By ENA BOUTILIER
HALIFAX (December 2, 2009) – IT BEGAN with an inquiry into whether or not an Annapolis Valley Christmas tree business was using migrant labour. Now it has become part of a national uproar regarding homelessness and unemployment, particularly among Canada’s youth, as well as yet another opportunity for the working class to examine the modus operandi of the state and ruling class.
The business in question belongs to South Shore-St. Margarets Conservative MP Gerald Keddy, who denied the allegations regarding immigrant labour when speaking to a reporter from Halifax’s Chronicle Herald on 23 November. However, Keddy quickly made use of an opportunity to defend the exploitation of immigrant labour by blaming Nova Scotians for the state of agriculture in the Annapolis Valley. With regard to such work, Keddy publicly mused that “Nova Scotians won’t do it: all those no-good bastards sitting on the sidewalk in Halifax that can’t get work.” He went on to say that if certain critics want to “shut down the Annapolis Valley, and every market garden operation and all the apple industry, then don’t bring in immigrant labour. We’ve got 20 Christmas tree growers using immigrant labour this year.” In addition, he exclaimed, “they pay the guys 10 or 12 bucks an hour. It’s a great job for the Mexicans. They’ve got to pay either their way up or their way back. It’s not slave labour here.”
Cue the well-deserved backlash. Anti-poverty, labour and other progressive groups were justifiably infuriated. Nova Scotia Federation of Labour president Rick Clarke demanded that Keddy step down as an MP. “It is simply astonishing”, Clark said, “to hear from an MP that he believes that if you’re unemployed, homeless or just down on your luck, you are categorized as ‘all those no-good bastards’; he should put more effort in helping those who find their selves in dire straits rather than slandering them.”
Even the monopoly media feigned outrage over Keddy’s remarks, reminding him of some very basic facts. Foremost among these basic facts is the reality that a startling disproportion of homeless people in Canada suffer from mental and physical disabilities which render them severely disadvantaged in an already turbulent and draconian labour market system. Moreover, all disadvantaged groups (e.g., women, the elderly, immigrants, First Nations) are vastly overrepresented among the homeless. Furthermore, Keddy makes the prejudicial assumption that all those who are homeless are not employed, an assumption which has been shown to be false by all major studies of homelessness and unemployment.
Further still, the MP could also have been reminded of the brutality of Canada’s anti-worker “guest worker” program and its associated human trafficking rackets before he romanticized the conditions in which Mexican and other immigrant labourers are toiling.
Nonetheless, after a free and basic crash course in Canadian reality, it was time for Mr. Keddy to issue a predictably contrived apology just one day after his scandalous remarks. “I would like to offer a sincere apology for remarks I made regarding the unemployed in Halifax,” he said. “These comments were insensitive, and for that I am truly sorry. In no way did I mean to offend those who have lost their job due to the global recession, nor did I mean to suggest that anyone who is unemployed is not actively looking for employment.”
If given the most charitable reading, Keddy’s latest statement may partially address the issue of elderly, disabled or otherwise marginalized persons for whom the task of procuring employment is difficult if not impossible. But what about the many able-bodied adults and youth who find themselves among the homeless and/or unemployed in Halifax and other cities? Mr. Keddy’s “apology” seems to have been crafted to focus his ill-tempered scorn on such persons, and as such it still avoids the heart of the issue of homelessness and unemployment. And, of the migrant workers, Harper’s MP was predictably silent.
The woeful inadequacy of Keddy’s statement can be seen by looking at the implications of his earlier use of the term “no-good bastards.” Why, precisely, are certain homeless and unemployed persons “no good”? Keddy’s phraseology is appealing to the working class sentiment that all able-bodied persons ought to work and contribute to the polity. The real contradiction, however, is that the Canadian ruling class – which Keddy so eloquently represents – does not share this view. In fact, far from believing in the notion of a duty to work, the ruling class does not believe that livelihood is a basic human right.
The Canadian ruling class uses the term “natural rate of unemployment” (borrowed from US ruling class intellectuals) to refer to the idea that a certain number of workers must remain unemployed in order to prevent inflation. In other words, there must be a certain demand for jobs so that workers will be willing to accept lower wages and working standards than they would if other jobs were readily available. In 1994, a report written for then Finance-Minister Paul Martin estimated that the “natural rate of unemployment” in Canada is about eight per cent, and no subsequent (or previous) Canadian government has ever renounced this idea by declaring that full employment is possible or even desirable.
Nor will Keddy or any of his counterparts openly declare that full employment is possible or desirable. Instead, Keddy makes the contradictory insinuation that all able-bodied persons ought to work when their right to do so is unrecognized and when the ruling class in many cases has an interest in preventing that right from being exercised. The working class should greet such disingenuous sanctimony with the contempt that it so richly deserves. Keddy and his ilk subscribe to an antiquated world view in which people have responsibilities without having rights. In other words, according to such people, you are a “no good bastard” if you don’t work, but you have no right to work regardless of whether or not you are seeking a job. Nor do you have any right to a say in the workplace, nor to an education, to housing, to health care or any other benefits that flow from the labour of the working class. It is not with his tongue-in-cheek that Keddy castigates Halifax’s homeless youth – and, by extension, their counterparts elsewhere – but with a very clear view of the role of workers and the youth. In his eyes, they are nothing more than chattel to be used and disposed of at will, and they must be unequivocally condemned if they fail to live up to this assigned role.
In contrast, the working class views the act of contributing to the socialized economy as a right and a responsibility. In a modern socialized economy, one has a right to a dignified living and a means of sustenance, and in turn has an accompanying responsibility to contribute (to the best of their ability) to the same socialized economy which facilitates the realization of that right. The problem, therefore, is not homeless and/or unemployed youth in Halifax, or in any other Canadian city. Rather, it is a state-imposed economic arrangement whereby decent work is deliberately made scarce for the sake of expanding large private financial empires. Because such parasitic activity drains the national wealth and stymies national production, it blocks the development of a socialized economy in which the rights and responsibilities of all are able to be exercised.
Therefore, the Canadian working class should not only reiterate the Nova Scotia Federation of Labour’s view that Keddy renounce his “honourable” position, but also take up the cause of demanding and building a self-reliant socialized economy. This imperative is best summed up by the slogan: “Whose Economy? Our Economy!” It is only by taking up this banner that the rights of all can be realized.