Mike McBane, photo by Stuart Trew, 2014
Fearless. Devoted. Unswerving. Kind. Reliable. Modest. Moral. No matter who I asked, the same words came up to describe Mike McBane, the recently retired director of the Canadian Health Coalition and first recipient—at a ceremony in Ottawa on November 27—of the annual CCPA Social Justice Award. I would have chosen the same words, having worked with him (on trade agreements and health) in a previous life, though Mike chuckles when he hears them read back to him. Probably he would describe himself simply (and modestly) as a coalition builder. At least we spent a lot of time talking about coalitions over lunch in early November. That and Mike’s faith, his devotion to social justice, the integrity of Canadian health care, and the technicalities of ruining a good prime ministerial photo opportunity.
Stuart Trew: How did you feel when you found out about the Social Justice Award?
Mike McBane: I was quite surprised and humbled by it. I certainly wasn’t expecting it! And it’s a great honour to be associated with an award from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. I have a great respect for the organization, its work, and so I feel very humbled to be quite honest, to be singled out by them.
ST: You have some history with the CCPA.
MM: We go way back—almost to the beginning of the CCPA. We all started off very small and very committed and much to my delight I’ve seen the CCPA really grow and become a very influential and quite a significant organization from its humble origins. And because we’ve had that history together, I’ve always been able to count on CCPA for support and solidarity in our work (at the Canadian Health Coalition). Whether it’s doing a joint conference or periodical, CCPA was always there when I would reach out for co-sponsorship or collaboration. And it wasn’t just one person. Throughout the CCPA, there is a depth of input and openness to our issues, and on seeing the issues in a broader context.
ST: You talk a lot about collaboration and coalition. What were some of your favourite moments in that respect?
MM: I remember I was at home in my kitchen when the phone rang and my predecessor at the job in the health coalition, Stephen Leary, said I’m going back to work on inner city housing issues in Vancouver, you should apply for the job. So I did. And I’m glad I did. I knew Kathleen Connors (longtime chair of the CHC and founding president of the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions) in Regina because we had worked together on free trade issues.
I started [at the health coalition] in ‘95 and the first campaign was responding to Paul Martin’s budget cuts of ’95—cuts to the social transfers. That was a good coalition issue to get in on because it was not just fighting for health transfers but fighting for social transfers, so making the connections with social policy, poverty and welfare programs, and the role of the federal government in social policy. Our theme was “Some cuts don’t heal,” and the thing that attracted me to the [health] coalition was the nature of coalition work: working with various organizations to find common causes, or a common denominator…
Because in a way I’ve always had a bit of an aversion to bureaucracy, to self-interested organizations. So you can say I’m a bit of an idealist that way. I really work to bring out the best in organizations so that they overcome narrow sectarian interests, infighting and back-fighting, and take on their social responsibilities for people who really need them to weigh in on their side. People who don’t have a voice, people who don’t have resources, are relying on organizations that do have resources; that do have the ability to make things better. So that’s what motivated me. The health coalition really gave me the space and the support to do that so I felt very fortunate in my work-life. The notion that you’re a paid agitator, that’s great.
ST: Do you Canada recovered from those budget cuts?
MM: I waded into this work on the massive unilateral cuts to social transfers and to health care by the Liberal government in ‘95. But over the course of the next decade and more, you could really see the long-term impact of that federal withdrawal. I remember when I travelled across the country with the Romanow Commission, which I was very fortunate to do, I got a better appreciation of where provincial governments are coming from.
I remember the Quebec government presenting to the Romanow Commission and explaining the strategic damage the unilateral cut did on funding. And then I realized, too, that it did so much damage to the credibility of the federal government as an interloper in health care. So there was major strategic damage to the health care system but also the federal-provincial relations, and the undermining of the credibility of the federal role.
So that’s why the Romanow Commission and its report, and then finally the federal government putting the money back, was so important. You had to put the money back to be able to play. It wasn’t an extravagant reinvestment. It was putting the money back. So in a sense we were living a long time, and you can still argue we’re living, with the fallout of that massive cut. It muddies the water, at least it means that provinces know they can’t trust the federal government’s long-term commitment on health care, so they’re leery of boutique programs that give the government a photo op. It’s (the federal government) in there a year or two years, but they’re not necessarily there for the long-haul. I appreciate the perspective of provincial governments a bit more.
