Sunday, January 4, 2009

Is Canada Still a Progressive Nation?

Most people I know see Canada as a very progressive nation. We see ourselves as strong on issues that involve human rights, allowing same sex marriages and protecting the rights of disadvantaged groups. We have health care services available to basically all residents, and while it’s not perfect by any stretch we're justifiably proud that we provide at least some level of medial care to all our citizens. We sort through our garbage, setting aside recyclable materials to ease environmental damage. We even endure smelly green bins for compost. But is the pendulum beginning to swing in the other direction? Are we becoming, as Stephen Harper recently noted, a more conservative and ergo less progressive nation?

On the environmental front we’ve failed abysmally when it comes to meeting the Kyoto protocols on green house gas emissions. In our most recent federal election we soundly rejected the notion of a carbon tax, even if it involved off setting tax cuts in the areas of income and investment. Of course we want to be more environmentally friendly, but we’re also very worried about the associated price tag.

Obviously concerns about cost are holding us back from being more progressive. Its not that we’re not progressive minded, its just that we’re cost conscious. But any progressive policy has a dollar figure attached; our health care system increases the tax burden, and human rights initiatives like equal pay for work of equal value also impact our wallets. As we move deeper into the 21st century it’s looking more and more like Canadians are fixated on cost when it comes to taking a progressive or conservative stance on the issues we face.

We still have the ‘Charter of Rights and Freedoms’ of course, which citizens or groups can use to ensure the protections guaranteed by our Constitution. There used to be funding provided for those who couldn’t afford to launch challenges to fight to have their rights upheld. But that program was axed by Stephen Harper’s Conservative government during their last mandate. The rationale provided was that special interest groups, (Gays? Women’s Groups?) were hijacking the system to advance their own vested interests. Harper’s did later relent, but only when it came to funding those seeking to protect language rights, an obvious nod to Quebec in his ongoing effort to woo the soft separatist vote.

At the time there was angry rhetoric flying about, with many claiming the issue of funding court challenges would prove Harper’s Waterloo. Stories began hitting newswires about cases like that of Kevin Rollason. He had used the program to obtain EI parental leave benefits after being denied because he hadn’t taken them during the time his disabled child was in hospital. But in the end there was hardly a whimper of meaningful protest. While the program was costing us less than $6 million per year, it seems Canadians were happy to see our government cutting expenses.

Perhaps Stephen Harper is right after all. Perhaps we are becoming a more Conservative nation, one cut back at a time. With the problems facing our economy might it be reasonable to expect this trend to continue? What savings might we be able to derive by cutting back on other socially progressive programs? We haven’t protested in any meaningful way over cut backs to Court Challenges or Women’s advocacy groups. What might be next? Tax cuts are wonderful, but it also impacts the government's ability to fund progressive iniatives.

Being progressive costs money, it involves having a government willing to stick its nose in and protect those who are less able to protect themselves. If money weren’t an issue I’m sure Canada would be one of the most progressive nations on Earth. But with concern mounting over individual finances and the finances of the nation as a whole, perhaps progressive issues are no longer a priority for Canadians. I hope not.

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