"A Citizen"s Eye View"

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Canada's Big Heart

I used to be an educational assistant working at an inner city school in Ontario Canada. So my job was basically to assist physically, developmentally or emotionally challenged children gain access to their universally recognized right to an education and to help them to realize their full potential. 

That in itself is a pretty special thing. I've been a child and Youth worker for over 30 years now and have worked with a lot of different kids in a lot of different kinds of settings. The consistent theme of my career has been the challenge of working with some of society's most vulnerable and neediest young people despite living in a world that is appearing to be less and less willing to help the helpless. It has done much to shape my political views over the years. 

But the job I used to do in the school where I used to  do it, was extra special. It has a mammoth population of immigrant and refugee children.  It isn't a big school. An elementary school - JK to eight - with about 400 students. But among those 400 students, there are 53 first languages spoken other than English. It has kids from Mayanmar, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Eritrea, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Vietnam and a particularly large Somali population. And yes, it used to have Roma kids as well. 

Of those  kids who have come from far away places, I would say that the majority of them are refugees from war-torn, highly impoverished places. They've come from the squalor of UN refugee camps. They've escaped wars. Many have stories of fleeing their homes in the middle of the night to escape death squads. They've seen family members- parents- killed before their eyes. They've all lost loved ones or been forced to leave them behind. They've all experienced violence on a level we can only imagine. Some were born in jungles. Many have never been to school before. 

But these kids come to school every day. And they have smiles on their
Safe for the first time in their young lives. 
faces. They are eager and willing to learn. The various cultures, ethnicities and religious backgrounds melt together and play together. And they are safe, perhaps for the first time in their young lives. And they are happy. 

"...and I wonder which ones would not be alive today".
I used to look around at all the smiling young faces and sometimes wonder which ones would not be alive if they had not been brought to Canada, if they had not been given the opportunity to live in the kind of place with the same kinds of rights and guarantees of personal health and safety that we tend to take for granted. And it made me so very proud that our society has such a big heart- that it is willing to give all these wonderful children the opportunity to live the same kind of life as my children. That it gives these young people a chance at life itself. 

Canada has a long and admirable reputation as being a good global citizen. It has contributed often to the greater good, whether it be through peacekeeping, international aid, diplomatic missions in war-torn countries or by opening itself to adopting the world's neediest, by welcoming them and enveloping them in it's warm embrace like we were global foster parents. But these days, a chill wind is beginning to sweep over the land.  

As I said above, there used to be Roma children in my school. I doubt
These Roma children are apparently
not deserving of our kindness. 
there are any left now. A part of our otherwise warm heart froze over when the previous Conservative government decided that Roma kids were not worthy of our kindness. They were accused of being freeloaders and bums - here just to take advantage of our social assistance. But I looked at the kids, and I knew otherwise. 

We had a little Roma girl in grade two, a happy young child who had lived the majority of her life here in Canada. Her entire school career to that point had been in the school where I worked. She was born with no right hand. She had been assessed and was in the process of being fitted for a fully functional, state of the art, prosthetic hand. Courtesy of our collective good will. But then that dark, cold part of the Conservative government decided that this beautiful little girl was not worthy of our generosity, that the money being spent on giving her a better quality of life, could probably be better spent on gazebos and self aggrandizing advertisement. And the little girl with the smiling face became sad, and she disappeared one day. And one by one, all the little Roma children who lived in the safety of our protective society disappeared. And something died in all of us.  

So when I hear people complaining about the immigrants and refugees, that they are just coming to Canada to sponge off our good will, I just shake my head and think of the children. These are the beneficiaries of our helping spirit. These are the ones who will remember our helping hand and will grow up to become proud members of the nation that opened it's heart to them. 

One of our grade eight students who had spent much of her life in a refugee camp in Thailand was asked one day what she wanted to be when she grew up. She didn't say she wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer. She simply said: " I want to be someone I can be proud of". And I knew then that our collective kindness would be paid forward one day. And I knew that despite the ignorance of the political ideology of a few cynical and disconnected men, that our country remains a place where the worlds needy children can come and live in peace and become the kinds of citizens that have become the very soul of our caring society. The kind of people we can be proud of. Thank goodness for Canada's big heart!