It makes the work even more important to explain to Canadians the importance of federal leadership in health care because really the story of the Canada Health Act and the national standards is really a story of if there’s a will there’s a way. You can overcome jurisdictional battles if you have the political will and that’s what’s missing today. People fall back it being a provincial responsibility. No, this is where you need us to be a country, not just a bunch of provinces, and here’s how we can do it.
I give great credit to Lester Pearson for coming up with that pragmatic approach based on that really strong moral vision on what Canada needs to be. And I really think that’s inspired a lot of Canadians, and our expectations haven’t changed. If you look at opinion polls people still think that there’s a strong essential role for the federal government in social policy and health care in particular. So the message that the current regime has been there too long is not sticking, it’s not taking, which is encouraging.
ST: How do you feel about retiring?
MM: obviously, is strong public support, and that’s what makes it a third rail of federal politics, which is why I think in the first mandate of Harper, he came out, much to the disappointment of the Fraser Institute, explaining why he had to support the Canada Health Act. Because it was a political fact of life for Canada. If you want power you have to be in tune with what core Canadian values are, and that holds as well for Conservatives as Liberals. It’s a non-sectarian ground that people stand on.
That struck me in Michael Moore’s film Sicko, where he’s out interviewing some golfers and they get around to the issue of health care and they reminded Moore that various Canadians had voted for Tommy Douglas because of medicare. These were older Conservative voters, and that really struck the American documentary filmmaker. Even conservatives strongly value national public healthcare. So I think we’re on solid ground.
ST: On your last day at the 25One offices in Ottawa, when you were asked to say a few parting words, you focused on the importance of work and barely mentioned the health coalition.
MM: I do feel strongly about the importance of the community of work. One of the ways you appreciate the importance of work is the impact of unemployment on people. It really undermines their self worth and it can destroy you as an individual. A lot of meaning in life comes from work and you bring meaning to your work, and so even a monotonous job on the assembly line, which I did as a summer student, you can bring meaning to that in how you approach your task, how you related with your fellow workers. But without that option for productive work, people can’t grow; people can’t become who they really want to be. Work is important but it’s also important to be aware of the need to build community so that our work is satisfying and that we acknowledge each other in the workplace and take pride in our work.
ST: Your friends say your faith inspired your work. Could you elaborate on that a bit?
MM: My political development and religious development kind of intersected. I remember a course that shaped my intellectual development at Carleton University (in Ottawa) around 1975. It was a course called “Liberation Theology,” which was breaking new ground in 1975 because this had just emerged in the early 1970s in Latin America. It brought my politics and my faith tradition together. It certainly motivated me to be interested in social justice issues and to bring really strong social analysis to bear on the problems of the world and what should be done about them. When I was younger at university, figuring out what I wanted to do, I often thought about going abroad and working in international development. And then I saw some social justice figures that influenced me here and I realized the problem was here, and as far as I was concerned, we weren’t bringing solutions by working in the Third World. We needed to work on the issues here.
Liberation Theology was a methodology in which you basically took sides, which was counterintuitive to a lot of academia where you stand in the middle or sit on the fence. This was a methodology where you stand with the people on the bottom and take a side—the side of justice. If you follow that through on any given model, it can ruffle feathers and make you a little unpopular but that was something I really was inspired by: the movement, and to make the connections. A number of Canadians were inspired by that and committed to apply that to Canadian politics and Canadian social challenges.
I had the opportunity of working with the social affairs office of the Conference of Catholic Bishops in the early 1980s, and the privilege of applying those principles to Canadian politics. For example, we were able to look at disputes and conflict in the Canadian context. One of them I remember was the Eaton’s strike and [the Bishops] waded in with a pro-workers message that Labour Day. Of course, all hell broke loose in terms of Timothy Eaton calling up Conrad Black who then leaned on the bishops and said, What the hell are you doing? It was a really clear sociological study of power. And how religion is used to reinforce and legitimate power.
Or it can be used to overthrow power. That’s really what the story of liberation theology is about. Religion doesn’t have to oppress. Religion can liberate. It depends on what people are doing with it. That was a classic example of the liberating potential of religious traditions. Traditionally religion is used in Canada to reinforce power and the elites. Religion can be used differently.
