18, in 1900 they lasted until 49, today it's 76, and by 2010 people will be around until they're 96. That's a lot of years of retirement, he warned, and few people are prepared.
Turner's lecture moved me, as it did many in the audience. It was powerful stuff. However, I couldn't help wondering why a man who belonged to a government that weakened the Old Age Security program (by clawing back some pensions) in the name of deficit reduction was a) scaring people about their future and b) advising them how to dodge Revenue Canada.
But putting Turner's personal inconsistencies aside, let's look at RRSPs as an option for Canadians. As the former minister pointed out, most of us haven't even bought into the program. Statistics Canada found that between 1991 and 1993, nearly 72 per cent of those with incomes averaging $60,000 or more made RRSP contributions every year, but only 29 per cent of earners with incomes below $20,000 managed to do so.
Unfortunately, that is not the whole story. In 1993, a record 650,000 people below retirement age withdrew $3.5 billion from their RRSPs. The StatsCan researcher who compiled these numbers concluded that many people had lost their jobs and run out of money. "They really have their backs against the wall," he wrote.
There is something else a little lopsided about RRSPs: the higher your income bracket, the larger your tax break. If you make less then $30,000, you will get a break of about $265 for every $1,000 you contribute, but if you make more than $60,000 that break runs up to $481 per $1,000. That's quite a difference.
The above findings are why I get nervous, and even suspicious, about the idea of a Super RRSP, now being promoted by the Reform Party and the conservative C.D. Howe Institute, among others. This enlarged RRSP would take the place of our 30-year-old Canada Pension Plan which has been getting a lot of negative publicity lately.
Compare the two. The CPP is a pay-as-you-go plan funded exclusively by employers and employees (not by government) to the tune of 2.7 per cent of insured earnings each. It should be noted that the World Bank found that in 1991 Canada's pension payroll taxes, then totalling 4.6 per cent, were much lower than the average 16.3 per cent found among the 24 member countries of the OECD.
Much of the bad news about the CPP recently has been based on the fact that employer/employee contributions might have to go up in order to fund the pensions of Baby Boomers who will be retiring in a couple of decades. A worst case scenario put forward by the government's Chief Actuary suggests payments could go as high as 14.44 per cent (7.22 each for employers and employees) - by the year 2100, more than 100 years from now. Again, that's worst case.
On the other hand, the Super RRSP would be totally funded by employees, letting employers off the hook, and handled through profit-driven businesses - the same insurance companies that fought to prevent the CPP in the first place. Proponents of the Super RRSP, a mandatory plan, have suggested the employee contribution level would be a full 10 per cent of insured earnings. (These are the same people who think the CPP rates will be too high some day!)
If the Super RRSP works like the present one, it will assist those with higher incomes more than lower, and it will cost the government a lot of money in lost or deferred tax revenues. To date, the present RRSP program has cost the government billions of dollars. Money it obviously needs.
But the main difference between the two pension plans is very basic. The CPP is a social insurance plan, which means Canadians with varying incomes pool their money to make sure everyone can survive during retirement. The Super RRSP is based on a survival-of-the-fittest approach, or, as the C.D. Howe Institute puts it, "on individual responsibility and control."
From what we've seen of the present RRSP program, I think a majority of Canadians would be left in the cold under the Super pension plan. (When I asked a Reform Party worker how Canadians would afford his party's pension scheme, he answered, "They'll have to afford it.") Therefore, a warning: The CPP and other public pension plans are being threatened. Now is the time to save them - it will be too late when we're 65.
Bill C-91, the Drug Patent Act, and Other Federal Shenanigans
Ottawa - It's time to get out the dog-eared dictionary and look up one of the most over-worked and abused words of our time: democracy. As the country apparently approaches another election - the peak, some might say, of our democratic experience - a renewed understanding of the term is in order.
The simplest definition I have found is this: "a country governed by its people." Sounds nice, eh? But is democracy what is really happening in this land? Take the latest debate over the infamous Bill C-91, the legislation which amended the country's Drug Patent Act four years ago and gave the hugely profitable multinational pharmaceutical companies a 20-year monopoly over many drugs.
For the past month or more, the Industry Committee, made up of representatives of the people (those Members of Parliament you and I elected late in 1993), has been reviewing Bill C-91, as required by the original law. The review got off to a dubious start when Industry Minister John Manley announced that the Liberal government could not and would not change the law because its hands are tied by free trade commitments - NAFTA and the World Trade Organization. (Health Minister David Dingwall later said the same.)
Manley's unequivocal announcement amounted to a virtual sabotaging of the review committee (now taking a two-week break), largely made up of his Liberal caucus colleagues. Since then, citizens' groups, including many seniors' organizations, have been stating their case (most are against the bill) knowing that the government's mind is made up. At the very least, the Industry Minister might have waited for "democracy" to run its course before delivering his ultimatum.
This isn't the first time the Industry committee has been de-clawed. After presenting a submission on changes to the Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act last fall, one witness complained that the exercise was a charade and the committee had become nothing more than a "rubber stamp" for the government. Committee members, he said, seemed "indifferent" to the issues presented, and, in some cases, appeared not to understand the legislation they were studying.
There seems to be a growing disdain for "the people" on the heights of Parliament Hill. Bills which have the support of a majority of Canadians but are unpopular with business, such as the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, are being hijacked as they make their way through Parliament. And some MPs seem to resent the clamour of "the great unwashed." When employees of Apotex - a Canadian company which specializes in lower -priced "generic" drugs and has, therefore, been hurt by the Drug Patent Act - paid a visit to the office of Liberal MP Carolyn Parrish recently, they got an angry reception they will never forget.
