A Vision 21 Agenda for Canada

Chris Jones
Candidate in Ottawa Centre 2019 Federal Election

 

Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery
None but ourselves can free our minds

–Redemption Song, Bob Marley, 1979

Bob Marley wrote these words as he neared the end of his life. He wrote them to draw attention to the lasting effects that slavery had had on the minds of his Jamaican and fellow Caribbean countrymen. Marley’s lyrics are an affirmation of the power of the liberationist theology of pan-Africanism and its struggle against tyranny, with which he strongly identified. In part, Marley also drew heavily upon the words of the black nationalist, Marcus Garvey, another Jamaican, who gave a speech in October of 1937 in Sydney, Nova Scotia, urging his audience to slip the bonds of mental imprisonment through the empowerment of the mind.

Marley’s insight into the mental and emotional torment that had ensnared the descendants of so many who had been brought over in the cargo holds of slaving ships from Africa by profit-seeking Europeans, had some important resonances in the era that followed shortly after his death (1981). While little can compare to the toll of abject human suffering, misery, and death which the odious triangular slave trade brought about, it is ironic that Marley wrote his beautiful ballad about the tremendous power of redemption to better the lives of his fellow men and women, at precisely the moment that another dark shadow – that of neoliberalism, ushered in first by the election of Margaret Thatcher in Britain (1979), and then by Ronald Reagan in the U.S. (1980) – descended on the western world.

As Marley railed against the savage and inhumane institution of slavery with its multi-generational legacy, ordinary citizens today look on at the consequences of a dystopian neoliberalism running amok in their societies with a similar sense of despair. Powerlessness reigns in the hearts and minds of so many Canadians who have become resigned to a modern world whose defining features, for the past forty years, have been massive and growing income inequalities, global warming, a worrying loss of species and natural habitat, a rise in health dysfunction and preventable illness, a non-responsive set of political institutions, and now the spread of a lethal pathogen.

Having been an Independent candidate in the last Federal Election in Ottawa Centre, I think it is time that we embark on a different path than the one that Canada’s self-interested political parties have dragged us down for nearly two generations. Canada has made many strides since Confederation over 150 years ago but has regrettably lost its way and progress has ground to a halt. We have failed to live up to our potential and instead have become captive to parties whose dismal embrace of the invisible hand of the free market have devalued our role as citizens and made quaint the former notion of a civilized and humane society. Despite the reservoir of goodwill, talent and ability that lies within our people and the history of impressive achievement resulting from instances of bold collective action, our leaders are presently beholden to doctrinal cliches, empty platitudes and insipid managerialism which worship market outcomes as the gold standard. There has been a void at the heart of the public sphere for the past forty years and, as the Covid pandemic has amply revealed, we are all the worse off for it.

To bring about a new kind of Canada in which people no longer experience the sense of powerlessness, psychological distress, and metabolic decline that four decades of neoliberalism and blind faith in techno-utopianism has created, we need to think audaciously, courageously and with no fear of the future. The answers to the most vexing problems that we confront are within our reach but obtaining them requires a faith in ourselves, in ordinary people, in common sense, and in the restorative rhythms of the natural world. Above all else, transparency and honesty are primary virtues now; the time for self-delusion has ended. As Marley so movingly put it, we must learn to think independently, seeing the world as it really is and striving to put the interests of our children, the health of our fellow citizens, other species, and the natural world ahead of the consumer impulse that has been so studiously cultivated in us by the power of advertising and, more recently, by the social media fixations and privacy intrusions of Big Tech. A society based on a Hobbesian winner-take-all struggle is not something I, or many Canadians I know, want to embrace any further. We have had our fill of it. That vision is bankrupt and the politicians and parties who continue to endorse it, mere empty vessels. The techno-financial utopia that is being tossed about under the aegis of the “Great Reset” would only further indenture ordinary citizens to an increasingly remote and disinterested elite.

