Lowered Expectations and The Historical Origins of the ‘Great Decoupling’ in Canada

Pierre Elliot Trudeau,  fundraising meeting at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montréal, Québec, 1980.

Pierre Elliot Trudeau, fundraising meeting at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montréal, Québec, 1980.

by Christo Aivalis

Recently many economists have emphasized that since the 1970s in western nations like Canada and the United States, high profits and productivity have been accompanied by stagnating wages, especially for lower income workers. These commentators, including Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman, MIT professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfeeThe New York Times’ Steven Greenhouse, and UNIFOR economist Jim Stanford, have argued that in the 1970s, wages became decoupled from profits and productivity, ending a pattern of complementary increases existing since the end of the Second World War. But still, major politicians, including U.S. Presidential Candidate Jeb Bush, say Americans need to work harder before better wages materialize.

Bush’s remarks are not novel. Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau vocalized similar points in the 70s, arguing that prosperity would not come through better labour legislation or stronger unions. But through weaker labour unions and legislation, which would give job creators more space to create and trickle wealth down. In simple terms, Trudeau’s efforts during the inflationary crisis were primarily about lowering the wages and expectations of Canadians to help bolster corporate profitability and competitiveness, in part helping to initiate the current inequalities between wages and productivity. For example, Trudeau would cast inflation as a psychological malaise amongst the public, a social pathology to be cured, not simply through legislation, but through a public pedagogical effort to lower expectations:

People can only bring inflation down by lowering their expectations…because if we all adjust our incomes downward, then inflation will come down. But if we all think inflation is going up, then we all tend to adjust our incomes upwards and inflation will go up.[1]

With the above statement, and dozens like it, Trudeau stressed that Canadians needed to fight inflation by adjusting their mindsets. To let the status quo prevail was to enable a destructive “we want it all and we want it now…state of mind that can only lead to disaster.” For Trudeau, these unreasonable expectations were rooted in a postwar world where everything was deemed possible. Continue reading

Coming Clean About Operation Soap: The 1981 Toronto Bathhouse Raids

By Forrest Picher

Implicitly, gay men are protected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and supposedly enjoy the same rights as heterosexual people.1 Yet, there remains a legal discrimination against homosexual sex: homosexuals cannot engage in group sex, while heterosexuals can. Writing in 2014, Thomas Hooper explains “section 159 of the Criminal Code codifies mononormativity and maintains the legacy of gross indecency, as anal sex is only legal in Canada if it is ‘engaged in, in private, between… any two persons.’”2 In this way, any group sex between homosexual men, for example, is technically illegal in the Canadian Criminal Code and police are legally justified to raid places in which such activity occurs. And they do. In Calgary in 2002, for example, the police raided Goliath’s bathhouse, an establishment that was used by gay men in the community as a meeting place for sex.3 This raid demonstrates that the legal ambiguities that led to the 1981 bathhouse raids in Toronto, as I will discuss, continue to be problematic. In fact, one bartender in Calgary stated after the 2002 raid: “This is so reminiscent of 1981 in Toronto, it’s sickening.”4

On February 5, 1981, 200 plainclothes police officers raided four Toronto bathhouses leading to the largest mass arrest since the October Crisis ten years earlier. Continue reading

Labour rights, Socio-Economic Rights, and the Limitations of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms

by Christo Aivalis

charterEarlier this year, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Canadian workers have the right to strike as per Section 2 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This builds on a 2007 ruling that bestowed the right to bargain collectively. Both reversed a 1987 Supreme Court ruling, and two similar cases (‘the labour trilogy,’) which excluded those rights. But still absent from the Charter are rights to basic economic security, and this omission is not an oversight.

Rather, Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s vision for the Charter was to serve as a locus for a liberal and secular patriotism based in a collective understanding of what human rights did and did not entail. This combined with a failure of the New Democratic Party and organized labour to fight for social, economic, and labour rights, giving us a limited conception of rights that continues to shape our national philosophy, guide our approach to policy, and limit the validity and promise of our democracy.