The past several days have been particularly rough for those who believe in a functioning democracy. It has been revealed that the Patented Medicine Prices Review Board, the federal agency regulating brand name drug costs, has been using inflated prices from Europe and the US to establish allowable drug price levels in Canada. But here's the real rub: this agency, which is supposedly working in the public interest, doesn't allow full public access to its pricing records. (It should be noted that drug prices have risen sharply under Bill C-91, putting an added strain on our already-tottering health-care system.)
These federal government shenanigans of late are all the more ugly when you think of what most of us expected around election time 1993. For example, Industry Minister Manley's opening statement to the Industry committee in support of Bill C-91 ran counter to everything the Liberals said during the original debate over the legislation. At the time, Jean Chretien proclaimed: " ... the country cannot afford to give big sums of money to the big international corporations." That was the Chretien many of us voted for in the last election -a man who stood for the people, not big companies.
As well, it was Chretien and the Liberals who, just after the election, had the final say on NAFTA before it became law. They promised they would make it fairer for Canadians or toss it to the dogs. Instead, they accepted the agreement virtually "as is" and are now using it as a shield to avoid upsetting the powerful drug companies.
(But the rumblings of "the people" might be getting through. International trade lawyer Barry Appleton and other experts have examined the issue and concluded that the government can indeed make changes to Bill C-91, in spite of certain clauses in NAFTA. It does seem odd that a trade deal could dominate our internal policies to the extent Manley and company suggest, don't you think?)
Recently, I have been reading a lot of high-minded stuff about the building of democracy in various third-world countries. A publication produced by the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development offers the following: "... democracy must be envisaged as a social process and not only as a series of institutions." In light of what we have seen lately - a compromised and ineffective parliamentary committee, a secretive public agency, arrogant MPs, flip-flopping government leaders, and legislation that works for a powerful corporate elite and against the rest of us - Canada could use a little democratic development ASAP.
Trucks: An Unnecessary Threat on our Highways
Ottawa - A Kingston woman I know in her mid-sixties no longer drives to Toronto to visit her children and grandchildren there. She has decided the trip has become too risky. No, it's not a matter of age; she's still young enough. It's the trucks. She's afraid of the trucks.
So, even though she has paid taxes for many years to help build and maintain the "401", she is forgoing her right to travel on that public roadway. Dodging multi-tonne vehicles of steel charging at 100 kilometres per hour - often more - is not her cup of tea. Especially if, as recent studies have revealed, some drivers of those vehicles are nodding off at the wheel.
I - and I'm sure most readers - can sympathize. Anyone who has read news stories of innocent car drivers and passengers being killed by "flying wheels" from sub-standard trucks, anyone who has simply shared Canada's two- and four-lane highways with these modern-day monsters will understand fully. Inter-city driving has become increasingly a struggle to survive.
(My own epiphany - when I realized how vulnerable I am in my mid-size car - came one winter night as I was returning to Ottawa along a snow-covered section of Highway 15. Suddenly, I was blown off the road by the gust created by a south-bound bus. Fortunately, my car hit a snow bank, not the rock walls that border the highway in some spots, and, with the help of a superhuman passer-by, I was soon freed and on my way.)
What's going on? There appears to be no limit to the proliferation of trucks and bigger trucks on our highways. According to CRASH, Canadians for Responsible and Safe Highways, almost 600 Canadians are killed and about 12,000 are injured every year in accidents involving large trucks. What kind of government policies - or lack of them - are causing this particular brand of asphalt carnage to happen?
Here's what I have found out so far. In the late 1980s, the Mulroney government greatly deregulated the trucking industry, allowing virtually anyone who could afford it to put a rig on the road to go into business - and many did. This, of course, led to increased and vicious competition causing companies to cut corners - on truck maintenance, driver training, and working conditions - just to survive.
As well, safety regulation of the trucking industry, which was a federal government responsibility, has been completely decentralized. The provinces are governed by a voluntary, yes voluntary, National Safety Code. There is no penalty for ignoring sections of the code and provinces are tripping over themselves to weaken their regulations and become more attractive to business. (Ontario's huge single-trailer trucks are heavier than the standard set by the code.)
At the same time, both the Mulroney Tories and the Chretien Liberals have pushed continental free trade and the inevitable replacement of east-west lines of transportation with north-south. This has meant much more truck traffic to and from the US and Mexico. (There is pressure to build - with the help of government subsidies - NAFTA Superhighways to handle the increase in cross-border trucking, expected to double by 2005.) It has also meant that domestic trucking companies must hook up with American firms to ensure a continental reach.
Add to this, the privatization and restructuring of our national railways and the "abandonment" of thousands of kilometres of shipping and passenger rail-lines across the country - even though transporting and travelling by rail is less "weather sensitive" and safer.
The "road mode" is taking over.
There is another factor few people know about: just-in-time delivery to factories across the country. This system is designed to eliminate the need for warehouses by delivering parts and equipment to factories as they are needed. This has transformed trucks into unwieldy warehouses-on-wheels, constantly on the move between suppliers and clients - arriving just-in-time.
