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Brian Dijkema examines the holistic value of work, religion in a pluralist society, and why Quebec’s Bill 21 must be challenged

Podcast & Video

Today’s episode of Hub Dialogues features host Sean Speer in conversation with the Cardus Institute’s Brian Dijkema on his unique path to the world of think tanks, the future of trade unions, the non-material benefits of work, and Quebec’s Bill 21.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, Spotify, or YouTube. A transcript of the episode is available below.

Transcripts of our podcast episodes are not fully edited for grammar or spelling.

SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues. I’m your host, Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honoured to be joined today by Brian Dijkema, Vice President of External Affairs at the Cardus Institute, and author of dozens of articles and studies on a diverse range of issues including payday loans, the non-material benefits of work, and apprenticeships and the skilled trades. I’ve asked Brian to join me to talk about several topics, including his personal background, his interesting views on trade unionism, and his opposition to Quebec’s Bill 21. Thanks for joining me, Brian.

BRIAN DIJKEMA: Thanks for having me, Sean. I appreciate it.

SEAN SPEER: Let’s start with some personal background. Unlike some, you didn’t start your career as a think-tanker by memorizing Hayek and Friedman. You started by working for a trade union. How did you go from the world of labour relations to public policy? And how has that career trajectory shaped the way you think about different policy issues? 

BRIAN DIJKEMA: That’s a good question. I actually didn’t start my career reading Hayek and Friedman. But I did read them in university. And as I was doing graduate school, I had a sort of choice whether or not I could—I was contemplating going on doing further studies, and I decided I didn’t want to. I was involved with this trade union, called the CLAC, which is one of the larger independent trade unions in Canada.

I got started by actually working to get Cuban—they had an international program—and they were working to get Cuban trade unionists out of jail. And that’s how I got started; I started as an undergrad. I joined as a member and started doing that and lobbied as a student in one of those sort of activist roles, tried to get these Cuban trade unions out of jail, did some work on the Hill around that, and worked with different parties. One thing that I realized pretty quickly is that you can do your reading and reading really matters, and we’ll talk about that later.

But policy is about real people’s lives, right? The question of whether or not a trade union is allowed to exist apart from the state, or whether you should throw people into jail for joining a trade union affects real people’s lives. That the one fellow that I met, and that was able to bring out, his name was Pedro Pablo Alvarez Ramos, and I had a chance to talk to him and just talk about how difficult it was living in a country where you could not join with your fellow citizens to create a union. And that’s on that sort of big macro international level.

But I also found that to be true at the very basic level at somebody who is a PSW, working at a retirement home, or long-term care home. Often these were women, often they were immigrant women, and I saw the effects of public policy on their lives. I saw the effects of public policy on my ability as a trade union organizer to organize. I think that was it for me, it was a starting in the real world. 

You know, academics don’t like it when people say the real world. I don’t want to put them in opposition, but there was a very clear sense that policy shapes people’s lives on a daily basis. And my work in the trade union actually was probably the easiest way to transition back and forth between those.

SEAN SPEER: Another consequence of your unique background is that it’s led you to think and write extensively about the role of trade unions in the economy and our society. Why, in your view, Brian, are unions a crucial civil society institution? And what are they getting wrong these days that are precluding them from doing the important work that you think that they ought to do on behalf of their members? 

BRIAN DIJKEMA: I think unions are one example of how citizens get together, they organize voluntarily, use their agency to give themselves a voice in one of the arenas where we spend a lot of our time. Most people you know, if you do the math on—say you work an eight-hour workday or a 10-hour workday and you work five days a week, that’s a lot of time in your life. And a union is an organization that gives you the ability to actually have some agency in that community and that’s why I think they’re important, to be honest, I think. I come from the Christian social tradition. We’ll talk about that later.

I think it’s actually one that’s informed the liberal social tradition in Canada as well. But at the core of that is that the worker is a human agent capable of making choices for him or herself. I think that all too often in our workplaces, that agency of that worker is shunted aside. So, if you’re somebody who cares about human agency, if you’re somebody who understands the economy as a series of connected communities, the business corporation is not just a huge sort of utility function or anything like an actual community with real people, real individual human beings, then you’ve got to be interested in the ways in which those human beings have a voice or don’t have a voice, the way they influence questions of justice. Is everybody getting their due? Are they getting paid properly? Are disciplinary matters being dealt with our just way? 

