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Tara Henley: What happened to Canada?

Commentary

As 2024 begins to take shape, one reoccurring question I hear on the street and on my podcast is: What happened to Canada?

The question was posed to me after school libraries in Peel, a municipality west of Toronto, purged thousands of books published before 2008 in the name of “equity.” And it happened, many times, when the government froze the bank accounts of truckers protesting pandemic measures.

With each new development and each new conversation, I’ve been forced to wonder: What has happened to my country? How did we go from being a proudly pluralistic liberal democracy to a polarized nation that memory holes The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank and de-banks those who reject the party line? 

I never used to get asked about what happened to Canada.

We’ve long been viewed as a model country. But recently, the social fabric has frayed dramatically, and in a remarkably short period of time, with the culture wars apparent in Europe and the United States playing out here in extreme ways.

The next question on many people’s minds is: How did we get here?

A housing crisis

To understand Canada’s cultural and political decline, one must begin by looking at economics. It is significant that over the past decade or so, ordinary Canadians have been priced out of affordable housing. In Vancouver, where I grew up, home ownership is out of reach for all but the top earners, with one report showing that the minimum annual income needed to buy a house is $246,100. Rents have skyrocketed too, decoupled from local incomes. In Toronto, where I live, the median individual income is $39,200 a year, while the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $2,594 per month. 

This math clearly does not add up, and it generates a level of ambient desperation that’s as unhealthy for individuals as it is for society—particularly when combined with inflation, high food costs, and the rise of gig and contract labour, with more than a third of Canadians now precariously employed.

One in four Canadians report that meeting basic financial needs has been difficult, or very difficult, in the past year.

This struggle to make ends meet also contributes to our epidemic of social isolation, with many working long hours, leaving little time for friends, community, public service, arts and culture, or faith.

For obvious reasons, these conditions also impact Canadians’ ability to start a family, delaying the life cycle, and, at scale, contributing to a birth rate that’s been steadily declining since 2009, with our country now well below population replacement at 1.4 children per woman. (Statistics Canada has warned we are in danger of becoming a “lowest-low” fertility country, with a rapidly aging population that places stress on the labour market, health care, and pensions.) Behind such a statistic stand legions of lonely souls who were told growing up that if they worked hard and respected the law they could afford a decent life and a family if they wanted one.

It would be difficult to overstate just how much rage Millennial and Gen Z Canadians feel about the collapse of this social contract—and just how much resentment exists towards older generations, who failed to preserve it.

A powerful ideology

Enter identitarian moralism, often referred to as “woke” politics. 

During the same decade or so that housing affordability was tanking in Canada, an ideology arrived that took a radical posture on social issues while maintaining the economic status quo. 

This new line of thinking originated at elite American universities and spread to Canada through social media. It presents itself as leftist but eschews key leftist concepts such as class analysis, universalism, and the importance of free speech. Instead, it views politics through the lens of identity, focusing on equalizing outcomes between identity groups, as well as on problematizing language, criticizing social, cultural, and interpersonal norms, and building up a vast administrative class to advance such efforts.

Critically, it presents its ideas as moral imperatives, trading persuasion for campaigns of public shaming.

It is a political project that’s been widely embraced by economic elites in Canada, from individuals to corporate and governmental leaders, including Justin Trudeau. Though clearly well-intentioned in some instances, in practice it serves to assuage the guilt of the haves and to signal their virtue to the have-nots. (See the prevalence of Indigenous land acknowledgments at public events in Canada. This exercise makes participants look and feel good but does nothing to improve the living conditions of Indigenous people.)

Identitarian moralism, as it happens, has also appealed to a vocal and understandably pessimistic segment of the have-nots—chiefly a class of young, educated knowledge workers, whose economic prospects have markedly declined. As other writers have pointed out in the past, this ethos provides a low-effort outlet for feelings of powerlessness. The causes of Canada’s decline are multifold, complex, and difficult to address. Calling someone a bigot online is relatively easy.

People participate in the Trans Pride March in Toronto on Friday July 1 , 2016. Eduardo Lima/The Canadian Press.
A failing media and intellectual class

A robust media might have played a critical role in analyzing these developments, airing out debates on solutions, and giving voice to those shut out of the Canadian Dream.

But during this same period, as in many other countries, our media has been in freefall, with the advertising business model collapsing. In response, our government has implemented high-profile, aggressive interventions into the industry, awarding millions in press subsidies that have both failed to stem the tide of outlet closures and have likely undermined public trust in the media. Add to that, Bill C-18 has resulted in Meta platforms like Facebook and Instagram dropping Canadian news, hampering the ability of digital start-ups to find an audience and further imperiling an already fragile media ecosystem. 