Needless to say, Canada looks bad on the trucking safety front, comparing unfavourably with the US where Washington still takes its regulatory responsibilities seriously. We allow truck weights of up to 138,000 pounds; the US maximum is 80,000 pounds. Our drivers work up to 13 hours a shift compared to 10 hours in the US. But it could get worse. The Canadian trucking industry - which is a very forceful lobby group - wants the weekly maximum increased to 80 hours a week (the equivalent of two full-time jobs). And there is pressure to allow trucks with up to three trailers - which are more likely to rollover or jack-knife - on our roads.
If these policies are adopted, I, too, will think twice before I hit the highway. And that will make me one very unhappy taxpayer. Happy motoring, Canada.
Possible Privatization of our Postal Service Comes after a Raft of Such Sell-offs
Ottawa - In the drastic remaking of Canada, privatization is playing a key role. Enterprises such as Air Canada, Petrocan and CN Rail - once seen as federal government tools needed to conduct "public policy" for the betterment of the nation - have been snatched up by the marketplace like good books at a lawn sale. Will Canada Post be next?
It has been revealed - and raised in the House of Commons recently - that the Liberal government has instructed a consulting firm now assessing the finances and future viability of our public postal service to keep privatization in mind as an option. Specifically, Public Works Minister Diane Marleau has asked TD Securities to determine whether certain changes to the corporation's mandate would be "consistent with the objective of possibly privatizing Canada Post Corporation."
That's pretty clear. They're thinking about it. But I don't remember any mention of such a move in the Liberals' Red Book. Indeed, this is the kind of reheated Tory policy we've been enduring over the past three-plus years - contrary to pre-election promises. The Mulroney Conservatives - to their endless regret, I'm sure - were simply more blatant about their agenda, with their own Minister of Privatization. The cagier Liberals have wisely adopted a quieter, some might say, more hypocritical approach.
So, what about Canada Post? If we are going to have any debate on the future of a public institution most of us depend on daily (based on past sales of national assets that's a big "if"), there are a few issues to be raised. The first is the health and functioning of the corporation itself. Already, we have seen a step toward privatization (and decreased public profitability) with the handing over of lucrative ad or "junk" mail delivery contracts to eager businesses. The 10,000-strong, unionized, reasonably-paid Canada Post deliverers are being replaced by the opposite - insecure, low-paid workers.
I have seen flyers recruiting ad mail deliverers for the private sector that unabashedly tell the reader that if he or she is old enough to read the flyer, he or she can qualify to deliver the mail. Is this the kind of workforce and service delivery we are trying to develop in this country? Do we want to employ parents or their children? And why drain potential earnings from Canada Post?
The second issue deserving debate is the mandate and public purpose of Canada Post. This country - and the sooner we accept it the better - is not designed to be purely practical and profitable. We have a vast landmass, an unevenly-dispersed population, and often-lousy weather. We pay taxes so that we can all enjoy a certain standard of services no matter who we are or where we live. If postal service is turned over to the private sector, do we really think competitive businesses will risk their bottom-lines to ensure regular mail delivery to isolated northern communities or coastal out ports? (Check the cuts to air service after the privatization of Air Canada, if you said "yes.")
Right now, Canada Post balances the cost of its rural delivery with its more efficient urban delivery. (Just as Bell Canada subsidized local telephone service with long-distance before deregulation.) In a profit-oriented system, there would, no doubt, be a rush of companies vying to serve populated areas. Who would take care of Canadians living in the hinterland? (Recent history, again, might provide an answer. With the privatization of CN Rail, lines were dropped in northern Manitoba and the federal government told locals to find their own alternative service. Last I heard, an American rail company was moving in.)
That's something else to consider with privatization. In this era of free trade, Canadian commerce is completely open to US interests. Again, we've seen this with our deregulated telephone industry and the creation of AT&T Canada and Sprint Canada. They didn't waste any time, did they? About sixty per cent of CN Rail has quietly been sold to Americans. Once public assets are in the private realm, chances are they won't remain Canadian for long.
Over the next few months, Canada will be moving to another level of the free-trade-based economy with the introduction of the Multilateral Agreement on Investments (MAI). This agreement, now quietly being negotiated among OECD countries, will make any kind of public influence over private investment decisions almost impossible. The federal government will no longer be able to promote local hiring or purchasing when investors come to town. (One wonders why the Liberals are so eager to abdicate such powers, especially at a time of high unemployment.) What would a privatized postal service be like in this environment?
The debate over privatization and its effects has not caught on here in Canada as it has in Europe where workers are marching and protesting against the selling of national assets. This is surprising in a relatively new country built on co-operation and public enterprise. In France, one union leader has a sign above his desk with the simple slogan: "To Privatize is to Destroy." Canadians should think about that.
Liberals' Damage Control among Canadians with Disabilities a Spectacle to Behold
Ottawa - As pre-election fever swept through this city last week, I watched with jaded appreciation as the Liberals got down to the serious business of damage control. Tying up potentially-dangerous loose ends. Here's how they dealt with one issue which could still be a campaign headache:
On Wednesday morning, Paul Martin, some Liberal backbenchers, and a gaggle of public servants got together over breakfast with representatives of Canada's disabled community. What was on the menu? A plateful of government goodies! These were clearly designed to appease the 4.5 million Canadians with disabilities who have been hurt by the Liberals' policies over the past three-plus years.
In an act of textbook-perfect political stick-handling, Martin charmed his way into his listeners' hearts as federal bureaucrats handed out a list of accomplishments - past and near future - in the area of "disability issues." This make-good exercise was manipulative and cynical; it was also long overdue, coming after what one disabled spokesperson described as a "helluva roller coaster ride" sponsored by Martin and company.
