What does the Trudeau era mean for the social inequalities that spawn health inequalities? With appreciation to the insights of The Who

One year into the election win by Justin Trudeau and the Liberals in Canada, Prof Dennis Raphael of York University Canada (@DennisRaphael01) assesses progress on the social issues that underpin health. With promises to act on climate change, income inequality, and the inequities experienced by indigenous Canadians, is this government a harbinger of change or a party that "campaigns from the left yet governs from the right"? 

The Harper Era Ends

We'll be fighting in the streets

With our children at our feet

And the morals that they worship will be gone

And the men who spurred us on

Sit in judgment of all wrong

They decide and the shotgun sings the song

In 2006 the Progressive Conservatives led by Stephen Harper won a minority government. Even though the Liberal Party would have been able to topple the government, it was not willing to do as it would have forced another election which they felt they were prepared for. In light of this, Harper was able to extend the earlier Liberal government’s tax cutting and program slashing. It was during this earlier Liberal government’s reign that the greatest attacks upon the Canadian liberal welfare state were undertaken. Many tax breaks were given to corporations, the Federal role in providing affordable housing was eliminated, and the Prime Minister of the time, Paul Martin, bragged about program spending being at 1950s level.

There was a period in 2009 when it appeared that the Liberal party and the New Democratic Party would be entering into an agreement by which they would take power from the Harper Conservatives. However this agreement was dissolved when the new leader of the Liberal party decided against it. This leader in 2011 went on to a profound defeat which saw the Harper government obtaining a majority government. The New Democratic Party emerged as official opposition. Yet shortly after the election its leader Jack Layton died and leadership went to the previously Quebec Liberal Thomas Mulcair.

The most striking aspect of the Harper government was its attacks upon civil society. The Status of Women program was severely slashed and funding for the National Council of Welfare, an anti-poverty agency of the government established in the 1960s, was ended. The Centres for Women’s Excellence in Health, a set of research institutes across the nation, were also closed down. The most egregious insult to the Canadian population was the end of the mandatory long-form census which plunged Statistics Canada into a crisis situation where reliable and valid data about the state of public policy and Canadians’ situations became impossible to obtain.

During the Harper reign, both the House of Commons and the Canadian Senate issued numerous reports about continuing high poverty rates in Canada and growing income inequality. The Harper government proudly stated that it was already working on these issues and went on to ignore the reports and the implications and recommendations of these reports.

By 2015, it was clear that the Harper government had moved away from mainstream Canadian thinking about the nature of society and the importance of addressing the many social inequalities that gain prominence in discussions about continuing poverty rates, growing food insecurity, and growing income inequality. In its dying days it attempted to stir up anti-Muslim hysteria and passed a draconian Anti-Terrorism bill with the support of the Liberal Party.

While the New Democratic Party would have been the most natural spokesperson for this concern with growing inequality in all it forms, it decided for whatever reason to tack towards the centre and surrender the field to the Trudeau Liberals to raise issues of wage stagnation, growing inequality, and the need for a new way of thinking about Canadian society. The most interesting illustration of the direction the New Democrats chose to take was its championing of the social determinants of health concept during the period leading up to the election of 2015, but once the election campaign started, all social determinants of health material was removed from its website and the topic was never raised again.

In contrast, the Liberal campaign featured television ads that saw Justin Trudeau walking up a down escalator to make the point that most Canadians incomes were going nowhere. Even in my riding which had long been a New Democratic Party stronghold. The Liberal candidate trumpeted the importance of addressing income inequality and poverty and defeated the NDP incumbent.

Where in the past when many Liberal candidates had been lawyers and business people, the Trudeau campaign was able to attract numerous candidates who had activist credentials. They won a Liberal majority and the new Democratic Party which had been the Opposition since 2011 was placed back into its usual third-party position. A recent convention saw a majority of delegates vote to have its leader removed, yet the party voted to delay a leadership convention for at least 18 months. The New Democratic Party is now languishing far behind in third position in Canadian popularity.

The Trudeau Era Begins

I'll tip my hat to the new constitution

Take a bow for the new revolution

Smile and grin at the change all around

Pick up my guitar and play

Just like yesterday

Then I'll get on my knees and pray

We don't get fooled again

After the election, Canadians were expecting to see action on climate change, income inequality, and the situation of indigenous people in Canada as well as a host of other developments. They were encouraged by a series of letters sent to Ministers of the Crown by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau which contain lofty rhetoric about the need to create a new way of thinking about Canadian society and to address its pressing issues. One of the first initiatives was to make the case that the Liberal re-juggling of child benefits would lead to a 40% reduction in child poverty in the next five years. However, a report by the federal auditor pointed out that the failure to index payments to inflation would lead to a profound watering down of any of its anti-poverty effects


The change, it had to come

We knew it all along

We were liberated from the fold, that's all

And the world looks just the same

And history ain't changed

'Cause the banners, they are flown in the next war

The Reality

A recent newspaper story pointed out that the first year the Liberal reign had seen the fewest number of legislation introduced and passed in recent history. The Minister of the Environment, who had previously denounced the Conservative Party’s climate change targets as being hopelessly unambitious, has now announced accepting these. The Liberal government has also approved the sales of armored vehicles to Saudi Arabia despite numerous international agencies denouncing the sales and indicating that the Saudis are using these in local wars, causing death and injury among numerous populations. Finally, the Liberals have just announced approval of an extensive natural gas pipeline even though such approval flies in the face of its announced commitments to greenhouse gas reductions provided in the Paris Accord.

I'll move myself and my family aside

If we happen to be left half alive

I'll get all my papers and smile at the sky

Though I know that the hypnotized never lie

Do ya?

 There has been no action or evidence of intention to act on the profound issues of growing income inequality, precarious work, and food and housing insecurity. The Liberal government has however instituted an inquiry into murdered and missing Aboriginal women and has committed itself to providing indigenous populations with running and safe water supplies.


There's nothing in the streets

Looks any different to me

And the slogans are replaced, by-the-bye

And the parting on the left

Are now parting on the right

And the beards have all grown longer overnight

 There is little evidence to date that there is any commitment to addressing the profound social inequities that the economic system generates. Many have already commented that the Liberal Party has always campaigned from the left yet governs from the right. 150 years of Canadian history tells us that in the end the Liberal Party is ultimately a business party. It has signaled its approval and commitment to negotiating free-trade deals that are favorable to the corporate sector at the expense of the living and working conditions of average Canadians.

Meet the new boss
Same as the old boss

Nevertheless, the Liberal Party continues to enjoy an extended honeymoon with the Canadian public. Numerous commentators indicate that is only a matter of time before the Canadian public comes to realize that nothing really has changed.


Co-authored by Dennis Raphael and The Who, Won’t Get Fooled Again