Brian Lee Crowley is apprehensive about the future of Canada. In a remarkable new book, Fearful Symmetry: The Fall and Rise of Canada’s Founding Values, he decries those politicians and intellectuals who have been telling us for the past 50 years that “Canada is one of the top countries in the world; that we are nicer, kinder, and gentler than Americans; that we have shed an up-tight colonial past and have entered a brave new world of equality and freedom guaranteed by big government.
“Too bad,” says Crowley, “this message is self-serving twaddle.”
Really? Is it not true that over the past 50 years, Canada has maintained much more generous unemployment insurance and welfare benefits than the United States?
That, indeed, is correct. As a young socialist in the 1970s, Crowley applauded the Trudeau Liberal government for liberalizing unemployment insurance, increasing welfare benefits and greatly expanding the size and impact of government on the Canadian economy.
Looking back 40 years later, Crowley now realizes that no matter how generous and kindly meant, these Liberal initiatives have had a disastrous national impact, not least upon the poorest and most vulnerable Canadians.
Take the case of unemployment insurance. Crowley notes that the radically reduced eligibility requirements and increased benefits adopted by the Trudeau Liberals in 1971 resulted in the overnight creation of the “UI ski team.” Under the cockeyed provisions of the new system, employable people in areas of high unemployment could work just two weeks and live off UI for the rest of the year.
While ski bums may have benefited from these UI reforms, many other Canadians were not so fortunate. Crowley observes that there is widespread agreement among economists that the Liberals’ misguided UI reforms have been responsible for an increase of two percentage points in the difference between unemployment rates in Canada and the United States.
Increased welfare benefits have been no less pernicious. Crowley recalls that by the early 1990s, more than 10 per cent of the population of Ontario, then the richest province, was reduced to morale-destroying dependence on welfare handouts.
That was too much even for former Ontario NDP premier Bob Rae: His debt-ridden government could not afford the province’s soaring welfare costs, so he, a socialist, initiated the first rollbacks in welfare entitlements—a policy that was continued and extended by the government of his Conservative successor, former premier Mike Harris.
The result, notes Crowley, “has not been impoverishment and misery.” The great bulk of people who were removed from welfare gained both employment and higher incomes.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Canadians languish in what Crowley calls “pseudo-work;” that is to say, unproductive jobs financed by government. Among several examples, he cites the featherbedding at CN, which ended up with a workforce of some 36,000 as a crown corporation, but a few years after privatization, “that number was down by half to 18,000, while profitability and efficiency were way up.”
Crowley warns that once the current economic recovery picks up pace, Canada will enter upon an era of ever more acute labour shortages. At the root of the problem is the collapse in Canadian birth rates.
Crowley projects that within 20 years, there could be only two workers for every retired person in Canada, down from a ratio of 3.25 to one. No conceivable influx of immigrants can prevent the inexorable aging of the Canadian population. Somehow, a proportionally diminished labour force will have to finance the huge costs of medicare and pension benefits for vast numbers of retired baby boomers.
Crowley concludes that Canadian taxpayers can simply no longer afford the costs of sustaining millions of Canadians in pseudo work or chronic dependence on welfare and employment insurance. He warns that if Canada is to remain “a force for good in the world,” we must resurrect Canada’s founding values including “personal responsibility and autonomy;” “a strong individual work ethic;” and “marriage and family,” the “vital traditional social institution” which is essential to sustaining the national population.
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