By Richard Forbes.
Featured image via Sean Kilpatrick, CP.
“For a decade, middle class struggles were simply swept under the rug,” Finance minister Bill Morneau says to parliament, prompting jeers from the opposition. “But the good news is that Canadians—on their own accord—worked hard and persevered. We have always been resilient and innovative, able to adapt—and prosper—in the face of change.”
Switching to French, Morneau would add, “knowing that, we put together a plan to ensure that, in a changing world, Canada’s middle class and those working hard to join it can—and will—succeed,” echoing a familiar theme for the Trudeau government. Indeed, in Morneau’s sophomore budget, the words, ‘middle class’ appear a staggering 153 times.
This 2017 budget, titled ‘Building a strong middle class‘ consolidates the plan first outlined in last year’s budget, ‘Growing the middle class‘: bringing some much needed clarity to its innovation plan in terms of ‘superclusters,’ doubling down on water security for indigenous and northern communities, and a modernisation of its family support policy in discussing the needs of single parents – something that tends to go forgotten in campaign literature targeting vote-rich nuclear families.
Among the writers here at the Ribbon, the Liberals’ overuse of the phrase, ‘middle class’ has been a point of inexhaustible contention since their fall campaign. Elias Weiss, one of our longtime contributors, has always defended the slogan, arguing the ‘middle class’ sloganeering is a genius political strategy because so many Canadians, even those who aren’t in the middle class, believe it includes them. Myself, I’ve always held that the ‘middle class’ mantra was by far the stupidest, tired, most overwrought aspect of Trudeau’s rhetoric – and I’ve always maintained that the Liberals won in 2015 in spite of the ‘middle class’ yadda yadda yadda rather than as a result of it. It’s in that sense that the ‘middle class’ is curiously divisive: despite both of us being liberals, our perceptions, interpretations and perspectives in relation to class couldn’t be more different.
The Pearson Institute’s research into Canadians’ class perceptions offers some insight and explanation for our diverging views: Elias is a Quebecer, whereas I was born and raised in Southern Ontario. According to the Pearson Institute, the vast majority of Quebecers (72%) regard themselves as classe moyenne, whereas only a minority of Ontarians regard themselves as middle class (43%) – the province where the ‘middle class’ identifier is least common. Our notions of what make someone ‘middle class’ are vastly different culturally: when Elias is asked to describe ‘middle class,’ he chooses words like ‘common’, ‘salt-of-the-earth’, ‘making-ends-meet’, which stands in stark contrast to me describing ‘middle class’ as ‘owning a hot tub and a bean shaped pool you don’t use, cottaging and boating on the weekends, golfing, lots of sweater-vests, wine-tasting and cycling on Niagara-on-the-Lakes and a love for the Stratford Festival.’
This perplexed Elias: “what the hell counts as ‘well-to-do’ then in Ontario?” he asks. To which, I answered, rather confusingly “middle class, of course.” Indeed, over 74% of those making over $100,000 a year identified themselves to the Pearson Institute as ‘middle class.’ Whereas Elias, as a Quebecer, has long regarded the ‘classe moyenne’ as more or less a synonym for ‘normal folks’, I, as an Ontarian see ‘middle class’ as exclusive: carrying with it a connotation of status and privilege. It’s for that reason most Ontarians do not identify as middle class even if their household does fit the median income bracket ($70k); instead, if you’re making less than a $100k, you’re far more likely to identify as working class in Ontario – a trend which applies more lightly but still prominently enough to the rest of English Canada, contrary to the trend in Quebec.
When Budget 2017 writes ‘the government is committed to making smart, necessary investments in the economy to ensure a thriving middle class’ – a common Trudeau talking point making a call for activist government – this conjures in Elias’ mind, the image of a government supporting common people, but in my Ontariospeak, it translates rather errantly to ‘using your tax dollars to give a handout to people already well off because they’re more important than you for economic growth in Canada.’ And the Liberals aren’t alone in causing this confusion, for example, NDP leader Thomas Mulcair’s tired campaign rhetoric, ‘middle class values’ to a Quebecer means, more or less, ‘hard-work’ but that’s a working class value in Ontario – ‘middle class values’ in Ontario (which is an awkward phrase that basically doesn’t exist in English Canada) are the values of employers not employees: ambition, capitalization, status, profit, self-indulgence.
During the last federal campaign, at times it seemed to this Ontarian as though every federal political party headquarters was haplessly unaware of the connotation: their candidates innocently roaming the Ontario countryside blabbering on about how much they care about the ‘struggling’ bourgeoisie and bourgeois values.
In the past, it’s been common for Canadian federal campaigns to strike a tone-deaf note in Quebec – confusing ‘nation’ with ‘country’ or vice versa, for example, has been a minefield for anglophone leaders – but the last federal election may have been one of the first examples of political bilingualism failing in the anglosphere, leaving the substance of campaigns functionally lost in translation.
Interestingly, the source of this diverging understanding of ‘middle class’ may be an indirect result of inflated public sector wages in Ontario.
