When the Past Can’t Escape the Present

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TODAY THE LONDON FOOD BANK LAUNCHES its 29th Spring Food Drive amid growing doubts concerning this country’s resolve to take poverty, and those mired within it, seriously. Dr. Jason Gilliland, professor from Western University will report at the press conference that poverty and hunger have now become entrenched, not only in our city, but in numerous communities across the country.

This is a difficult spot to arrive at for Canadians, for it effectively moves poverty from being a serious issue to tackle to a permanent class of individuals and families. Effectively, we appear to be coming to an end of what American author E. J. Dionne Jr. calls “the Long Consensus” –  an era where governments from all jurisdictions legally came together to join their forces to battle numerous challenges, including poverty.

In Canada, we call it federalism, which had its foundations established at the Quebec Conference in 1864. It became the basic legal and jurisdictional framework through which the federal government, provinces, territories, and communities interacted and shared resources with one another to face the challenges of such a large nation. Up until the last three decades its strengths were far greater than its weaknesses, resulting in Canada becoming a beacon to the world for the exquisite balance it achieved between social justice and the economy.

Recent years have witnessed the slow dissolution of these partnerships to where we have now reached the point where we are forced to admit that the great nation of Canada can no longer afford to end poverty.

The conditions of federalism were a promissory note to every Canadian. This note was a vow that every man, woman, and child in Canada would be guaranteed the attention of all three levels of government in regards to their welfare and potential. But instead of honoring that obligation, we have been given instead a bad cheque marked “insufficient funds.” This has transcended political ideologies and, because of that reality, every government has failed in the past 30 years to one degree or another.

Author Richard Hofstadtr observed that, “memory is the thread of personal identity, history of public identity.” If that’s the case, then Canada’s rich history is slowly disappearing through a kind of collective dementia. What we built together we are now watching being undone.

Yet all this is transpiring when the wealth generated in Canada has risen remarkably in that same period of time, thanks in part to new information technologies and global reach that now means most of the profits from that growth have gone to a small percentage at the top of income distribution. The result has been financial inequality that has reached troubling levels. It begs a fair question: Why have we – governments, bureaucrats, citizens, media – been unwilling or unable to halt the growth of inequality or to use an increasing amount of that generated wealth for the common good?

The growth of the global economy no longer means opportunity, but “downsizing,” re-engineered jobs. Yet through all this there has been little public protest about the changing power structures of the economic architecture.

The failure of the governors and the governed to protect the responsibilities of federalism, instead leaving us to the fluctuations of the markets, has mean that instead of “opportunity” we have “austerity,” and a re-engineered workplace that functions ultimately for the benefit of those already with great wealth.

Instead of watching over the precarious nature of Canadian federalism, a tendency has grown over many years that caused the power and financial elite to forego at least a measure of their civic consciousness, their sense of ethical obligation to society at large, in pursuit of their own ambitions. For many within this privileged cohort it has gone a step farther with the emergence of predatory attitude towards the rest of society.

This has had a troubling effect on the Canadian dream, especially on those of low-income who can no longer find a way ahead. Those coming to food banks express an increasing concern over what appears to be the withdrawal of institutional support, both public and private. They are experiencing something of a crisis of civic membership, a troubling belief that while the public remains generous in food donations, there is a growing sense that they are being pushed out of the mainstream – a kind of redundancy that leaves them with a sense of hopelessness. They feel that their struggles for individual survival are slowly replacing the sense of social solidarity this country once enjoyed. If the poor are losing hope, can the middle-class be far behind, especially if the current financial trend towards inequality deepens? And just to be clear, the volunteer charitable sector in no way can pick up the slack left when government retreated from the public space in the past three decades.

We had never imagined that the global economy, nor the stock market, nor the profit margin could determine our institutional choices unless we were first consulted as a people and permitted to choose. Politics essentially fooled us, parading federalism’s historic social compact, all the while acquiescing to setting the stage for the new financial order.

We once had a rich Canadian history of a federalism that helped Canada become one of the most humane nations on earth, but that national history now can’t be separated from a financial present run amok. Our national agreements have themselves become unequal and ineffective in the process. Our history is trapped in our present injustice, and the poor are the first to sense it.