In a recent op-ed about the Idle No More campaign I argued that liberalism, as a political philosophy, has blindspots. As a foundational philosophy in Canada and as the centre of our politics, liberalism, I suggested, has left many of us unable to understand where marginalized groups, such as Indigenous Canadians, are coming from when they try to advance so-called “special” claims that run counter to the liberal belief in pure equality and freedom. There are many such blindspots, and their history is complicated, but it’s worth identifying some of them and tracing their provenance.
In its simplest form, liberalism is about liberty. From that point onwards proponents and critics of liberalism diverge about what the philosophy, at its core, espouses, represents, and prescribes. But from that foundational principle of liberty emerges a common, though not universal, claim that to the extent that an individual is prevented from doing something, s/he is unfree. As liberalism is elaborated and applied, certain restrictions on freedom are granted, but the main idea is that the maximization of liberty is the first principle when it comes to designing a society: as much as possible, people should be left to do their own thing.
Liberals (and I do not mean members of the political party) tend to believe in the need for liberty because of their conception of human agency. For them, humans are conceived as individual, naturally free, choosers of ends who are capable of making and revising plans for themselves, and seeing those plans through. So, what we get is a broad claim that not only should people should be left alone to choose for themselves, but they should also be held responsible for the successes or failures of their personal projects. But this claim is flawed, since the reality of lived experience for many is far removed from the foundational claims of liberalism.
Liberalism in Canada is blind to structural oppression and disadvantage because so many Canadians buy fully (or nearly fully) into the liberal imaginary that I’ve outlined above, and are unable to understand how individuals are shaped, constrained, or flat-out oppressed before they ever have a chance to make and pursue life plans. And a disproportionate number of the individuals who are met with structural barriers are part of identifiable groups: women, Aboriginals, or the economic lower-class. And when liberals forget that the promise of liberalism is philosophical, while the reality of liberalism is grounded in the everyday experience of these groups (and others), the liberal promise of the opportunity to maximize one’s agency through the provision of liberty falls on its face. Oops.
But don’t believe my admonitions from the Ivory Tower. Let’s take a quick look at some numbers for some groups of Canadians. First, the poor. In Canada, 3.5 million people are considered poor, and 1 in 10 children walk the line between having their basic life needs met or not. Of these 3.5 million Canadians, 770,000 use a food bank each month; 40 per cent of those users are children. Ever tried to maximize your freedom on an empty stomach? Or while freezing?
When it comes to gender, the statistics are equally discouraging. According to a 2005 study by the Royal Bank of Canada, the lost-income potential of women, due to the wage gap and lower rates of promotion, is somewhere around $126 billion per year. At the same time, the wage gap for full-time, full-year employment sees women make a mere 72 per cent of what their male counterparts do. Thus, freedom and equality remain, but women pay on average a 28 per cent premium for these basic human rights.
Meanwhile, every day, 3,000 women seek refuge from domestic abuse in emergency shelters. In a year, at least 427,000 women are sexually assaulted in Canada (those are just the reported numbers, which might represent only 10 per cent of actual assaults).
Furthermore, politically, the Royal Bank report noted that Canada ranked 38th in the world for number of women in the national legislature, with barely 21 per cent of members of Parliament being women. By 2012, that number was a mere 25 per cent, supported by a New Democratic Party Caucus made up of 39 per cent women (versus 17 per cent for the Conservative and Liberal parties).
Indigenous Canadians live, on average, seven years fewer than non-Indigenous Canadians; they have an infant mortality rate two-to-four times higher; deaths due to HIV/AIDS are twice that of other Canadians. And a 2010 report released by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives revealed that Aboriginal incomes in Canada were 30 per cent lower than those of other Canadians ($18,692 compared with $27,097).
On their own, these statistics prove nothing. They’re simply indicators. But underneath them is the story of liberalism’s blindspots. Built into the social structure of Canadian liberal-democracy is a legacy of privilege that militates against groups of people. Not individuals. Groups as groups, as evidenced by central tendencies observable in the data mentioned above. And while the lot of women, Indigenous Canadians, and other groups has improved in recent years, short-term improvements cannot make up for decades (or centuries) of neglect, abuse, or full-blown oppression.
If Canadians, in their capacity as liberal individuals, fail to understand the role of persistent oppression in preventing certain groups of people from achieving even base-level equality of opportunity, then liberalism will remain blind to disadvantage. Ultimately, it’s not liberalism as a philosophy that turns its back on those who fall outside its privileged space. It?s the people who believe in that philosophy.
Further Reading & Resources
 http://www.makepovertyhistory.ca/learn/issues/end-poverty-in-canada. Accessed Jan. 6, 2013.
 www.rbc.com/newsroom/pdf/20051020diversity.pdf. Accessed Jan. 6, 2013.
 http://www.canadianwomen.org/facts-about-violence. Accessed Jan. 6, 2013.
 http://aboriginalhealth.vch.ca/facts.htm. Accessed Jan. 6, 2013.