Canadian Elections and the Substantial Class

The 2011 federal election shares compelling parallels with an earlier time in Canadian history. A British colonial official, T.L. Wood, expressed a popular sentiment of the time in a speech to the Legislative Assembly in 1870, shortly after the British colonies were consolidated into the Canadian state. “Opinions may be divided in many other matters,” Wood said. “The votes of a party may be split on many points, but in the hands of the masses the substantial class will be heavily and unmeasurably taxed to suit the views of those who have nothing to lose and all to gain by any contemplated movement.”[1] These sentiments persist today, and they provide ample grounds for developing a contemplated movement with nothing to lose and all to gain.

Wood’s sentiments are well reflected in electoral campaign debates–both with respect to what is said, and what remains unspoken. Take, for example, the issue of continental integration, an issue of paramount importance in light of the recession, and therefore entirely absent from electoral debate. In February of this year, a joint-declaration was issued by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the President of the United States, Barak Obama. The declaration was titled, “Beyond the boarder: a shared vision for perimeter security and economic competitiveness,” and it outlined shared objectives of Canadian and American governments.[2]

Featuring prominently in the declaration are proposals for improved early threat detection, integrated cross-border law enforcement, biometric security and cyber-security measures. To make abundantly clear who these measures are for, Harper and Obama created a bilateral Regulatory Cooperation Council to “reduce red tape for business,” suggesting this declaration is designed to “preserve and extend the benefits our close relationship” for some.

This “shared vision” of the continent would look strikingly different were it formulated by “the masses,” in line with democratic principles. For starters, a recent opinion poll suggests that 90 per cent of Canadians actually support increased spending on health care as a national priority.[3] A declaration formulated by a contemplated movement would likely place health care above biometric security and surveillance, but this would surely leave the substantial class “heavily and unmeasurably taxed.” Therefore, all talk of continental integration must be kept firmly outside of any meaningful debate. None of the major political parties have seriously addressed continental integration during the electoral campaign.

Meanwhile, a number of policies are moving forward that make the North American Free Trade Agreement look like a relic from brighter days. The Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP) was announced under U.S. President George Bush and Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin in 2003. The SPP is regarded as a means to “lock in” measures obtained under NAFTA and to then “deepen” economic and security arrangements on the continent.[4] If NAFTA is any indication, the SPP will invariably lock in and deepen economic and security arrangements that favour the substantial class. It must therefore remain absent from electoral debates.

National economic policy

There is no greater evidence that T.L. Wood’s maxim holds true today than taking a careful look at the Canadian economy. Debate has been overwhelmingly focused on the appropriate level to tax corporations, and while this is a vital debate, several pressing issues remain entirely ignored.

As the election campaign began, Statistics Canada released a report effectively providing evidence that household debt levels in Canada have surpassed those of the U.S. for the first time in 12 years. The debt-to-personal disposable income ratio is now roughly 146.8 per cent, near historic highs for Canada.[5] It is hardly surprising that nearly 60 per cent of Canadians are living paycheque-to-paycheque and state they would be in difficulty should they not receive pay for just one week, according to a poll conducted by the Canadian Payroll Association.[6] There is likewise abundant evidence that wages are lagging or stagnating for the masses, while the substantial class has witnessed a clear trend of rising incomes over time.[7]

These deepening social problems have only gained a degree of public salience recently, but for interesting reasons. Growing inequality and household debt is not regarded as problematic or morally reprehensible. Instead, these issues are being brought to public attention because members of the substantial class are now being affected by the deliberate impoverishment of the masses. Household debt is serving as a critical drag on the Canadian economy, and therefore impinging on profits for the substantial class.[8] Policymakers must therefore act, not to reduce inequality, but to insure that growth continues apace. The state apparatus is now setting about to adjust regulatory and fiscal policy in such a way as to insure that the substantial class are not unduly affected by chronic household debt of the masses.

