The rich get richer. It is a notion that has come to be accepted in our society. But, when Canadians hear that the 44 richest have amassed an additional $78 billion to their net worth during the COVID-19 pandemic, the natural reaction is anger. The idea that just a few dozen people would add so many zeros to their banks accounts while so many Canadians are struggling is offensive.
Offensive, but not at all surprising. It’s not just that our system favours the wealthy, making this ludicrous accumulation of wealth possible—our system is designed for this outcome. Canada is built on wealth supremacy.
Why call it wealth supremacy? Words matter. The way we talk about our society matters. If we want to begin to address the extreme inequality in Canadian society, we have to call it what it is, face it, and wrestle with what that means for our collective future.
When riot gear clad police in Toronto forcibly remove the homeless from public parks, it’s wealth supremacy. When shareholders and corporations receive ten times more support than working Canadians during the pandemic, it’s wealth supremacy. When CEOs take the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy, lay-off working people, and flow the support to shareholders instead, it’s wealth supremacy. Wealth supremacy permeates our economy and our lives.
This isn’t a new phenomenon. Canada was quite literally settled by corporate interests like the Hudson’s Bay Company, and long had a ruling wealthy class based in landownership and positions of corporate importance. In defiance of their supremacy over our systems and institutions, brave men and women have fought for electoral and economic democracy.
William Lyon Mackenzie, the first mayor of Toronto, led an open rebellion against what he called a “sycophantic” system of inequity of wealth and power. NDP leader Tommy Douglas campaigned on the notion that economic equity was the only path forward for Canadian society, echoing many of the concerns of Mackenzie a century later.
While we’ve seen progress in our democracy, our economy is more consolidated than ever before. The wealthy own and control an ever increasing share of the pie with the top 0.5 percent controlling over 20 percent of all wealth, double their share from just a decade ago. Despite universal access to medical care, the rich outlive working Canadians and are less likely to get terminal illnesses. They have exponentially higher educational attainment. Most importantly, their dollars buy them more political power than the rest of us.
In nearly every measurable aspect of what makes up the good life, the wealthy have better outcomes—and it is no secret. Every politician knows the statistics. They know the inequities. They know the outcomes.
For Canadians born into poverty, there is a chance to advance themselves. The chance is slim and the obstacles are many, with the majority permanently stuck in the socioeconomic class they are born into. For Canadians born into the wealthy elite, the chance of ever not being fabulously wealthy is near zero. The sheer vastness of their wealth is enough to perpetuate itself, ensuring that generation upon generation will have no need to work or earn a living.
Like all forms of supremacy, wealth supremacy relies on a belief that those who are wealthy are superior to those who are not—that their lives and interests are inherently of more importance than working class Canadians.
Those who are born into or inherit wealth are not better, smarter, or more capable than those who didn’t, they simply won the luck of the draw. When our governmental, economic, and social systems reinforce their outsized influence, their position goes from one of merely privilege, to one of supremacy.
The thing about systems is that they can be changed. Canadians don’t have to resign themselves to the belief that those with wealth are predestined to rule our society, or that they should have any additional say in elections or the economy simply because they have a big pile of money behind them.
Coming out of the pandemic, we have an opportunity to break the stranglehold that wealth supremacy has on Canadian society. In order to do it we have to demand policy solutions that reduce the divide between those with the most and those with the least. We must demand that our political class enact policies that tax the wealth of the richest among us, bar them from buying influence in elections, and passing on their wealth from generation to generation in perpetuity.
To break the chains of wealth supremacy, the people must flex their power, and hold its enablers to account.
Joe Roberts is a veteran political strategist in both the US and Canada, Executive Director of the Centre for Canadian Progress, Co-Host of the political podcast New Left Radio, and Managing Director at Jewish Currents Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Joe_Roberts01.