As the waves of the U.S. financial tsunami start to lap up against Canadian shores, voters are beginning to ask themselves who the candidates will sympathize with come crunch time: bankers or ordinary workers? Stephen Harper would have you believe that he, like Bill Clinton, feels your pain. While empathizing with working people generally lies outside the formal training of right-wing economists such as Harper, the Prime Minister assured a crowd in London, Ont. that he feels for people who have lost their jobs:
We know that some Canadian workers are transitioning between jobs, that’s never easy and I don’t want to minimize it, but we should never lose sight of how solid our fundamentals are and more importantly how fortunate we are to live in this country.
While those fortunate enough to own stock in the banks and the oil companies have certainly enjoyed the fruits of "solid" economic fundamentals, ordinary Canadians have most certainly not, according to a recent study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. It wasn’t always so. "Between the Second World War and 1980, the economic pie was growing at all points in the distribution, even if income shares in Canada didn’t change much" observes Lars Osberg, author of "A Quarter Century of Economic Inequality in Canada: 1981-2006".
With the exhaustion of the post-war boom, however, class warfare was reborn under the moniker of neoliberalism. Employers’ hardened stance and an open assault on trade union freedoms – pursued by Tory and Liberal governments alike – would usher in a "new norm" of lowered expectations and "stagnant or declining real wages, despite unprecedented improvements in education and skills," for Canadian workers. The "fear of falling" for workers was also enhanced, with the poor facing "a much nastier reality now than twenty years ago, since cuts to social assistance have substantially increased the poverty gap – even in Canada’s richest provinces."
(Stephane Dion’s claim to represent both social justice and the economic legacy of the Chretien/Martin years is unproblematic only to those with a serious case of historical amnesia. It was precisely the deep cuts to social spending made by the Liberals during those years – after beating the Tories in 1993 on the promise of "Jobs, jobs, jobs" – that helped established this "new norm".)
While Harper sang the praises of Canada’s economic fundamentals, ordinary Canadians were clear that the matter is not simply of "transitioning" from one job to another. "All the well paid jobs are turning into low-paid jobs with no benefits," Roy Jollymore, a retired General Motors worker, told the Canadian Press. "The life we’ve built up is not going to be available for young people," he said as his wife Joan stood by him outside the London Convention Centre.
To Canadian workers suffering the brunt of economic restructuring, Harper’s callous message must sound a lot like Marie-Antoinette’s advice to the sans-culottes of the French Revolution. Declaring "Let them eat economic fundamentals!" is cold comfort to those who are working harder and sinking deeper into debt just to stay in place, as so many Canadians are.
Yet for economists like Harper who fetishize economic figures like GDP growth, or for those who actually profit by them, the economy of the past quarter century has worked marvellously. The incomes of the richest 1% of Canadians have been growing very strongly, especially since the 1990s – with even greater gains going to the richest 0.1% and 0.01%. "They are literally pulling away from the rest of Canadians," according to the CCPA.
Harper was not urging Canadians to feel fortunate with respect to their recent past, however. As he continued his speech, Harper explained that what workers "should never lose sight of" is how fortunate they are not to be Haitians:
He then talked about how he travelled to a desperately impoverished slum in Haiti and how the people there looked hopeless, in stark contrast to Canada, which he described as "a land of above all else, boundless hope."
The demagogy is breathtaking. After all, it was Canada, in concert with the U.S. and France, who put Haitians in such a hopeless situation. Canada helped plan and execute the overthrow Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s democratically-elected reformist government, in whom Haiti’s poor had invested so much hope. After the coup d’État, Naomi Klein writes, there was "a wave of Falluja-like collective punishment inflicted on neighborhoods known for supporting Aristide," unleashed by the Canada-backed interim government and the UN "peacekeeping" mission.
The repression imposed a "peace of the graveyards" on these restive neighborhoods, so that Harper and other foreign dignitaries could visit like conquering heroes. During his July 20, 2007, visit to Cité Soleil, one of the hardest hit neighborhoods of Haiti’s capital, Harper stated that Canada’s presence in Haiti was "giving [Haitians] some hope and some opportunity," and that "Canadians should be very proud that they are offering to help, that our help is making a difference in terms in safety of people’s lives." The sullen looks on the faces of the mothers present for Harper’s awkward photo-op, however, told another story.
The savage violence of the occupation was necessary to impose a tremedously unpopular neoliberal economic plan on Haiti. The opposition was so great that Haitians began referring to IMF and World Bank strictures as the "plan lanmo", literally "the death plan". Today the "death plan" continues its march under the name of the Interim Cooperation Framework. Written largely by experts from the World Bank and the Canadian and American governments, the text of the ICF is explicit about the anti-democratic nature of the deal:
The transition period and the Transitional Government provide a window of opportunity for implementing economic governance reforms with the involvement of civil society stakeholders that may be hard for a future government to undo.
As part of a Latin American tour, Harper’s visit to Haiti was a bellwether of the changed economic times. Canadian capital in the neoliberal age has aggressively expanded abroad, with foreign direct investment reaching $445 billion in 2004, representing nearly 40% of GDP (up from 5% of GDP in 1970). Latin America has been a favourite destination for Canadian investors, whose assets total $96 billion, making Canada the region’s second-largest investor. This regional dominance isn’t about to change either, with the growth rate of Canadian investments there far exceeding that of Asia or the EU.
Canada’s corporate elites have urged a foreign policy centred on prying open markets and investment outlets, while forcibly integrating recalcitrant and "dysfunctional" or "failed" states like Haiti into the world economy. As the tour began, Scotiabank President Rick Waugh called on Harper to "place a particular focus on trade and investment opportunities in the Americas because of our historic cultural and political ties, our existing corporate links, and the tremendous growth potential and proximity of these markets."
While the situation of Haitians and Canadians are in many ways worlds apart, there are more similarities than Harper’s crass "hopelessness" vs. "boundless hope" comparison acknowledges. Just days before food riots exploded across Haiti, the UN released a glowing report on Haiti’s economy: "Macroeconomic indicators have continued to improve, and the country has experienced economic growth at a level that had not been possible for decades." Once the crisis broke, however, UN officials were forced to admit that while "economic growth has returned to a 1991 level of 3.2% a year and inflation declined to 8% in 2007 from 30%-40% a few years earlier, . . . there has not been any improvement in difficult living conditions of the vast majority of Haitians." Neoliberalism, in Haiti like in Canada, has created an economy whose economic fundamentals no longer correspond in any meaningful way to the well-being of ordinary people.
Economics are not the only area of convergence. Stephen Baranyi uses these broad strokes to describe Haiti’s social order: "Haitian politics have historically been controlled by elites who have used their power to enhance their and their allies’ privileges. It rests on an awareness of the continued influence of those elites, and the contemporary twist to this cruel tale by which some of these elites are now junior partners in transnational organized criminal networks that link kingpins in Colombia to their counterparts in countries like Canada and the USA."
Yet are Canadian politics that different? Or have they not also "historically been controlled by elites who have used their power to enhance their and their allies’ privileges" with a similar "contemporary twist . . . by which some of these elites are now junior partners in transnational organized criminal networks" in Washington, in Paris, etc.?
Nikolas Barry-Shaw is a member of Haiti Action Montreal and Masse Critique, an anti-capitalist collective of Québec Solidaire.