Canada’s system of government is frustratingly focused on the blame game. Citizens who are looking for action on urgent national problems throw up their hands when our leaders respond with “Is that issue federal, provincial, municipal, or Aboriginal?” Governments too often take the easy way out by avoiding public scrutiny or satisfying short-term partisan or regional demands. Before Canadians lose all faith in the political system, we must get back to open debate, accountable decision-making, and collaboration that advances the interests of all citizens and, most important, the nation as a whole.
Canadians are all too familiar with the “Who, me?” routine of our leaders. What we really need from governments is cooperation: shared efforts to address issues of national significance. A Council of Canadian Governments, modelled on a successful Australian initiative, could build a better federalism for the 21st century, without wading into the swamp of constitutional amendment.
Canada’s tax system is riddled with exceptions, special cases, and limited exemptions that are at best inconsistent and at worst profoundly unfair. Some individuals and many businesses get breaks they don’t need, while low-income people who want to get ahead are held back by counterproductive rules and regulations. Restoring a fair and progressive tax regime would benefit the economy and society.
Our country is diverse in ways that enrich us — our geographical variety, our multicultural population — but we also have disparities that create unacceptable levels of inequality. An elaborate system channels revenues from Ottawa to other levels of government (provincial, territorial, municipal, Aboriginal), but it has little or no direct accountability. We need an independent Canadian Commission on Fiscal Transfers that will help us to meet our national goals and objectives in social policy.Reforming federal funding structures would also aid in providing more child care and strengthening post-secondary education.
Change is the only constant in the modern Canadian workplace. Technology and global economic patterns are transforming job markets, and workers must develop their skills and get practical experience to keep up. Governments play an important role: ensuring that education and training are accessible, and encouraging employers to provide on-the-job experience. Our employment insurance system should also be helping workers to adjust, but instead it serves up red tape and unequal treatment. Long-term thinking and a thorough overhaul of EI are essential to restore efficiency, fairness, and a balance between the needs of workers and the needs of employers.
Universal health care is a fundamental component of Canadian citizenship — even a national symbol that draws us together. But medicare has become less a national program and more of an uneven patchwork of services, with unacceptable variations in quality and availability. National leadership is shrinking just when the demand for health care and the confusion over private delivery are growing. Collaboration led by Ottawa must develop national standards for coverage and bring practical improvements to a public service we all depend upon.
Canadians are fully aware our society is aging, and we know a great many of us haven’t saved enough for those long golden years. A weak economy has caused frightening collapses of some private pension funds, and younger Canadians are questioning whether the public system they are contributing to today will be there for them in future decades. Instead of unilateral government pronouncements, it’s time for sensible public discussion about how to build a retirement and disability security system that is fair and sustainable.
Businesses and individuals who want to take their goods, services, or skills across provincial borders face a veritable obstacle course of differing rules and regulations. Some hurdles just mean more paperwork; others are brick walls. The continuing fragmentation of our economic interests limits job creation and makes it difficult for Canada to present a strong position in international negotiations. We have long needed more vigorous national support of effective economic union, including more modern and practical national standards that will help generate opportunities in the national and global economies.
If only upgrading Canada’s basic infrastructure were as easy as upgrading our digital gadgets. Maybe then we would not be facing a backlog of construction and repair needs that seems insurmountable. But in the real world, our economic competitiveness is slipping because our foundations are weak, and no one can say when or where the next catastrophic failure will occur. A Canadian Infrastructure Financing Authority is one option to keep public responsibility for infrastructure while injecting private capital. The federal government must be held accountable for this pressing national priority.
It’s simplistic to view all regulation as evil. Conservatives regularly take aim at regulations as part of their economic plan for smaller government. But these measures are intimately linked to the well-being and safety of Canadians and our country’s environment. Like other rules and programs, regulations should be assessed for effectiveness and efficiency, but eliminating them blindly or for purely ideological reasons is not in the national interest.
A national energy policy is a necessity for a country that is a world supplier of energy. It should include a carbon tax to promote sustainability by encouraging development of cleaner energy sources and reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. National leadership could also help to rationalize Canada’s fragmented electricity market. For a secure future, we need to focus on more than just pipelines; protection of the environment will bring broader and longer-term advantages.
All residents of this planet share a single environment. Scientists overwhelmingly agree that its climate is changing in harmful ways. But Canada’s government prefers to shoot the messenger. Political interference and budget cuts are hampering the work of Canadian scientists, and our national contribution to the global fight against climate change is shameful. An independent National Academy of Sciences would support the scientific community. Meanwhile, green entrepreneurs are leading the way with innovations in renewable energy and resource efficiency. Imagine what they could do if our government were not marching in the other direction.
