Did someone say Canadian statistics? — May 3, 2016

Did someone say Canadian statistics?

A couple years ago I reviewed a book about Canada’s then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Among other things, I wrote:

Then there are Harper’s moves that just seem outright slimy, like getting rid of the long-form census and generally gutting Statistics Canada. Again, this seems to be part of a pattern: if you remove the fundamental tools underlying the welfare state, including its financing and its means of measuring the populace, then there are questions you just never think of asking. If you stop measuring the same people over time, for instance, it’s harder to say that income mobility has gone down.

Gutting the collection of official statistics is right out of the U.S. GOP’s playbook. Wells touches on this a little bit, but perhaps not as much as I’d like. Is Canadian conservatism very similar to its American cousin? Wells is more focused on Harper the man, and on the details of Ottawa politics, so The Longer I’m Prime Minister has more to say about the politics than about these broader questions.

Well look what we have here!

Canada’s long-form census, known as the National Household Survey, was made optional by then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s conservative government back in 2010. As a result, participation in the NHS plummeted from 93.5 percent in 2006, to 68.6 percent four years later. “Voluntary surveys are simply a waste of money,” Munir Sheikh, Statistics Canada’s chief statistician who resigned over the switch, told CityLab last year. “[They] cannot provide you the kind of accurate information that you need to make your policy decisions.”

Seems good!

John Oliver on the Canadian election — October 20, 2015
Paul Wells, The Longer I’m Prime Minister: Stephen Harper and Canada, 2006- — February 20, 2014

Paul Wells, The Longer I’m Prime Minister: Stephen Harper and Canada, 2006-

A man's silhouette, set in front of a draped Canadian flag

This is an interesting read for an American who mostly knows nothing about how parliamentary democracy works, who knows nothing about Stephen Harper other than that I’m supposed to hate him, and who has a starry-eyed vision of Canada. (Vancouver and Montreal are amazing. The fact that Americans aren’t moving there en masse is proof that we’ve been brainwashed.)

What outsiders — this one, anyway — want to know is whether the Canadian welfare state is basically resilient against those who want to destroy it, and whether indeed Harper wants to destroy it. (Sort of like with the UK: in a conservative’s most hopeful moments, can he even dream of killing the NHS?) I look up to the Canadian welfare state; is it all going to disappear under Harper?

I think the short answer from Wells’s book is “too soon to tell; check back later.” First, Harper has learned on a few occasions that the Canadian populace just will not tolerate sudden changes; so whatever he does, he’s going to do gradually. But the more important story is right there in Wells’s title: Harper has been in office now for eight years, and soon enough he’ll be the sixth-longest-serving prime minister in Canadian history. With luck (from Harper’s perspective), he’ll not only stay in office for a long time, but cement his legacy through successors who will carry his program forward. Gradualism, carried on over time, can achieve a lot. If we’re wondering whether Harper will upturn the welfare state, I think Wells would tell us that we’ll have to do a lot of waiting and seeing.

What Harper’s done in the meantime seems to be a variant of the Grover Norquist “starve the beast” approach: he’s slashed tax revenues and flirted with deficits, because apparently the going theory is that Canadian PMs just can’t leave a surplus alone; they feel compelled to spend it on social programs.

Then there are Harper’s moves that just seem outright slimy, like getting rid of the long-form census and generally gutting Statistics Canada. Again, this seems to be part of a pattern: if you remove the fundamental tools underlying the welfare state, including its financing and its means of measuring the populace, then there are questions you just never think of asking. If you stop measuring the same people over time, for instance, it’s harder to say that income mobility has gone down.

Gutting the collection of official statistics is right out of the U.S. GOP’s playbook. Wells touches on this a little bit, but perhaps not as much as I’d like. Is Canadian conservatism very similar to its American cousin? Wells is more focused on Harper the man, and on the details of Ottawa politics, so The Longer I’m Prime Minister has more to say about the politics than about these broader questions.

Wells also presupposes that I know more about Canada than I do. (It’s probably fair to assume that most Americans will not read a book about Canadian politics, so he rightly assumes that his reader will have all the necessary background.) For instance, the fight between western and eastern Canada is a large part of the book’s undercurrent. Is Canada basically a resource-extraction economy, based in Alberta, with a financial economy strapped on top? What happens when the oil runs out? In any case, Wells paints Harper’s time in office as the story of a man empowering western Canada while bringing along as many Québecois as necessary to get repeatedly reëlected.

Québec is an interesting part of the story, for me anyway. I never really knew that the Bloc Québecois was important to people outside Québec, but it repeatedly shows up in Wells’s story as the bogeyman — basically, “Don’t vote for this guy; he’s allied with those separatist terrorists over there.” There are parallels with the treatment of American socialism. The Bloc Québecois is treated (fairly or unfairly; I’m not fit to judge) as the group that wants to tear Canada apart. So various elections were cast as a battle between separatism and federalism. (The elections also lasted five weeks, I hasten to add. This too can be ours, America!)

Again, Wells knows how scared (or not) I ought to be; I do not. When m’lady and I went up to Montréal 18 months ago or so, we stayed with a charming French-Canadian man at an AirBNB, who told us that we, of course, must have heard in the United States about the recent student protests. We blushingly admitted that no, we had not, because American news says basically nothing about Canada. (If it covered Canada honestly, I swear we’d all move there.) According to our host, the government had talked about raising university fees, which had sparked the first round of protests. Apparently the protests turned up to 11 when the National Assembly of Québec passed an emergency law limiting how students could protest. Read the linked Wikipedia entries. I’ll just note one bit from there: the bill would have raised tuition “from $2,168 to $3,793 between 2012 and 2018.” I … I don’t need to explain to American readers why this news would have landed and died on page A16 or so in the <span class="newspaper"New York Times.

So is that essentially what the Harper era comes down to? A weakening of the welfare state such that university educations become slightly less affordable? (Median Canadian family income income is on the order of US$63,000, so four years’ tuition even by 2018 would be c. 25% of the median Canadian family’s annual income.) Don’t mistake me: I am deeply envious of the Canadian social-welfare state, and I’m humbled that Canadians are out on the streets fighting to keep education cheap. This was just the sort of story that Wells assumed we all knew: sure, Harper is shaking things up somewhat, empowering the west a bit at the expense of the east, but Canada will still be Canada when all is said and done.

On a personal note: m’lady and I visited some friends in Vancouver over Patriot’s Day of 2013. I was absolutely in love (with Vancouver, as well as with m’lady). Our friends were American expats who did what everyone said they’d do in 2004, namely move to Canada if Bush was reëlected. He was, and they did. They seem 100% happy with that decision. It’s right there, America! It’s a quick and astonishingly beautiful train ride north from Seattle. I don’t know why I haven’t moved there yet.

Also, I haven’t investigated this too closely, but when we got back from Montréal I looked into the Québec points system. Immigration into Canada, if I’m reading things right, is … rational? Is that even a word? Can I dream? You speak English, you get some points; you speak French, you get some points; you’re of baby-making age, you get some points; you’ve got a college education, you get some points; you have a job offer, you get some points; you can live without the support of the welfare state, you get some points. Add up the points; if the sum is high enough, you’re likely to be able to immigrate into Canada. It almost seems too good to be true.

I’m kind of in love with my ancestral home (everyone in my family named Laniel who was born up to 1946 spoke French as a first language, and for all I know I have some connection to a French postwar prime minister). I read Wells, in no small part, to decide whether I should be: my buddy Chris, I think, wanted to gently remove a little bloom from the rose. I’m not sure he succeeded. Maybe I should read a book on Rob Ford next.