Walkom: Searching for scapegoats in hard times

http://www.thestar.com   Published On Tue Oct 25 2011

Demonstrators with Occupy Wall Street say it is the moguls of high finance — the richest 1 per cent — who are to blame for the world’s ills.<br />

Demonstrators with Occupy Wall Street say it is the moguls of high finance — the richest 1 per cent — who are to blame for the world’s ills.

TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

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By Thomas Walkom National Affairs Columnist

When the economy booms, even the poorest have hope. When it stagnates, everyone looks for scapegoats.

In Germany after World War I, the scapegoats were Jews. In Canada during the slump of 1919-20, popular anger was taken out on Polish, Finnish, Russian and Ukrainian immigrants believed to be Bolshevik agitators. Many were rounded up and jailed without trial at the Kapuskasing internment camp in Northern Ontario.

In 1937, in the midst of the Great Depression, angry Sarnia citizens expressed their frustration by attacking workers on strike at a local plant and beating them with iron pipes.

We are entering another scapegoat period. The economic recovery that was supposed to have materialized has not.

The Bank of Canada added its voice to the doomsayers Tuesday, predicting another recession in Europe that, on top of ongoing U.S. problems and weakness in Asia, promises to keep the Canadian economy feeble for at least another year.

So who will Canada’s scapegoats be this time?

Foreigners and immigrants are often convenient targets. Ontarians saw some of this in the recent election campaign when Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak attacked his Liberal opponents for favouring what he called “foreign workers.”

Conventional wisdom holds that Hudak’s outburst helped to lose him the election. Perhaps. But it’s worth noting that, in spite of Hudak’s calculated xenophobia, the Tories almost matched the victorious Liberals in popular vote.

Nationally, the Stephen Harper Conservatives have been more adroit, channelling nativist resentment against what they call bogus refugees while welcoming those temporary foreign workers whom Canadian businesses want to hire.

Instead, the federal government is targeting unions. This is the significance of its extraordinary intervention in two Air Canada labour disputes.

While it is common for governments to beat up on their own workers, it is most unusual for them to take sides in private sector disputes, particularly in a competitive area like air travel.

The government’s stated reason for intervention in the Air Canada disputes — that it was protecting the economy — was laughable. This was particularly true in its first intervention, against striking ticket agents.

That strike, which did not involve air crew, would not have stopped Air Canada from flying.

Rather Ottawa’s real reason was crassly political and based on two calculations.

First, non-unionized workers tend to resent the benefits, such as pensions, that those under the umbrella of organized labour enjoy.

Second, most Canadian workers are non-union.

Adding these two together produces a perfect recipe for scapegoating. It’s always easier to blame the guy down the street who makes $10 an hour more than to focus on the real reasons for Canada’s economic malaise.

Expect to see Ottawa engage in more union-bashing as the economy withers. Politically, it is proving a winner.

Conversely, the Occupy Wall Street protesters and their Canadian offshoots provide a counter explanation. They say it is the moguls of high finance — the richest 1 per cent — who are to blame for the world’s ills.

This is an attractive theory for those of us who are neither moguls nor rich. Unlike, say, a unionized worker making $34.95 an hour, the ultra-rich do control a disproportionate amount of the nation’s wealth.

Furthermore, the rich could pay more in income tax without blinking an eye. So yes, tax them until their pips squeak. That will help get us out of this mess.

Yet at the same time I wonder if blaming the 1 per cent for the country’s ills isn’t scapegoating, too. Are things that simple?

Thomas Walkom’s column appears Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday.

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