Speaking Notes: Social Policy at Risk: Can Canada Make the Right Choices?

January 2001

These are the speaking notes for presentations made by Marcel Lauzière, Executive Director of the CCSD, at the Regina City Hall (January 16, 2001) and Saskatoon Public Library (January 18, 2001). CCSD's Research Director, Andrew Jackson, also presented a paper, Low Income Trends in the 1990s, at these events.

Tonight I would like to spend some time with you discussing some of the challenges Canada is facing on the social policy front. I chose the title not because I think that Canada is at the brink of disaster but because I think that we are at a period in our history where we need to think very seriously about where we are going and about how we should get there.

While Canada is still a good place to live, there are many in our society who are being left behind.

Canada's accelerating economic recovery since the mid-1990s has resulted in progress for some, but also growing income inequality and deepening social cleavages. A significant portion of our citizens are at risk of being left behind, including lower-income families with children, single-parent families headed by women, first nations and metis populations, persons with disabilities, many visible minority immigrants, and older single persons. Canada does not yet have a large "underclass" of citizens, but we do risk creating one as more and more households experience long-term and deep poverty.

Recently released income data for 1998 show that many Canadians have finally begun to recover from the recession and slow recovery of the mid-1990s. The data also show, however, that a significant number of Canadians are in fact being left behind and income inequality has grown, even as economic growth and job growth have accelerated.

This widening poverty gap points to a very disturbing trend. While average incomes have improved, Canadians at the bottom of the income ladder and even those in the middle are not sharing equally in this new-found prosperity.

This income gap among Canadians has been growing throughout the 1990s, and notably so since 1994. Even Statistics Canada points to the fact that market incomes have become more polarized.

The first thing I would like to do is to describe how I see the environment in which social policy is evolving in Canada.

Secondly, I'll identify, from my perspective, what some of our challenges are as a country as we move, not only into this new century but also into a new millennium.

Thirdly, I'll describe some of the things that I feel we should be working towards in terms of social policy and, through this, some of the things we should be avoiding.

Finally, I'll outline some of the very concrete priority action areas that the CCSD would like to see the Federal government move on as soon as possible. If we are to reflect on and talk about social policy challenges, we need to understand the context in which policy is being made today. In the current environment there are some weaknesses and challenges that we need to take into account and there are some strengths and opportunities that we can build on. If we don't understand what these are, there is little chance we will be able to influence change and work towards a truly sustainable social agenda.

So let's take the weaknesses and challenges first. I'll outline these briefly. I'm sure that those I am about to identify are not the only ones, and perhaps they can be elaborated on in our discussion following the presentation.

  • i. The first thing that comes to mind, in terms of the environment and the backdrop against which we are working, is that we have come out of the last decade with a weakened social safety net. In particular, I'm referring to cuts to unemployment insurance and cuts to social assistance across the country. My concern is that if Canada heads into another recession down the road (and economists are increasingly talking about this as a very real possibility in the foreseeable future), many Canadians will be vulnerable and the social safety net will not be as secure as Canadians should expect it to be. The right that all citizens have to expect to be protected in times of economic difficulties appears quite fragile.

  • ii. Secondly, we have come out of the last decade with increased polarization and marginalization within Canadian society. I referred to this earlier. The research the CCSD and other organizations have been doing has shown this conclusively.

  • iii. Third, globalization (and the various trade agreements that follow from this) is a major phenomenon which is making the environment more complex, and while I'm not of the view that everything about globalization is by definition bad, I don't think that we fully understand the impact of it on our domestic social policy. My concern is that globalization is being thought about and dealt with in terms of economic policy and very little in terms of social policy. I strongly believe that research is needed to help us understand the impact that the global economy is having and will continue to have on our domestic social policy.

  • iv. We also need to keep in mind, and I certainly don't need to tell you this, that the rise of the neo-conservative agenda in Canada is having an impact on how we talk about social policy. We see this at the federal level with the rise of the Canadian Alliance as official opposition and perhaps as government in waiting. We also see it working within part of the Liberal Caucus, with a number of MPs and cabinet Ministers pushing for more tax reductions and resisting further social investments (in other words those advocating against the 50/50 approach). A neo-conservative agenda is also being favored by some provincial governments, and in particular in Ontario and Alberta, and their influence on other parts of the country is strong indeed. And to add to this (and this is not minor), we have witnessed growing media support for this agenda and in particular from dailies such as the National Post.

