In 2015 the federal Liberals cruised to power on a wave of perceived youthful optimism and the promise of “sunny ways.” Besides cleansing the national palate of Stephen Harper’s crusty Conservatives, they offered policies that appeared to outflank Tom Mulcair’s New Democrats from the left, at least with regard to budget spending. Justin Trudeau was seen to embody the promise of millennial ingenuity and progressiveness, as he promised reconciliation with Indigenous peoples and claimed to be a feminist. He presented himself as a representative of “the youth”, and even appointed himself the “Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs and Youth” after becoming Prime Minister. But how have youth actually fared under Trudeau’s Liberals? Asking this question allows us to see through the smokescreen of Liberal marketing and get down to the reality of how we are governed today and in whose interest.
While the Liberals promised all things to everyone before the election, hardly anything has been done to address the problems that affect the youth today. For example, what they have given with the left hand to improve access to higher education in Canada—negligible tax reforms and an expansion of grant programs—they have taken with the right, in terms of eliminating tax credits for tuition and textbooks.
What they have removed by banning unpaid internships, they have retained through continuing to allow university and college programs to demand unpaid work terms as a requirement for completing degrees, which forces many students to choose between paying their rent or meeting their degree requirements. While spending on a youth employment strategy, they have also begun to promote youth volunteer labour initiatives under the premise of instilling a “culture of service” in young people, which gets them to work for rates that are a pittance of what mature workers would charge on the market for completing the same tasks. While this appears in the form of an “opportunity” to get much-needed experience, really it is a technique to weaken the labour market that these youth will soon be entering.
The Liberals’ real position on the precarious conditions faced by youth was made clear in a talk given by Finance Minister Bill Morneau in October 2016 in which he stated that young people should get used to “job-churn”, that is, high employee turnover and short-term contract work. Weeks later Trudeau defended this sentiment at a youth conference organized by the Canadian Labour Congress, telling delegates that precarious work is “a fact of life”, which was met with anger and protest by many in attendance. Clearly, Trudeau’s Liberals do nothing but pay lip service to the youth while in reality, all “reforms” they have delivered have been coupled with cutbacks and concessions that undermine and negate them from the outset.
The Liberals have also failed the youngest and most vulnerable in society, with many critics highlighting that the 2018 federal budget falls short in making child care affordable and accessible. The irony is that this “feminist” budget, which mentions women 708 times, does not solve the child-care crisis. It is well known that the first five years of life are fundamentally important to human development. Making child care affordable gives parents and guardians an option to help them raise their young children, which is especially meaningful for anyone without nearby family support. Yet the Liberals have overseen the greatest child-care affordability crisis in Canadian history, with no plans to address the issue besides empty promises and half-measures as a means to sidestep the issue.
It is not exaggerating to say that child-care costs are the worst they’ve ever been. According to a UNICEF report from 2008, Canada tied for last place among developed countries in affordable access to child care. A more recent report from the OECD confirms that the situation has only gotten worse, as Canada now has some of the highest costs in the world. Costs jumped 21.4 per cent over the last three years alone, a rate which is six times that of inflation. In 13 cities across Canada, the average cost for licensed daycare has exceeded $1000 per month. In Toronto, where costs are the highest, the median for licensed daycare for an infant comes to more than $21,000 per annum. With prices like this, it is perhaps not surprising that Toronto is the child poverty capital of the country, a condition affecting more than 133,000 young people and leaving 15,000 families on wait lists to receive subsidized child care.
Child-care expenses combine with other pressures to make it increasingly unaffordable to live in Canadian cities. Parents are increasingly stretched thin, being pushed into debt or from their homes as victims of gentrification. Having few or no affordable child-care options until school starts at age four can generate undue stress and exhaustion, which in turn takes a toll on child development. By setting up parents to fail and isolating them in these crucial years, the Liberals are ensuring the next generation will grow up in homes that are increasingly impoverished, both economically and emotionally.
The cost crisis has an adverse effect on more than just current families. It creates a barrier to anyone who would consider having or adopting children, were it not for the cost. Who knows how many more children placed for adoption or taken into care would be able to find foster and permanent families, were it not for the high monetary costs of raising children? Aside from dissuading people from reaching out and building relationships, it abandons already existing children to an indifferent and profit-driven system. Meanwhile, others have decided to put off having children to some unknown later date when, presumably, they might be able to afford it. However, with child-care costs only continuing to spike and wages failing to keep pace, it seems unlikely that the date will ever come, which leaves young couples in an impossible position. Either have kids and go into debt, or give up the desire to have a family. The fact that young people in particular are forced to undergo this brutal choice is one of the factors which stokes generational resentment, even if older generations as a whole have nothing to gain through allowing employment conditions and quality of life to deteriorate any further.
