The State of Canadian Capitalism: A Political View
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 26 Oct 1978, p. 47-60
Lewis, Stepehn, Speaker
Media Type
Item Type
A detailed description of the recent postal strike and how it was handled by all parties involved. The federal government and collective bargaining: a critical perspective. Three practical suggestions by the speaker to salvage the situation. The economy, and how the present government appears not to understand it. The mistake of separating the public and private sectors. The speaker's distress over a perceived public cynicism about politics and politicians. The need for more candour in politics.
Date of Original
26 Oct 1978
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Full Text
OCTOBER 26, 1978
The State of Canadian Capitalism: A Political View
AN ADDRESS BY Stephen Lewis, Member of the Ontario Legislature for Scarborough West
CHAIRMAN Reginald W. Lewis, President


Ladies and Gentlemen: This club has long been exposed to the firm of Legge and Legge, but just for today you have Lewis and Lewis.

It has been said of today's guest speaker that he "took his politics with his pablum." And it is a reality that he has spent his life near or in politics. As a child he sat on the lap of J. S. Woodsworth, the founder of the C.C.F. Difficult as it is to imagine a tremulous Stephen Lewis, a Canadian magazine article has it that "a tremulous Stephen would play the piano for the polite attention of Stanley Knowles, Tommy Douglas and Mr. Woodsworth." Surely the last time, polite or otherwise, our guest speaker had to strive for attention. At high school, Stephen Lewis was described by his fellow students as "politicized."

At university, he honed his debating skills against such greats as John F. Kennedy and Lester B. Pearson. After his stay at the University of Toronto, he spent two years in Africa travelling and teaching. He then began his life as an elected politician. This was in 1963, when at age twenty-five, he was elected to the Ontario Legislature by the electorate of Scarborough West.

In 1970 he became leader of the Ontario New Democratic Party, and in 1975 Stephen Lewis achieved a historical milestone when his party became the Official Opposition in the Ontario Legislature.

Following the 1977 provincial election, our speaker said he would step down as party leader and this he did last February. There are perhaps many in this room who are not enamoured with Mr. Lewis's political views but I imagine there is not one here who does not admire Stephen Lewis for having the courage of his convictions and for his ability to articulate those beliefs in both the cut and thrust of the political arena and in the relative calm of the TV or radio interview. Mr. Lewis's convictions are expressed by a mastery of the language, in both the spoken and written word, that is beautifully eloquent.

Those convictions are also backed by good sense, decency and hard work and this latter point is attested to by a Father's Day article written by daughter Ilana Lewis in which she states: "Even when we went to the cottage, you could be sure that Dad would have at least two big boxes of working papers with him. It was a family joke to ban all brief-cases from the cottage."

Mr. Lewis has described himself as a politician who remains attached to politics. He is also a literary critic, newspaper columnist, TV commentator, radio talk-show host, and is today's speaker at the Empire Club.

Ladies and gentlemen, I am honoured now to present to you Mr. Stephen Lewis, Member of the Ontario Legislature for Scarborough West, who will speak to us on "The State of Canadian Capitalism: A Political View."


Mr. Chairman, and friends: I have not received, in some years, so remarkably amiable an introduction. Would that within the fraternity of the New Democratic Party I was thus treated.

It is fifteen years, one month and one day since I was elected to the Legislature of Ontario, and I finally feel as though I have reached the pinnacle of my career, the veritable peak of my ambition. I have made it to the Empire Club. Ever since I was a child of two, reading Marx on my Daddy's knee, I have dreamed of this day. As a matter of fact, this is almost akin to entering the kingdom of heaven. Mind you, I notice that I had to be safely out of the leadership before you could bring yourselves to such a gift of generosity and compassion.

Remarkable--the changing times! Once upon a time, you burned heretics at the stake. Now you invite them to lunch. I am following in the immediate wake, I gather, of Claude Ryan, John Sewell and Laura Sabia. My knees are trembling with the splendour of it all, but I shall attempt to cope.

It is no secret that I am approaching the end of my political career. I have a certain keen sense of liberation, these days. I'm not quite so inhibited by the protocols as I once was. I hope, therefore, that you will forgive me if I stray slightly from the topic, although I will stay within the context of Canadian capitalism and the way it works. But events in Canada in the last several days have been so tumultuous that I want to say something about them. It is not a total digression.