Our press corps faces mass layoffs and precarious employment—and is increasingly made up of those from financially privileged backgrounds, or else the aforementioned disillusioned knowledge workers. Both groups have largely adopted the identitarian ideology and its jargon (regardless of whether their outlet leans Left or Right), further alienating an already distrustful public. 

A creeping censoriousness, driven by social media mobs and amplified uncritically by our media, has only intensified this dynamic.

Against this backdrop of widespread fear over lost reputations and livelihoods, it’s hardly surprising that Canada’s intellectual class has failed to push back. Who could wonder that the literary community, for instance—made up of writers whose average annual income hovers somewhere around $10,000—has remained largely silent, with few speaking up to defend freedom of expression.

All of this is why the pandemic proved so utterly explosive. Canada’s answer to this once-in-a-century crisis was public policy that exacerbated these underlying tensions. Long lockdowns and school closures polarized society even further, protecting, and even enriching, the well-off and those able to work from home, while driving the rest to desperation.

An unidentified demonstrator is taken away in handcuffs by members of the Parliamentary Protective Service on Parliament Hill, as protesters mark the one year anniversary of the Freedom Convoy in Ottawa, on Saturday, Jan. 28, 2023. Justin Tang/The Canadian Press.
A national crisis sparks a polarization spiral

It was into this combustible moment that Justin Trudeau—already perceived by many as privileged and out of touch with working Canadians—stepped in to trigger an election in the fall of 2021, making vaccine mandates a wedge issue, pathologizing a number of unvaccinated Canadians as racists and misogynists, and, when truckers took over the capital, deploying the Emergencies Act, originally intended for wartime, against them. 

It was a political calculation that had devastating social consequences, ripping communities and even families apart.

During this charged moment—as Lean Out predicted in early 2022—Canadian society transitioned from a tense society to a high-conflict one.

Investigative journalist Amanda Ripley, author of High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Outdefines the phenomenon as “an us-versus-them conflict that seems to have a life of its own. Where the facts stop mattering very much and it becomes all about the fear of the other side.” In high-conflict societies, the discourse gets simplified, and “the complexity of real life and real problems gets crystallized and gets spliced in half…There’s good versus evil.”

We are now seeing such polarization play out throughout Canadian society, most recently around the Israel/Hamas war.

In high conflict, the polarization spirals as each side reacts to the loudest and most outrageous actors on the opposing side, and ratchets up rhetoric accordingly. Thus, the culture comes to be defined by the most extreme voices on the margins, while the Exhausted Majority checks out.

Interrupting this spiral is extremely difficult, as the conflict is magnetic. And each fresh outrage serves to amplify this magnetism.

But understanding the dynamics of polarization can help us to resist the spiral, and to break out of binary thinking by complicating dominant narratives. It can also help us to take a step back from news and politics, and to focus on more life-affirming and energizing pursuits, like family or hobbies.

Then, with a fresh perspective and renewed optimism, we can return to debates armed with a curiosity about the primary social dysfunction that made polarization possible in the first place, namely economic inequality.

That is the work for 2024—for all of us, journalists and citizens alike.

‘We’re either a free-market economy or we’re not’: The best comments from Hub readers this week

Commentary

This past week saw Hub readers focus on the different issues and current events related to the state of Canada’s economy and other high-profile topics, including what a federal regime change would mean for businesses, Canada’s economic future, the CBC lacking a proper mandate, how Trudeau’s economic agenda is failing Canada, and the need for nuclear power in the country.

The goal of Hub Forum is to bring the impressive knowledge and experience of The Hub community to the fore and to foster open dialogue and the competition of differing ideas in a respectful and productive manner. Here are some of the most interesting comments from this past week.

Sign up for our daily Hub Forum email newsletter today.

Poilievre’s unpredictable flirtation with labour

Monday, January 15, 2024

“A day of reckoning is desperately needed for corporate Canada. They can’t keep having it both ways. We’re either a free-market economy or we’re not.”

RJKWells

Canada’s economic future is looking grim—especially when compared to the U.S.

Tuesday, January 16, 2024

“As long as the Trudeau government keeps putting up roadblocks to development and increasing taxes on almost everything we need to run a business, there will be a very grim future for Canada.”

— Daryl Watt

“A good indicator is American manufactured food products disappearing from Canadian shelves as manufacturers from the USA find they cannot make a profit after shipping costs, ie Kleenex, Skippy peanut butter, some cereals. Shipping costs of all products around the world will double and triple. We ain’t seen nothing yet, as they say!”