I think that’s what makes me interested in trade unions. They’re unique manifestations of human beings organized to achieve an end together. I think one of the challenges, getting to the second part of your question, is that our system, the structure in which labour and capital are set up in North America, was built in hell. So, I go about, I say this a lot, right? We have a system that was adopted in 1945; William Lyon Mackenzie King was the architect of it. It was very different than some of his earlier work actually, on labour, which if we want to nerd out at some point later on, we can talk about that. But it was adopted from the Wagner Act in the United States, which was passed in the 1930s. So, the North American labour environment is one where you have the Americans adopting it in the midst of the Depression and the Canadians adopting it at the end of a World War. 

So, I say it’s basically built-in hell, but one of the assumptions of that is that there’s an antagonistic relationship between labour and capital. And that assumption is—well, A) it’s disputable, and I just say it’s not actually true. When you look at it, there is always going to be a difference between labour and capital, their differences are not going to perfectly align, or their interests are not going to always perfectly align. But I think we in North America, I think trade unions themselves, live too much into that adversarial relationship. That, like any other time you have any polarized debate, it spins the two off against each other, and they actually…it breeds a lot of suspicion and distrust. I think that’s true in North America, you can see that a lot of people don’t actually care for unions, but I don’t think that’s necessary. There are many other examples around the world where there’s a more collaborative approach built into the legal regime about labour. 

SEAN SPEER: We’ve been talking about trade unions so far, and you mentioned the importance of work in one’s life. I’d like to pursue that conversation a bit further. I know few people who’ve spent more time than you understanding the research and scholarship on both the financial and non-financial benefits of paid work. Setting aside the obvious financial upside of work for a minute, what does the research tell us, Brian, about the sense of meaning, purpose and self-actualization associated with work? 

BRIAN DIJKEMA: Yeah, I think it’s actually critical, and I think it’s generally understood, but probably not understood at the depth that it could. I mean, I think one of the best things about Canadian public policy, and here’s the sort of respect for our system that in Canada where you have parties on both sides coming to some sort of consensus, I think there is actually, in Canada, a consensus that pro-work policy is good. That we don’t—even among the left, for instance, where you typically associate with government programs—there aren’t a lot of people on the left who say, you know, “Let’s just pay people to not work.” I think what that’s getting at is it realizes that work is integral to being a human being, there’s this desire to create, there’s this desire to be part of something bigger than you to be part of a community that’s actually creating something socially good or socially useful.

There’s some debate around that. Friedman, for instance, just says, “The purpose of business is to maximize shareholder value.” And I’ve got some issues with the way he defines that. But there’s this drive in us to make something, to do something. And the data are pretty clear that when that drive is thwarted, or when there are barriers put in front of it, the results are bad. 

So, for instance, you see all kinds of studies where they do a study where they look at one population that has sort of had its jobs, or its employment, cut off. And they look at the health effects of it, for instance, and you see massive increases in heart attacks, massive increases in depression, massive increases in alcohol and substance abuse, massive increases in domestic abuse. You can see that it just wreaks havoc on people’s lives. And on the flip side, you see that for people who are employed, the benefits are huge, not only to their health, their well-being, to their ability to contribute to the community. It’s interesting. 

There’s a really interesting paper by a fellow who I wrote the paper with, his name is Morley Gunderson, who actually says that people who are working more actually tend to volunteer more as well. So, there are these broader community benefits that accrue to those who are employed, that go way beyond the financial. 

That’s not to discount the financial at all. Of course, the financial means that you can sponsor the hockey team or the soccer team or whatever you want to do as well and put bread on the table, sponsor the arts, etc. But there seems to be something even apart from the money that drives people to do that. You know, if I can just say briefly, I think there’s a lot of talk about women entering the workforce. I think that trend has largely been a good one. 

Some people are saying, “Well, it’s a necessity thing. People are being driven to do that because they can’t afford to live anymore.” And I’m like, well, no, actually, if you look at the data, women, just like anybody else, actually want to do things that are good and socially useful as well. And I think that that trend of increased labour force participation by women from the 1950s, and the earlier times when they weren’t there, it’s actually indicative of the fact that that’s an equal thing that goes across gender divides as well. So yeah, huge, hugely important.