None of the big political parties are prepared to speak the truth to Canadians and instead have sought to lull us into accepting the present inferior condition of our lives, hemmed in by trade agreements and the judgement of markets. A daily trance grips us all as we fixate on market indicators as if they were somehow predictive of our collective health and well being. Real indicators of wellness such as trust, altruism, and community spirit are ignored. Seduced by the slick marketing of big tech companies, Canada’s political elites are complacent enough to believe that we all should be satisfied by the distractions of our digital lives. They are content to have us believe that we only amount to our preferences and “likes” expressed as consumers of lifestyle goods or on social media platforms, and that this is all that we should aspire to. A servile media has reinforced this at every turn. This bleak and impoverished vision of politics is what our mainstream parties return to again and again. It is in their DNA now.  The mainstream and timid political vision of our established political parties is incapable of delivering the real change that we urgently need now.

According to Statistics Canada, Canadians’ satisfaction with their lives has fallen to a seventeen-year low. The pandemic has made a growing number of Canadians aware that we can do so much better. A citizen’s movement grounded in the welfare of all and in the imperative of preserving nature will ask difficult questions, solicit the ideas of ordinary Canadians, advance the hard answers and, in so doing, offer a fundamentally different vision of Canada. It will not be mediated by corporations, big tech or a supine mainstream media that consistently avoids asking the hard questions. That Canada must be something other than a copy of the United States or a colonial relic of the British Crown. It must venture out on a unique terrain; one we can uniquely and confidently call our own.

It is time Canada lived up to its unlocked potential and aspired to something better than our record of the past forty years is witness to. Built by all of us together, the new Canada should aim higher and dream more ambitiously, drawing upon the available pool of talents and skills so that once again our country is a point of pride for all its citizens, native/indigenous and recent immigrants alike. The real change that we urgently need must be born of inclusion, collaboration, and mutual respect, as we are all connected and part of one larger body. We all have a stake in a fair and successful outcome. It hardly needs stating, but time is of the essence.

We need a new roadmap for the country; what I have labelled as Vision 21 – a way forward for Canada in the new century. It embraces significant changes because nothing short of them will suffice at this point. The numbered sequence of reforms which follows, consciously follows an approach taken by that most neo-liberal of international economic thinktanks, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), whose reports over the last several decades enumerated the market driven and de-regulatory “reforms” that were meant to enhance our collective welfare. I attach my own list now as a corrective to the deceptions that were pushed by the champions of laissez faire economics to our collective and individual detriment, for the past many years:

1. The way out of our present impasse must start from re-empowering ordinary Canadian citizens. The political movement that we must construct will demand the creation of Citizen Assemblies that meet regularly at the local level. Consultation once every four years under the pretext of current federal elections is wholly inadequate. For reasons I outlined in my election campaign, the voices of ordinary Canadians are now the only legitimate expression of consent in our system. Marking a ballot in a quadrennial first- past-the post election does not make the grade anymore. Citizens meeting with one another, discussing, educating themselves, deliberating and forging consensus is the only way forward that possesses any degree of inherent legitimacy. It may be messy and somewhat time-consuming but there is no longer any alternative to this kind of transparent decision-making. You can see a recent related example of such decentralized, group dynamic operating in the financial markets as the “rabble” on r/WallStreetBets took on the hedge funds by orchestrating on-line the mass purchase of certain stocks, driving prices up and exposing short positions. Citizen empowerment is the only alternative to the failings of our present system of corporatist government with its privileging of wealthy interests, its indifference to agency capture and corrosive lobbying, declining voter turnout and the under-representation of lower income groups.

2. All for-profit lobbying by corporations, sectoral associations and neoliberal thinktanks must be banned. We have gone from a participatory to a commercialized democracy in Canada over the last four decades with dramatic consequences for the public good. The political system’s purpose is to protect the commons, enshrine the public interest and promote the general welfare, including the natural world; it is not to confer some pseudo-legitimacy on the profit-seeking or de-regulatory strategies of commercial entities. The whole set of institutional and corporatist structures and arrangements that have been elaborated to privilege the voice of financialized capitalism and extractive industries, at the expense of ordinary citizens, must be dismantled. We have a gaping governance and political legitimacy deficit that is corroding the heart of our democracy. The cronyism exposed in the SNC-Lavalin affair illustrates this point but so do myriad other cases from the past forty years.

