The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have brought the fissures in Canada’s class divide to the fore. Since the spring of 2020, several splits — always present — have become more obvious. One class put its lives on the line to serve others (in some cases quite literally) while another class was able to distance itself from the worst of the virus. Since then, the economy dimmed and an affordability crisis descended, leaving millions of Canadians worried and struggling to afford the basics. With inflation raging, many now worry about making rent or paying their mortgage. The moment hasn’t been so tough on wealthy folks. Because class divides are power divides — and quality of life divides.
As the miseries of working people stack up further and further, Canadian media tends to treat their procession of problems as if they were bumps on an otherwise frictionless plane. The Canadian mainstream partakes of the notion, embedded, too, in the American experience, that the country is classless. Not classless in the Marxist sense, of course. Classless in the sense of a blunt equality that ensures everyone is just a few years of hustle away from wealth. That’s a lie, of course. But even persistent class divides are explained away or ignored. The United Kingdom has classes — they have lords and ladies! In Canada, everyone is just a Canadian. That’s how the class obfuscation goes.
There are narrow and broad ways to define class. If we focus on income or wealth, the class divide in Canada is plain. In 2022, Statistics Canada found that “the wealthiest households (top 20 percent) held more than two-thirds (67.1 percent) of all net worth in Canada, while the least wealthy households (bottom 40 percent) held 2.8 percent.” That’s an old story. A new chapter, however, has unfolded in the last few years and the steepness of the division has become profound. According to Oxfam International, billionaires in Canada enjoyed a 51 percent wealth leap in recent years. As Fares Alghoul reports for the Toronto Star, “For every $100 of wealth created in the last 10 years in Canada, $34 has gone to the richest 1 percent and only $5 to the bottom 50 percent, according to Oxfam Canada.” Nice work if you can get it.
Income inequality in Canada is persistent, too — not as bad as it was in the 1980s and 1990s, perhaps, but persistent nonetheless. And the current economic moment is a large step backward, not forward.
Class divides matter for several reasons. For one, everyone ought to be able to get through the day. A class built on exploiting another undermines that imperative. We have somehow ceded the ground entirely to a bloodless and callous understanding of what workers are due for their labor. The idea that a full-time worker — in whatever occupation — should be able to pay rent and feed his or her family is understood to be ludicrous.
Someone stocking shelves at the local pharmacy is perceived to have gone off course somehow. We don’t ask why a person selling their labor full-time isn’t paid well enough to meet basic needs, let alone flourish. We know that this person deals with a long commute, likely has another job, and may have to rely on other state programs — and that their labors, in many cases, ensure a government subsidy to business. That such a scenario is somehow understood to be a natural outcome of this person’s life choices and/or the price to be paid for engaging in such work is testimony to how thoroughly market logics determine our sense of remuneration and human worth.
There’s obviously a material problem with the class divide. But class is also about power. Income and wealth divides carry with them gaps in agency and the capacity to self-determine, both personally and collectively. That’s to say that upper classes rule and lower classes are ruled — placing them, respectively, in active and passive positions — across society. Not just in the workplace, but in public policy, too. Upper class folks use their power to press for laws and policies that preserve their wealth and, therefore, their power. It’s a cycle.
The public policy preferences of classes in Canada will differ, just like the preferences of renters versus homeowners will differ. The largest class difference — between owners and workers — is marked by profoundly different policy preferences. Take taxation, for instance. Passive investment income is taxed preferentially in Canada to the delight of those whose wealth, and power, is bound up in it. They prefer lower capital gains taxes. Conversely, those who want a more robust health care system, for instance, might prefer higher rates and more investment in national programs. The same logic applies to a wealth tax, which higher earners (no surprise) tend to ardently oppose.
Getting policy onto the agenda that will reduce income, wealth, and, therefore, class inequality starts with acknowledging and talking about class — and the inherent existence and necessity of class conflict. This acknowledgement must start with the premise that there are classes in Canada and these classes have materially different interests that can’t be reconciled, and thus there is a struggle over outcomes. What tends to be better for one class will undermine the class positionality of the other, which means class relationships are inherently antagonistic — and sometimes even zero-sum.
Trust is also a class issue. A 2023 survey on trust found a stark divide between those who are better off and those who are struggling. Lower-class people are less trusting. Of course they are. Why would people who are not served by our institutions — who are in fact exploited by them — trust them or those who direct them? That’s a problem for everyone. Low trust makes doing things in politics difficult and encourages toxic backlashes. In extreme cases, low trust produces violence.
Talking about class means we need to talk about income, wealth, and opportunity. We need to do away with the polite fiction of a classless society in which anyone can become anything they want if they simply work hard at it. We need to do away with the notion that public policy serves everyone equally — or can — and that there is always a compromise that can bridge gaps in preferences. We need to do away with the notion that power is equally distributed in our democracy — or the silly notion that wealth can be divorced from power. We need to accept that class struggle is part of social, political, and economic life in Canada and always has been.
Canada is long overdue for a class reckoning. There are easier and harder ways to do it. The sooner we talk about and take class seriously, the easier things will be.