Coming Home: Reality Check

It is a pleasure to return to the exquisitely sweet softness of central Canada in mid-summer.

While the month away in New Zealand and Australia for a series of speaking engagements, conferences and meetings with government, university and NGO representatives on matters of science, technology, diplomacy and international policy, was delightful, it’s always nice to be home.

Except, except…

Time spent abroad always sharpens the comparative perspective. Returning from trips abroad over the past decade or so, I have noticed – with an increasing sense of alarm – that in comparison to most of Europe and Australasia, this country is looking kind of tired, worn down, wrung out and generally uncared for.

For some reason, on this occasion I experienced that sensation of falling behind with particular intensity. So with this post I have decided to put the analysis of international relations on hold and share some thoughts instead on what is becoming of Canada, my home and native land.

Of course, there are always exceptions, but here are some obvious illustrations:

  • Our public infrastructure is poorly maintained – the roads, parks, civic buildings and transportation hubs are in visible disrepair
  • The transit systems in most Canadian cities are atrocious – Toronto has slipped especially badly; Vancouver is alone among major Canadian cities to sport a light rail link to its airport.
  • The nation’s urban centres, whatever their other virtues, are not as liveable, user-friendly, or as physically attractive as they could and should be.

Or, in my opinion, as they once were.

If any reader is wondering what I am on about, try getting from Toronto’s city centre to L.B.Pearson International Airport during rush hour. Unless you are travelling by helicopter, add an hour and a half of gridlock to your itinerary.

Interested in visiting the nation’s capital? What impression would you get upon arrival at Ottawa’s unspeakably grungy inter-city bus terminal?

Fancy a trip to Canada’s bilingual, haute cultural, euro-lifestyle capital of Montreal? Cast your eyes first upon the cratered sidewalks, the omnipresent potholes, and the rust-stained, corroded, and sometimes collapsing freeways and bridges.

It is not a pretty picture. What’s worse, it has not always been thus. This used to be the country with the bright shining future. One of my formative experiences as a child was attending Expo 67, which projected an image of Canada as a land of the future on top of the world.  Now – and recall that I am referring primarily to the  physical appearance of the place –  the impression received is one of a second rate nation that has lost its way, slipped, seen better days.

And this is in the immediate wake of what was billed as a major infrastructure reconstruction  program and antidote to the Great Recession.

What happened?

Somewhere along the way, we appear to have stopped investing adequately in ourselves. It’s not that the money has been unavailable; Canada’s public finances are in better shape that almost any other country’s, and have been for well over a decade. A more likely explanation is that the values and priorities of various governments have resided elsewhere.

In important respects, it seems to me that Canada now represents a kind of national case study in what Naomi Klein has described as disaster capitalism. Except that Canada didn’t need any advice from the neo-liberal economic makeover wizards who populate institutions such the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

How, then, was this engineered?  The following would seem to constitute the main points in a contributing sequence of events.

At a time of robust economic growth, Canada’s federal government cut personal and corporate taxes, and reduced the GST by a few percentage points.

These actions eliminated several tens of billions of dollars per year in revenue, and with that the  capacity of the government to raise and retain funds which could later be deployed in support of the public interest.

At the same time, the government dramatically increased spending on the armed forces, accumulated the large ancillary expenses associated with going to war in Afghanistan, and presided over the unprecedented militarization of Canadian society.

The stage was set. In mid 2008, the inevitable happened, and a cyclical economic downturn hit, only this time it hit with a vengeance, world-wide.

In response, spending was cranked up – and with it, so was the deficit.

And now?  Surprise, surprise, it’s time to reap the whirlwind. To reduce the deficit, another round of the downsizing of the state, replete with wide-ranging public sector  program, service and employment reductions, is a certainty.

Whatever else this may represent – some kind of self-fulfilling ideological pre-disposition, perhaps – it is not a very promising formula for the significant rechanneling of funds into a refurbishment of our crumbling urban centres and dilapidated public infrastructure.

Let alon the long ovdue restoration and rebuilding of our once formidable diplomatic capacity.

That is regrettable. In a few years, Canada’s standing in the UNDP’s Human Development Index has fallen from first to eighth, and it is set to fall further.

In my view, this is lamentable, not least because it didn’t have to be that way.

The question is, do we still have time to change course?