The present machinery for constructing budgets in this country must be re-formulated to allow for citizens’ budgeting and other intrinsically democratic exercises so that all capital expenditure and fiscal matters within the purview of the national government are subject to the closest possible public oversight and scrutiny. We need to urgently end the practice of cozy and insular pre-budget forecasting between Bay Street Banks and Finance officials and several other practices that cloak the process from direct public inspection. In areas such as tax policy and policies affecting our extractive industries, systemic lobbying has worked directly to the detriment of the genuine needs of our population and the natural environment, while privileging the wealth accumulation strategies of a small number of elites. Real public participation, involving informed debate and deliberation can be brought about using citizen assemblies. We haven’t had a federal budget in this country in roughly two years; let’s ensure that disclosure, transparency and genuine procedural fairness become the governing norms as public servants go about formulating the next one.

3. The preceding two changes are necessary preconditions to the adoption of a critical reform that we can no longer postpone: the construction of a framework to capture the full social and environmental costs of modern economic activities or what we know as “business as usual.” Companies have been incentivized to offload as many costs as possible on to taxpayers, the natural environment, future generations, and the broader community. The extraction of bitumen in northern Alberta comes to mind but so do a host of other dubious economic activities with their alleged ‘value-added’ benefits. These hidden or delayed costs are a disaster for public policy, for our collective well-being, indeed, for the health of the very planet itself. On closer examination, processes pertaining to resource extraction, the outputs of intensive industrial-style farming in the form of livestock and crops, or the way private means of mobility (vehicles powered by internal combustion engines), are currently priced, fails to measure and disclose these “true costs.” It follows that rhetorical commitments to “sustainability” or corporate social responsibility by actors in our economy are largely devoid of meaning. A very recent book (Dead Epidemiologists by Robert Wallace) on the origins of the current Covid 19 pandemic, makes an incredibly powerful point in this regard: “Context counts for pandemic infection, and current political structures that allow multinational agricultural enterprises to privatize profits while externalizing and socializing costs must become subject to ‘code enforcement’ that reinternalizes those costs, if truly mass-fatal pandemic disease is to be avoided in the near future.”

It is time Canadians were honest with themselves. We can and must develop here in Canada a more genuinely sustainable economy based on ‘true prices.’ Jurisdictions around the world are leading the way; it is time Canada joined them. Part of that will involve modifying double entry book-keeping so that it is not just incorporating yardsticks that measure purely economic or monetary events impacting a company, but include a calculation of the impact of business decisions on various socio-ecological indicators i.e. on levels of GHG emissions or the footprint of business operations on other species.

A different kind of economy, politics and society will inevitably result and now is the time to summon the initiative and audacity to create it. The new model for our economy will be a markedly better one, privileging those investments, services and activities that improve all of our lives and the vitality of our natural world, not just the revenues, wealth and assets of the 1%. The bleak effort by some to revert to the pre-pandemic norm, will simply restart an economy that produced the contagion of pathogenic illness, climate crisis, species decline and growing income inequality in the first place. We can do better than this!

4. Closely following on the heels of point three above is the need to prioritize public health and the well-being of all Canadians. The pandemic has punched holes through the illusion of what we thought was a protective stratum of sound public health policy leading to individual health resilience. The tragedy that has befallen our Long-Term Care homes is a national disgrace, with our 2039 homes for older people accounting for about 80% of all Covid-19 related deaths. Vision 21 starts from an emphasis on prevention, planning, and preparedness. A new world containing emerging threats in the form of novel zoonotic diseases, chronic obesity, growing sedentarism and increasing mental and emotional health dysfunction, is not one in which the reactive and band-aid solutions of the past will work any more. Specifically, the Covid 19 pandemic forces us to shift our priorities and to start thinking in the following terms:

  • We urgently need to develop a domestic manufacturing base in priority PPE sectors (such as ventilators, masks, gloves, shields, gowns, swabs, sanitizer, centrifuge tubes, and other supplies related to testing and diagnostic equipment) and making specific, planned provision for a ‘surge’ capacity and the necessary stockpiling of all the requisite supplies so that we are never caught short again.
  • We must, as a matter of urgent national priority, develop a Canadian, publicly owned national vaccine manufacturer so that we are never again dependent on some division of a European or American multinational pharmaceutical company for our supply. Previous Canadian neoliberal governments sold off national vaccine assets such as Connaught Laboratories or the Institut Armand Frappier and left us woefully ill-equipped and dependent on purchase agreements with vaccine manufacturers elsewhere. Preserving a domestic vaccine manufacturer that can research and manufacture vaccines at scale and supply them to our own population is a necessity in this new, more dangerous world. Had the current Liberal government invested in a proposed vaccine manufacturing facility at the VIDO-InterVac facility in Saskatoon before the pandemic, we might have had a Canadian-produced vaccine for COVID 19 for our own population by now. Putting aside the failure of prudent longer-term planning, the actual rollout of the vaccines we have ordered thus far has been far from a seamless initiative as well, according to those who would know best. In a survey of 1,650 physicians, conducted by the Canadian Medical Association in late February of 2021, 61% of doctors rated the federal government’s vaccine supply strategy as poor or very poor. It goes without saying that any future Canadian vaccine manufacturer must remain 100% in Canadian hands – in perpetuity. Furthermore, should such a Coronavirus vaccine ultimately be developed in Canada by means of publicly funded research, the patents for such inventions should be suspended to enable access to low-income countries, whose vaccination rates drastically lag those of developed countries.
  • In 1961 President John Kennedy established a Peace Corps to promote peace, humanitarian works and social and economic assistance overseas. That was an inspired idea in the middle of Cold War tensions, and we must now act expeditiously to create an analogous Pandemic Corps here in Canada. The Pandemic Corps would train young people in public health protocols for disease control, dissemination of prevention and virus suppression techniques, distribution of PPE, contact tracing and other health promotion tasks. I am indebted to others for this idea and note that the recommendation includes the formation of mutual aid and neighborhood groups in which young people would be trained and given responsibility for going door-to-door to provision all Canadians with knowledge, techniques, masks, and other PPE, so that every citizen is informed of the latest public health advice to combat virus spread and possesses the tools to safely social distance and assist those more vulnerable than themselves. The speed and virulence with which zoonotic disease outbreaks now occur will necessitate rapid reaction times, speed-tracing and a stepped-up and coordinated degree of response at the national and international level. The lengthy wait for masks, hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes which characterized the most acute phase of the early outbreak was inexcusable for a G8 economy.

The failure by our political class to mount an effective and rapid mobilization in response to Covid 19 in respect of pandemic prevention, infection control or the manufacture of antivirals or vaccines, calls for a root and branch renewal of our preparedness for highly contagious pathogens going forward. The poor have been hit disproportionately hard by the virus, working in public-facing, low-wage jobs. Also rates of hospitalization and death among ethno-culturally diverse communities in Ontario are unconscionably high; 4x the hospitalization rates and 2x the death rates of the least diverse communities in the province. No one has taken responsibility for these failures. It is critical that we put people before profit now. According to many epidemiologists there will likely be more of these viruses in the future until such time as we make fundamental changes to modern agriculture, industrial meat processing operations, trade in wild animals, habitat invasion, deforestation, and health promotion.

To quote Wallace again, “…humanity shouldn’t start reacting to a pandemic when it’s already underway. It’s a total dereliction of any notion of forwarding thinking…or practice.” At this point, the only prudent public policy response is massive systemic preparation and planning, with huge built-in materiel and health infrastructure redundancy, so that we have a constant state of readiness. The Pandemic Corps would employ young people between the ages of 18 and 25 for say 18 to 24 months, training them in preventive public health skills, that would enable us to mount impromptu, massive, and coordinated responses to the ongoing COVID virus and future public health threats. This would give many young people a sense of mission and purpose, and impart to them valuable skills, often lacking in current entry level positions available to them in our service sector-driven economy. Young people have so much to offer and contribute to Canadian society beyond operating espresso machines.

