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How can post-pandemic Canada change for the better?

This op-ed by Parkland Institute director Trevor Harrison appeared in the Edmonton Journal on April 16, 2020.

The word “war” has become the standard metaphor in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. But all wars end, eventually, and so we must turn our thoughts to what comes after.

A series of articles in recent days have begun this turning. The most thoughtful of these is that of Andrew Cohen, a journalist and academic. His recent Globe and Mail commentary enjoins us to “organize ourselves now so we can consider reconstruction and renewal after this crisis is over.” To this end, he suggests the establishment of a blue-ribbon commission on the economy and social welfare with representation from “business, labour, the academy and civil society.”

This is sound advice. In fact, rumours suggest the federal government is already moving to make this happen. As Cohen notes, there are vast precedents for such deep and considered planning. Despite the wreckage of war and serious debt — Canada’s immediate post-war debt was well in excess of GDP — western governments after 1945 began implementing a series of policies that, together, defined the post-war welfare state.

While varying in form and substance from country to country, the welfare state’s basic characteristic included unemployment insurance, social allowance, educational support, and health care. European countries, especially those in Scandinavia, were the most expansive and generous, while the United States proved a notable laggard. Canada fell somewhere in between, its most European adoption being universal health care in the 1960s.

These policies and programs did not suddenly arise after 1945. Civil servants and assorted academics had long been busily constructing the post-war framework. The impetus for this work was not only the war, however. Quite correctly, most observers believed the war was a product of deep changes in society that, over several decades, had ravaged the economy and led to the Great Depression in 1929. Right-wing demagogues had simply mobilized the resultant social despair, anger, and fear.

Planning for the post-war world began in the U.S. with President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s and continued throughout the war years, but it had its echo in other countries: in Britain, the Beveridge Report, whose revolutionary aim was the setting out a path for abolishing Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor, and Idleness; in Canada, the Report on Social Security for Canada, whose genesis can be found years earlier in work by the League for Social Reconstruction.

These policy measures did us well generally well until the 1970s. Since then, however, a series of factors have rent our social fabric: among them globalization, the emergence of new technologies, and — most especially — the dominance of a “trickle-down” ideology that has justified a breathtaking rise in inequality even surpassing that which existed in 1929.

In consequence, poverty rates have surged, the middle class has become fearful, and a new class of mainly young workers — the “precariat” — has been created whose future appears increasingly bleak.

These problems did not arise with the pandemic; they’ve been brewing for several decades. The pandemic has only made them more manifest and the need to address them, more pressing. Already, some ideas of a future policy framework are emerging, most especially that of some form of guaranteed income.

But we must not stop there. What about free university tuition in Canada, something already existing in many European countries? What about a shorter work week and a better distribution of the wealth produced by our new technologies? An expansion of health-care coverage to such things as eye and dental care for all?

Beyond specific policy proposals, however, we need to learn again what we knew, but forgot, decades ago: that governments matter; that planning matters; that the private economy must not stand outside of and above society, but must be imbedded in it; that, indeed, a good society makes for a good economy; that public servants — teachers, nurses, doctors, social and child-care workers — are not just nice people to have around when the economy is good, but important and integral parts of a nation’s functioning; and that poverty and homelessness are the weak points through which disease enters and spreads.

We are regularly told we must pull together, and this is true. But solidarity cannot be an occasional thing brought about by crises; pulling together is the necessary condition for the survival of human society. When this particular war is over, and we have won — as we will — we must not fail to win the peace.

Trevor Harrison

Trevor W. Harrison is a professor of sociology at the University of Lethbridge and director of Parkland Institute, an Alberta-wide research organization, of which he was a founding member and first research director. Dr. Harrison is best known for his studies in political sociology, political economy and public policy. He is the author, co-author or co-editor of nine books, numerous journal articles, chapters, and reports, and a frequent contributor to public media, including radio and television.

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