Kinder, Gentler Canada

If President Clinton wants to see how activist

government can solve social problems with strong public support, he should take

a few days to visit Canada. With Toronto's World Series victory, the nationwide

referendum on constitutional reform (including the status of Quebec), and the

controversy over the North American Free Trade Agreement, Canada lately has been

in the American news more than at any time in recent memory. But despite all

this attention, there's a Canada few Americans know about-- a nation whose

citizens are better off than their American counterparts in many ways: safer

cities, less poverty, fewer homeless, lower infant mortality, and healthier


Clinton has pledged to introduce, during the first 100 days, comprehensive

health care reform. Thanks to the recent national debate over our country's

health care crisis, many Americans now know that Canada does a better job of

providing decent health care for all its citizens at a reasonable cost. The U.S.

spends more on health expenditures--12.4 percent of its GNP and $2,566 per

capita--than any country in the world, but 37 million people are without

insurance. Canada spends 9 percent of GNP and $1,795 per capita and provides

coverage for all residents, financed by a single-payer system that eliminates

much bureaucratic waste and controls costs. Many American health care experts,

political candidates, and public officials look longingly at the "Canadian


But there are other features of Canadian society from which Americans might

draw lessons for improving social and economic conditions at home.

Unfortunately, Canada's successful housing programs, labor laws, environmental

and workplace safety regulations, urban planning practices, social welfare

policies, women's rights laws, and mass transit system--which are superior to

those in the U.S.--rarely make the American news. How many Americans realize,

for example, that Canada provides its citizens with a shorter worktime, greater

employment security, and a broader social safety net than the United States?

In world affairs and in economic relations, Canada has long been the "junior

partner" of the United States. As a result, Americans have often not taken

Canada very seriously. Some even resented the Toronto Blue Jays' World Series

victory. These Americans have long viewed Canada as a second-rate country, so

losing to a Canadian team (even if no players are actually Canadians) hurts

their national pride, already wounded by an economic recession and decline in

global power. The Canadians' rejection of the nationwide referendum designed to

bind Quebec with the rest of the country allowed American editorialists to poke

fun at the country's chronic "identity crisis" and seemingly

reaffirmed American superiority.

That attitude is a mistake that blinds Americans to the many things that Canada

can teach the U.S. about creating a more liveable society. Canada's experience

suggests that activist government does not inevitably lead to bureaucratic red

tape, the erosion of the work ethic, a decline in personal freedom, or a weaker

economy. Both Canada and the U.S. are caught in the current global recession.

But in terms of productivity growth, budget deficits, export growth, and other

indicators of economic well-being, Canada outperforms the United States. And in

terms of our two countries' social well-being, it is no contest.

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While Canada is seen as more racially homogenous than the U.S., both countries

are in fact torn by regional, racial, and cultural/ethnic differences. In

particular, there are long-standing grievances of Canada's French-speaking

population center in Quebec and of Canada's indigenous peoples (Native

Canadians). But in Canada, race, ethnic, and regional differences do not

dominate discussions of social welfare policy or undermine support for

assistance to the poor. In fact, poverty in Quebec is lower than in several

English-speaking provinces.

But, some say, Americans prize individualism and the private market, while

Canadians put a higher premium on government activism to solve common problems.

Public opinion surveys, however, reveal that the views of ordinary citizens in

Canada and the U.S. about the roles of government and business in society are

more alike than different. Americans are just as concerned about their economic

future, their environment, the social conditions of their cities, and the plight

of the poor as their Canadian neighbors.

The difference is that in Canada, politics is more participatory and

democratic. Public opinion is more easily translated into public policy. Five

key factors, in particular, help shape Canada's enlightened social and economic


1. Big money. Business interests and big money do not dominate Canadian

politics. Canadian law sets ceilings on how much political parties and

candidates can spend in an election campaign. Both the public and private

broadcast media are required to provide each party with free time, and there are

limits on what each party can spend on paid advertising. There are also tight

limits on how much individuals, corporations, and trade associations can donate

to candidates.

2. Voter participation. Voters in both countries must be registered in

order to vote. But in Canada, the government assumes responsibility for

registering voters. In Canada, when an election is called, a complete national

registration is carried out in a matter of weeks by a federal agency called

Elections Canada. In national elections, over 70 percent of eligible voters

normally go to the polls.

