peacetime arrest

My friend Luke Savage’s assessment of the result of the election last night: 

A lot of people I know are happy about last night’s election result, and I understand. Stephen Harper’s autocratic and malicious rule has finally come to an end, and I agree that this is worth celebrating.

But I hope those of you happy about the words “Prime Minister Trudeau” will try to understand why some of us don’t feel like celebrating today, and why even the defeat of the Conservatives rings hollow.

The Liberal campaign embraced a lexicon of positivity, unity, and tolerance. But the Liberals voted for Stephen Harper’s “Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act” only a few short months ago. They also voted for Bill C-51, which risks the criminalization of people who protest oil pipelines and threatens artistic expression (and will not repeal it). The likely Minister of Justice in Prime Minister Trudeau’s cabinet is a former police chief who defends openly racist policing and presided over the largest set of peacetime arrests in Canada history. The co-chair of Trudeau’s campaign was a wealthy oil lobbyist who, before the election was even finished, was already trying to help his friends at TransCanada Corp get a pipeline built.
Behind the selfies and the theatrics, behind the vague but flourishing invocations of “hope” and “change”, behind the crowds of smiling patricians, behind the formless nostalgia for 60s Trudeaumania, some of us see a politics as calculating and ultimately uninterested in social justice as that which today’s Liberalism sets itself against.

In many parts of the country last night, environmentalists, trade unionists, and social justice crusaders were unseated in favour of corporate lawyers, bankers, and insurance brokers. The business of hyper-professionalized politics - temporarily disrupted by a new political dynamic - will now reassert itself with a vengeance.

The new government is going to temporarily invest billions in new (though largely unspecific) infrastructure, after which it will make billions in (also unspecific) cuts. It will not create any new social programs, and has instead promise to adopt a means-tested approach to social policy that simply helps some low-income earners navigate unjust market structures with bigger cheques than they were getting before. It will not set targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It will sign a trade deal that will decimate what remains of manufacturing in Ontario, undermine Canadians’ privacy online, make life saving drugs unaffordable by creating a cartel for pharmaceutical giants, and erode the democratic sovereignty of the country by enabling multinationals to sue our elected governments when they dislike our laws and regulations.

Throughout its entire democratic history, Canadian politics have basically oscillated between two parties which do not seriously threaten the status quo or the injustices it contains. Against this, a third current has always insisted that fundamental change is necessary to build a truly just society. It was this ethos that gave us medicare - an institution built from the ashes of war and depression on principles of universalism and social solidarity. Neither sweeping platitudes nor bureaucratic conservatism will ever deliver us social progress of this kind, eradicate poverty, or save the planet from economic structures which may eventually destroy it.

From where many of us stand, what happened last night cannot be read as anything other than a setback, and a major one, for these efforts. It’s time we stopped marginalizing social justice, or patronizingly relegating it to the fringes. Democracy isn’t a spectator sport. Elections aren’t meant to be affirmative infotainment. Achieving social progress requires more than just a perpetual return to the traditional, professionalized politics which continues to leave one in seven of us in poverty, tolerates people having to sleep on the streets, and allows thousands of children to wake up hungry and badly housed every day in one of the richest societies in the world.

We have to demand better. And plenty of us believe and hope that, one day, we really will.