Late in October I had the privilege of attending the Council of Canadians (COC) AGM and Conference in Nanaimo.
It gave me the opportunity to meet and reconnect with Canadians from across the country, all of whom are deeply concerned about our future as a sovereign nation.
I have followed very closely as the COC, together with other social justice groups, continue to expose the flaws of the proposed so called “Free Trade” agreement with Europe (CETA).
I can only marvel at the energy of Maude Barlow and others as they tirelessly call upon Canadians to take action.
It is not difficult for me to identify with the goals of this grass roots organization since I have always been, first and foremost, a Canadian nationalist. I firmly believe that values and needs of our own citizens must come first in the types of foreign investment we allow, the trade agreements we negotiate and in the international objectives we choose to support.
Canada used to have a fairly balanced approach when aligning corporate interests with the rights of workers and the need for effective social programs.
This balance started to shift to the corporate sector with Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in the 1980s and the signing of the Free Trade agreement with the U.S. Prior to this, successive federal governments, both Conservative and Liberal were able to focus to a greater degree, often under pressure from the NDP, on the strong social policies that were being demanded by the Canadian public.
Medicare, employment insurance and pensions are examples of this courageous social commitment.
One of the highlights for me at the conference was attending a plenary panel entitled, “Uniting Against Austerity: Strengthening Solidarity in the Movement for Economic Justice,” which examined the impact on pensions, social programs, trade unions, immigrants, deregulation, privatization and cuts to public service jobs as Harper and other governments around the world forge ahead with harsh austerity measures and deep corporate tax cuts.
I was encouraged to hear of the growing resistance among the public to these measures.
Panelist Robert Chernomas, professor of economics, University of Manitoba, equated such government actions with class warfare and mentioned how the super-rich in the world are evading taxes to the tune of $21 trillion.
He pointed out how corporations in Canada are sitting on cash reserves of approximately $525 billion, which interestingly, is the same amount as our national debt.
Chernomas also discussed the “high tax – high spend” policies of Nordic countries which can boast the lowest national debt, the most competitive economies, a highly trained labour force, the strongest unions and the highest per capita income in the world. His presentation reminded me of the film I have provided several screenings of throughout the riding entitled, “Poor No More.” Throughout the film, Canadian TV icon Mary Walsh, narrates comparisons between the quality of life in Canada, Ireland and Sweden.
We saw how Sweden has free university tuition, 400-plus days of maternity/paternity leave per child, strong health care, national child care and effective state-run care for seniors. We learned about the strong partnership that has been developed between labour, corporations and government which has made all this possible.
Clearly, political choices were made in that country for a strong social net for all its citizens rather than regressive tax breaks for the corporate sector and “slash and burn” austerity measures for everyone else.
In Part II of my column I will explore what other panelists had to say about the topic of austerity.
– Alex Atamanenko is MP for the B.C. Southern Interior region