SEAN SPEER: It’s probably worth emphasizing, Brian—I know it’s implicit in your answer, but it’s worth making it explicit—it is not to say that certain jobs don’t come with challenges, whether they’re physical or mental, or some other set of circumstances, and you’re not idealizing every job or occupational circumstance, but I think that the research says, on balance, is that work is a critical part of the kind of overall set of social activities that makes people feel what Arthur Brooks has called “needed.”

Maybe you can unpack that a bit. What’s Brooks’ crucial insight about this sense of neediness—and maybe to put it differently, the negative effects of people not feeling needed, both at the kind of individual level, but collectively, as we’ve seen, in various advanced economies around the world in recent years?

BRIAN DIJKEMA: That’s a great point. I’m going to start with your earliest bit, because you’re right, not all work is created equal, right? Slavery is unjust. You could say, “Well, you’re contributing something,” but you’re doing so in a situation that is profoundly and fundamentally unjust. I’m not saying, that that’s the type of work—after all, I am a trade unionist, right? My original job was to, you know, collectively bargain with people to ensure that their working conditions were just, so we’re assuming that. There’s a sort of spectrum of justice; you can get closer to it and get further away from it, and so on. Obviously, slavery would be on the far end of the unjust, but I think what you’re getting at Sean and I think what Brooks is alluding to, is the fact that human beings—this is the community stuff I was talking about earlier—human beings want to contribute to the world in some way. 

Morely and I in our paper, “Work is About More than Money”, talk about different worldviews or statements about that. There’s a liberal one, Adam Smith has some views on that, the Jewish tradition has some things to say about that, the Christian tradition, etc. But at the end of the day, we’re made to work. And one of the reasons we’re made to work—like, phenomenologically, if you look at it, people want to do something that is valued, and they want to be respected by somebody who is valued. Matthew Crawford, who has written some really good books—Shop Class as Soulcraft, he has another one called The World Beyond your Head—he talks about that sense of satisfaction that comes when your work is recognized by somebody whose opinion you respect. He talks a lot about electricians, for instance. If somebody were to say, “Oh, that’s a really nice job you did on that,” and that person has no clue what they’re talking about, you’re like, “Ah, you know, I’ll take that compliment or leave it.” But, you know, if an electrician says, “Well, the way you did that conduit was just perfect.” And I always I always think about this when I go to the GO station going under Burlington, there’s this perfect set of conduits, and I look at that, and I’m like, “Wow, that person absolutely knew what they were doing.” 

I think that sort of gets at the hint that we want to be recognized, we want to be validated. We want to do that in community with one another. When we talk about daily bread, there’s something satisfying about putting bread on the table for your family, whether you’re a man or woman or whether you’re making something useful that somebody says, “Yeah, that’s, that’s really good,” right? 

So, say you’re a fashion designer, or you’re an architect or you are working at Tim Hortons. There’s something beautiful about handing somebody over a cup of coffee and that person’s caffeine addiction is met for this day. There’s something very, very healthy about that. When that’s not there, what ends up happening is you actually see an estrangement from society and an estrangement from community. We’ve seen a little bit of that in this pandemic, as people have been laid off. I don’t know if it’s direct causally related, but certainly there have been an increase in drug deaths and so on. Angus Deaton talks about those terms of deaths of despair and so on. 

There are arguments over the extent to which that’s caused by lack of work or caused by other things. And those arguments are worth having. But I do think it’s notable that if you’re not able to fulfill that need, or if you’re not able to actually feel needed, you tend to despair. What was my purpose here, right? So that’s again, another example of that non-monetary, effective work.

SEAN SPEER: As you were talking, Brian, I was reminded of Adam Smith’s famous line in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, that we don’t just want to be loved, that we want to be lovely. By which he meant that we’re in search of that kind of affirmation by the people around us. So a thoughtful answer and thoughtful insights there.

Before we move off the topic of work, one final question. We’re interested in issues of public policy here at Hub Dialogues. If one accepts the view that work doesn’t just bring these financial benefits but this panoply of non-financial benefits, what are the public policy implications? How can we help those who are underrepresented in labour force, including, for instance, Canadians with disabilities, find and obtain work?

