Conservatives have been making some bold claims lately. But who’s breaking who?

News | Gregory Beatty

“Canada is broken” is a popular battle cry of Pierre Poilievre and the federal Conservatives these days. It’s a feeling Simon Enoch can relate to.

“I get where that idea comes from, because I feel it myself. It does seem that nothing has returned to ‘normal’,” says Enoch, who heads the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Saskatchewan office.

“But underlying all this, I think, is that governments are pretending we’ve returned to a state of normal as the Covid pandemic continues to overtax the public health system and sideline the ability of workers, businesses and governments to operate,” he adds.

Covid isn’t the only challenge we’re dealing with either. There’s also climate change, escalating geo-political tensions (highlighted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China-United States head-butting), political polarization, rising inequality and more.

These are disquieting times, there’s no doubt. And to hear the Conservatives tell it, it’s all the federal Liberal government’s fault. But is there country today that isn’t going through some form of upheaval? In fact, it’s arguable Canada is faring better than many at present.

That likely won’t dissuade Poilievre and the Conservatives from continuing with their Canada is broken shtick. So let’s take them at their word and dig deeper.

s.91 & s.92

Those are the two sections of the British North America Act that outline the division of powers between the federal and provincial governments. When Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia were negotiating to confederate, they guarded their “sovereignty” jealously. So the lion’s share of powers are provincial.

Conservatives currently hold power in eight of ten provinces. So if Canada is broken, what does that say about their leadership? It’s a fair question to ask, says Enoch.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that a lot of things are in need of repair. Our healthcare system, for one. But under the constitution, that’s a provincial responsibility. Provinces get money from the federal government, but a lot of times it doesn’t have strings attached.”

Remember the “$46.2 billion over 10-years” healthcare deal the federal and provincial governments reached in February? Even there, provinces are only required to spend 58 cents of every dollar on actual care. The remaining 42 cents, they get to spend as they wish.

Education and social services are other problem areas grabbing headlines in Saskatchewan. Again, both are under Sask. Party government control. Stagnant funding that’s failed to keep pace with inflation and growing demand is one obvious trigger. Poor policy choices that don’t address underlying social determinants of crime, ill health, poverty and homelessness is another.

“The government’s failure to consult with people their policies actually impact has been a longstanding criticism,” says Enoch.

“That includes frontline workers in addictions, mental health, AIDS, poverty, you name it. The first critique you hear from people on the ground is that the government refuses to listen to them and take their policy suggestions seriously. Instead, they think they can solve complex social issues without input from anyone with direct lived experience of those issues,” says Enoch.

While peoples’ struggles deepen, and frontline workers flee their professions from burnout, the government seems increasingly fixated on shoring up its far-right flank. With each step it takes down that road, it creeps closer to the type of right-wing populism that’s sprung up elsewhere — most notably, among Trump Republicans in the U.S. That’s not doing Canada any favours either.

“All Western liberal democracies are seeing a challenge from the populist right. They’ve been very effective at weaponizing misinformation and disinformation to expand their ranks,” says Enoch.

“The more people retreat to these silos the more difficult it’s going to be to produce any kind of consensus. It’s seems almost like hysteria, where the idea of walkable ‘15-minute cities’ becomes this conspiracy where people will be forced to stay within 15 minutes of their homes,” he says.

“I don’t have an answer myself, as I feel the left has really missed an opportunity here. The fact that the right has been able to capitalize on the alienation and uncertainty that’s out there about the future is troubling,” says Enoch.

Breaking The Bank

Inflation is probably another area where Poilievre and the Conservatives would say Canada is broken. With food, the price pressure has been especially intense. Now, food production and distribution is a complex matter. But one factor that’s becoming increasingly obvious, despite conservative denials, is the impact of climate change.

The 2021 drought is a prime example, says Peter Prebble of Saskatchewan Environmental Society

“The drought spanned all of western North America, so its geographic scale was a clear marker of climate change. It was exacerbated by the heat dome that hit B.C. and then spread to Alberta and to a lesser extent Saskatchewan and Manitoba. The World Weather attribution group looked at the heat dome and concluded it would’ve been impossible without climate change,” he says.

That was followed in November 2021 by the atmospheric river that hit B.C., damaging prime farmland and fruit orchards, while also drowning 620,000 chickens, 12,000 hogs and 450 cattle.

Calamities like that are happening around the world, and they’re having a measurable impact on food security — hence, rising prices.

Inflation isn’t limited to food, of course. And neither is the impact of climate change. Every time a severe weather event hits an area, consider the damage that’s done. And the steps that have to be taken, first to deal with the immediate emergency, then rebuild the homes, businesses, infrastructure and utilities that have been damaged.

“In Canada in 2022, insurable losses from severe weather events were $3.1 billion,” says Prebble. “The only year where it’s been significantly higher was in 2017 with the Fort McMurray wildfire, which again was a climate change event. The insurable losses in Canada that year were $6 billion.”

