The strength of liberal democracies like Canada’s is often measured in terms of social cohesion. It’s the glue that holds society together — the common values and goals shared by citizens that inspire trust in each other and in our country’s institutions.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) defines a society as cohesive if “it works towards the well-being of all its members, fights exclusion and marginalization, creates a sense of belonging, promotes trust, and offers its members the opportunity of upward social mobility.”
Social cohesion is much more than “campfires and kumbaya.” Cohesive countries are politically stable, their citizens respect laws and they have robust institutions that reflect competence and trusted governance. As Donald Savoie, the Canadian public services guru, wrote in the Globe and Mail last summer, “The rule of law, sustained economic development, the ability to pursue the national interest, and the need to deal with society’s wicked problems require these institutions to function well.”
Governments are judged by what they do, but it’s useful to distinguish between the normal back and forth of politics, and the specific actions of governments that truly build or diminish social cohesion. Political partisanship is largely irrelevant to trust in government and is regularly discounted by citizens; it’s the policies and programs and how they are implemented that are more likely to impact how we feel about the quality of public governance. In addition, the loud political disagreements of the day often obscure the ultimate impacts of public policy issues on social cohesion.
In the mid-1960s, successive minority governments and the bitter partisan battles between Liberal Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson and Opposition Leader John Diefenbaker dominated the political headlines. But despite the day-to-day rancour, those P parliaments also put in the place the basic architecture of this country’s modern welfare state – medicare, the Québec and Canada Pension Plans, the Canada Assistance Plan and national student loans – vital public services that over time became highly prized by citizens. It was only with the perspective of history that Canadians saw how they performed and realized their value.
Canada has traditionally been a “peaceable kingdom,” enjoying traditionally high levels of social cohesion on many fronts. Our political institutions are stable and accessible. Public and charitable programs to help the disadvantaged are relatively strong. We value our health care system as a right of citizenship. Collectively we are a welcoming people and understand that our low birth rate means that we need immigrants if we are to keep economic growth and prosperity rolling.
But only six months into the COVID-19 pandemic, polls began to chart the erosion of social cohesion in Canada and around the world. In October 2020, IPSOS found that “more Canadians have “weak” (30 percent) than “solid” (26 percent) social cohesion.” By March of this year, IPSOS reported that Canadians’ “trust in government to do what is right” had dropped from 58% in late 2020 to 43%. Equally troubling, the survey found that “In Canada, only 33 percent of citizens believe that most people can be trusted, against 67 percent who believe that you can’t be too careful dealing with people.” Similarly troubling are reports from news organizations that their own research shows a decline in trust in the work that they do.
More recently, there is evidence of additional damage to social cohesion resulting from perceptions of how our federal system works. The Institute for Research on Public Policy (IRPP) published a “Resentment Index,” indicating that “Canadians in every province are resentful about their province’s place in the federation.” While feelings of resentment are strongest in Saskatchewan, Alberta and Newfoundland and Labrador:
- “On average residents of all provinces think the region where they live contributes more than its fair share.”
- In the Prairie provinces, “the sense that they contribute more than their fair share is combined with the view that Quebec contributes less.”
- The practice of asymmetrical federalism (the practice by which national arrangements apply differently to Québec) is seen in the rest of the country as a special benefit for that province.
The authors conclude that alienation is rooted in zero-sum perceptions about how the country works: resentment of Québec is the elephant in the room that needs to be addressed.
There’s no doubt the pandemic stressed Canadians as no other recent event has done. To lead the fight against COVID-19, governments intervened in people’s personal lives as never before with lockdowns, vaccine mandates and school closures, and for some, this stirred feelings of fear and anger. The resulting bonfire of grievances let loose some nasty demons that are likely to be with us for a long time: many politicians and public officials at all levels still experience personal insults and public threats just for doing their jobs. And the pandemic also highlighted failures in state capacity at all levels and a startling lack of competence that is diminishing trust in government on several fronts.
Nowhere are these failures as stark as in health care. COVID-19 placed intolerable strains on the system, and it is still struggling to address huge surgery backlogs and deliver basic services. Nationally, the pediatric care system is overwhelmed, with some children’s hospitals operating at 180 percent of capacity. Provinces have major problems keeping and finding doctors and nurses, but Canada is the only developed country without a national health care human resources strategy. More than six million Canadians do not have a family doctor. My wife and I have personal knowledge of this problem – we are among that number.