For Trudeau, the Charter was to forge a societal recognition that rights should not politicized, because they “are the common heritage of all Canadians.” In contrast to the 1867 constitution, which lacked an educational message about what Canada was and aspired to, the Charter would also constitute a pedagogical tool and “enlightened basis for patriotism.” But Trudeau was clear that this collective patriotism would not include workers and poor Canadians, even as it included numerous minorities. The workers and poor were omitted “because economic rights do not simply restrain others in order to protect the individual in the exercise of his freedoms, but instead seek to impose obligations on the state or others for the positive benefit of the individual.”[1] Continue reading

Starbucks: Welfare Capitalism, Public Education, and the History and Possibility of American Social Democracy

By Jason Ellis

starbucks college


Welfare capitalism is back in vogue. Earlier this month Starbucks announced that it will expand an existing company benefit program that offers university tuition coverage to Starbucks workers. The expansion of the program, a plan to extend these benefits to 23,000 workers over the next decade at a cost of $250 million, will target “opportunity youth,” i.e. unemployed 16- to 24-year olds. While this is an innovative move on Starbucks’ part, it is also a move that brings to mind and joins together interesting historical precedents in American working-class, corporate, welfare, and education histories. This small announcement by a big corporation is the spindle from which I will unravel threads of a discussion of the history and possibility of social democracy in the United States. My argument is that historic American commitments to welfare capitalism and to public education spending, and the revival of both in the Starbucks’ announcement, may hint at a dormant social democracy in US society and politics today. Continue reading

“On ‘The Road to 2017’: Reflecting on Canada’s First World War Commemoration Plans”

By Jonathan Weier

Last year on Activehistory.ca I wrote about the lack of federal government funding for First World War commemoration. Despite the fact that the First World War centennial period has started, the federal government continues to offer little support for First World War commemorative activities. The coming federal election, the recent decline in oil prices, as well as the demands of market orthodoxy make it unlikely that this situation will change.

This is in contrast to the commitments Ottawa is making to commemorate the sesquicentennial of Confederation in 2017. Called The Road to 2017, this program has included events around the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of Sir John A. MacDonald among other milestones. According to the official narrative and the opinions of prominent Conservative cabinet ministers, John A. has been portrayed as the sole force behind Confederation and as a statesmanlike, if slightly flawed, father of our country. Most recently, in its 2015 Budget the government announced a $210 million fund spread out over four years to “support local community events such as festivals and concerts, enhanced Canada Day celebrations in the National Capital Region and other major Canadian cities and other national initiatives, such as Rendezvous Naval 2017, that will unite Canadians from coast to coast to coast.”[1]

What The Road to 2017 lacks, however, is an inclusive building and commemoration process designed to leave Canadians with a useful and forward-looking legacy, as was the case for the programs that were initiated for the 1967 centennial.[2] There has been little attempt to bring in a diversity of voices or discuss the years-long process and other milestones that were part of the evolution towards confederation.

The uninspiring and simplistic nature of government involvement in sesquicentennial commemoration would seem to suggest that I was right, that First World War commemoration will be better with minimal active government involvement. Continue reading

The Ideological Work of Commemoration

By Jamie Swift

In the 1985 Argentinian film, The Official Story, one of the characters, a student, angrily proclaims that his country’s history textbooks had been “written by assassins.” Stories, as we know, vary considerably in the telling. The dominant narrative – to use the now shopworn term – tends to be recounted by the loudest voices. Hardly assassins. But often people with only a passing acquaintance with evidence.

So it is with the Official Story of Canada’s wars.

Just as the Harper government’s spasm of bellicose patriotic storytelling got underway with the centenary of the War of 1812, Governor General David Johnson came up with a curious claim. “When we study our history and the wars in which we fought, the wars overseas, it has been to purchase our freedom, our liberties.” [1]

Such bloodletting would, presumably, include such noble struggles in buying Canadian liberty as the Boer War, fought to ensure British mining companies gained access to South Africa’s vast gold deposits. Tellingly, the government recently added the South African war to Ottawa’s National War Memorial, ignoring the civilian death toll in concentration camps run by the British that far exceeded the number of actual Boer fighters killed in combat. Continue reading

Five Simple Rules for Saving the Maritimes: The Regional Stereotype in the 21st Century

800px-Peggys_Cove_Harbour_01By Lachlan MacKinnon

The Maritimes are on the brink of catastrophic economic and demographic failure [1]. Our lack of entrepreneurial spirit, engrained sense of entitlement, conservatism, and folksy racism are major factors preventing us from joining in the prosperity enjoyed by our more enterprising cousins in the “have” provinces of Canada. Such are the problems enumerated in John Ibbitson’s recent Globe and Mail editorial. The “culture of defeatism,” proclaimed by Steven Harper in 2002, is apparently still alive and kicking on the east coast. Despite the popularity of this analytical framework, it is not borne out in the historical literature surrounding region and regionalism in the Maritimes. Nor are the commonly proposed solutions to the actual problems facing the region particularly novel or creative, including those enumerated within the much-lauded Ivany Report in Nova Scotia.