Up to now, the Liberals have managed to dodge accountability on the child-care question by their decision to extend parental leave from 12 to 18 months. What is not often reported is that Employment Insurance pay rates were not adjusted to include more deduction, but simply to stretch the same amount of money out over a longer period of time. But even as reforms go, this one takes on a reactionary character when viewed in light of what it was deployed to circumvent. Instead of just getting to the root of the problem and instituting affordable universal child care, the Liberals would rather institute a stop-gap on the “domestic” side of the family unit: Can’t find a child-care space when your infant is 12 months old and you have to go back to work? Have six more months to hopefully move up the wait lists. While this relieves some of the pressure on families awaiting child-care openings, it approaches the problem in a way that strips parents of their choice of whether or not to remain in the workforce. When it is more affordable to raise children full-time than work and pay for professional child care, many young mothers in particular are pushed into staying at home for years. Justin Trudeau has carefully constructed his image to appear as though he takes an interest in empowering women to realize their full potential, but his government is pushing women to drop out of the workforce as a means to deal with the national child-care crisis. Considering this, the claims that the 2018 Liberal federal budget emphasizes equality by being “gender conscious” seems like a sinister joke.
As Engels once explained, “to emancipate woman and make her the equal of the man is and remains an impossibility so long as the woman is shut out from social productive labor and restricted to private domestic labor. The emancipation of woman will only be possible when woman can take part in production on a large, social scale, and domestic work no longer claims anything but an insignificant amount of her time. And only now has that become possible through modern large-scale industry, which does not merely permit the employment of female labor over a wide range, but positively demands it, while it also tends toward ending private domestic labor by changing it more and more into a public industry.” (Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State)
Universal child care would be just such a public industry. Aside from relieving the affordability crisis, it would provide employment for numbers of newly liberated workers who, given the choice, may prefer to earn a wage instead of staying at home with young children. Along with creating new jobs, it would enable parents the freedom to choose their occupation and position in life, as opposed to having it prescribed to them by the cold calculi of capital. However, publicly funding universal child care contradicts the profit motive of capitalism, especially in this period of crisis and impending global slump.
As a party that has always been committed to defending the interests of capitalism, the Liberals will inevitably remain intractable opponents of establishing universal quality child care in Canada.
The Conservatives are no better, with their “family values” rhetoric and reactionary defense of religious homeschooling. The Liberals and Conservatives both pay lip service to the notion that children are our future, but time and time again they have shown that they are willing to sacrifice children for the sake of short-sighted political goals and the enrichment of the ruling class. Despite all of Trudeau’s moralistic grandstanding and claims to represent women and youth, the visionless bureaucrats behind him run the show, and they are only interested in opportunistically gobbling up as much as they can before they are thrown out of office for rank corruption. While they will work hard to set up trust funds and shell corporations for their immediate offspring, their track record has proven that they have no interest in helping the millions of youth and families who are struggling just to get by.
In the last federal election, the NDP was propelled to first place in the polls when it placed reforms such as a $15 federal minimum wage and $15/day child care at the centre of their platform, but plummeted to defeat when they emphasized balanced budgets and austerity. Justin Trudeau and the Liberals were then able to outflank the NDP from the left by talking about running deficits for social spending, which ultimately won them the election. Many of the Liberals’ promises have since been broken and what reforms there have been amount to mere “drops in a bucket”. The NDP must adopt bold demands and go further than $15/day child care in order to beat the Liberals and the Conservatives. Demands such as universal child care and abolishing tuition fees would not only bring out people to the ballot box in the next election, but could galvanize a mass movement of workers and youth to fight back against deepening inequality, unemployment and the high cost of living.
While such a movement would have the potential to win real concessions from the bankers and bosses, the reality of capitalism in crisis is not new gains for the working class, but precisely the opposite. The norm around the world today is a massive clawing back of gains won in the past as the crisis of capitalism deepens and the ruling class responds by making the working class pay. Thus a mass movement for any reform must be linked with the need for the socialist transformation of society, which is the only real way to hold on to reforms won in the past and to secure new ones.
Socialism would mean a democratically planned economy, accountability of state officials, and the redistribution of wealth on a more equitable basis. It would mean massive investment in the social safety net and education, as well as more radical changes to social services and the economy. Daycare and early childhood education programs would be comprehensive, highly professionalized, and accessible to everyone from birth. Higher education would be free, and more closely integrated to the industries of the planned economy. The bonds of solidarity and fraternity would organically be stronger throughout society, such that no child would actually be left behind and no youth would go unfed, unloved or uncared for, unlike today when a capitalist world economy allows millions of children to die from preventable causes such as malnutrition and curable diseases. Only with a socialist economy under the democratic control of workers will we be able to meet the needs of the next generation and win for them as well as ourselves the better future that we all deserve.