I want to reflect on three separate, but related, subjects, and I think what the Chairman said was accurate. Some of my views will undoubtedly offend. Some of my views will undoubtedly jar with those held by the majority in this room. But I state them with heart and feeling, equivalent in that sense at least to the depth of your own convictions.

The desperate problems within the public sector is the first subject that I want to deal with, to give a sense of how some of us (however small that minority may be) feel about Canadian society today. We are experiencing a sick--I don't know how else to describe it--and unhappy collapse in labour relations. In all my years politically, I have never seen anything like it. Clifford Pilkey can probably attest to that as well. We have seen battles in the Province of Ontario over the use of the ex parte injunction. I can remember the legislative halls fairly shaking over the question of the Hospital Disputes Arbitration Act in the mid-sixties. I know how many and infinite battles there have been around the rights of trade unions to seek certification. But for what is happening now, in the postal service, I cannot recall an equal.*

And what's more, the situation deteriorates, systematically, wretchedly. What is happening erodes public confidence in the public bargaining system. Every time you think you've hit the absolute nadir, another abyss yawns before you. And I don't think it will improve just because the government decides to jail a number of trade unionists.

Let me provide a personal context. I'm a working politician. I help to make the laws. I believe in the rule of law. I have said, and I notice that my federal leader said, "The laws, when they are passed, must be obeyed, must be observed." We disagreed with the leaders of C.U.P.W. On the question of refusing to observe the law of Parliament, there is no debate.

Dennis McDermott, and this is characteristic of Dennis McDermott whose leadership of the trade union movement gives some of us immense pride, said of the behaviour and the approach of C.U.P.W. that the indictments which would flow "are a natural consequence of the government's reaction to defiance of the law. Anyone who takes that on expects such action."

I suspect that the leaders of the postal union, having their eyes open when they decided to defy the law and not return to work, knew what to expect. But if I don't jar too strongly, I want to say to you that that is not really the issue. Whether or not they engaged in civil disobedience is not the issue. That's the aftermath. And whether or not they are raided, or fined, or jailed or hanged or quartered in a public square, to satisfy whatever blood lust, is not the issue. It's the consequence. And if I can utter the greatest heresy of all--whether or not the mail gets delivered, however much you and I and all of us desperately want it to be delivered--that is still not the underlying issue.

The issue, the question, which I deeply feel that reasonable Canadians should be asking themselves no matter what their political view, no matter what their background, socio-economic and otherwise, the question is what makes 23,000 decent, ordinary, uncomplicated working people in Canada so sullen, so bitter, so defiant? If we don't understand that issue, if we don't answer that question, then we are going to face the whole business again, as sure as I'm standing here--three months hence, six months hence, or a year from now. It doesn't take the wisdom of Solomon to understand that. If the Post Office becomes a crown corporation it will be akin to another crown corporation called Air Canada on the eve of a pilot's strike. You don't resolve things the way they are now trying to resolve them.

I don't know how many postal workers you know. I'm not familiar with the exotic and eccentric lives which some of you may lead. But I know postal workers. They have been on my riding executive. I've knocked on doors with them. I've eaten at their homes. These are not people who are malicious or subversive, or who are foreign agents. These are Canadians, people whom one encounters every day of the week. I know that Senator David Walker and Senator Raymond Perrault said yesterday that we should take a careful look to see how many Communists there were among the postal workers, manipulating things. (This seems to me to be a pretty strong argument for reform of the Senate!) Apart from the absurdity of that kind of stuff, it is crazy to focus so much passion on this group of working people without trying to understand what it is that drives them to extremity. Because they are working people, like endless tens of thousands of others, right across the country.

I think that what the federal government has failed to grasp is a pretty central truth about collective bargaining, which I have always thought was absolutely elemental. Forgive me if it sounds too simplistic. Labour relations are human relations, and if you don't understand that and respect it, then it's downhill all the way in any collective bargaining relationship.

That's what has been happening in this country in the area of the post office. It continues to happen. There has been the most gross and extraordinary mishandling over the years and right up to the present moment. There have been report after report, document after document, telling about the intolerable conditions in the Post Office, and how postal workers felt, through the fifties, sixties and early seventies. Did anyone ever attempt to accommodate those feelings? Why were the resentments allowed to pile, one upon the other, until the explosions were predictable?

