Two Stories about Canada

July 5, 2017

Photo: Clare Yow.
This article is featured in “Reflections of Canada: Illuminating our Biggest Possibilities and Challenges at 150 Years“, a collection of essays by Canada’s leading writers, researchers, and public intellectuals peers into the country’s past and future in the 150th year since Confederation.

By Margot Young and Ed Broadbent

It is a much overused phrase, but Canadians, nonetheless, continue to refer to Canada as a “kinder and gentler nation.” Events to the immediate south of us may make this seem true, but we should guard against complacency. Looking at Canada on its own, or with a broader lens that pulls other countries into comparative focus, the picture is more complicated.

Indeed, there are two stories to be told about Canada on the 150th anniversary of Confederation. Each speaks to the question of how fair, just, and equal our society is. From one perspective, Canada rightly prides itself on embracing the core values of equality and tolerance. We hear this Canada in Prime Minister Trudeau’s February 2017 speech to the European Parliament about Canadian values: “We believe in democracy, transparency, and the rule of law. We believe in human rights. We believe in inclusion and diversity.” The other story, however, is darker: it tells a tale of human rights failures, growing inequality, and diminished tolerance. This second frame is captured by the observation from then United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Louise Arbour, in her 2005 LaFontaine-Baldwin Lecture that “poverty and gross inequalities [persist] in our own backyard.” How is it, she continues, that “such glaring disparities prevail in a country such as [Canada], a wealthy, culturally diverse, cosmopolitan democracy?”

At stake in each of the two contrasting perspectives is the idea of citizenship—broadly understood—and what it means in Canada. This reference is to citizenship not as a formal legal status, but as an indication of social, political, and legal inclusion in a community. It is a focus that returns us to the insights of T.H. Marshall, a mid-twentieth-century sociologist who, in a famous 1950 essay, “Citizenship and Social Class,” formulated the notion of social citizenship, supplementing recognition of political and civil rights with a call for the substantive guarantees of social and economic rights. Social and economic rights are entitlements to the material needs of life—to such things as economic well-being, housing, health care, education, and food security. For Western democracies like Canada, these new rights—core social democratic values—transformed the nature of citizenship.

Marshall’s expansion of the meaning of citizenship dovetails with the emergence of modern usage of the term “social justice.” Marshall’s social citizen is the one to whom social justice is owed. This notion of social justice responds to the ravages of the Industrial Revolution and its laissez-faire economics. And, for Marshall, the linkage with citizenship followed on the heels of the “searing experiences” of the Great Depression and the Second World War. It is worth pointing out that social rights are the result of political struggle led by labour, socialist, and social democratic parties. As Canadian political scientist Janine Brodie argues, social justice demands equality, assigns responsibility for that equality to our public political institutions, and requires just redistribution of the resources required to achieve substantive equality.1 Without this just distribution, the protections of political liberty and of economic choice are meaningless. Social justice need not necessarily, or only, be cast in the language of human rights. But rights are effective currency for conveying an immediacy of need and the accountability of the state to address marginalization and deprivation.

Alleviation of material inequality thus became a requirement of justice and a matter of state responsibility; recognition of the “social” is counterpoint to the individualism of classical liberalism, and foil to present-day neo-liberalism. And, again as Brodie notes, the ideals of social citizenship and of social justice feed the national identity of Canadians as distinct from “their less caring and less sharing” neighbours to the south.

Canadian notions of social citizenship today are more attentive to how race and gender, for example, configure status in society. Feminists, critical race scholars, and, in the recent Canadian context, Indigenous thinkers have deepened this ideal. For example, citizenship for Indigenous peoples is layered; it is experienced both in relation to the larger Canadian society and from the context of their own Indigenous communities, and, for many, it is intrinsically linked to the land. This more nuanced understanding of social identities and citizenship has allowed keener investigation of the social practices, norms, and rules that grant effective citizenship.

The 150 years since Confederation have seen both high and low points of social citizenship: it is a history of human rights and social justice achievements and failures. The story that celebrates Canada names us as a country of sophisticated human rights understanding and an advanced legal and political system to protect those rights. We hear of twentieth-century Canada active in the field of human rights and social justice. Indeed, as in democracies around the world, the post war period in Canada was a time of growing social consciousness. We are often told of a Canadian’s role in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights: John Humphrey, a former McGill University professor, produced the document’s first draft. Enactment of modern human rights law gained steam in this period as the provinces and the federal government, one by one, put human rights codes—protections against discrimination—in place. Ontario’s 1944 Racial Discrimination Act was followed in 1947 by the Saskatchewan Bill of Rights Act, the first comprehensive statute. By 1977, every jurisdiction in Canada had a human rights code. With the exception of the broader codes of Saskatchewan and Quebec, these were primarily anti-discrimination laws. In 1960, Diefenbaker’s government enacted the Canadian Bill of Rights, legislation granting a range of civil and political rights within federal jurisdiction.

This notion of equality rights–based citizenship went hand in hand with the development of the welfare state and its goal of maximizing the collective well-being of citizens. In Canada, key social and economic programs were launched, aimed at furthering equality and economic welfare: the Canada Pension Plan, Old Age Security, family assistance, unemployment insurance—all gave form to a commitment to social citizenship, delivered through universal social programs. This was the beginning of Canada’s modern welfare state. By 1972, our public health insurance system had been created. Begun in Saskatchewan in 1962, the commitment to universal access to health care was now national.