BRIAN DIJKEMA: I think it’s critical that all policy examines the effect it will have, particularly when it comes to things like income supports and things like the effect it will have on work. As I said earlier, there should be a pro-work bias built into our policies. I think largely, Sean, in the Canadian policy environment that, across the political spectrum, I think both the left and the right are pro-work. I also think it’s incumbent upon us to look at the fact that we can put barriers to work that may not be recognized when we first pass a policy. 

So, wanting to look at the unintended consequences of some of the policies we do, particularly when it comes to income supports—we’re actually doing a paper right now on people with disabilities. Hugely complicated, because disability runs from everything from schizophrenia to a sprained ankle, right? And so, this is hugely complicated. But one of the things we’re finding is that there are times when, at least in the Canadian environment, it appears to be that we’re both not providing the income supports to those who need it, and not providing the work to those who are able to work, or at least providing the ability to work. 

So, you’ve got that dual problem where you don’t have the income, nor do you even have the work. And I think, a policy environment that is biased towards work, and not in the sense of you have got to earn your right to get government stuff, but that is actually emerging out of this deeper understanding. The evidence of the humanity of work needs to be first and foremost. I think if we get into the deserving poor bit, evidence suggests that that doesn’t actually work very well. And we can talk about that. 

In economics, there’s a whole sort of literature on that. But if you’re looking at pro-work from the fact that it’s actually good for people, that actually has all kinds of other positive outcomes, health, social, etc., I think that’s where we’ve got to start and actually spend more time doing that. And again, I just want to say, shoutout to the whole Canadian policy community that’s actually largely in favour of that and I encourage us to continue to go down that path.

SEAN SPEER: Let’s shift gears a bit here. I want to take up something you raised earlier in the conversation, Brian. The Cardus Institute, as you mentioned, is an organization shaped by its Christian ethos. How, in an increasingly secular society, can we find room for those who are marked by an abiding religious faith to participate in the public square?

BRIAN DIJKEMA: See, that’s a great question. I’m going to say that there’s an assumption built into that, that the public square needs to find room for Christians or room for Muslims, that I think is faulty. I think in a democratic society, everybody gets a room or everybody should assume that everybody gets space, unless there are significant reasons to do otherwise. It’s interesting, the death of religion, and the death of religion in public spaces, has long been declared. 

But if you look at what sociologists actually say, the sort of secularization thesis, which is that as people get wealthier, religion becomes less and less important to them, is partially true in the sense that religion, organized religion is less the case. But you’re never going to get away from those deeper longings that people have, and everybody is shaped by those deeper longings, whether you spend the time thinking through them or not. 

I would say that in my case, I’m a Christian. I work with a lot of Jewish, Muslim, Bahá’í folks, as well. Sikhs, as well. We all come into the public square, with an understanding of how those longings are fulfilled, how we should interact with one another. Certainly, they’re not perfect. If you look at the history of Canada, the Church, for instance, has not always acted well. And in fact, many times it’s acted terribly and aided and abetted terrible things, including residential schools, for instance. But I also think that the solution or the antidote to some of those awful things can be found in those sorts of those deeper conceptions. If you ask yourself the question, “Should we have more or less charity in terms of the way we engage with one another in our debates?” You’re probably going to lean towards that we should have more. 

When you ask about what is charity, I think it sort of emerges out of some of these deeper traditions. I think they’ve got to be there. And I think impartially, you know, this is another thing that—you mentioned Tyler Cowen at the beginning: I don’t know what his faith background is. I think he’s a sort of like curious Agnostic. But I think you have to take seriously traditions that have 2000 years or more of reflecting on human nature and reflecting on the way we engage with one another. But if you try to shut that aside too quickly, I think it’s going to be a loss for everybody, including those who don’t share those beliefs. 

SEAN SPEER: Now, Brian, that answer reflects at some level your own personal optimism. I would note though that there are some religious writers and public intellectuals who’ve argued that the current environment is hostile to religious ideas and religious people and that the safest thing for people of faith to do is to effectively withdraw from the broader society. I think, for instance, of Rod Dreher’s best-selling book The Benedict Option. I’d be grateful for you to unpack in your mind why that presumption or tendency is wrong. 

