Bargain Basement Citizenship

What do the Omar Khadr case, the census controversy and taxes all have in common?  All, I think, in one way or another, tell us something about the value of our common citizenship. With citizenship, as with most things, we get what we pay for.  It seems today we are being asked to pay less and, no surprise, we are being offered less.  Is that what we really want?

Let’s start with the census and the decision on the long form.  We are being told that because some of us don’t like the intrusiveness of the long form of the census it is going to be made voluntary.  We have seen from the outcry that the information loss is big and worrisome but, no, citizens will not be asked to make this concession on behalf of the public good.  Indeed, apart from the universal requirement to obey the law, we Canadians have few explicit citizenship duties or responsibilities.  We are asked to make few sacrifices.  We have no compulsory service, no compulsory voting, as many other countries do.  Certainly, every day, some Canadians are making sacrifices on our behalf, but most of us are required to pay little for the rights and privileges of citizenship. We ask of Canadians pretty much two things – pay your taxes and fill out your census.

How in the world did we get to the point that filling out the long form census is just too much to ask?  I frankly cannot remember if I, personally,  have ever had to do the long form.  I’m old enough that I probably did and I hate forms enough that I may have blocked it from memory – but it simply cannot be too great a price to pay for being a Canadian citizen and helping to ensure that all citizens share in its benefits.  And my guess – the majority of Canadians would agree,  even if, like me, they hate the questions.

Which brings me to taxes.  How in the world did we get to the point that taxes are only seen as a burden from which to be relieved rather than a responsibility, a duty  of citizenship – to safeguard our country and its values, manage the social and environmental commons,  ensure that all citizens have access to essential services, and try as best we can to pass on to future generations a country at least as strong and healthy as the one we inherited?  The conventional wisdom here is that talking about taxes is political suicide.  Who likes paying taxes?  Well, I wonder if a sustained dialogue on taxes and tax mix might not produce some surprises, at least over time.  Would Canadians really oppose a “tax on pollution’?  Just how low do corporate taxes have to be?  And are those of us who benefit most and consume most willing to pay a bit more? After all, we are asked for so little in payment for our citizenship.

The census fiasco will put at risk the most vulnerable and our ability to measure and respond to their needs.  Successive tax cuts for just about a decade make it harder to ensure universal access to essential services and address deepening inequality.  In other words, the sense of social citizenship that arose in the seventies and eighties is at risk.  Of course some Canadians welcome this, celebrate the shift from public to private, from social responsibility to self-reliance.  But even those who have the thinnest notion of our common citizenship ought to be worried about the case of Omar Khadr.

Lawrence Martin and Andre Pratte have pretty much said it all.  Bottom line: it doesn’t matter for the purposes of this discussion if he is guilty or innocent, a victim deserving of our sympathy or a villain worthy only of our contempt.  What matters here is that  basic rights, the legal rights of one of our citizens, are being denied.  These legal rights are about protecting us and our liberty from the intrusive and coercive power of the state.  We are all in trouble here – wherever we sit on the political continuum – if any one of our citizens is denied the right of a fair and just process when their liberty is at stake.  When this happens, the value of our common citizenship is diminished.   It has been said that the measure of a society is in how it treats its most vulnerable.  To this I would add that an equally important but more difficult measure is in how it treats its most despised or reviled. Who knows who’s next?

Martin cries “shame” in his piece because polls say that most of us don’t care about Khadr.    I am not prepared to believe that the polls give us anything more than a superficial snapshot on issues of such moral and emotional complexity.   I am not ready to concede, as some have, that we have become so fragmented, so atomized, that we prefer such a thin and fragile notion of citizenship.   On the other hand, when I put together the pieces I realize that I haven’t set out a very attractive political agenda:  “Bring Khadr home.” “Let’s Raise Taxes'”  “Give the Carbon Tax a Chance.”  “Give Me Back My Long Form Census Questionnaire.”  Not the stuff of a political campaign.   It’s undoubtedly a tough sell, but wouldn’t it be nice to have a leader fight to enhance the value and meaning of our common citizenship, recognizing that we get what we pay for?

4 Responses to “Bargain Basement Citizenship”
  1. Dave Abbey says:

    You are right on Mr. Himelfarb.. Well put on all three issues


  2. Sonia Tunstead says:

    I agree with Mr. Himelfarb. I have struggled over filling out the long form census but knowing the value persevered. I willingly pay my taxes knowing that they fund valuable programs. I vote in every election. This should be compulsery for Canadian citizens. As for Mr. Khadre captured as a child soldier. His rights continue to be violated. I fear that our beautiful Canada may become a harsh; uncaring; everyman for himself country. That would be sad.


  3. I cannot believe I haven’t seen this before. What an absolutely marvellous essay. Eloquent, succinct, and making arguments that badly need to be made.

    There’s a lot of work to do in the project of reclaiming discursive and political territory from those who would reduce us to mere “taxpayers” or “consumers.” Very sad and limited view of our roles in civil society and our relationships with public institutions and with one another. One of the most important strategic objectives in countering that, I’d submit, is in moving the goalposts back so that the conversation can be reframed as one of citizenship. Fundamentally, citizenship isn’t just about rights – it’s also about obligations. And as Alex so capably argues, Canada doesn’t really demand that much of its citizens in return for the privileges it confers upon them.

    An invaluable contribution to the debate from someone who’s clearly been there, done that, and has the scar tissue to prove it.


  4. Well said.

    I did the long form census once. It was an amazing pain, because in that year I had sold a business, bought and sold a house, and moved several thousand kilometers. Lots of data to track. It would have been about as much pain to do as my income tax form was that year, except the nice census lady helped me out. It never occurred to me to protest either, or resent either.

    It never occurred to anybody else, either; the census was a non-issue before Harper decided to act on his preference of values-based, rather than data-based, governance.

    Quite a lot of people care about Omar Khadr. The Canadian Bar Association formally called for his repatriation. The courts have even told the feds they should repatriate Khadr. The federal government has simply ignored all that. Khadr’s Canadian lawyer, Dennis Edney, is acting pro bono (short for pro bono publico, “in the public good”, meaning for free) and donations pay for Edney’s expenses. Donations from people who care.

    Our current government, and those that support it, are actively trying to turn citizenship into a low-input, low-output thing. Costs you nothing, and you get what you pay for. A return to the law of the jungle. Not my idea of Canada, or what it is to be Canadian.


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