Indeed, the Liberals' treatment of one of the most vulnerable and overlooked segments of our society has been shameful. It began with the virtual ignoring of an all-party committee report which recommended sweeping improvements to the legislation and programs affecting people with disabilities. Then there was the refusal to renew the federal government's five-year National Strategy for the Integration of Persons with Disabilities which provided $160 million annually to 10 federal departments and agencies so they could develop services and programs for the disabled.
This also meant drastic cuts to funding for groups representing the disabled, including the 22 Independent Living Centres across the country, which help integrate the disabled into society. These groups were told they would receive no more financial assistance after 1998/99. (Like so many organizations, they are expected to go cap-in-hand to the private sector.)
But the real blow came last spring with then-Human Resources Minister Doug Young's callous declaration that people with disabilities were a provincial rather than a federal concern. In other words, no more national standards, no more plans to make communities accessible to the disabled from coast to coast to coast. Instead, there would be a patchwork of policies and services.
This Youngian ultimatum raised such a storm of fear and anger among Canadians with disabilities that - wait for it - a task force was formed to look into the matter yet again. After travelling across the country last summer, the task force came up with 52 recommendations which were uncannily similar - although tougher - to those of the committee.
Martin dealt with some of those recommendations in his last budget when he announced a three-year $30-million Opportunities Fund (which replaced a similar $45-million fund he had cancelled earlier); he also added a few more medical expense tax credits for people with disabilities (although about 80 per cent of the disabled have no taxable income!), and he restored some of the funding for disability groups - with no future guarantees.
And, contrary to Young's threats, responsibility for Vocational Rehabilitation funding has not been dumped onto the provinces. At least, not yet.
So what was served at breakfast the other day? An assortment of tantalizing treats, including an announcement that Justice Minister Allan Rock would table amendments to the Canadian Human Rights Act, the Canadian Evidence Act, and the Criminal Code, giving Canadians with disabilities fairer access to the justice system. (And he has done just that with typical pre-election speed.) There was also the promise of a national home care program for those beyond the reach of Medicare.
This was particularly good news for Traci Walters, one of Martin's guests. She has Stills Disease, resulting in an over-active immune system with debilitating side effects. Lately, her professional home-care hours have been cut back. Now, she must give herself the powerful chemotherapy injections her body needs.
I spoke with Walters not long after she watched Martin's early-morning performance. She had indeed been affected by the man, insisting that he offered Canadians with disabilities a long-awaited glimmer of hope. Unlike most of his colleagues, she said, at least he "seemed to understand." (I must confess that I could not resist reminding Walters of the timing of the "glimmer" and the understanding.)
It is obvious that Walters and her colleagues in the disability community, although still very feisty, are tired after the battles they've fought over the past three-and-a-half years. They know they have lost ground in their struggle to gain "full citizenship rights." And, Liberal pre-election machinations aside, they will continue to fight for legislation to protect them and guarantee those rights - so they won't be at the mercy of politicians' whims.
In other words, no more roller-coaster rides. You obviously agree, Mr. Martin.
"Administrative" Changes to the Federal Government Unfair to Taxpayers
Ottawa - Unknown to most Canadians, there's a quiet revolution happening on Parliament Hill. This low-profile upheaval is being conducted largely behind-closed-doors - far from public scrutiny and debate. But several revealing details can be found in a recently released Treasury Board document: "Getting Government Right."
This crucial government report - written in perfect bureaucratese - deserves serious attention, but I'd like to preface my own analysis with a slightly mischievous suggestion for a more accurate title. To my mind, the document should be called: "Getting Right (as in right-wing) Government." Read on and judge for yourself.
To provide some background for the bureaucratic prose I'm about to share with you, here are some pertinent statistics:
- last year, the Auditor-General reported that 30 million calls to federal departments and agencies go unanswered annually
- the federal government is in the process of cutting 55,000 public servants from its 210,000 workforce
- it has been estimated that Canadians pay more than $23 billion a year in user fees
Keep these in mind as I walk you through the Treasury Board report. And, more important, think of your own experiences over the past few years in terms of government services, costs, and attitude. After all, you, the taxpayer, foot the federal bills. You should be fully aware of what bangs you are getting (or not getting) for your bucks.
"Getting Government Right" begins with a letter from the Board's president, Marcel Masse, who waxes eloquent about the "profound change in Canadian government" which began in 1993 when the Liberals "started restructuring our administrative systems", "taking control of government spending", and "linking performance to results and accountability."
Masse concludes: "Day by day, we are modernizing the structures of government so that we will have an administration ready to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century." (Is he referring to globalization, that convenient scapegoat which is forcing us all to lower our standards and expectations?)
The report's introduction points out that by 1998-99 the percentage of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) needed to fund federal government programs will be as low as it was in 1949-50. This fact obviously thrills Treasury Board, even though anyone familiar with history knows that there were many tragic reasons (desperate poverty among seniors, for example) that lead to the introduction of social programs and an increase in federal spending.
Further on, the report refers to "the Program Review ... and the new management philosophy inherent in it ..." Indeed, over the past few years, this omnipresent Program Review has exposed all government services and activities to six key questions - ranging from whether they are affordable to whether they should be "realigned with the provinces" or "delivered in partnership with the private or voluntary sector."
According to Treasury Board: "This review led to far-reaching changes in every corner of government activity. These changes will affect the structure of the Canadian economy and society ..." For example, the document points out that, after examining government operations in the area of transportation, the Liberals decided to "privatize CN, transfer airports to local operating authorities, commercialize the St. Lawrence Seaway and transfer air navigation services to a new non-profit company."