Again, calamities like that are happening around the world. Witness last summer’s floods in Pakistan “Quite apart from the human suffering, with millions displaced, the floods caused $30 billion in damage,” says Prebble.

“Prior to the flood, Pakistan and India were facing exceptionally high temperatures in excess of 50 degrees C,” he adds. “So you had the extreme heat, then the floods, and the impacts on agriculture are devastating, plus all the diseases associated with waterborne illnesses.”

Consistent with their federal counterparts, which under Poilievre have pretty much retreated to outright climate denial, Alberta and Saskatchewan have been intransigent in their opposition to federal efforts to address climate change.

“There are enormous differences in GHG emissions across Canada,” says Prebble.

“The most recent data we have for Saskatchewan is 66 million tonnes in 2020. I suspect that will rise in 2021 because 2020 was the start of the pandemic. Nova Scotia, with around 1 million people, has emissions of 13 million tonnes. But Nova Scotia is suffering more climate impacts than Saskatchewan. Hurricane Fiona, which caused $800 million in insurable losses last September, is a good example of that.”

Before Poilievre was elected Conservative leader, he had a reputation as an attack dog. Still to be determined is whether he and his party can move beyond cheap political grandstanding to offer solid policy options to Canadians to tackle the challenges we face in a rapidly changing world. Because if they can’t, and at some point they do form government, Canada might break for real. ■             


Creature (Dis)comforts

Canada isn’t immune to all the challenges other countries are currently experiencing. But there is one area where the harm we’re suffering is self-inflicted. It dates back to the country’s founding in 1867.

When the British North America Act was signed, Canada was 75 per cent rural and 25 per cent urban. Now, those numbers are reversed. But under s.92 of the BNA Act cities have no constitutional standing. Instead, they’re regarded as “creatures of the province”.

In a 2021 article for Policy Options, Alexandra Flynn, with co-authors Nathalie Des Rosiers and Richard Albert, described Canadian cities as being in a constitutional straitjacket. And it’s hurting the country, she says.

“Cities are on the frontlines of trying to deal with complex problems such as homelessness, affordable housing and even the pandemic when there was debate about what types of restrictions were appropriate. All of these questions that are relevant in Canada as a whole land at the municipal level,” says Flynn, who teaches law at University of British Columbia.

When provinces legislate for cities, they often take a cookie cutter approach, she says. “In most parts of Canada, the legislation looks similar whether it’s applied to a city like Regina or a town like Lloydminster. But the reality of what those two municipalities are dealing with is really different.”

Unlike their federal and provincial counterparts, cities have very limited revenue-generating capacity. Instead, cities rely heavily on the province for funding. And that makes it hard to plan and program effectively.

City officials across Saskatchewan well remember 2017 when the Brad Wall government cut $36 million from municipal funding in a March budget that left them scrambling to make up the 10-per cent shortfall.

But under s.92, provincial control of cities is ironclad. That was reaffirmed in 2021, when the Supreme Court (by a five to four margin) upheld the right of Ontario’s newly elected Doug Ford government to cut the number of city council seats in Toronto from 50 to 25. The cut came when the city, with a metro population of 6.2 million, was ballot deep in a municipal election.

Ford recently doubled down on municipal meddling with his “strong mayors” act which allows mayors in Toronto and Ottawa to pass bylaws with as little as one-third council support. They can also make key appointments to city administration without council oversight.

More recently, Ford ordered Hamilton to expand its municipal boundaries to accommodate more suburban development. This after Hamilton had just gone through a consultation process where citizens supported freezing the boundaries to promote sustainability and fight climate change.

“If cities are just the playthings of the province, the Ford government can do things like that,” says Flynn. “But in the meantime, we have non-democratic [decision-making] happening in three of Canada’s largest cities. So it’s very troubling.”

Fixing the problem won’t be easy either. It would require a major revamp of the constitution, and in today’s volatile political climate, Flynn doesn’t see that happening.

That doesn’t mean incremental change isn’t possible. Federal/provincial agreements that tie funding to specific obligations could give cities greater access to federal resources. Ottawa could also enter into one-on-one talks with provinces to expand municipal powers. Although it’s hard to envision the current crop of conservative governments, with their largely rural powerbases, going for that.

If governments like Ford’s keep imposing undemocratic edicts on defenceless municipalities, it’s possible too that courts might start looking more critically at the unfettered power s.92 gives provinces to control cities.

It’s a conversation that’s desperately needed, says Flynn.

“Before I became a professor, I worked for the City of Toronto. One thing that was changing when I was there was that the municipality was seeing itself as responsible for tending to the needs of residents. Not just because there was legislation that set out what it had to do, but because it was a local government and had an obligation to act,” she recalls.

“But when the province has the ultimate say municipalities don’t have the ability to organically create their own approach to issues they face and I think that’s a bad thing that undermines quality of life at the local level,” she says.