Sunday, September 22, 2013

So When Did Welfare Become a Dirty Word?

"Stupid fucking Canadians"!
In 1997, Stephen Harper made a speech to a group of uber-conservative Americans in which he made several derogatory comments about Canada and Canadian society. He claimed that Canada was: "...a Northern European Welfare State in the worst sense of the term, and very proud of it"- like this was a bad thing or something. 

The terms"Welfare" and "Welfare state" have of course, become dirty words in our society. They have come to mean that the recipients of the state's good will are nothing but bums and sponges who are a drain on our economy and a lead weight around the necks of the middle and upper classes. 

And the term Welfare State is connected to and often confused with "Socialism". Socialism, as I understand it, is an economic and political school of thought while Welfare is the notion of the state's duty to provide for the economic and social well being of it's citizens. 

Socialism has been around since the industrial revolution and has spoken to the inequality of our society for generations. It has acknowledged that the affluent few, the 1% as they are referred to today, have an obligation to help improve the lot of the laborers who slave to make them rich. 

Welfare on the other hand, refers to a system of progressive taxation that compels the richer classes to contribute proportionately to the state's largesse in order to create greater social and economic equality. Citizens who are able, might pay more personal taxes, but by and large, a more equitable society is created where everyone has the same rights to quality education, health care and benefits in the event of unemployment, old age or personal hardship. In Canada, we have come to refer to this as our "Social Safety Net".  

But Socialism and Welfare are today regarded as being inextricably connected and Socialism has, of course, been connected with what the west has called the "scourge" of free will and individual rights known as Communism. This despite the fact that Socialism can and regularly does, exist in free and open democratic nations.  

No, neither of these men are
Stephen Harper. But he may
have learned a lesson or two
from them.
We'd have to go back to pre World War II Europe and take a peek at what was going on in order to understand where all this started. Nazi Germany was being governed by a party that- as many right-wing commentators today like to point out- referred to itself as Socialist while Russia, which considered itself to be Communist, was being governed by the controversial Joseph Stalin. 

Despite his cold, callous brutality and the numerous deaths attributed to his tactics, many in Russia still regard Stalin as a hero and a recent poll has claimed that fully a third of Russian people would vote for Stalin if he were alive today. 

But while Germany was, of course, no where near being a true socialist country, the Soviet Union under Stalin, still adhered to many Communist principals but has since been painted by the west, rightly or wrongly, as a blood-thirsty totalitarian regime.   

It wasn't hard then for countries like the U.S., who adhere to their constitution with the same religious zeal that Christians adhere to the ten commandments, to demonize these concepts as purely evil. There was no separation between what these countries purported to be and what they really were. Which caused one post-war British M.P. to declare that: "It is probably true that Western Europe would have gone socialist after the war if Soviet behaviour had not given it too grim a visage". Hence, Stalinist Communism and Socialism are not yet sufficiently distinguished in many minds." In other words, Socialism was getting a bum rap. 

Our "Betters" would 
have us believe that 
Communism would rot 
our teeth and stunt 
our growth!
But of course, even without the bum rap, America is and always has been an ardent capitalist society who's every institution and politician is driven by the rich and the well placed. There was no incentive whatsoever for them to embrace the concepts of social equality and duty of the state to it's citizens. Since birth, every American citizen had, and continues to have, the myth of the righteousness of free enterprise and the myth that anybody can be anything they aspire to be through hard work, driven into their heads. Armed with these popular notions, it wasn't hard for the American elite to persuade the masses of the evils of Socialism. They wrapped themselves in the flag of nationalism, pointed their bony fingers at the Soviets and shouted "j'accuse"

Then came the era of McCarthyism where hundreds of thousands of Americans were wrongly accused of being Communist sympathizers. But of course, by then, Communism and Socialism were considered to be one and the same and both were believed to be the enemies of the "American Dream". 