These are truly major changes in a country built on the belief that a co-ordinated publicly-run transportation network was in the national interest. But, evidently, fiscal concerns come first, and such high-minded concepts rarely survive the "review."
Indeed, under the new regime, the bottom-line, fiscal management, and "business planning" are behind most of the changes, and new approaches such as "cost recovery" (or user fees) and Alternative Service Delivery play important roles. The report points out that "cost recovery" has been implemented in part to make it "easier for departments to eliminate over-consumption of 'free' goods and to reduce pressures for continued expansion of 'free' services." (This makes citizens - or as the government now prefers to call us "clients" - sound like a bunch of 'free'-loaders, doesn't it?)
"Cost recovery" has or will have an influence on almost every area of government from Revenue Canada to the Coast Guard to food inspection. Clients now pay for services that were once considered part of their rights as taxpayers. Not surprisingly, this new commercialization is the beginning of the end for some government activities. In the area of food inspection, many businesses are pushing the idea of self-monitoring in order to avoid the new user fees. There is a bill before the Senate that will make this kind of "partnering" possible. (Sounds scary!)
A recent government announcement offers another clear example of Alternative Service Delivery. The Office of the Superintendent of Bankruptcy has been replaced by what is called a Special Operating Agency, and the Superintendent is now a Chief Executive Officer. The Agency is expected to be "more business-like, more client-oriented and accountable for attaining measurable results." In other words, making money.
All in all, this "administrative" revolution isn't a lot of fun for taxpayers. It's a bit like paying for an all-inclusive hotel and then being charged for most of the programs and activities. I think - I know - Canadians are willing to pay a little extra up front for services and convenience, but they don't like being charged twice.
"Getting Right Government" isn't fair.
Endless debate over our health care might help bring about its demise
OTTAWA - Even though it has become a popular national pastime, I find it difficult to discuss the future of Medicare. In fact, the mere mention of our enviable, world-class health care system makes me shudder. It seems the more we discuss changes to the system, the more prepared we are mentally to accept them. At a certain point, they seem inevitable - a natural result of all that talk.
I have also come to the conclusion that the endless consultations and inquiries into Medicare have managed to open the door wider for phrases such as "user fees", "two-tier" and "delisted" - allowing them to slip dangerously into our national vocabulary and psyche. Once there, they are no longer alien and threatening and, again, take on a quality of inevitability.
At the same time, those who protest the loudest about saving the system are often inflicting the most damage. For example, after harsh cuts to the provinces for health care and other programs, the federal government is conducting the final round of its public consultations "on Canada's health and health care system." It will be holding two conferences and querying Canadians by phone, all couched in nice words about reforming the system "while preserving the core values and principles upon which it is founded."
We shouldn't forget that just a few years ago, all our social programs were considered "sacred" by even the most conservative of political leaders and opinion-makers. The very idea of a "two-tier" health system was outrageous and un-Canadian. Now, after endless harangues about the deficit and numerous tales of health-care shortfalls (waiting lists, bed shortages), the concept of one private health-care system for the rich and another for the rest of us is being discussed openly. The leap is awesome.
This stunning evolution in public opinion came to mind when I read the "Federal Government Report Card" put out by The Fraser Institute recently. The right-wing think tank gave the Liberals a "D" grade in health policy because they continue to uphold "the flawed Canada Health Act." It calls for the "repeal" of the Act, which is the basis - the heart and soul - of Medicare.
When I read this statement, I realized once and for all that nothing is "sacred" in Canada in 1996. The Canada Health Act guarantees Canadians access to public health care no matter where they live in the country. It also stresses that the system must be publicly, not privately, administered. The Fraser Institute wants to bring an end to this, something unthinkable two or three years ago.
Ironically, after reading the Institute's Report Card, I received a magazine produced by the left-leaning Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, which featured an article on the US health care system. It provided a frightening overview of where we are headed if we don't stop doubting the value of what we have.
The U.S. for-profit health care and insurance system, which leaves about 40 million people with no coverage, actually costs the country much more than our hotly-debated system. In fact, the US spends a larger share of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on health care than any other nation - about $1,0006 trillion in 1994, according to the US Department of Commerce!
Even more shocking, the US system is so riddled with corruption that the FBI has assigned 350 agents to its health-care fraud investigations unit. It is estimated that false bills and other violations by health-care companies cost about $100 billion a year. A lot of money. At the same time, the country's "bloated" private health insurance industry adds million of dollars in administrative costs. And, those who think some of Canada's doctors are overpaid should look at the high executive salaries and profits of health-care companies.
The article pointed out that Britain is "currently the principle focus of global expansion by the US health-care firms," but Canada and other countries are "also in their line of fire." If this is the case, it appears we need protective legislation - especially the Canada Health Act - more than ever before. More important, we need a genuine commitment to and understanding of our system in order to fend off those who would destroy it - both from within and outside the country.
There's a line that goes something like: "It doesn't matter what they say as long as they're talking about you." I certainly don't think this applies to social programs, including Medicare. In their case, the less said the better because recent history shows that debate (as it is constituted in this country) usually signals the end of the road. Let's have a moratorium on all this talk. I promise not to use the phrase "two-tier" ever again if you won't.
Chretien Housing Policy Offers Cold Comfort
Ottawa - One advantage of this increasingly small world we live in is that we can compare our Canadian experiences with those in other countries. This can be gratifying and enlightening - but it can also be humiliating and downright depressing.