BRIAN DIJKEMA: Okay, so I’m firstly going to say I’m actually not optimistic. My colleagues call me a golden lab, the type of dog that’s always excited and cheery, but I’m not actually optimistic. I think there have been, recently, some legal decisions that have been quite wrong. And I think that legal scholars who are not themselves religious have noted them as being wrong. I’m not really too sanguine about religious freedom in Canada; we’ll talk about Bill 21 later.

The sort of general acceptance of separating people based on their religious identity, and the lack of deep concern about that in a lot of places, doesn’t make me too sanguine, Sean. So, I’m actually not optimistic, but neither am I pessimistic. I think my friend Rod, might be a bit pessimistic in the sense that—but I don’t actually think he really is either…but let me just let me say a quote, and this is going to sound weird to your listeners, but it comes from somebody who’s actually religious and not just socially religious. 

There’s this quote from an English missionary named Leslie Newbigin, he says, “I’m neither optimistic nor pessimistic, Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.” And that’s true for me. The Christian is supposed to act with charity, no matter the circumstances. So, I’m not positive, not negative, I guess. I’m committed to a particular way of life and a particular way of being charitable and loving, regardless of whether people are my enemies or my friends. 

But if I can say something positive about Rod, I don’t think what Rod is encouraging people to do—although sometimes it seems that way, and certainly, sometimes you read that way—people to escape. I think there’s sort of tendencies of that and his thought in his book. But if you want to read him charitably, I think what he’s saying is, if you believe in a certain religious tradition that differs from a tradition that places individual autonomy overall and that seems to be increasingly requiring of the coercive power of the state to enforce that autonomy, if you have a different view of society, one that includes autonomy or values, as you know, as I said earlier, agency and human autonomy, those communities actually should spend more time exploring their own tradition, forming their children, forming themselves in ways so that when they encounter these hostilities, or they encounter these things, they can react in ways that are in line with their tradition, rather than vice versa. 

And I think in the States, for instance, because you go to the States and you ask yourself whether some of those who speak on behalf of Christianity are actually acting in line with what their own tradition teaches, then I think Rod’s book and its emphasis on formation over the long run, actually makes a lot more sense. So, you know, Cardus isn’t going to disappear, we’re not going to go retreat. I’m certainly not, even if Cardus were to disappear, and I don’t think any of my fellow Christian or Jewish or Sikh would.

You know, we had this thing with Cardus called Faith in Canada 150, celebrating the legacy of all faiths in Canada. And we had young people, they’re in their 20s, early 20s. And you didn’t get the impression that you know, those Bahá’í people, those Sikhs, those Jews, those Muslims were intent on sort of fading away into the background or retreating. They were actually quite open about their faith, their desire to serve the common good. And, so that’s my response to Rod. That’s my read of him, or at least my attempt to be charitable while reading him.

SEAN SPEER: You mentioned Quebec’s Bill 21, Brian, for which you’ve been an eloquent and passionate critic. Two questions, why do you oppose the bill? And why, in your view, should Canadians outside the province of Quebec express their opposition to the legislation?

BRIAN DIJKEMA: I suppose, on the deepest level, Sean, I oppose the Bill — now, I won’t say at the deepest level, but at one level that really matters to me — I oppose the Bill because it’s un-Canadian. It’s not Quebecois. So I’ll get to the deeper level in a minute. But, when I look at the sort of distinctness of Quebec society, and I think it is distinct, I think, obviously, the language, its history is different than other parts of English Canada, and so on. But what’s beautiful about it is that it’s distinct, in part because it is pluralist. 

Like, the deal that was struck with the Quebec Act, I think in 1774—some historian will correct the podcast, and I’ll be thankful for that—but the Quebec Act recognized in a British Empire that actually was deeply uniform with regard to religion, there’s an established Anglican religion at the time, was the first place of Catholic emancipation, it was the first place in which pluralism was baked into a constitutional order. That’s the very founding of Quebec, in some sense, that the pluralism is baked into that order, and that that pluralism got baked into our country’s order. So, pluralism, and Quebec first, then Canada second. 