Unions are, admittedly, imperfect social institutions. Sometimes union leaders make inappropriate demands. But what do you do with a social institution called a government and a Post Office management whose position is forever and uniformly intractable? One is supposed to expect fair play from a government, even if institutional forms are imperfect. What do you do when the grievances of working people pile up by the hundreds and the thousands? Eighty per cent of those that go to arbitration are resolved in favour of the union, but the pattern on the part of the management doesn't change.

What do you do for working people when they go eighteen months without a contract? Most of us lead relatively satisfied lives. I have a decent job and get my contract renewed if the electorate is kind enough to elect me. Most people in this room have their contracts renewed fairly regularly without having to go through eighteen months of the most harrowing effort.

What do you do with a government which gives a right to strike in legislation and then takes it away the moment the right is exercised? There are probably a great many people here who feel that the right to strike in essential services is wrong. Fair enough. Although I may disagree, that is a legitimate position. If the government believes it, let it have the courage to say so. But to grant the right to strike, with all the rhetorical excitement that surrounded it, and then to take it away on the day it is exercised in a dispute is a provocative act.

What do you do when a government passes a law that says working people must go back to work if they are out on strike, and you set the terms and penalties in the law? Then, you don't rely on the law you have just passed, but you invoke another law called the Public Service Act, and you exhume some remote clause about "having been seen to abandon the job," a clause which was never in the world intended to deal with a situation like this. It was, as a matter of fact, intended to deal with absenteeism.

Then the Postmaster General announces his intention to impose a double jeopardy: one, the possibility of a criminal offence; the other, the loss of a job. And where does he do it? Before Parliament? Oh, no. Before a Toronto luncheon of an advertising and sales club. Do you think that's fair? Do you think that is the balanced and rational behaviour of a government that is trying to seek an accommodation with working people? Does that show the honour of Parliament, of the political process?

What do you do in a situation where you suddenly call in the R.C.M.P. and raid a number of union offices across the country? Is it not possible to use the local constabulary? I'm as pleased as everybody else that the R.C.M.P. found something to do. As a matter of fact, they had warrants. It was even legal. And that's also a pleasing change. But it seems to me that what you are doing is infusing into the body politic a kind of anxiety, an anger, which is entirely unnecessary.

What do you do with a government that appoints a one-man tribunal? I'm sure the former Chief Justice of the Quebec Court of Appeal is a learned and knowledgeable man. But he has no expertise at all in labour relations. And this is one of the most complicated labour disputes going. What does that say to working people? It says that the negotiation process over the next three months will amount to almost nothing, and that what you really have to resign yourselves to is an imposed settlement at the end of ninety days.

May I be so bold as to say that there is Judge Gold, and Carl Goldenberg, and dare I mention David Lewis, and others, who are bilingual, who can handle situations like this, who can win confidence from all sides. Why do things which seem to perpetuate the manifest hostilities that stretch back from the beginning to the present day?

Now I know that this will salve the punitive instincts of some. But I want to ask you a question. How does the systematic humiliation of postal workers build trust for the future? Will someone explain that to me? How does it happen? You see, either we have a permanent peace in the Post Office or we have permanent poison. It's not difficult. That's the essential choice. For the moment, the government is approaching it in terms of permanent poison, and it's slowly killing the Post Office. Unless there's a change, the crown corporation will be dead before it's born.

I want to make three concrete suggestions, because I don't want to speak in a purely critical way. I want to make suggestions which would help, even now, to rescue the situation. Number one: there should not be a one-man tribunal in a situation like this. It should be a three-man tribunal. It should have a judge as the centre-piece, and someone to represent the workers and someone to represent the management. That would give everyone the sense that fair play is being brought to bear, even at the eleventh hour. And number two: either the tribunal itself, or some separately appointed person (mediator, conciliator, negotiator), must be there on a continuing basis, working hour by hour, day in and day out to work out the relationships, the contract, the grievances, to build some kind of a bridge of trust over a continuing period of time--one year, two years, three years. That would allow things to be cooled over time, and to be worked at. Why do we lurch from chaos to anarchy and back again without ever using the legitimate common sense which some frail mortals possess?