I witnessed the latter at a tri-country conference on housing held here recently. As an observer, I soon became aware of a pervading sense of gloom among the Canadian delegates. They were walking around, being consoled by American and British
delegates, as if they had each lost a close friend. In a way, they had.
Without fanfare and despite Liberal Red Book promises, the federal government has cut all funding for public housing in this country (except on Native reserves). In the name of decentralization, it is handing over responsibility for sheltering needy citizens in this cold vast land to the provinces and territories. Canada now has the very dubious distinction of being the only OECD country with no central housing policy.
No wonder the Canadians were glum.
We are not entirely alone. I talked to representatives of post-Thatcher England who told me frightening stories of the whittling down of "council" housing in that country. Government subsidies are slashed and rents have doubled; the national building program manages to construct only 60,000 homes a year, compared to the 200,000 needed, and housing stocks are crumbling with age.
That sounds tough and we've all heard stories of London squatters and Brixton riots, but - unlike Canada - the government is still helping to provide desperately needed homes and subsidizing rents through its Housing Benefit program.
In the U.S., funding for the federal department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has been cut drastically and there are horrendous social problems in inner-city ghettos, but at least Washington has a Low Income Tax Credit Program, allowing corporations to write-off investments in non-profit housing.
When it comes to new non-profit housing, Canada has nothing on the national level - no funding, no rent subsidies, no tax credits, no programs. Provinces and municipalities must fend for themselves in the area of shelter while their federal transfer payments for health, education, and welfare are being slashed. (The federal government is still passing along about $2 billion annually to meet existing commitments in housing maintenance funds, but this will dwindle over time.)
There is something else this country is losing with the federal government's exit from public housing: its international reputation. As one British delegate told me, "We used to look across and ask 'Why don't we do it like the Canadians do it?' because before you lost your housing money, you seemed to be getting it right." Yes, indeed. Canada was known as a world leader in innovative and sensitive non-profit housing development.
In 1973, after a few unhappy experiences with ghetto-like projects in some cities, the federal government revised the National Housing Act. The changes led to the formation of community-based housing groups, which began to build and manage smaller, mixed-income projects.
Now, these community groups are struggling to survive or have disappeared and the country is losing many years' worth of housing ideas, experience, and expertise. (In Quebec and British Columbia where there is still government support, this is not the case.) Once these dedicated souls are gone, who will be left to lobby for and create homes for the needy? Certainly not Ottawa, most provincial governments, or the private sector. (There is little profit to be made from desperately poor tenants.)
But it's not just the needy who will suffer from short-sighted actions on the housing front. Far from the public eye, politicians and bureaucrats are remodelling the Canada Mortage and Housing Corporation (CMHC). Since the 1950s, the CMHC has enabled Canadians in all parts of the country to buy homes by making mortgage insurance more easily available. Now this service is being "commercialized" to compete with the new mortgage insurance giant on the block, GE Capital (as in General Electric).
Now that a large U.S. multinational wants to back Canadian homebuyers for a profit will CMHC have to cut its own risks in order to survive in the marketplace? Does that mean that higher-risk buyers in certain regions will suffer over time because they are not bottom-line friendly? It appears that another universal (for all homebuyers) government program is being sacrificed on the "free market" alter.
The Liberal government's hands-off position on housing is particularly difficult to accept when compared to the words and actions of Canadian officials on the international stage. At the United Nations' Habitat II conference earlier this year, Canada played an active role in reaffirming the concept that housing is a basic human right. It also supported the idea that governments are obligated - yes, obligated - to ensure that their citizens have adequate shelter.
Should homeless Canadians and those living in sub-standard housing - not to mention those unhappy conference delegates - take heart knowing the federal government has told the world it cares? As winter approaches, that's mighty cold comfort.
Revamping Canada: Shouldn't We Be Consulted?
Ottawa - My neighbour John, a hard-working criminal lawyer, arrived home recently with a strained look on his face. "Legal aid is dead," he muttered glumly. "Is it too late for me to become a gym teacher?" He then retreated to the privacy of his home, leaving his wife, children, and friends sitting in the backyard wondering what had happened. The answer was simple. John had become a statistic.
He is one more Canadian whose career, job security, and way of life are being sacrificed on the alter of federal and provincial spending cuts - and governments' retreat from the realm of public services. He has joined a growing number of Canadians being laid-off, demoted, replaced, retired, or squeezed in the name of deficit reduction, privatization, commercialization, and keeping the stock markets happy.
In my neighbour's case, Premier Mike Harris of Ontario put a cap on legal aid funding and, therefore, on John's salary as a legal aid lawyer. But there are many, many other, more desperate examples of people, employed directly or indirectly by the government, who have a job and decent income one day - and nothing but insecurity and uncertainty the next.
At the same time, the public and community services these people worked hard to provide are no longer available to the rest of us. Is this any way to fix a country?
Take the month of August - a mere thirty-one days - as an example of how fast change is occurring. While Canadians were swimming, boating, getting married, and generally enjoying the almost-perfect summer weather, the federal government was busy transforming the way this country is run and the services we've all come to expect and depend on.
A quick perusal of the press releases and news stories I collected over this period tells a story of job loss, reduced government responsibility, new or increased user fees, health and safety concerns, and, in some cases, threats to whole communities.
