Old questions can lead to new vision of Canada

The Conservatives, free from the constraints of minority government, made up for lost time.  They chose to build and fill prisons when seniors and children need care. They chose to abolish the gun registry over pleas for safety.  In Attawapiskat, they chose to audit books rather than provide shelter.  They chose corporate tax cuts over job creation – again.  I was there to say “yay” to the amendments that failed and “nay” to the bills that passed – all of them.  Discouraged?  No.

Federal politics in 2011 was ugly to be sure.  Because you can’t tell the smile from the sneer, and because it is practised with such a controlled malevolence, it’s unsettling.  But it is worth remembering that much the same and sometimes worse – as the Conservatives remind the Liberals frequently – came from a government with a smile on its face.  So for me, it’s never been about a single year or single government – or its demeanour.  It’s about where we’re trending.

Nobody has commented on the most disturbing trend that has swept advanced democracies – the re-emergence of private affluence and public squalor – as profoundly as Tony Judt in his book Ill Fares the Land. Were he still alive, I think he would have greeted Occupy with a certain equanimity.  Certainly, he anticipated the criticism – the failure to communicate – leveled their way: “Our disability is discursive: we simply do not know how to talk about these things any more.”  His book is really a plea to revive the age-old and important political questions, such as: What is fair?  What is just?  So long has material self-interest been our collective purpose that we have stopped asking – much less answering – these questions, he argues.

For all its limitations, Occupy did pose the questions and it is hoped a new conversation has been started, however haltingly.  For there is an urgency for change.  Donna and I, as we and many others have done for years, delivered food and presents as part of Centre 55’s Share -A-Christmas program this past year.  The bewildered old man wandering the hallway in his underwear is enough to confirm that the ills that follow disparity are well-entrenched.  There are too many without care and alone when they need care and company.

What Judt describes and Occupy points to was recently quantified: Canada has the seventh greatest level of income disparity amongst 29 advanced countries.  The richest 1% of Canadians saw their share of total income increase by 65 percent from 1980 to 2007 and the richest 0.1% of Canadians saw their total income more than double over the same period as we took down the very barriers we had once erected to offset income disparity.

And it is in the cities across this country where what Judt calls our “collective impoverishment” is most evident.  Over this period, 40% of Toronto’s neighbourhoods – including large swaths of Beaches/East York – had their average incomes decline by more than 20%.  Left unchecked, that decline will spread to 60% of Toronto’s neighbourhoods by 2025.

Curiously, perhaps, it is in the knowledge of where we have been and where we are trending that we can find hope for 2012 and beyond.   It releases us from the futile and discouraging search for answers in the same impoverished politics and urges us to rediscover some things old and imagine some things anew.  Not radical.  Not necessarily transformative.  Just something in accord with our instincts of what a better, more generous, more prosperous Canada should look like.  As Judt suggests, if we start with the age-old political questions, we’ll end up in a better place.


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