I remember prior to the Eaton’s strike statement there was major intervention on the economy—a New Years’ statement in 1983, which basically said unemployment was immoral. This was a critique of the Trudeau government’s economic agenda of price controls and throwing people out of work. That was also a very exciting time for working in social justice issues where for some reason, a certain set of circumstances, [the statement] got major public and media attention in a way that opened up a lot of contacts with our office and the social sector and progressive groups in Canada.
In fact, that’s how we got introduced to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. After the 1983 Catholic bishops’ statement on the economy, CCPA organized a roundtable at the Chateau Laurier (in Ottawa) with economists wading in. The radical nature of that intervention was it basically articulated a principle you don’t hear too much about, which is the priority of labour over capital, which was a catholic social teaching principle. You say that today, of course, and people will assume you’re a Marxist.
It’s that kind of radical critique of the economy that is badly needed. The need for some ethical, moral roots to an analysis, which makes the capitalist economic paradigm vulnerable because it’s amoral, it has no ethics; no human principles stand in the way of its ends. Those were some of the roots of what motivated me and interested me as a young person. I was fortunate to find organizations in Canada that gave you the space to work out of those premises in the field of social justice.
ST: When did you get involved in the Action Canada Network?
MM: My job was downsized at the Conference [of Catholic Bishops] after many of these controversial social interventions. Eventually Bay Street got their hooks in, and over time shut down that whole teaching tradition, even to this day. A friend of mine uses the analogy that they left a pilot light on but that’s about it.
During the days in the church work, a lot of that was basic coalition work because there was a whole series of church coalitions on human rights in Latin America, corporate responsibility, Aboriginal rights—all significant coalitions, and a long tradition of inter-church work, and that opened the door to working with organizations across society and the country. So it was a natural step when I had the opportunity to work in the free trade coalition, the Action Canada network. It was a smooth transition.
It was the women’s moment, farm sector, environmental movement, trade unions, churches, anti-poverty groups, etc. That was quite an exciting time around the free trade battle of the late-1980s. Because the threats from the FTA were such that it didn’t matter what sector you were in, you’d read the agreement and find out how it would negatively impact on your sector. So it gave you the motivation to link forces with all the other sectors that were negatively impacted. The student movement was involved, Quebec was involved. It was really an exciting, active political time to build movements and to resist the major national economic agenda at the time. I think the significant aspect of that was not just the policy debate, but the social movement that was building.
Photo courtesy of Mike McBane
ST: The NAFTA signing ceremony. The U.S. flag. Was that planned?
MM: Prior to [the signing ceremony], we said we can’t let this happen without some kind of symbolic interaction or event to mark the occasion, the significance of this for our country. So the Action Canada Network got together with all of its component member groups and planned a series of actions, and generally the strategy was to get as many people as possible into the signing in Parliament, and then there was a series of interventions planned where leaders of the different sectors would get up and make a very short intervention. That was all rehearsed and the lines were written.
When it came time to go, a bunch of us were signed into the House of Commons through some MP’s offices, and then we decided we’d all go up to the fifth floor cafeteria to gather together and then go down to the see where the security was going to be. We sent a guy down and they said we’re all going in because they thought I was security (laughs)! We wall went in, there were about fifty of us that ended up in the room, and after it started the plan was that one at a time each sector would get up. The labour movement would get up, Maude Barlow was there, Greenpeace was there, etc.
Prior to that, before it started, I’d been in early and I got seated to the right, and I saw that there were three flags lined up at the table where the prime minister was going to sign the NAFTA. I realized that Mulroney would come over to that table, and that I could get up and hold up a flag before he knew anything had happened. I was that close to it. So that just came to me after I was inside. It was spur of the moment. It was not planned. But I had enough time sitting there before it started to realize this would work, this should be done. They wouldn’t even know I was there.
So they were smiling to the cameras but the cameras were all filming me (laughs)! It took about ten seconds. I respectfully held up the flag—I didn’t want to desecrate the American flag—then let it down, then waited to be escorted out very quietly. So there was the flag incident and then all these interventions. The final intervention was from Steve Shelhorn of Greenpeace International. Just before that, Mulroney said [to the room], “Had these hecklers stayed and listened they would have realized what a good deal it is.” So Shelhorn stands up and says, “Prime Minister, I stayed, I listened, I’m still not convinced.”
The whole thing from start to finish was basically taken over. We felt that something had to be done, even though it was symbolic gesture. We couldn’t let it happen in silence or in routine. Mulroney wanted a photo op so we gave him one.