August began with a press conference by the Public Service Alliance of Canada, which represents many of the thousands of people directly affected by public sector downsizing and revamping. The press conference concerned the reduction of firefighters at the MacDonald-Cartier Airport in Ottawa. The reduction is part of the National Airports Policy introduced last year, which calls for the elimination of 150 firefighters across the country in the next two years. Union officials called it "a serious threat to passengers' safety."
Getting rid of fire-fighters was just the beginning. The federal government soon followed with announcements that it would de-staff and computerize 18 lighthouses, replace fully-staffed weather offices with automated weather systems and messages, and close down Canada Employment Centres in many communities, installing automated kiosks instead. Bold action taken while we basked in the sun!
"This latest move by the Liberals destroys any national standard of service for Canadians," said a representative of the people working in the Employment Centres.
A few days later, Ottawa announced it was cutting funding for three passenger rail lines, considered uneconomic, in Ontario, Quebec, and Labrador, thus threatening the viability of several remote communities. (One line has already been sold to an American transportation company.)
This was followed by a story about the Canadian coast guard, which oversees the country's marine safety system, being chopped by $100 million - at a time when marine deaths on the West Coast have doubled over two years. Public hearings regarding the cuts revealed that people from Newfoundland to B.C. felt there was no room for a further diminishing of services. Deputy coast guard commissioner Michael Turner responded by saying: "We're going to have to make some tough choices as to where we're going to cut costs." He also mentioned user fees.
In mid-August, I clipped out a story on the federal government's plan to deregulate the grain transportation system on the prairies. It quoted studies done by an Ottawa-based group which concluded that a less (government) regulated rail system would result in thousands of kilometres of abandoned rail lines, a weakening of the grain elevator system, lost jobs, and shrinking towns, as well as increased truck traffic and pollution. "There is a social and human cost to our policy discussions," said one union representative.
Another "government-in-retreat" news story also caught my eye that week: Federal funding for the Saint John, NB, to Digby, NS, ferry is being cut - about 40 per cent of its budget.
Marine Atlantic, which runs the ferry, has been told the service must pay its own way within two years. That means some of the 222 employees will have to go; service will be reduced, and prices possibly hiked. All of which will affect local economies.
Federal Transport Minister Doug Young made it clear that the ferry's funding was being cut in the name of commercialization, but the regional general manager of Marine Atlantic couldn't hide his frustration: "I keep asking 'What does commercialization mean, what does it mean?' But nobody seems to have an answer."
What does it mean? Not just for the people who work and use the Saint John to Digby ferry, but for the rest of us. Will the automation of our lighthouses, Employment Centres, and weather stations make a difference to our lives? Or the closing of yet more rail lines? Should we cut the coast guard? How many fire-fighters do we actually need at our increasingly busy, urban airports? Can and should the value of these services be based on the bottom-line only?
These questions and others aren't being asked loudly enough in the public domain. They affect our lives and the future of the large, sprawling community we call Canada. We spent decades building this country - from remote rail lines to busy airports. We owe it to the builders to tread carefully and thoughtfully when making changes.
And let's not leave people, like my neighbour John, sitting at home alone wondering what happened to the life and career they planned. It's time we had a much more open debate about the future of all of our government services and developed a more democratic, less ad hoc way of taking them into the 21st century. They are OUR services, after all.
We All Have a Stake in Social Reform Debate
Ottawa - Most of us see the restructuring of our public services as an issue affecting civil servants and the poor - but its major impact will be on the lives of middle-class Canadians. It's time we realized what is happening, so we can do something about it - if we want to.
When Paul Martin boldly stated in his budget speech that government would no longer run things, if it didn't need to, what did that mean for the average taxpayer? Our public services are sometimes wasteful and inefficient, but do we really want to do without government-run hospitals, schools, roads, homes for the aged, post offices, and so on?
These are the services, which are at stake, not just welfare, in the government's reforms.
Take hospitals, for example. Medicare or no Medicare, they are already being referred to as "corporations". They are run by people with degrees in business administration or management, rather than a background in health services. These people are inclined to refer to cancer and other diseases as "product lines".
Often on the advice of highly-paid, US- based consultants, our hospitals are changing their requirements for the licensing, training, and accreditation of their workers, emphasizing the use of lower-paid, less-skilled, health-care staff. The so-called experts talk of "quality merchandising" while they toss out our once highly-respected health care professionals.
Homes for the Aged are going in the same direction - the bottom-line is supreme. Many are being run by managers who know little about health care. Registered Nurses are being replaced by Practical Nurses, previously known as nursing assistants. They are paid less while residents pay higher fees for a lower standard of care.
Phrases such as Total Quality Management, Continuous Quality Improvement, New Accountability Relationship, Customer Service Excellence, Attendance Management, and Universal Job Evaluation Plan are popular in the new, depersonalized and, supposedly, more efficient public-sector. However, when we need these services, many of the slogans could be translated into Pay More For Less.
I was shaken from my state of blissful ignorance about the future of all our public services when I attended a two-day workshop for women in public-sector jobs. They came from every province, from Penticton, British Columbia, to Gander, Newfoundland - nurses, librarians, janitors, ticket agents, correctional, postal, and welfare workers. They had stories to tell about the delivery of our services, which would make the average, sedate taxpayer's hair curl.
We're not just talking about cost and so-called efficiency. We are also talking about compromised public safety. Our prison system is being downgraded. Our once-professional correctional and parole officers are being replaced by volunteers and individuals on contract. That sounds good, but what does it mean in terms of security?