Finally, in 1982, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Canada’s constitutional bill of rights, was enacted. Now, at its thirty-fifth anniversary, it’s clear that the Charter has ushered in significant changes, and it has altered the language of how we talk about citizenship. In 1989, the Supreme Court of Canada decided its first equality case, Andrews v. Law Society of British Columbia. This decision about citizenship and practicing law launched the notion of substantive equality into Canada’s legal and political landscape. Substantive equality advances equality beyond merely formal same treatment to nuanced understanding of how context, material circumstances, and identity shape experience of the law and state power. Statistics Canada’s 2013 Social Identity Survey found that 90 percent of Canadians regard the Charter to be an important symbol of Canadian identity. (Hockey was lower at 77 percent.) Ninety-two percent said human rights were a shared value. We have come to see government accountability for rights as unexceptional.

This rosy story, however, fades, to be replaced by another. The Charter has been, for many, a disappointment. Those most in need of rights are, too often, those least covered by its protections. Charter litigation is expensive and lengthy. Cases that push at the greatest inequalities in our society—claims for housing rights, decent income supports—have been time after time thrown out by the courts. The poor are Canada’s “constitutional castaways.”2 That key partnership Marshall first articulated between civil/political rights and social/economic rights lies neglected by our courts.

And we need our courts because our governments now increasingly disregard the guarantees of social citizenship. The 1990s saw a recasting of the social contract of the postwar years. Austerity became the order of the day, and both federal and provincial governments rolled back social programs, like unemployment insurance (transformed to the Orwellian-named Employment Insurance), legal aid, employment equity, and income assistance. Nascent, much-needed services like a federal public child care plan were cancelled. Even our universal, single-payer health care system is under threat as the business model of health care delivery deploys Charter rights in our courts to dismantle the structures of our system. One symbol of the Canadian difference—the Charter—is used to challenge another—our health guarantees.

As well, taxation has become less progressive as tax credits and deductions increasingly favour the affluent, and as the role regressive consumption taxes and user fees play is enhanced. In the late 1980s and the early 1990s, Canada was one of the OECD leaders in using government taxes and transfers to tighten the gap between rich and poor. By the late 1990s and early 2000s, after cuts to social programs and the taxes that once funded them, Canada had joined those OECD countries with the smallest redistributive impact.3

The result is a Canada that, today, is marked by great inequality, a condition that has grown significantly since the 1980s. The Conference Board of Canada recently gave Canada a C grade, ranking us twelfth out of seventeen peer countries in terms of income equality. As of 2010, the richest 20 percent of our population is the only group to have increased its share of national income over the past twenty years. We live in a “second Gilded Age”: income and wealth are concentrated in a small percentage of the population—the rich and the super rich—while those at the bottom lie far below acceptable standards of well-being. We are a country of haves and the desperate have-nots. We are, simply, less generous and just a nation.

What does the resulting poverty look like? It has an Indigenous face, for example. A 2016 study found that Indigenous children are twice as likely to live in poverty as non-Indigenous children: the poverty rate for children on reserves is 60 percent. Children of immigrants have a poverty rate of 32 percent. By comparison, children who are non-Indigenous, non-racialized, and non-immigrant have a poverty rate of 13 percent. All of these numbers are too high. And children are poor because their parents—for many, their sole-parent mothers—are poor. Poverty also has a female face. Indeed, those groups most in need of the promise of progressive social citizenship are the groups our economy, government, and courts most neglect. The resulting inequality imperils well-being and challenges our commitment to a healthy society and to fair opportunities for all to develop and flourish in Canada. According to Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz, it is even bad for economic growth.

This second story is in sharp contrast to the first. Yet, both are true, and it is in the tension between the two where our best hope for a just society may lie. Poll after poll shows that Canadians do not like this rising inequality, that we are proud of our human rights heritage, and that we value our country’s reputation for tolerating difference and diversity. A survey from 2011 showed that Canadians self-report as accepting of people from different racial, ethnic, and cultural groups, and, in another recent poll, equality, equity, and social justice came first as top Canadian values (25.2 percent). That said, recent polling data also indicate that tolerance may be decreasing: in a poll from 2015, 68 percent of Canadians agreed that minorities should do more to fit in with mainstream society. Of course, answers to a survey are different from behaviours in the real world, but here, the picture is also mixed. Discussions in our political sphere about niqabs, immigration, and welfare rates—to assemble a few disparate examples—are disheartening. However, the warm welcome by so many Canadians to the thousands of arriving Syrian refugees has been very encouraging.

Canada’s soul is up for grabs. We need to remind ourselves of the better part of our history and our political culture. Social and economic rights—nuanced by feminists and others—need to re-emerge as common expectations, fulfilled and embraced by both our governments and our courts. Instead of the “secession of the affluent,” Canada must recalibrate its welfare state to ensure the inclusion of the currently marginalized and dispossessed. When we speak of our aspirations for a just society and when we speak to the international community, we must be frank about ourselves but also draw upon our best traditions. The joint telling of the two stories that animate this essay frames Canada’s social justice challenges and possibilities. The tension between these different pictures of Canada tells us what we need to do; it tells us that we care that we have failed to become the country we pride ourselves on already being.


  1. Janine Brodie, “Reforming Social Justice in Neoliberal Times,” Studies in Social Justice 1, no. 2 (2007): 93–107.
  2. Martha Jackman, “Constitutional Castaways: Poverty and the McLachlin Court,” Supreme Court Law Review (2d) 50 (2010).
  3. Keith Banting and John Myles, “Introduction: Inequality and the Fading of Redistributive Politics,” in Keith Banting and John Myles, eds., Inequality and the Fading of Redistributive Politics (Vancouver, BC: UBC Press, 2013): 1–42, 27.