So, when I see Quebec doing this, and working against pluralism, I say, “You guys, you’re working against your very nature.” I love Quebec, I want that the unique nature of Quebec to be present. And I think, also, now is getting on to a deeper level, Sean, there’s something deeply undemocratic about it in the sense that—so if I can say one thing, I actually think Legault is more correct than many liberal scholars and liberal thinkers in Canada think he is.

So Legault said the other day, somebody wearing a hijab to class is the same as wearing somebody wearing an “I support the Liberal Party of Canada”. Now, clearly, it’s different, and that one is partisan, and the other one is not, a hijab is not partisan. But he is getting at the fact that the hijab, insofar as it reflects somebody’s understanding of modesty, and somebody’s understanding of the proper interaction, and engagement with other people, does actually have something to say to the public. There’s an encounter that has to be had there. 

Now, you don’t have to agree with it. You know you don’t have to agree that the Christian crucifix is—could be like many rap stars and wear it with absolutely no meaning whatsoever, right? But there’s an encounter that has to be, you have to face it. And I think in that sense, Legault is correct. Where I think he’s wrong, is that Quebeckers can’t face it. I think Quebeckers are actually strong enough, competent enough to face it and to decide for themselves, whether they want that for their children. I think those children themselves could do so as well. So, in many senses, I think it’s a failure to properly encounter and engage. 

This is going to lose me some friends in Quebec, but I actually think it’s a sign of weakness. If you’re relying on the state to enforce something that your citizenry are well equipped to do in their own rights, make decisions about questions around modesty, and so on, I actually think it’s weak and it’s brittle, and it will actually have long-term negative effects that may accomplish exactly the type of thing that you’re trying to avoid. If you look at France, for instance, and its pockets of Islamism, and so on, I think there’s an extent to which they’re actually working against the desired end that they have, as stated.

SEAN SPEER: Do you want to just pick up my second question, Brian? Because I can hear those who disagree with you from Quebec say, “Well, setting aside your own views, this is a matter to be decided by Quebeckers for Quebeckers, and English Canada and those outside the province of Quebec shouldn’t have an opinion, or at least, shouldn’t have a reason to express opposition to a provincial decision.”

BRIAN DIJKEMA: So first of all, I would say it is actually for Quebeckers to decide. I think it’s critical for them. It’s their provincial law. It’s not an Ontario or a New Brunswick provincial law. So in that sense on the various sort of practical basis, it is a decision for Quebeckers. But we live in a democracy in this country. It’s a confederation of a variety of provinces. And, as I said, we sort of alluded to the fact that we’re all connected to one another in the workplace, and so on. 

The same thing is true for us politically, that we’re connected to one another. What happens in Quebec has implications for the rest of Canada, and for both good and ill. There are all kinds of good things that emerge out of Quebec that we can copy. There’s a sense in which the rest of Canada does have an interest in Quebec, in what’s going on in Quebec, just as they have an interest in what’s going on in our provinces where. This is the business of being a nation. 

Steve Paikin has this great biography of Robarts, the former Ontario premier. I think it’s called Public Triumph, Private Tragedy. Very sad story about the private side, but he talked about how Robarts understood that Quebec was deeply part of Canada and took an interest in that. And actually, his involvement with that led—at least one of the things that Palkin says—has actually helped contribute to a stronger Confederation.

I think that that’s true for us, too. We can disagree with one another. But I think it’s a huge problem if we’re going to stay hands-off and not have debates with one another about each other’s policies. I think it leads to greater estrangement, not greater integration. And I would say that that’s something we, as Canadians, should not get used to. I don’t want Quebec, nor do I want, you know, Newfoundland and Labrador to go about doing their own thing without concern for the rest of us. We’re tied together, we’re Canadians. The first thing was the Canadiens, right? And so, they were the first Canadians. I think, in that sense, Quebec is Canada. So that’s why I think we should have an interest in that.

SEAN SPEER: Today’s conversation has been with Brian Dijkema, Vice President of External Affairs at the Cardus Institute. Brian, thank you for joining us at Hub Dialogues to share your thoughts and insights on work, on the role of religious pluralism in our society, and of course, how to engage respectfully but directly on Quebec’s Bill 21. Thank you very much.

BRIAN DIJKEMA: Thanks for having me, Sean. It’s been a real pleasure.