Canada needs immigrants, but would-be Canadians who look at our policies and processes might think they are designed to keep people away. The admission system is fragmented, complicated, confusing, and slow, and many newcomers who make it to our shores never get the opportunities for a better life they were led to expect. The Conservative government recognizes the need for change but the measures it has pushed through, without adequate public debate, are mostly wrong-headed. We need to look at immigration from a national perspective, not just from the viewpoint of a federal or provincial government, an employer or an educational institution. Immigration reform must be accomplished in a way that strengthens our social fabric and is consistent with our fundamental values of the rule of law, equality, and fairness.
Success for Canada in the international sphere starts at home, where we can build on the strengths of our land, our people, and our economy. In negotiations abroad to rebalance trade flows, our stance must be a principled one. Good partners for Canada are those who see a deal with us as more than a means of entering the much more desirable U.S. market. Canada should help build global rules and institutions in critical areas, such as the monetary and financial system. In international development assistance, we are not doing as much as we can afford to.
Protecting Canadians is a much different challenge today than it used to be. We face few armies lined up on battlefields but many insidious threats from failed states, climate change, illegal drug and weapons trades, and cyberwarfare. As defenders of human rights, we must support international institutions and join other nations in protecting human security wherever it is at risk. Our government should engage Canadians in deciding what sort of military we need and how to equip it. Open and accountable decision-making processes would prevent reruns of recent procurement disasters.
What does it mean to be Canadian when we come from everywhere? Our increasing diversity is our greatest strength. But we are unified in our devotion to the fundamental values expressed in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Canadians are uniquely positioned to be in the front ranks of a world without borders. With a clear global vision and bold national leadership, we can show that a progressive, vigorous, multi-ethnic democracy can thrive.
Canadians should reject the defeatist contention that keeping Quebec within our country is a lost cause. Quebec’s provincial government may set itself apart, but Quebecers can see beyond the politics of division. Although Canada’s decentralized federal structure is a successful model for the world, what we share across the nation is more fundamental: the beliefs and principles of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Quebecers and other Canadians can and must work together to build a stronger sense of Canadian nationhood and meet the daunting challenges of the 21st century.
Canada should accept the bold proposal from the Assembly of First Nations to abolish the Indian Act. Like other governments in Canada, the governing bodies of First Nations must be responsible to their own people, not to a federal cabinet minister. The new framework for self-government, to be negotiated as a treaty, should reduce bureaucracy and fragmentation and increase accountability. In the meantime, Ottawa should act immediately to raise the unacceptable standards of living of too many Indigenous Canadians, including the majority who now live in urban centres. We should start with practical measures to improve health care and education.
A nation relies on its artists to tell its own story and shape its identity. Canadians are enthusiastic readers, listeners, and viewers, but we recognize — more than our current leadership — that our culture also needs public support to thrive. Arts organizations, especially the Canada Council and the CBC, require steady, predictable federal funding. Many Canadian artists have international followings, but assistance is still needed to give local talent a fair chance against global competitors. Ensuring that our cultural sector remains vibrant is essential to our quality of life and delivers economic benefits as an encore.
All Canadians want to be safe on their streets and in their homes, but this goal will not be achieved by building more prisons or by harsher sentencing of criminals. Diverting valuable resources into incarceration and away from prevention and rehabilitation efforts will strain the system while doing nothing to improve public safety. A new Criminal Justice Council to oversee changes to the Criminal Code, and an independent and transparent judicial appointments process, would help to protect the integrity of the justice system.
The rule of the Prime Minister’s Office increasingly dwarfs the power of the elected House of Commons. Reforms to a broad range of parliamentary rules and procedures would go a long way towards shrinking the “democratic deficit” that is undermining Canadians’ attachment to their government — as would cutting the number of spin doctors cluttering up the bureaucracy. Streamlining the cabinet and integrating departments to reflect 21st-century priorities would save time and money and result in more informed and progressive legislation.
The first-past-the-post voting system seems to be losing the confidence of Canadians. Reformers have been promoting workable alternatives such as proportional representation (PR) or a system of preferential balloting called Alternative Vote (AV) for years, but political parties don’t seem eager to take up the cause. Canada can learn from the experience of Australia, which has successfully used an AV system and compulsory voting for decades. A national referendum should give Canadians the choice of improving the nuts and bolts of our democratic machinery.