By no means should these trends be attributed to the neoconservative doctrine of the Harper Conservatives. Deepening levels of unemployment and inequality can be traced back to the Trudeau government and his imposition of wage and price controls and restrictive monetary policy in the mid-1970s. These neoliberal economic trends continued through 13 years of consecutive Liberal governments in the 1990s and witnessed very little change when Stephen Harper came to power in 2004. The substantial class have been well served by politicians and technocrats intent on preserving the legacy of Canadian Fathers of the Confederation. Again, these are remarkably pressing issues of substantial import, and therefore remain entirely absent from electoral debate.

Canada-European Union Free Trade Agreement

T.L. Wood’s maxim also extends well beyond the geographic confines of a nation or continent. The substantial class does not adhere to boundaries or limits. As Marx wrote in Grundrisse, “every limit appears as a barrier to be overcome.”[9] The latest barrier to be overcome is the Atlantic Ocean. The Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) with the European Union remains a highly vaunted goal of Prime Minister Harper, who promises to have the agreement adopted by 2012. The European Union is the largest economy in the world, and the significance of this agreement cannot be underestimated.

Strikingly, the agreement will provide less than half the “benefits” originally projected in 2008, according to a recent report commissioned by the European Union.[10] The report goes on to note that Canadian economic, social and environmental independence is likely to be constrained by the agreement. European investment in the Alberta tar sands is also likely to increase, the report continues, stating that this will further contribute to global warming.

Of equal importance, European countries are dealing with a variety of internal economic tensions and crises. “We’ll be dragged down by Europe’s coming funk, which will easily last a decade,” Canadian economist Jim Standford notes. “Better to take a pass on this one, and negotiate a better deal with the Europeans somewhere down the road, once they’re back on their feet.”[11]

The trade agreement is rapidly moving forward, despite these clear environmental and social repercussions. Again, none of this has received even passing mention during the election campaign. One can only assume that it is because the dominant political parties agree with the key principles of this latest trade agreement.

All of this suggests that T.L. Wood’s maxim retains a remarkable degree of salience over a century later, and it’s hardly surprising. A system designed to preserve the interests of the substantial class will invariably continue to serve those interests. The 2011 federal election has made this abundantly clear.

Faced with these conditions, the need for systemic change is clear. Yet structural barriers preventing systemic change from taking place are profound, and it is difficult to say what level of subservience people will accept before the masses form a “contemplated movement” with “nothing to lose and all to gain.” A major task before the masses is to foster the kind of critical thinking necessary to expose inherent structural flaws in the current social system, and to organize as a contemplated movement so as to bring about fundamental and necessary change. Until that time, the substantial class will continue to adhere to the maxims of T.L. Wood and the Fathers of the Confederation.

Matthew Brett is a graduate student in political science at Concordia University.


  1. Wood cited in Ajzenstat, Janet, Paul Romney, Ian Gentles and William Gairdner eds. Canada’s Founding Debates. 2003. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. p. 52.
  2. Prime Minister’s Office. 2011. “PM and U.S. President Obama announce shared vision for perimeter security and economic competitiveness between Canada and the United States.” (Accessed April 10, 2011).
  3. Kennedy, Mark. 2011. “Canadians don’t want the federal government brought down on its budget: poll.” Postmedia News, March 15. (Accessed April 25, 2011)
  4. Ackleson, Jason and Justin Kastner. “The Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America.” The American Review of Canadian Studies (Summer, 2006). p. 208.
  5. CBC News. 2011. “Household debt continues to rise.” CBC News, March 14. (Accessed April 26, 2011).
  6. Grant, Tavia. 2010. “Six in 10 live pay to pay.” The Globe and Mail (Toronto), September 30. (Accessed April 26, 2011).
  7. The Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives has published several reports along these lines.
  8. Bank of Canada. 2011. Press Release. “Bank of Canada maintains overnight target rate at 1 per cent.” (Accessed April 25, 2011).
  9. Marx, Karl. 1993. Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (Rough Draft). London: Penguin Books. p. 410.
  10. O’Neil, Peter. 2011. “EU study: Canada free-trade deal far less lucrative than expected.” Postmedia News, March 30. (Accessed April 25, 2011).
  11. Stanford, Jim. 2010. “Canada-EU trade talks: Jumping from one sinking ship to another.” The Globe and Mail (Toronto), July 12. (Accessed April 26, 2011).