The regional stereotype of the staid and conservative Maritimes is not a recent phenomenon. Historian Ernie Forbes traces the lineage of this notion to 1893, when Frederick Jackson Turner described the “frontier thesis” of American westward development. According to Turner, a profound sense of nationalism and a progressive liberal spirit was the result of continued expansion and settler colonialism in the American west. This concept was readily applied to the Canadian national narrative. Forbes writes: Continue reading

Who Killed Canadian Studies?

By Colin Coates

The world of Canadian Studies, which according to the International Council for Canadian Studies includes some 7,000 scholars in 70 countries, is facing difficult times. Strangely enough, one of its chief opponents seems to be our own government. Since the 1970s successive Liberal and Progressive Conservative federal governments, along with various provincial governments, have supported the principle that targeted funding can enhance the profile of Canadian issues in academic institutions abroad. Most of the time, those governments respected the values of academic freedom, believing that scholars could research and teach about the country without attempting to control what they did. But recently, the current Canadian government has decided that it will no longer support such work. Continue reading

Turmoil and Meddling at the Foundation for Canadian Studies in the UK

Since the new year began, just six-and-a-half weeks ago, considerable changes have been made to the direction of the Foundation for Canadian Studies in the UK. Earlier in the month, the High Commission, which collaborates with this UK charity, added four new members to the board, signalling that problems were afoot. Last week, another four members of the board resigned as a faction of the board (bolstered by the new members) motioned (successfully) towards the removal of Rachel Killick, an emeritus professor of Canadian and French studies. These board members are well known to Canadian academics: historian Margaret MacMillan, Canada 2020 advisor Diana Carney, and UK-based Canadian Studies professors Steve Hewitt and Susan Hodgett. The details of the trouble at the Foundation for Canadian Studies can be found on The Globe and MailThe National Post, and Christopher Moore’s History NewsIn an effort to better understand this situation, below we repost the notice that Steve Hewitt distributed on Facebook explaining his decision to leave the board:

Dear friends (especially those working on Canada in the UK.)

Last June I became a trustee on the board for the Foundation for Canadian Studies in the UK. Continue reading

Saskatchewan Farmland: A Bargain?

Summer.Fall 2013 221By Merle Massie

Last week, the Saskatchewan government (led by Brad Wall and the Saskatchewan Party) reset a course direction that had veered off target. That course redirection affects who – along with what – is allowed to purchase Saskatchewan farmland. A Canadian citizen? Come on down. A Canadian-owned corporation engaged in the business of farming? Saskatchewan agriculture is open for business.

A pension fund? A complicated company structure with significant offshore investors? Hmm, maybe not.

The new direction, which moves to once again restrict investment firms and pension funds from buying Saskatchewan farmland, has enormous effects on the agriculture industry. Saskatchewan land prices, by world standards, are extraordinarily cheap, yet production value remains high. When combined with future world population forecasts, large-scale investment firms and private investors are betting that farmland will remain a safe place to hold and grow their money. A cash crop, so to speak. And they want in.

Saskatchewan farmland prices roses astronomically between 2001 and 2014. In 2013 alone, Saskatchewan farmland value grew 28.5%. But under Saskatchewan’s farm land laws, foreign nationals can only own a maximum of 10 acres – unless they seek and obtain approval from the three-member Farm Land Security Board.

That same board approved the sale of 115,000 acres to Canada Pension Plan Investment Board (CPPIB) in 2013. Immediately, their decision raised hackles. When Skyline Agriculture Financial Corp, a foreign-backed player allegedly looking to finance as much as $1 billion in farmland purchases over the next decade came knocking, the Farm Land Security Board obviously had second thoughts. Skyland’s bid was denied at the end of January 2015.

Not everyone lauds this move. National Post writer Jesse Kline asks: Whither fiscal conservatism? Is Premier Brad Wall a meek liberal sheep, hiding in conservative wolf clothing? This protectionist stance, Kline argues, is ridiculous. Unchecked investment in a truly open market is a fiscal conservative hallmark. Farmers need to “deal with the same market forces as any other business.”

But as a historian, I’m deeply concerned with Kline’s assessment. Continue reading