When asked ‘who is middle class,’ for example, Elias and I both answer ‘teachers’ instinctively. It may seem odd that despite our different understandings of what middle class is, we both identify the same occupation as the prototypical ‘middle class’ job but there is in fact a good reason behind this parallelism. The salaries for secondary school teachers is wildly different between Ontario (where the average salary can reach $87k without counting benefits) and Quebec (where the pay scale begins under $40k and ends for senior teachers below the Ontarian average at $76k.) As I began to list other jobs I considered middle class, a trend appeared: most of these jobs were public sector jobs and most of them made an average wage that was near double their Quebecer counterparts. Compare, say, an OPP constable making $90k versus a Sûreté du Québec constable making $40k, both three years into the job. Indeed, Toronto Star did an entire op-ed about the $100k divergence between Ontario and Quebec crown prosecutor salaries.
It appears as though the growth of public sector wages in Ontario may be distorting the province’s understanding of middle class.
In Ontario, teachers, lawyers, police officers, diplomats, nurses, power line technicians, pilots and small business owners all exist within the same social, economic and cultural sphere, which is an incredibly foreign notion to the Quebec experience where those occupations would never be blurred in terms of status and wealth. The effect it seems is a distinction in the ROC between ‘working class’ and ‘middle class’ that does not exist in Quebec. The term for ‘working class’ in Quebec, classe ouvrière, is not widely used because the presence of the public sector hasn’t distorted its socioeconomic fabric to the extent it has in Ontario.
A study in contrasting perspectives: when asked to describe ‘middle class,’ Elias said construction workers (top), I said weekends at Niagara-on-the-Lake (bottom.)
Ultimately, their overuse of the ‘middle class’ phrase could potentially undermine both the Trudeau Liberals’ electoral outreach and their hopes to disarm economic anxiety. It’s not as helpful as Trudeau and Morneau might think it is to talk about reassuring an anxious middle class when in fact, the kinds of people that might vote for a Trump-like figure identify as working class. Indeed, it’s the opposite message they’re trying to communicate. In a major faux pas, the Trudeau Liberals are telling working class voters, they’re supporting ‘struggling elites’ which is both incoherent and a raison d’être for the kind of populism that the Trudeau camp is hoping to prevent. The potential for backlash is great.
For instance, here in my rural Ontario riding, the local Liberal candidate’s use of his campaign’s talking points, ‘middle class this, middle class that,’ more or less derailed what should have otherwise have been a strong performance at the townhall debate for him. Instead of talking about his platform and his strengths, the local Liberal candidate was placed on the spot during the debate to explain why his leader, Justin Trudeau, was supporting the middle class and not the working class, later he was also asked to define middle class – impossible questions to answer articulately and comfortably when probably half the audience regarded themselves as working class. His and the NDP candidate’s awkward answers to that peppering of complaints provoked laughter and ridicule from the audience, embarrassing both candidates, while the incumbent, a Conservative, wisely knew better than to interrupt his opponents while they were busy making a mistake.
The obvious question remaining is why the Trudeau Liberals are sticking with their middle class rhetoric to the dogged extent they are? I can’t be the first English Canadian to have noticed this err, semasiological discrepancy. They’ve had every opportunity to transition to different terminology – ‘everyday Canadians,’ ‘hard-working Canadians,’ ‘average Canadians,’ ‘the working class,’ – and perhaps retain ‘classe moyenne’ as its French translation. But they’ve clearly chosen not to. Perhaps it’s because the Trudeau Liberals’ focus is Ontario’s self-identified middle class. Indeed as Stephen Gordon, a Laval professor (note: Quebec), has pointed out before, the Liberals’ middle class tax cut only applies to those making above $45k in taxable income; the maximum benefit of the tax cut goes to those making between $90k and $200k which is far closer to my Ontarian understanding of middle class than Elias’, my Montreal confrère.
Perhaps, the Trudeau camp has recognized the rogue English interpretation of ‘middle class’ and attempted to respond to it with their clumsy addendum: “the middle class – and those working hard to join it.” But this language, along with being widely ridiculed, fails to name Canadians by their name – a lot of Canadians are proud of being working class – and it still names the wealthiest as the top priority of the party.
If insider Liberals believe that their ‘middle class’ rhetoric gave them an advantage and won them the last election, they ought to be reminded of the phrase, post hoc ergo propter hoc. Despite the seemingly hundreds of paperback books espousing our new era of message control in politics, there are limitations to message discipline. The price that the Harper Conservatives paid for its overuse of certain slogans was ridicule and contempt; the evocation of “our Economic Action Plan” inspired laughter – a chorus of pain-ridden jeers and belly laughs – in the townhall debates I experienced, last federal election.
In its overuse of ‘middle class’, Trudeau and his government risks becoming a punchline. Worse still, it’s putting the country at risk of a Trumpist movement that they themselves have said they want to prevent. The ball is in Trudeau’s court. If people turned away from establishment parties because they felt they weren’t fighting for them, the Liberals have an opportunity to say to Canadians they’ll support them and prove it.
Richard Forbes studied Political Science and Philosophy at the University of Waterloo. Winner of the Peter Woolstencroft Prize in Canadian Politics (2015).
When asked what ‘one does exactly’ with said degree, he laughs and politely declines to answer. A perfect night for him involves a cup of Lady Grey, writing and a re-run of Yes Minister.