For one thing, the mishmash of workers - private, public, and volunteer - in the case of a riot could be dangerous. The non-professionals would just have to run for cover. What about us?
Our security should be in the hands of trained people, but that is becoming increasingly rare. The electronic monitoring system for parolees is now being handled by private companies. This means a company employee with little training and no real connection to the justice system must respond if a parolee goes missing. Is that something we want novices to deal with?
The New World Order can also be experienced in simpler, less threatening ways. It is creeping up on us so quietly that we hardly notice. At the workshop for public sector women, a librarian pointed out that she is no longer given the time to help the public and she missed the "personal contact" she once enjoyed in her job. She's right. You are pretty well on your own in the public library these days.
Throughout the two-day workshop, it become evident that there was something more at stake in the commercialization/privatization game than the way services are being delivered. A sense of national pride based on our public institutions is also being eroded.
A postal worker from Halifax mourned the loss of the Canada from Canada Post literature. She resented the use of the generic title of "Mail/Poste" and the corporate flag - described by some workers as "the shredded envelope" - that has replaced the Maple Leaf.
An Air Canada ticket agent felt the same about the de-Canadianization of that former national symbol. She pointed out that the new Air Canada uniforms, to be introduced next year, will be a teal green - not the red, white and blue, which made them so distinctly Canadian. She could only guess that the airline wanted to be more international.
It's a vicious circle. We pay taxes because we are proud of our national institutions. We pay taxes, so our trains are affordable and run on time, our mail is delivered to our door, and our roads aren't covered with potholes. When these services are eroded or sold off, we lose our desire to fund such things. With less funding, government services continue to deteriorate and disappear.
Sadly, any national debate over the health and future of our public services has been drowned out by the voices of those for and against welfare reform with some discussion of Medicare on the side. It's time we broadened the debate. The middle-class has a lot to lose.
Do We Really Want a Continental School System?
Ottawa - For a while now, we've been hearing concerns that Canada's health care system may become more pay-as-you-go and less fair - like the one in the United States. Well, there's more bad news. Our education system is facing the same threat.
As with health care, there are two ideologies vying for control over education - public and private. Most Canadians value our public education system because it is relatively open and accessible. However, there are those who would prefer a more tiered model of schooling - again as in the US with its private, ultra-expensive Ivy League universities.
Having read about certain directions our education system is taking, I have come to the conclusion that the pro-private, pro-US-model types are getting a leg up in this country. They are doing this by pushing us toward a continental education system. The rest of us don't even realize what is happening.
Consider a recent press release from the federal government. It announced that Canada will spend $1.5 million a year over the next three years to help develop joint projects between universities, colleges, and technical institutions here, in the US, and Mexico.
The initiative is entitled, "The Program for North American Mobility in Higher Education". It is designed to "strengthen cooperation in post-secondary education, training and internship".
In the release, Foreign Affairs Minister Andre Ouellet says: "The program will strengthen the human dimension of North American economic integration now taking place under the North American Free Trade Agreement." Human Resources Minister Lloyd Axworthy points out that the program will help students "as they prepare for work throughout North America."
On the surface, this looks good. Students from the three NAFTA countries - about 400 Canadian students from up to 60 Canadian institutions are expected to participate - will be expanding their educational horizons by taking part in a variety of learning projects. This is the age of globalization and broader experiences whether in or out of school are helpful. Who can argue against that?
But what is really going on in the name of greater student mobility? Have Canadians given their informed endorsement for the integration of North American educational systems?
To understand what is really going on, you have to know NAFTA. It is an enormous document, so it is not surprising most Canadians are unaware of the clauses pertaining to education and educators. (Government spokespeople couldn't answer my questions on the subject!)
The free trade agreement legally obliges Canada, the US, and Mexico to harmonize the standards of their professional workers - which means teachers, too. It calls for the "development of mutually acceptable professional standards and criteria", including "conduct and ethics, professional development and re-certification and scope of practice."
NAFTA requires those institutions responsible for standards in all three countries to provide recommendations to a commission set up under the agreement. The commission will review the recommendations and establish common standards - again for the three countries - "within a mutually agreed period." According to government officials, this process has not officially begun.
The trade agreement becomes more relevant - scary for some - when you consider that very influential groups are lobbying for increased integration of the three education systems. Have you ever heard of the Corporate-Higher Education Forum? It was formed in 1983 to "foster understanding and collaboration between Canada's business and academic communities."
The Forum has very powerful corporate members - Bombardier, Xerox Canada, Bell Canada, Imperial Oil and Hong Kong Bank of Canada to name a few. It has attracted the presidents of several universities across the country, as well as powerful business lobby groups, including the pro-free-trade Business Council on National Issues.
The Corporate-Higher Education Forum has close ties with its American counterpart, the Business-Higher Education Forum, which also has many large corporate members - Ford, AT&T, General Electric. Some of these heavyweight companies supported the efforts of former President George Bush to fund for-profit elementary schools. In other words, to challenge and diminish the public school system.
Over the past few years, representatives of North American government, business, and education have held meetings to promote the establishment of an "Academic Common Market in North America". There were no members of teachers' unions or parent groups at these meetings. It was strictly the top brass getting together making plans to change the system.
To my mind, this is a little too behind-closed-doors and exclusive. After all, the issue being discussed is the education of young Canadians (presumably all of them, not just a handful who will be able to attend elite institutions in this country, the US, or Mexico). The future of our school system should not be left to a handful of bureaucrats, university presidents, and corporate executives. We should all be let in on this debate.