Canadians are uneasy about the future. That the most important element of a stable life--a job--is no longer guaranteed heightens many people's concern about their own wellbeing, at the expense of concern for their neighbours.
This general movement away from our past generosity of spirit towards an anxiety-ridden focus on personal security can be seen in a number of trends: mean-spirited attitudes towards those who are less fortunate, restructuring with consequent job losses for those who are unable to compete, and government obsession with debt reduction at the cost of services and programs for people who need them to secure a modicum of human dignity. I fear we are all losing our capacity to forget about ourselves and to stretch out helping hands to others.
Eric Kierans's article on the last federal budget ( "Ottawa's Return to Federalism," Compass, July/August 1995) brings to light an example of these trends. Its underlying theme of "let someone else take care of it" is unfortunate, because in the current climate of freewheeling international capitalism, very few are assuming responsibility for those who are less financially secure.
Mr. Kierans's argument that the budget is good because the federal government largely removes itself from placing restrictions in the areas of health, education and welfare will make anyone concerned about the wellbeing of their fellow Canadians uneasy. Mr. Kierans takes a literal interpretation of the Constitution Act of 1867 to support an exclusive role for the provinces in the areas of heath, welfare and education. His approach is an attempt to justify the Liberals' cynical attitude that reduces Ottawa's capacity to maintain standards in these areas for all Canadians.
However, the Constitution Act of 1867 also reflects the desire of the Fathers of Confederation to create a minor role for the provinces. At the time of Confederation, industrialization and urbanization had not yet elevated the importance of health, education and welfare, so they were assigned to provincial jurisdiction. Had the Fathers of Confederation foreseen these societal changes, a major role in these areas would have been granted to the federal government, given the importance they placed on it.
But there is a more important issue than a debate over the intent of the Fathers of Confederation. As program delivery and policy development in these areas are handed over to the provinces, a question arises as to how some provinces will fund these programs.
By removing itself from placing restrictions on the development and delivery of programs in provincial jurisdiction, Ottawa lessens any obligation it may have had to finance these programs through some form of equalization. It almost goes without saying that wealth and resources are distributed unevenly throughout Canada. The provinces differ in their capacity to raise revenue. The Canadian Health and Social Transfer (CHST) puts some provinces at risk of becoming ghettos. With the federal government's commitments reduced, not only will different services be developed to meet the varying needs in each province, but there will be poorer-quality services in some provinces than in others.
In moving away from responsibility for health, education and welfare, Ottawa is letting its concern for debt and deficit reduction blur its vision. Very few would argue that fiscal responsibility should be ignored. However, making budget decisions at the expense of the financially vulnerable should make even the toughest ogre cringe.
The issue surrounding the CHST is not only accountability. More importantly, the federal government's shedding of responsibility for health, education and welfare concerns money: who has it and who doesn't. People who have benefited financially from the way our society runs will accept the mean-spirited balkanization of the country the budget portends. They will not want to support a more progressive tax system that asks them to help those who are economically less secure.
I am distressed at the values and attitudes so many of our business and political leaders, and other Canadians, hold today. Mr. Kierans's article is a very articulate argument for a decentralized Canadian federalism. It is a sad commentary, however, on a growing desire to solve some of our economic problems at the expense of people who are not equipped with either the education or the finances to compete in the global economy.
Jerald Owczar has just completed two years as a Jesuit Volunteer, including one year spent as an associate editor of Compass.
© 1996 Compass, A Jesuit Journal and Gail van Varseveld