Putting Public Ownership Back on the Table

Photo from Public Domain

In a recent announcement, Greyhound Canada has decided to end its passenger bus lines west of Ontario, leaving over 400 people unemployed, and numerous communities without access to reliable public transit. The company discontinued the lines because they are unprofitable. This follows the Saskatchewan Party’s dismantling last year of the Saskatchewan Transport Company, which was founded a crown corporation dedicated to delivering public transit regardless of profitability.

The crux of the matter, however, goes beyond the Greyhound news. Indeed, this episode shows that, when it comes to essential services, Canadians cannot depend on the private sector to provide them. This issue along with many others has re-ignited the debate around the role of public ownership in a democratic society. A society in which private capital is predominate cannot be just and democratic. The only solution is to assert democratic priorities over the organization of the economy.

Of course, the process of transitioning to a democratic social order is a long-term one, but it must be started now. Indeed, Andrea Horwath and the Ontario NDP made the reversal of privatization and contracting out a key part of their 2018 platform, and various unions, including the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), have launched extensive campaigns noting the value of public services. But more must be done, and from my perspective, the Federal NDP has a real opportunity to emphasize public ownership in the run up to the 2019 federal election.

While this could be tackled from a variety of directions, here are just three which could help working Canadians in their daily lives, and which are in federally-regulated industries.

1. A national public transit strategy

Clearly, Greyhound’s withdrawal from western Canada has sparked a discussion of how a lack of public transit is not merely an inconvenience to those in smaller and isolated communities, but a matter of basic public health and safety, especially as it pertains to marginalized populations, particularly indigenous women, who are at greatest risk of violence when they lack access to safe transit options.

It was uplifting to see Jagmeet Singh call upon the Liberal government to find a means of saving access to transit for the affected communities, but subsidies to a multi-billion dollar company cannot be the solution beyond the most immediate of horizons. The opportunity here must be seized to put forward a public alternative: not only could a federal crown corporation operate a coast-to-coast bus network, it could be integrated with municipal and provincial networks wherever applicable. Further, this federal bus company could be incorporated administratively within Via Rail, meaning non-frontline costs could be mitigated. It should be noted that Via Rail at one point in its history did have buses, as did the Canadian National Railway prior to its privatization. And while bus service is likely the best means of transit for small towns, there remains the opportunity to expand rail transit through a more robust Via Rail.

2. Postal banking

There are many shortcomings within Canada’s financial system as it applies to consumer banking. Not only do the big banks rake in exorbitant profits off Canadians in an oligopolistic framework, but many marginalized and isolated communities lack reliable banking services, either because there are no banking outlets in their communities, because internet infrastructure is spotty, or because they face other systemic barriers. Finally, payday loan companies are a scourge, preying on the most vulnerable who, having no other access to reasonably-priced credit, are forced to take loans at rates which are in essence legalized loan-sharking.

While not dismissing the value of credit unions, the predominate solution on all these fronts is postal banking. First, while many small towns in Canada lack a bank outlet, they do have post offices, and there’s no reason why those locations could not offer essential banking services. Second, postal banking could have services and policies which accommodate marginalized and poor Canadians. They could, for instance, be a service for those that the traditional banks have overlooked, and they could offer short-term microloans at cheaper rates than payday loan stores, thus undercutting the latter’s exploitative business model. Finally, it could offer much needed competition with the banking oligopoly. Indeed, the Canadian banking lobby has been among the biggest opponents of postal banking, likely because they know the policy would be immensely successful.

3. A pubic telecommunications corporation

Finally, and perhaps most ambitiously, Canada needs a federal crown corporation to offer a wide range of telecommunication services, especially pertaining to broadband internet and cellular phones. While there is ostensibly competition in the Canadian telecommunications scene, the reality is that Canadian consumers pay high rates for these services, often for lower quality, especially when compared to other wealthy nations, but sometimes even developing countries. And while there are some publically-owned telecom companies like SaskTel, most communities are at the whim of private corporations.

But the importance of a public option in telecommunications goes beyond improving the consumer experience. Indeed, the internet is increasingly essential in the lives of Canadians, whether it be for work, healthcare, commerce, education, or a general access to information. While the majority of Canadians have access to the internet, poor individuals and isolated communities are often cut off from a service which must increasingly be seen as a basic 21st century utility. Jagmeet Singh has already signaled broad agreement with this principle, saying that “We should look at high-speed internet as public infrastructure so it’s available to everyone.” My hope is that Singh and the NDP caucus champion the idea of a public telecom company that will ensure universal and affordable internet access.

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These are all policy thrusts that would serve as a part of a coherent democratic socialist vision of what Canada can become. If we are to build a just society, we require a just economy. And while that must include better social programs financed through redistributive taxation, the democratic socialist project is not encompassed by social programs alone; it must concern itself with the democratization of the economy. And while this shouldn’t be done solely through state ownership—worker, community, and consumer cooperatives all being viable mechanisms here—public control will nonetheless be a central plank. In that spirit, let’s make 2019 the year in which the left re-asserts economic democracy as the cornerstone for a better Canada.

Christo Aivalis is an Editor of Active History, and a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of History at the University of Toronto. His book on Pierre Trudeau’s relationship with organized labour and the CCF-NDP, was published with UBC Press in May 2018. His work has appeared in the Canadian Historical Review, Labour/le Travail, This Magazine, Ricochet, and Canadian Dimension. He has also served as a contributor to the The Broadbent Institute, Canadian Press, Toronto Star, CTV and CBC. His current project is a biography of Canadian labour leader A.R. Mosher.