  • v. Fifth, the weakening of the federal NDP is a phenomenon that, in my view, is a challenge that needs to be reflected on. I'm pleased that we are seeing a number of commentators emphasizing the need to reinvent the NDP or at the very least to seriously debate where the party is going and what should be its priorities. The weakness that we are witnessing within the NDP is also probably having a negative impact on those within the Liberal caucus that would wish to push for a more progressive social agenda. Along this same vein, we are witnessing serious rifts within the labor movement. Both these realities are weakening the voice of the left in Canada.

  • vi. On another front, we have been seeing a serious weakening of support for the voluntary sector in Canada through deep cuts in the funding of both community-based organizations, as well as national bodies, through the last decade. Given that this sector plays such a major role in the health of civil society, in the maintenance of our social fabric, and in the delivery of our social services, there is cause for concern.

  • vii. Finally, new attitudes toward federalism are worrisome. We are increasingly seeing the richer provinces putting into question the principle of redistribution of our wealth across the country. This is, in my view, a threat to the Canadian spirit and the Canadian way.

So that's the bad news, at least from where I sit. Fortunately, there are some positive signs to help counterbalance these weaknesses. There are a number of indicators that should encourage us, as well as opportunities that situate us, as a country, in a good position to be talking and thinking about renewed and enhanced social policy.

    • i. First, the unemployment rate has gone down substantially in the last few years. Given that a healthy employment environment should be seen as an important component of any sound social policy agenda, we should be encouraged by this. That being said, there are still some very serious unemployment problems among vulnerable populations such as youth, first nations, persons with disabilities, single parent families, and recent visible minority immigrants. Moreover, we need to be concerned about the types of jobs that are being created. It's one thing to see new jobs being created, it's another thing to see good jobs being created. In a recent letter to the Prime Minister, the CCSD wrote: " there are grounds for concern that the growth of precarious and low pay jobs in the 1990s may have undercut to some degree the traditional connection between an economic recovery and poverty reduction. We need to continue to reduce unemployment, and take measures such as increasing minimum wages to reduce the incidence of low pay."

    • ii. Secondly, we are now in the context of huge federal surpluses which provide Canada with a true opportunity (that must be seized) to reinvest in our social safety net and indeed, I would argue, rethink our social safety net to ensure its sustainability in a constantly changing environment. Let's not forget that the federal surplus has been accumulated in good part through cuts to social programs in the last decade. The way to meet our challenges is not to continue to cut taxes (substantial cuts have already been announced) and a substantial portion of our surplus has already gone down that route. In any event, research is increasingly demonstrating that Canadians are not all that heavily taxed in comparison to other OECD countries.

    • iii. Third, another potentially positive factor is the election of a new Liberal government headed by Jean Chrétien. I can assure you that I do not say this in any partisan fashion but because this election has allowed us to avoid (at least for a few years) the neo-conservative agenda of the Canadian Alliance. Moreover, the Prime Minister has been musing about the need to move boldly on the social policy front (eradicating poverty, helping children, addressing first nations issues). Let's keep the federal government's feet to the fire on this one and let's hope that we see something encouraging in the next Speech from the Throne.

I don't want to appear naive about this, however. The federal government is only one player in this and it is increasingly at the provincial level that social policy decisions are being made. That being said, I'm convinced that the federal government will continue to play a key role in social policy. Certainly the tax system is an instrument that will continue to be at the disposal of the federal government. Moreover, it should be pushing ideas forward and facilitating a dialogue across the country. It can also of course bring money to the table which is always a key way of focussing attention, and in this regard I would encourage the Prime Minister to move boldly and invest on the housing front.

  • iv. Fourth, there is the Social Union Framework Agreement. While we still don't know whether this agreement, signed two years ago between the federal, provincial and territorial governments, will really be effective, and while Québec has not signed on, at least we now have a mechanism that has the potential of facilitating cooperation between our different levels of government. It is also a mechanism that should in time ensure better measurement of our social progress, better reporting to Canadians on how funds are being invested, and provide for participation of the voluntary sector in the development of social policy in Canada.

  • v. Earlier, I had mentioned the deep funding cuts to voluntary sector organizations across the country as a challenge we need to face. Fortunately, the federal government and a number of provincial governments have come to realize that we need a strong voluntary sector as much as we need a strong public and private sector. Whether measures such as the Federal Voluntary Sector Initiative will be successful in strengthening the sector remains to be seen, but at least there is movement and something positive should be coming out of this.

