In Search of a Just and Equal Canada

By Senator Douglas Roche, O.C.

An Address to "A Taste for Truth"
Edmonton City Hall
Friday, November 24th, 2000

On November 24th, 1989 all political parties in Canada's House of Commons vowed to eliminate child poverty by the year 2000. Since then Canada's galling problems of poverty and inequality have only increased.

Canada's economy is now two and a half-times larger today than 25 years ago. Despite economic expansion poverty levels have not only failed to decrease, they have risen. The poor are also increasingly concentrated into specific segments of our society -- accelerating the polarization among Canadians.

These figures are testament to a spectacular failure on the part of governments across Canada to provide full social and economic participation to all Canadians, threatening the social fabric of the country.

Canadian citizenship is based on the ongoing process of developing a community of shared values, shared challenges and equal opportunities, based on a sense of trust, hope and reciprocity. Canadian democracy demands that everyone have the same capacity for engaging in the decision processes that affect their own lives. These values are eroding, undermined by the apathy and loss of dignity which economic exclusion fosters.

The Senate of Canada's Standing Committee on Social Affairs' 1999 Report on Social Cohesion found that Canadians' faith in their political institutions has declined. The committee heard from many Canadians who no longer believe our political process can make a difference in their lives because powerful private interests increasingly dictate public policy decisions. We must build a sense of community and shared interest in Canada or else risk further splitting the nation along the lines of economic status, region, and social norms.

Current economic realities have made an increasing number of Canadians insecure over their livelihoods, making us focus less on our social bonds and a sense of reciprocity and more on ourselves as individuals. The major political parties are exploiting these divisions with their offers of tax cuts dominating the political agenda in the country.

With our society gripped by rising inequality, and when there are so many needs in Canada that are not being met, how can we afford tax cuts? The tax cuts currently baiting the Canadian electorate will only create more inequality and reap benefits on those who need it least. There is no ethical defense for tax cuts aimed at the "winners" of our economic expansion when it is leaving so many Canadians behind.

Tax cuts are not reflective of common interests or values in Canadian society. They will only serve to further erode the ethical foundation upon which our society is built by diminishing the role of social reinvestment. The legacy of the deficit-cutting 1990s has been a shredded social safety net, badly eroded public services and now the lack of any collective response to the critical needs that have arisen.

The Senate committee's Social Cohesion report found social solidarity and cooperation to be a societal project that transcends all the institutions in a society. Social cohesion is the ultimate common property, a resource from which we can all benefit if it exists. But it is far too easy to let the social fabric deteriorate as we each pursue our own short-term self-interest.

In April of this year I took part in a Forum on Society and the Economy on Parliament Hill, addressing the fundamental principles and values of social justice that should underlie economic and political decision-making. Some of the longed-for values cited were mutuality, community, human dignity and solidarity, and inclusion. As I listened to the voices of the poor on this day, one telling word reappeared - hope.

We must do more than hope, and demand that Canada's political process responds to the voices of the marginalized calling for social reinvestment and the building of a more inclusive foundation for the future development and well-being of all Canadians.