And finally, when are we going to change the character of collective bargaining in the public sector? You know what we have done, even better than I do. We have taken the adversary bargaining relationships of the private sector and we have imposed them holus-bolus on the public sector and it doesn't work! It may work for the steel workers and Stelco. It may work for the auto workers and General Motors. But it doesn't work for the bus drivers and the Toronto Transportation Commission, and it doesn't work for the postal workers and the Post Office.

Public sector requirements demand a sensitivity, an appreciation of the bargaining process, a sense of where the money comes from, some knowledge that the demands cannot be too high and the offers cannot be too low. The charade which is characteristic and entirely understood in the private sector offers nothing but pitfalls in the public sector. Down the present road lies irrevocable chaos.

I want to say--and I say it with regret and it reveals my partisanship although I have little apology for that--that the events of the last several days, weeks, even months, have very, very little to do with any effort to preserve the rule of law. They have a very great deal to do with efforts to preserve the federal Liberal government. And that is dreadful in its consequences, for Canada and for working people.

Having said that, I want to move to the second point. Not only do we see at the moment a government misunderstanding the nature of bargaining in the public sector, but also misunderstanding the nature of the economy. And that too is calamitous for everyone.

I learned a long time ago that these things never work in fragments. They are always inter-related. The assumptions which lead you into difficulty in one area inevitably lead you into difficulty in others.

I don't want to get into a discussion of the economy by way of comparing party platforms and programs. I am an advocate for one particular set of views. They are as fragile and in places as indefensible as other sets of views, but that's not what is at stake. What I want to raise with you is an inherent question of philosophic difference.

There is a tendency today, in this country, in this province, both in analysis and approach, to make an absolute separation between the private sector and the public sector. It is fashionable, it is chic, it is trendy to clobber the public sector, to attribute to it all of the ills of society, and conversely to romanticize the private sector, to see the private sector capable of satisfying every need and every grievance, with all of the solutions lying within its prerogative.

There was a fascinating little occurrence on Tuesday in the Legislature. Frank Miller, the new Provincial Treasurer, got up and made his first major statement to the House. One couldn't help but smile. He affirmed, touchingly, that he was an economic conservative. He talked, feelingly, of profit and free enterprise. Some of you will love those words and some of you will love Mr. Miller. I find him quite huggable myself, if I can put it that way. There is an inordinate affection that flows from that man to those around him. But there was something amazingly quaint and antiquarian about what he said. In fact, Frank Miller may live his entire life and never quite find his way into the twentieth century. Others have said equally friendly though disparaging things about me. But even some of the old economic fundamentalists would blush at the sweet innocence with which Frank talks about free enterprise and profit and the private sector--even Adam Smith wouldn't be caught alive with Frank Miller. This is a mixed economy. It's profoundly interdependent, and by establishing such rigid and separate compartments we're simply compounding the economic malaise.

The corporations understand that. They know the meaning of free enterprise today and they don't hesitate to use it. Ford Motor Company understands it when it says to the government of Ontario and Canada, "Give us $68 million to locate a plant in Windsor." The Reed Paper Company understands it, and Inco does, when they say to the government of Ontario "We want certain environmental concessions in order to fortify the balance sheets." Falconbridge understands it when it takes money from the federal government to invest in the Third World.

You don't have to be an Allan Blakeney socialist to know how the system works, although I want to point out to you that his particular mixture of public and private enterprise in Saskatchewan is working remarkably well. You don't have to be an Ed Broadbent to know that the private sector will never reach productive capacity and that it must have government help and intervention. Even the Economic Council of Canada now advocates two billion dollars' worth of tax cuts, regardless of the consequences to the deficit, as a way of stimulating the economy. They understand the interdependence.

But many of our federal politicians, and some of our provincial politicians, with a great deal of persuasion and charm, talk about the public sector as though it was some kind of irrelevant abstraction, while all of mankind's hopes lie with the private sector.

It is a common mythology. It is gaining credibility.