These challenges are a wake-up call for those of us who thought Canada was on the right track on health care. In 2020, Canada spent 12.2 percent of its GDP on health, more than any other countries in the OECD except the US, Germany and the Netherlands. But what do we get for all that money? Not nearly enough. In 2021, a multi-nation study by the Commonwealth Fund found that Canada placed 10th among 11 high income countries in terms of access to health care and its quality, the administrative efficiency of the system, equity and health care outcomes. Only the US fared worse in the performance rankings.
While Canadian health care is on the verge of collapse and crying out for reform and innovation, the federal and provincial governments are locked in a squabble over transfer payments and control over an increasingly failing system. The provinces want money for health care with no strings attached while the federal government wants assurances that its additional dollars will buy much-needed reforms.
While the stand-off continues, due to higher energy prices, a more buoyant economy and inflation, the federal government and most provinces are awash in cash, and several are eying budgetary surpluses in the near term. While a few provinces are investing to fix health care, others have spent billions in taxpayer kickbacks such as cancelled taxes on gasoline, abolition of auto licence fees, or simply to create a rosy glow among voters before their next election. It’s both sad and ironic that health care, which has done so much to build social cohesion, is now diminishing trust in governments’ capacity to deliver the country’s most treasured public program.
What’s happening in health care is closely matched by what’s been revealed at the recent public hearings of the Public Order Emergency Commission on the invoking of the Emergencies Act. It’s been a master class in provincial/municipal dysfunction in crisis management and policing. The disclosure that members of the Ottawa police, the OPP and the RCMP were leaking policing plans to the demonstrators, and to the far right-group Diagolon, is particularly chilling. If the police lack the leadership, capacity and will to uphold the rule of law, it’s no wonder that public trust in institutions is plummeting.
Meanwhile, Canadians continue to face other reminders of diminished institutional capacity and performance. Waiting for passports is still an eight-to nine-month challenge, long after the federal government promised it was on the way to be fixed. This fall, thousands of international students coming to Canadian universities and colleges met weeks of delays in receiving their study permits, as Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) struggled with a backlog of 1.5 million applications for study permits and other temporary resident visas, further diminishing Canada’s reputation for simple competence in providing necessary services.
For immigration generally, as of October 31, IRCC had roughly 2.2 million applications in its inventory, with around 1.2 million in backlog, meaning that they exceed the department’s service standards. As the Globe and Mail recently reported, these processing delays have caused a surge in mandamus applications, a legal procedure aimed at achieving a court order that tells the department to do its job. Eight hundred such applications were filed in federal court last year and another 709 so far this year; and 333 came from people in the economic streams of immigration, the very people Canada needs most. These delays are just another example of high-sounding policy promises made by government being sandbagged by a failure to deliver. It seems the government’s earlier focus on “deliverology” has been forgotten.
Another spectacular policy and implementation failure is the federal protection program for air travellers seeking compensation for travel delays. The Airline Passenger Protection Regulations spell out the conditions under which air carriers must compensate passengers who have experienced cancellations or delays, including arranging alternate flights, providing refunds or paying compensation.
The large airline carriers have been playing fast and loose with these requirements for as long as they have existed. They regularly deny compensation by claiming that crew shortages caused the delay or cancellation, but the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTC), the complaints adjudication body for the regulations, says “Crew shortages are within the airline’s control, unless the airline could not have prevented the flight disruption despite proper planning.”
In the 2021-22 fiscal year, the CTC received 28,673 complaints, up from 26,742 a year earlier. By the end of this November, the agency had received another 19,000 complaints since April. The backlog of complaints now totals a stunning 30,000, meaning the CTC is yet another federal agency overwhelmed in doing its job. It’s difficult to imagine a government that doesn’t recognize that with over 47,000 citizen complaints over two years a system is not working and take steps to fix it. Insult is added to injury when the complaints systems for failing programs are themselves swamped by public demand and do not perform with speed and efficiency.
The ubiquity and reach of social media have raised the stakes for governments at all levels to deliver public programs on which millions of people depend competently and effectively. When public-facing services fail or triumph, the performance of governments is available for all to see. With faults and failures instantly apparent, the resulting anger of citizens is amplified by social media and seen by millions in the global commons. The result is a destructive cycle of disappointment, leading to grievance and anger, and further distrust of government institutions. The message that “everything seems broken in Canada” is gaining in resonance.
Governments at all levels face peril if they ignore their responsibility for delivering necessary services smartly, effectively and on time. Canada’s social cohesion, along with the public’s trust in our institutions of governance, are at stake.