  • The current crisis in Canada’s Long Term Care (LTC) home sector has revealed a woeful tale of neglect and poor stewardship. We have seen a litany of policy and management failures resulting in under-training, low pay, and poor treatment of workers, substandard and ageing facilities, overcrowding and poor infection control practices, eventually necessitating the call up of the Canadian Forces to get matters under control. In the end, a lot of older and infirm Canadians died needlessly and alone (16,000 of the total 22,000 dead from COVID); as one Canadian author recently put it, LTCs have become “almost slaughterhouses”. It is time the federal government enacted a law that would mandate that the LTC sector be brought under the purview of Canada’s network of 13 provincial and territorial public health systems. We have got to end the commercialization of long-term care in Canada as resident outcomes on a host of quality-of-life indicators, both during and prior to the pandemic, are demonstrably poorer. Proper funding, training and certification of staff, mandated inspections and follow up, must all become the norm going forward so that Canadians can anticipate a degree of dignity and respect in their latter years, and not the squalor and neglect to which so many have recently been subjected.
  • Successive Conservative and Liberal governments have undermined what had been a much admired and highly effective pandemic early warning system operated by the Public Health Agency of Canada and known as the Global Public Health Intelligence Network. This system of global surveillance and early pathogen detection had become a front-line tool in the global outbreak response against infectious diseases. Both political parties, through demoting the value of intelligence gathering, devaluing public health expert representation at the highest levels within the Public Health Agency, and promoting managerialism and policy over science, have gutted what had been a lynchpin in Canada’s (and the world’s) pandemic advance warning system. Vision 21 argues for the necessity of providing an advance guard of public health doctors and epidemiologists whose mission must be to keep their eyes and ears trained on incipient sources of infection in hotspots around the world. This would be an enlightened contribution to global health and security that many would doubtless welcome, while being of far greater service to Canada’s standing in the world and the health of our own citizens, than many recent foreign policy maneuvers undertaken in our name.

5. Canadian governments are significantly short of revenue in these times yet have turned a blind eye to Canadian multinational corporations shielding their earnings & profits in tax havens and secrecy jurisdictions, often in the Caribbean, thereby depriving us of important revenue. Recent research by the Parliamentary Budget Officer has estimated that Canadian companies transferred more than $1.6 trillion in 2018 to low-tax countries known as offshore financial centres, or the conduit countries leading to them. The result is that even if the figure is only 10% of that amount, Canada lost out on $25 billion in that year alone as result of this fiscal chicanery. Those billions of dollars in uncollected revenue could have been put to good use right now, strengthening our pandemic response and improving our health care system. We need to end the routine recourse of Canadian corporations to offshore financial centres which, through various forms of financial subterfuge, enables them to shield their income from Canadian authorities. Part of the answer involves adopting the following recommendations laid out by Canadians for Tax Fairness:

• Apportionment of taxable income/ profits of Multinational Enterprises (MNEs) to Canada and other countries according to a fair formula that reflects real economic factors, including sales, employment/payroll and possibly capital assets.
• Unitary taxation of multinational enterprises, so corporations cannot use affiliated corporations to shift profits.
• Stronger limits on measures used to shift profits, including putting limits on interest deductibility and payment of royalties for intellectual property.
• Support for a minimum international corporate tax rate to eliminate the vicious cycle of downward tax competition.

The playing field between ordinary citizens and the corporate elite is now heavily tilted in favour of the latter. If the situation persists any longer our system will suffer a serious erosion in legitimacy and social cohesion and, inevitably, a loss of democratic consent. Vision 21 recognizes the fragile bonds that hold our society together and looks to strengthen values of trust, reciprocity and mutuality that formerly made Canada a caring society of international renown.

6. The mix of COVID-related income support measures (CERB etc.) has brought about the first increase in the savings rate in Canada in decades. While welcomed and doubtless necessary at a time of depressed employment and declining small business fortunes, there is no discernible strategic vision on the part of the federal government for longer term income support for Canadians. Clearly, a robust commitment to a full-employment strategy by the Government and the Bank of Canada, as part of a revised macro-economic strategy, is long overdue. Decades ago, when full-time positions with decent pay & benefits were commonplace, the earnings of just one income earner would have covered the needs of two adults and at least one child. The low paid have been left behind and many women who are the heads of single-parent households can no longer provide for themselves. Short-term jobs in the ‘gig’ economy are causing huge financial hardship and poverty, family stresses, and the onset of physical and psychological illness brought about by long hours. People are forced to rely on credit and resultingly the Household Debt to Gross Income Level ratio is at 171%, among the worst in the G-20. Vision 21 therefore proposes the creation of a *Participation Income to support Canadians in the future, when the combination of disruptive lockdowns and growing automation is making jobs scarce and the prospect of technological displacement very real (see the work by *Lars Osberg, The Age of Increasing Inequality).