There was a quite remarkable article by Robert Heilbrunner (who is hardly a flaming radical) in an issue of New Yorker a month or two ago, in which he analyses contemporary North American capitalism and points out as vividly as I have ever seen it stated the tremendous need for greater and greater regulatory and interventionist activity by the state--not through malevolence, or authoritarianism--but simply because for reasons of resource scarcity and environmental consideration and the desperate need for economic planning on a global scale, there is no escaping it. And there is nothing to be gained by making the differentiations so starkly. This kind of separation will not mean the end of unemployment. The kinds of things the federal government is saying, and that Frank Miller is saying provincially, will not drive down inflation or support the falling dollar, or even ultimately be the saviour of the private sector. Until we begin to understand the fact that we live in a mixed economy, that the public sector has a role to play, and that it is absurd to deprecate it just because it is fashionable, ours will be an economy in enormous trouble.

But at least Frank Miller is unabashedly open and straightforward--and this brings me to the final point I want to make. I am personally terribly distressed by the public cynicism about politics and politicians. That cynicism is unnerving. It is at times almost pathological. I have always enjoyed being a politician. As a matter of fact, I have always been proud to be a politician. I think it is an honourable profession to pursue. And if politicians always keep their eyes on the human consequences of the changes they effect, politics can be an extraordinary way of changing the human condition for the better.

I don't know how else you measure political behaviour, or legislative behaviour. You must sit down with every single act and piece of legislation and every government initiative and ask, "What are the human consequences of passage or denial?" When you resolve it in your own mind, when you see that it is beneficial, it becomes by that system of values supportable. And it makes of the whole process an immensely ennobling experience.

But having said that, because it is a sine qua non for me personally, I am prepared to admit that there is basis for public discontent in this country towards politicians and the process.

There is in the process so much flim-flam. There is so much double meaning, so much duplicity, so much and unnecessary secrecy. If one were to diagnose what is occurring and perhaps to prescribe something, I would suggest modestly that what the country needs more than anything else right now are the politics of candour.

I have never understood, not ever, why it is not possible for politicians to say publicly, "We don't know the answer." Just like that. I don't see why it is not possible for politicians to say with regularity, "We were wrong. We made a mistake." I have said that many times--because it was true. I've been wrong more often than I care to remember in political decisions. But wouldn't it be enormously refreshing if, at every level of political life, those who are in government, those who have effective authority and power, would admit that they were wrong to the people who elect them?

Why isn't it possible for politicians to say, "Here's the range of options, and from among them we've tried to pick a program which makes sense. And here is all the documentation which underlies it--here, in plain view." No more secrecy; no more conspiracy.

It should be possible for politicians to say, "These are our internal differences. I am Prime Minister, and I want you to know that my Minister of Justice disagrees with my Minister of Labour, and we are wrestling with the problem. Over time, we hope we will resolve it." Is there anything so heinous about that? Is there anything objectionable about saying to the public that we have differences and that we are attempting a reconciliation? Admit that you are wrong. Admit that you don't know. Share the possible options. Admit to internal differences. And may I ask, above all, is it not possible, even once every five years or ten years, to admit a virtue, or a wisdom, or a point to the position of an adversary? Isn't it possible to civilize politics, rather than rendering the political arts forever combative?

I don't understand the obsession with obscurantism which exists in so much of political life. I don't know why it is not possible to pursue a much greater candour. However some people may denigrate the system, parliamentary democracy is a superb form of representative government. It's worth cherishing. It's worth revitalizing. It's worth opening up to the winds of forthright and absolutely straightforward political expression.

Whatever the differences, political or otherwise, in this hall, the blessed Imperial Room of the Royal York Hotel, surely on that defence of the parliamentary system we can all agree.

The appreciation of the audience was expressed by Terrence Tyers, a member of the Board of Directors of The Empire Club of Canada.

*Editor's Note: In order to better understand some of the concerns expressed by Mr. Lewis, the reader should be reminded that the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (C.U.P.W.) had been on strike since October 10, 1978 and returned to work on October 26, 1978. Nine union executives were charged under the Criminal Code for defying the Government's back-to-work order which became law on October 19, 1978.

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The State of Canadian Capitalism: A Political View

A detailed description of the recent postal strike and how it was handled by all parties involved. The federal government and collective bargaining: a critical perspective. Three practical suggestions by the speaker to salvage the situation. The economy, and how the present government appears not to understand it. The mistake of separating the public and private sectors. The speaker's distress over a perceived public cynicism about politics and politicians. The need for more candour in politics.