In the U.S., the onus of registration is entirely on the individual citizen. It

was considered a major step forward last November 3, when 55 percent of eligible

voters went to the polls. Typically, only about half of the eligible electorate

regularly vote in a Presidential election year and even less in off-years.

Registration rules differ from state to state and, often, from community to

community. Not surprisingly, in the U.S., the poor, minorities, and young people

are less likely to register, which undermines their political influence. In

July, President Bush vetoed the National Voter Registration Act (the so-called "motor

voter" law), which would have significantly increased voter participation

by streamlining and improving voter registration efforts. In the U.S., about 70

percent of registered voters actually vote--close to Canada's turnout

figure--confirming the importance of registration.

3. Strong parties. Political parties in Canada are much more coherent

and ideological than their American counterparts. In the U.S., party politics is

dominated by candidate-centered campaigns. An individual seeking to win a party

nomination must pull together his or her campaign apparatus (such as a staff,

mailing lists), raise money, fashion positions on issues, and garner

endorsements from organizations. In Canada, political parties are membership

organizations that play a major role in assisting candidates with their

campaign, fundraising, and organizing. In return, candidates and elected

officials running on the party banner are charged with carrying out the program

of their respective parties. In contrast to the U.S., there are few topics in

Canadian politics that are left out of political debate because of bipartisan

agreement. Not surprisingly, there is a livelier political debate and a broader

mainstream political spectrum in Canada.

4. A well-organized democratic left. Although Canada's third party, the

social democratic New Democratic Party (NDP), founded in l961, has never

garnered more than 20 percent of the popular vote in a federal election, it has

exerted considerable influence in Canadian politics. For example, Canada's

universal, single-payer health care program was first developed by the NDP

provincial government of Saskatchewan, where its success catalyzed a national

debate and adoption of the program across Canada. When Pierre Trudeau's Liberal

Party needed NDP support to hold power in Ottawa, the NDP used its bargaining

power to pass a mixed-income nonprofit housing program that has been very

successful. The NDP currently governs Ontario (the largest province) as well as

British Columbia and Saskatchewan, together representing a majority of the

Canadian population.

The parliamentary system makes it easier for third, or minority, parties, to

emerge. But the concentration in such a system means that minority opposition

parties have very little real power. Yet the NDP--through a combination of

winning power at the provincial level, occsionally holding the balance of power,

and providing a consistent, organized alternative voice at the national

level--has had a lasting progressive influence on Canadian politics.

5. An active labor movement. The Canadian labor movement is stronger,

more progressive, and more politically active than its American counterpart.

Unions today represent about 38 percent of Canada's work force, compared with

less than 16 percent in the U.S. The Canadian labor movement was a cofounder of

the NDP and plays a major role in formulating party policy; many labor activists

have been elected to party offices and run as NDP candidates in local,

provincial, and federal elections. Because most workplace-related laws, and much

social legislation, is a provincial responsibility, and because the NDP has held

power in several provinces, labor has played a major role in shaping social and

economic conditions. The NDP has promoted a higher minimum wage, labor law

reform, and pay equity legislation. Canada has no anti-union "right-to-work"

laws; prohibits permanent replacement workers (strikebreakers); and has quicker,

fairer recognition procedures for unions and strong sanctions against employer

interference in union organizing.

Moreover, labor in Canada has a broader political vision than its American

counterpart. Its "social unionism" perspective--incorporating the

broad concerns of working people on the job and as citizens of the larger

society--brings labor into alliances with feminists, environmentalists, housing

activists, the peace movement, and other progressive forces. As a result, labor

is not easily relegated to the charge of representing a "special interest


Just as Canada overcame the political obstacles to social and economic reform,

so can the United States. After all, the commonalities between the U.S. and

Canada are much greater than their differences. Each nation is the other's

largest trading partner. Both are now coping with a new global economy and the

end of the Cold War--a major factor in the recently signed North American Free

Trade Agreement.

Since l984 Canada has had a conservative national government in Ottawa, headed

by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, that has sought to roll back social and

economic progress in much the same fashion that the Reagan/Bush and Thatcher

administrations sought. But the Mulroney regime has been much less successful

than his role models in Washington and London because Canadians like their "social

contract" with government and express their views through their political


Canada is no social utopia. But it has managed to carve out a set of social and

economic policies that, compared with the U.S., is more humane, progressive, and

efficient. As the two countries are drawn closer together--in part by the

recent free trade agreement--Americans should make sure that on social policy,

the U.S. becomes more like Canada, and not the other way around.

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