But Canada went in a decidedly different direction. Despite living next to the most powerful country in the world, we had our own ideas about what society should look like and to what extent the state owes a sense of duty to it's citizens. Over successive generations since the second world war, Canada embraced the concepts of Welfare, universal health care, unemployment insurance etc. And we all became stubbornly proud of the way we looked after each other. And this all occurred without ever once referring to ourselves as a Socialist country. We were just a democracy with progressive social ideals. 

Then one day, one of our neighbors to the south looked at what was going on up here and loudly proclaimed that Canada was a Socialist state. And the notion took off like wildfire. And in shocked disbelief, we looked around at each other and said "Who? Us"?

But in fact, what Canada had become is a Welfare state, in the BEST sense of the word. Successive post-war governments took very seriously their duty to the citizens who elected them and took the concept of equality to heart. We are, if nothing else, a very fair minded lot. But to most observers, Socialist and Welfare States are one and the same, and Socialism is, of course, thanks to suffering from several generations of a bum rap, the same thing as Stalinist Communism, the antithesis of the capitalist notion of freedom as espoused by the world's power brokers. 

Enter Stephen Harper and his merry band of pranksters. Stephen was
"Fuck health care, fuck EI,
 fuck welfare and fuck
the people who use it"!
weaned on notions of the purity of the English tradition (sound familiar?) and the dogma of the American Neo-Conservatives. According to this dogma, human beings are mostly inert creatures. They are motivated only by pain or pleasure. So if not faced with either the pain of hunger or the pleasure of great reward, they become essentially inert. Unproductive. Useless.  

So then to Stephen and his like, concepts like Welfare and the Social Safety Net are "demotivators". The over-riding belief is that those who are poor, deserve to be poor and are undeserving of government assistance. They should use their hunger and that of their children as motivation to work at one or more poverty level jobs hundreds of miles from home. In this way, they are useful contributors to the economy and remain both beholden to, and subservient to their betters, namely their employers. So Stephen WANTS there to be inequality and distinct classes of citizenry. None of this "duty of the state" nonsense.  

How the western corporate
elites would have us view a
Welfare State
So it's no wonder that Stephen and the other elites consider the phrase "Welfare State" to be a dirty word. It goes against their system of beliefs and generally, undercuts their collective bottom lines. Hence the billions of dollars corporations have squirreled away in offshore accounts safely out of reach of governments who, if able to levy taxes on it, might actually be able to do some good with it. Nope, these companies and rich folk earned this money damn it and they aim to keep it. "Fuck the employees, fuck the poor and fuck their bastardly children to boot"!

So then it's worth it to the ultra right wing tea-party-like conservatives to blaspheme the concept of "Welfare" and to declare that it's recipients, the country's poorest and most vulnerable people, are useless slugs who are a burden on the hard working citizens of the country, never mind the fact that most Welfare States have considerably lower levels of poverty and hence, more consumers than their counterparts. 

Politicians like Stephen campaign on such notions and drive home this divisive and derisive notion about Welfare. And the right wing media (think Ezra Levant here) eats this kind of stuff up and regurgitates it for the evening news, thus proliferating the distorted perception of Welfare and the Welfare State. 

Now it may sound like I'm blaming Stephen Harper here for the bastardization of Welfare in Canada. Stephen is guilty of many societal ills but this is one crime I can't pin on him alone. He is but one of many faces in the Welfare lynch-mob. 

A better case could be made against former Ontario Premier Mike Harris.  During his tenure, "Hatchet-Man Mike" was responsible for slashing Welfare by a whopping 21%. Ontario's poor have never recovered from this crippling blow. But then, Harris and Harper are joined at the hip by ideology when it comes to the treatment of society's poor and most vulnerable. They view them with the bitterest of contempt and would sooner see them enslaved or worse, imprisoned. 

And the rich get richer and the poor go to jail!