  • vi. Finally, I would add to the list of opportunities the symbolism represented by the beginning of a new century (and I do think that symbolism is important if we are to talk about the future of our social policy) We have often been reminded that Wilfrid Laurier declared that the 20th century would be Canada's century (and while we don't really know whether Laurier actually said this), it should still prompt us to think about what Canada could accomplish in terms of social policy in the 21st century. Perhaps the beginning of this new era can inspire us to be bold. Why not strive to make this country the best in the world and ensure that this becomes a concrete reality for all Canadians wherever they live and whatever their circumstances.

So that's the context and the backdrop against which I see social policy being made currently. So where do we go from here? What I would like to see, is Canada being truly ambitious about what it can accomplish as a country and about defining where we want to go as a society. Earlier I talked briefly about the Social Union Framework Agreement as a mechanism to facilitate cooperation between the federal and provincial governments. It's all well and good to have a mechanism in place but what we need now (and this is much more important) is a vision to move things forward.

What we need is a "projet de société" as we say in French. I guess this can be translated by something like "societal project" or perhaps "national agenda". Something that Canadians can define together through broad dialogue, that we can buy into as a country and then make choices and invest appropriately to make it happen.

I truly believe that it's the time to move on this. There has been no better time in a very long while. There are financial resources available (as long as something is left after having spent so much on tax reduction or on "income enhancement"), there is a broad recognition that social issues need to be addressed (polls and surveys are increasingly telling us that Canadians want to deal with these issues, and that social issues take precedence over tax cuts), and we have a federal government that is telling us that this is a priority (at least that's what we have been hearing in the last few months). Now is the time to move forward. Let's define this vision, let's define this "projet de société", this "national agenda" and let's proceed.

My hope is that in the end we would be able to stand back and see a comprehensive social agenda for Canada that will have been developed within a broad and sustainable framework. Let's move away from this piecemeal and patchwork approach that seems to have caught the imaginations of our governments. We need a solid framework that will guide our social investment for the years to come.

With regard to this framework, I would see it being based on a number of key principles such as the following: The framework should:

  • i. Have social inclusion as a founding principle (i.e. a society that will ensure equality of opportunity for all Canadians);

  • ii. Help us grow together in times of economic recovery and stick together in times of economic difficulty;

  • iii. Be based on a healthy job market but also on a solid and sustainable system of social transfers (and this may be increasingly important as the job market becomes more competitive and specialized and more Canadians risk being left behind);

  • iv. See social policy and economic policy work hand in hand, understanding the interdependency between the two;

  • v. Provide support for participation in the labour market (i.e. supplement inadequate wages, provide affordable and accessible daycare, provide support and services for youth and families, etc.);

  • vi. Recognize the strengths of social democracy and rehabilitate concepts such as universality (which has become a dirty world in many circles).

  • vii. Allow us to learn from experiences abroad and in particular that we don't need to choose between social justice and economic growth as was argued in a recent article by Andrew Jackson, the CCSD Director of Research. We need to look at what some northern European countries are doing and the success that they are having on issues such as child poverty.

  • viii. Respect federal/provincial/territorial jurisdictions but also foster better collaboration and sharing of experience that would lead to a true "system" where policies and programs in different parts of the country would be compatible, where we would truly measure progress and share best practices (e.g. the Québec subsidized daycare program);

  • ix. Recognize the importance of linking our foreign policy and our social policy in a context of growing globalization.

  • x. Invest in education and training to ensure that all Canadians can fully participate in today's and tomorrow's marketplace.


So I hope that the Prime Minister's musings about the importance of a renewed social agenda in this third mandate will allow Canada to develop a sound and comprehensive social policy for many years to come.

That said, however, the CCSD will continue to be pragmatic and continue to emphasize the need to move forward on some key priority areas.

In the context of the next federal budget (and I do hope that the federal government will bring down a budget in the coming months), the CCSD will recommend that the government:

  • Continue to move forward on the National Children' Agenda. More money is needed for early childhood development and initiatives need to be developed to address issues related to school-aged kids and youth.

  • Develop a National Disabilities Agenda in partnership with the provinces;

  • Develop a Fair Tax Agenda for all, and;

  • Take a leadership role in moving an Affordable Housing Agenda forward.

Finally, the federal government should move to address issues relevant to First Nations as the Prime Minister has said he wants to do during this new mandate.

(Details of CCSD proposals regarding the above mentioned agendas can be found in the CCSD brief to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance on the Council's website.)

Those are some of the main issues that the Council will be advocating in the coming months, as it continues to urge our governments to facilitate a broader debate around the framework and the vision that Canada should be developing. We do need a "projet de société", a "national agenda" that will capture our imagination and push us forward into the next century.

Thank you.


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