Crisis in Canada’s Old Order
“The world is upside down,” the English aristocracy used to say as they sipped tea in luxurious comfort in the sunset days of the British Empire. And so that quote is especially pertinent to those elements of the Quebec gentry insensitive to the frustrations of youth pouring out onto the streets. It may be that the young protesters arguing over tuition hikes may be subconsciously telling what most of us know. The old order is not working.
This makes us specifically ask as to what Quebec society (and Western society in general) should do to lower the feverish pitch on the blocked roadways including those of Occupy Wall Street. We need to phase out the influence of those cemented to big lobby money that let Parliamentarians subsidize large corporations as deficits mushroom. That lets them practically have a tax-payer funded carte blanche on managing the environment, including the Alberta Tar Sands. And then tell governments to promote more unsustainable student debt and much higher tuition fees without cutting back on the over-privileged within the sclerotic education establishments. Why would we effectively break the fiscal backs of some of our young, as top administrators at Concordia University in Montreal tried to walk away with massive severance packages? Coincidentally, as these protests raged, the Canadian Center of Policy Alternatives, a think tank, reported that Canadian banks secretly received huge bail-outs. Oh Canada! Are we so much better than America in countering the excesses of certain elements of our elites? One could contend in some respects that we are just as awful.
Even before the Wall Street banking crash, the profligate components of the Quebec establishment led the province towards having one of the highest levels of debt as measured against all OECD (Western) nations according to the Quebec Employer Council. The situation has now grown much worse. Massive government liabilities in some Canadian provinces guarantee government job cutbacks, tax increases and more troubled banking over coming decades that will discourage small and large business employment generation so critical to our young people. In fact, the Harper administration in Canada announced job cuts of 20,000 in an attempt to deal with a persistent government deficit. So forget about government entry positions in decent numbers for the young.
So turned off are youth from mainstay institutions that a recent Montreal Gazette article (May 2) shows that half of young Quebecers do not even vote. (My research at Harvard underscored the same high levels of political alienation in many countries.) As well, countless young people in the province are so discouraged, they do not even graduate. High school drop-out rates are up to 40%, never mind the severe college drop-out rates of over a third. It is just too easy and glib to infer that protesting youth on the street are all anti-capitalists as Thomas Brown, a banking analyst recently suggested on CNBC TV. Interestingly, a reporter, Amberdeen Choudury from the same network reported from a Price Waterhouse Coopers survey that, “Almost half of graduates working in financial services are looking for new opportunities.” There is more than a revolt from only the margins against old-style leadership.
Faced with these staggering statistics and facts, certain disconnected elite members wonder why young people’s frustrations are sometimes literally pouring onto the streets! They should understand that the Quebec government needs to stop floundering in a sea of debt that is killing youth’s future. This government is also obviously hurt by its image sullied by construction industry corruption that has not gone unnoticed by idealistic and economically hurt youth. Nevertheless, the government has a very valid point, along with ex-Premier Lucien Bouchard that Quebec universities have been grossly underfunded for years, and that the government is broke in trying to fix them, so needs increased revenues from elsewhere. Then why not from the private sector like the Canadian banks, which could shift executive excess bonuses to the universities instead, while protecting shareholder value? And why not get some more revenues from solidarity funds run by the unions as well, as labour’s success is highly dependent on there being enough trained employees in the economy?
We will need a new renaissance, especially in Quebec, to strongly signal to the youth that their voices are being heard and values appreciated. More ethical women, visible minorities (of which a large part of our youth are composed) and members of the younger generation should be allowed to rise to the top or near top positions in government and banking to help provide a more balanced approach that emphasizes whole community solutions to serious issues like school funding and student lending. We should avoid “My way or the doorway,” or police batons in the face and mass snooping of ones Internet traffic if one speaks up.
We may also need the moderating risk touch of more women in financial institutions as Canada’s household debt and real estate prices begin to approach bubble levels that could threaten the economic and social edifice of the Canadian home. Easy mortgage money, all around could make for a collapse that might make the chaos in Montreal look like a bit of picnic. If the Canadian economy were to go into recession, we would then need those in power not simply with a philosophy in sync with NFL football tactics of paid blows to the head of the opposition. If our decision makers are not sensitive enough to choose the right long term policies, don’t be surprised if we end up with something more akin to a police state than a democracy. Months of TV images of police battling protesters should remind us of that outside possibility.
As a concrete start, I am calling upon Canadian bank CEOs upon their inevitable retirement to be replaced with a younger generation inclusive of women, First Peoples, and visible ethnic minorities. (This idea is equally applicable in the US to people like Lloyd Blankfein at Goldman Sachs.)
We need a new representative formula for prosperity that does not lead people to wonder why bank presidents are mostly “jocular” golf playing WASPs and get 10 to 100 million dollar salaries as too many of our citizens burn in “economic hell” and get a minor fraction of what these top bankers are making. Even equity funds and bank shareholders (like me) from Citi Bank to Barclays Bank are shooting down executive bonuses. They too have increasingly had enough as they watch profits being destroyed by all of the monetary and fiscal chaos that has lit up the streets. No wonder Gord Nixon, CEO of the Royal Bank of Canada had a million slashed from his salary – as a start. “Boo-hoo” sarcastically replied one of his tellers upon hearing of his losses. No wonder. He is still left with ten million.
What we really need is a more inclusive and fairer game that prevents the 99% feeling like “hunted” fair game. Instead, we need open town hall forums across the country to discuss a big picture towards a “full society” not a failed society. Because the predicted unhinging of large parts of humanity in my novel, ZUrabia is coming closer to being a reality. Simply speaking, the “mob” is approaching the gates. We need a refashioned order – and fast. Clearly, the old answers from the old order to today’s problems are simply no longer enough.
About the writer: Peter S. Dash is an “anti-Old Boys Club”, Old Boy graduate from Lower Canada College in Montreal (Class of 1974). He is also an educator and expert on youth political participation and former researcher on the subject at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs. He very recently met more than dozen top network TV producers in New York City.