The Participation Income would be akin to the guaranteed annual income benefit in the form of the combined Old Age Security (OAS) & Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) for seniors, which worked out to roughly $17,500 for a single person in 2017. It is possible that the actual level of income support could be higher for working-age adults with the financial details around the provision of other public services (the social wage), income tax brackets, and supplementary needs for specialized communities (ie. persons with a disability) to be worked out. Most Canadian adults, including the recipients themselves, would prefer to engage in some reciprocal activity in return for this allocation of income support. This is why the proposal to put a floor beneath all Canadians incomes would also be conditional on participation. A paid part-time job (at a more generous minimum wage) or self-employment could be one form of participation, but also eligible would be those absent from work due to sickness or injury, those unable to work due to a disability, caretakers of children or elderly relatives (presently unpaid), those in post-secondary education, and those engaged in approved forms of voluntary work (say looking after a neighbour).

Finally, I also want to propose the creation of something novel advanced by Bram Buscher and Robert Fletcher in their recent book, The Conservation Revolution, and that is a Conservation Basic Income (CBI). This stipend, also dependent on participation, would see individuals living in or next to important conservation (rural) areas provided with a monetary payment each month sufficient to allow them to lead (locally defined) decent lives. The point of such a CBI is to allow rural residents to pursue sustainable, biodiversity-friendly livelihoods without having to compete in the neoliberal globalized marketplace in ways which shift costs on to nature. The idea here is to provide rural residents with incentives to pursue livelihoods that involve interaction with local ecology and biodiversity, through conservation and remediation efforts, rather than in short-term, exploitative ways that attempt to commodify nature by turning it into natural capital – see Full Social and Environmental Cost Accounting – Pt.3 above). Rural residents would work with local citizen assemblies, non-profit NGOs, local public officials to determine the projects to be undertaken and the disbursement of the CBI. Over time, local resources should be moved into community ownership for the purposes of preserving our ecological inheritance and natural assets, enhancing local community wealth, and building what is increasingly known as the circular economy. Vision 21 insists on maintaining the rights of rural residents to continue to live on the land while preserving a viable income and quality of life for themselves and their families. We need them to play a key role in the sustainable stewardship and protection of our forests, lakes, rivers, and natural habitats.

7. Humans and animals are bound up in complex webs of interdependency. However, due to our ‘superior’ capacity for conscious thought and agency we have reserved the right to arbitrarily determine the course of their lives. As the political philosophers Will Kymlicka and his co-author, Sue Donaldson, note in their book Zoopolis, the prerogatives we have exercised over animals have not, for the most part, been founded on principles of justice and compassion; in fact, our treatment of them has often been far from benign. In truth, we have been largely indifferent to their plight and suffering, and the loss or despoilment of their habitats. The modern practice has been to regard them as effectively resources to be exploited. The declining numbers of many species attests to our indifference to their welfare and the preservation of their habitat. The status quo treatment of wild animals, especially, is broken. Vision 21 believes we must fundamentally alter our relationship with them, starting from a position of acknowledging that they possess certain inviolable rights. Vision 21 therefore supports the proposal by the Animal Protection Party of Canada to alter the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to expand the scope of its applicability to “all life” and, further, to entrench the right of all human and non-human life to a clean and healthy environment. It is time to recognize in law that we share this planet with other species who have an equally compelling claim to the life-supporting benefits it confers.

Conclusion:

Of the seven policy proposals outlined here, the first three are critical and represent a substantial break with the status quo. By adopting them, all of us, and especially young people, would be able to contemplate a genuinely different kind of political and economic future. The process of citizens meeting with each other to debate, discuss and deliberate on the substance of issues, and how we ought to allocate our limited resources, is what democracy is about. Sadly those instincts have been allowed to attenuate for forty years, under a closed, corporate-centric model of governance. Vision 21 believes we can and should change this now. It is time to take our politics back and re-instate the citizen at the center of the process where he and she rightfully belong.

Leave a Reply