Friday, May 01, 2009

Are we sure we're still on the way up?

I suppose every generation wants to believe it’s improving on the past. That’s how it always seemed in my history lessons at school, too - that we were intent on working our way up, from “primitive” to medieval to Renaissance and right on through to the enlightened human beings of modern times.
We’ve made some remarkable progress. We’re healthier than we’ve ever been, and easily surviving diseases that once used to kill us off in vast numbers. We don’t just talk about human rights, we enshrine them in our laws. We wear our seatbelts, bicycle helmets, sunscreen and in-car sobriety with pride, and are better for it.
I used to ponder ugly moments in history and feel grateful for not having been alive in those years. The destructive and stupid behaviours of human beings through the ages baffled me, but I was happy that my generation dwelt in kinder, gentler times and was in turn leaving a better world for their own children.
But is that what’s actually happening? Is life in Canada improving? I’ve got my doubts, given the wear and tear of two decades of federal and provincial governments whose actions have seriously eroded the social fabric of the Canada I was born into.
I don’t mean to suggest another Crusades is imminent, or that we’ll soon be using wild animals to kill off the old and weak in front of a cheering crowd of thousands.
But the disasters of history start out small - one thing and then another, each piling on top of each other to bend a country in a way that no one had expected. The emergence of a growing underclass in Canada is of no small concern.
The decline most evident to me after most of a lifetime in B.C. is a loss of economic and political power for the “common people,” if you will. It’s a subtle change that has come about incrementally, aggravated by a prevailing political ideology in which minimal government is the stated goal even while power and money accumulate at the top in ways that are very nearly feudal.
An interesting statistic, courtesy of child advocacy group First Call and Stats Canada: Between 1989 and 2006, the richest 10 per cent of B.C. families with children saw their average annual income rise 30 per cent, to $201,490. In that same period, the poorest 10 per cent of families saw their income fall eight per cent, to $15,657.
The richest of the rich in Canada more than doubled their average yearly income in the years between 1982 and 2004, to $2.5 million. The years weren’t as kind to families in the bottom 10 per cent, who by 2004 had average income of a mere $6,000 a year.
That’s not to say rich people aren’t entitled to their wealth. No doubt many work very hard for the money. But the growing gap between the rich and poor in Canada didn’t come about because the rich work hard and the poor are lazy. We’ve had a series of governments whose policies have made things better for those who already had it pretty good, and considerably worse for those just getting by.
In B.C., one of the first things to go was the fishing industry, given away by Ottawa to a handful of wealthy men. Next was forestry, to the point that even the land where the trees once grew now gets handed off to developers without a whisper of consultation.
Our social systems have become twisted versions of themselves, to the point where our governments reward themselves for taking away people’s benefits.
In the first year of B.C.’s intensified crackdown on welfare under the Liberals, a deputy minister received a $15,400 bonus for slashing the welfare caseload by 22 per cent. Eight years on, there’s little evidence that anything about the immensely costly welfare-to-work years have benefited British Columbians (see A massive increase in homelessness in the same period has in fact increased the cost and extent of poverty dramatically.
Meanwhile, employment insurance is now so difficult to get that barely 30 to 40 per cent of unemployed Canadians qualify for it, even while Ottawa sits on a $54-billion EI surplus. If you feel frustratingly powerless to change such things, as I do, that’s a pretty serious signal that we’ve lost control of our governments.
In less than two weeks, a new government will be elected in B.C. For the sake of a better tomorrow, please pick with care and thoughtfulness. And vote “yes” for STV, which at least puts a little power back into the hands of the people.

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