Paul Crawford

“Today’s article on Canada’s economic future presents in my view an accurate assessment of Canada’s past economic performance and future challenges. I agree we have to focus far more on per capita GDP growth than national GDP growth.

The federal government has mismanaged the controls on the influx of people into Canada which is noted in a report from the National Bank which was reported in the Globe and Mail (business section) in two articles on January 16. Our immigration system was broadly supported by most Canadians; however, the influx of foreign students and individuals on temporary work permits was not properly considered by the federal government despite concerns raised by the civil service in 2022.”

Mark S

Enough with committees and consultations. The CBC needs a mandate with teeth

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

“The CBC caters to an ever-shrinking audience, but many Canadians consider it to be fundamental to maintaining the Canadian identity. Make CBC a subscription-based service and stop the government funding. Those who watch it or claim it’s still an important, relevant institution can directly support it. The rest of us can continue to ignore it, knowing that it is not consuming government funds that would be much better allocated elsewhere.”

Martin Davidson

“I’m an 82-year-old senior who has listened to CBC Radio, while watching CBC TV less so, for 60-plus years. For me, Radio One and Two are essential to all Canadians from coast to coast to coast and inland. It is a vital link for our nation, supporting the population as well as the regional communities small and large that need to feel they are part of the whole. It’s essential for a multi-lingual, multi-ethnic, and multicultural population. One major deficiency is the almost tepid lack of a reminder that we are a bilingual country. Radio Canada is unique but the broadband CBC radio #1 and #2 doesn’t weave the French fabric into our national conscious mindset.”

Mike Slinger

“Journalism is composed of various degrees of fact gathering (relevant data), analysis (connections), and opinion (conclusions). Bias becomes a bigger and bigger factor as one moves from facts to opinion. Even if just limited to fact-based reporting, the selection, ordering, and wording of undisputed facts is an activity infected with bias.

The best antidote to inevitable bias is the diversity of good faith thought in a news organization. That is, professional journalists with diverse acknowledged default perspectives (e.g. conservative or progressive) doing their best to be on guard for their inevitable biases.”

Paul Attics

“The CBC still has a place on the Canadian airwaves, but in a scaled-down format. I could accept a reduced CBC that separates Radio Canada as a separate corporation, maintains the Northern services, and maintains most radio and podcast services.”

Dennis Denney

“I don’t own a television, never have, so I cannot comment on that part of the CBC. I do use CBC Radio One sometimes. Not nearly as much as I did 25 years ago. Their programming has become less interesting. Maybe because I am getting too old. Maybe because they lack funding. Maybe they are producing less interesting content. I was once a very staunch defender of the CBC Radio, but now I can almost envision not having it anymore. Almost. It isn’t a desirable future but liveable. Canada would suffer culturally without the CBC, but has been suffering culturally anyway.”

Paul

Trudeau’s empty-calories economic agenda is failing Canada

Thursday, January 18, 2024

“The decision to not align people-coming-in (immigration, students, temporary workers) with the current infrastructure and resources (health care, schools, housing) is a massive and ongoing failure of management on the leadership that controls the flow: the current federal government.”

Paul Attics

A view of the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant at Ishwardi in Pabna, Bangladesh, Wednesday, Oct.4, 2023. Mahmud Hossain Opu/AP Photo.
Canada needs reliable nuclear power now more than ever—just ask Alberta

Friday, January 19, 2024

“This new partnership for developing small nuclear power generation is a welcoming development for sure—albeit long overdue in IMHO. That said, it is hardly the solution to Alberta’s current problem. The lead times for even small nuclear are long and could face the same pushback from the NIMBY syndrome. Frankly, the real solution is to expand natural gas power generation, a resource that is both plentiful and inexpensive and produces power that is far more reliable and far cheaper than either wind or solar (and I might add with less full-cycle environmental costs).

Instead, our federal government is pushing this ‘net zero’ policy which is at best an ill-conceived policy and at worst a policy driven by an eco-ideology. Either way, Canadians will pay and we will reap little or no benefits—not even all these jobs of which Minister Freeland speaks.”

— Stephen McClellan

“Alberta is a red herring. Power is a provincial jurisdiction and, as Premier Smith says, let the feds stay in their own lane. Alberta has kicked the issue of power down the road for a long time. The failure of the grid is on Smith, not the feds. No other Western province is in the same situation as Alberta. Alberta put all its eggs in one basket, fossil fuel, it paused renewables, and when the plant went off grid and the weather turned very cold, Albertans were left in the cold. Smith’s passion, like Poilievre, for blaming everything on the feds, is an abdication of her duty to Albertans.”

A. Chezzi