Social Issues in Canada

In recent years, one of the most defining elements of the Canadian identity has been the country’s social policies, that collection of laws and regulations that govern how Canadians live their lives, and what kind of government-guaranteed benefits and perks they enjoy. Particularly in an era where Canadians tend to focus a lot on how their country is different from the United States, social policy is often seen to be a window into the sort of values that make Canada a unique and progressive country — though it would definitely be a mistake to suggest any of the policies below are universally beloved and uncontroversial.

Health Care

Whenever Canadians are polled about what makes them “proudest to be Canadian,” the Canadian health care system frequently tops the list. Beginning in the 1960s, the government of Canada began a gradual process of phasing out most private, for-profit health insurance, clinics and hospitals, replacing them with a new, universial, publicly-funded health care regime.

Today, all Canadians are provided comprehensive health insurance automatically, through public health coverage plans run by the various provincial governments (with some funding help from Ottawa). In practice, this means Canadians don’t have to pay out of pocket for their medical procedures or rely on their employers for health insurance. The government foots the majority of the bill for all check-ups, exams and operations, and only charges small monthly premiums in exchange — usually $100 or less.

Stockwell Day and his "No 2-tier health care" sign

In the 2001 Canadian federal election, Stockwell Day (b. 1950), the conservative candidate for prime minister, famously brandished this sign during a televised debate, lest anyone think he was soft on the issue of privatizing health care.

This health care system is one of the most generous in the world, but also one of the most expensive to maintain. In recent years, provincial governments have been forced to scale back their scope of coverage in order to make the program more sustainable, and many Canadians must now buy supplementary private health insurance to pay for things like dentist trips, eye exams and any operation the government deems “non-essential.” Similarly, Canadian hospitals are notoriously overcrowded due to their ease of accessibility, and Canadians often have to wait for months to see a specialist or access high-demand services such as MRI machines.

How to guarantee the long-term “survival” of the Canadian health care regime is one of the most heated debates in contemporary Canadian politics. On the right, its common to advocate greater privatization of hospitals and clinics (most of which are currently government-owned and operated) and greater market choice in insurance. Folks on the left, in turn, are generally extremely critical of anything that smacks of edging towards a so-called “two-tiered” system, where Canadians with money can buy their way into better medical care than those using the public system. To the broader public, however, the status quo is considered nearly sacred, and it can be difficult for any politician to openly discuss altering the Canadian health care regime if he expects to keep his job in the long term.

Abortion

In the last couple of decades, Canada has swung wildly from being one of most pro-life countries in the world to one of the most pro-choice. As a nation with a large Catholic population, abortions of any sort were banned entirely until 1969, and then only permitted under narrow conditions when the mother’s life could be proven to be in danger.

Henry Moregentaler

Born in Poland to a Jewish family, Dr. Morgentaler survived death in a concentration camp and was a frustratingly complex foe for pro-life groups. Brash and outspoken, he's one of the most controversial Canadians of all time.

Illegal abortions continued in the background, however, and in 1988, a particularly unapologetic abortionist named Dr. Henry Morgentaler (1923-2013) went before the Supreme Court of Canada to face charges. The court ultimately ruled that the country’s existing abortion regulations represented an unconstitutional burden on the rights of women, and the law was overturned.

Though the Supreme Court’s ruling allowed for some limits on abortion, in practice, the Canadian government has never passed any. Canadian women thus have a universal right to abort at any period of pregnancy — even the final weeks — which is a degree of permissiveness largely unseen elsewhere in the western world.

Abortion is a very controversial topic in contemporary Canada, and tops the list of things to avoid discussing in “polite company.” There are a number of passionate pro-life and pro-choice activist groups all over the country, prone to staging aggressive demonstrations and protests in order to ensure their opinions are heard. Politicians from all parties have pro-life members in their ranks, but have so far been mostly unsuccessful at making the issue a mainstream topic of discussion. Only the tiny province of Prince Edward Island has been successful in imposing an all-out ban on the practice within its borders.

Drugs and Alcohol

Cigarette warning labels

Tobacco cigarettes are legal for Canadians over 18, but in recent years the government has begun to actively discourage their use, both by banning smoking in all public places and forcing cigarette manufactures to place enormous, graphic warning labels on all packages.

Liquor was associated with all sorts of social ills in early Canada, and at various times during the early 20th century most provinces experimented with banning the sale and production of alcohol in different ways. This era of so-called prohibition was not the magical solution many had hoped for, however, and by the 1920s, most provinces had changed their laws to re-allow the sale of alcohol, but only within certain tight regulations. To this day, Canadian provinces will often have complicated rules governing just how or where booze can be sold; in some provinces it may only be sold by special government-run liquor stores, in others the law may require hard alcohol and beer to be sold at different locations. Almost all forbid the sale of liquor at 24-hour shops like supermarkets and corner stores.

Canada’s legal drinking age is set by the provinces. In Alberta, Manitoba and Quebec the age is 18, everywhere else it is 19. Most provinces also have strict laws against consuming alcohol in public places and low standards for what constitutes “driving while under the influence.”

Hard drugs are all illegal in Canada, and the laws seem to be getting stricter under the current government of Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper (b. 1959), who has made increased jail time for drug dealers, traffickers and users a key component of his “law-and-order” agenda. Despite the hopes of some, it does not look like marijuana will be legalized any time soon, though in practice, casual, private use is widespread, especially in big urban centres. Since 2001, it has been legal for Canadian doctors to prescribe marijuana for medical reasons — though obtaining the drug can only be done through direct government distribution.

Freedom of Speech

James Keegstra

James Keegstra (b. 1934) was a Social Credit politician with strongly anti-Semitic views — which he enjoyed spreading in his second job as a high school teacher. In a landmark 1990 ruling, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Keegstra could, in fact, be fined for spreading hate propaganda under the Canadian Criminal Code.

Canadians generally take their constitutionally-protected right to free expression very seriously, but the privilege is not an absolute one. As mentioned in the Canadian constitution chapter, Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms allows “reasonable limits” to be placed on most civil rights, and over the years the government has used this authority to pass some legal limits on freedom of speech, though all are quite controversial.

The Canadian government maintains a list if banned books that cannot be purchased or imported, though in practice these are mostly obscure pornographic comics or neo-Nazi pamphlets. More “mainstream” pornography is only sold in special stores, though this has obviously become far less relevant in the internet age.

Most infamously of all, Canada also has a federal law known as the Canadian Human Rights Act that makes it a crime to publish, circulate, or communicate opinions likely to “expose a person or persons to hatred or contempt” on the basis of his or her race, religion, or  sexuality as well as other laws limiting the distribution of “hate propaganda.” Over the years, such laws have been utilized to dole out often heavy fines — or even jail terms — to authors, preachers, and teachers accused of publicizing bigoted views, though such punishments have always been widely contested by those who argue the constitution should defend all speech, not just popular opinions.

Guns

As a country founded in wilderness traditions of hunting and trapping, Canada’s rate of gun ownership has historically been high, particularly in rural communities. According to the Canadian National Firearms Association, there are presently about 21 million guns in Canada owned by about seven million Canadians, the majority of whom are hunters.

Gun control in Canada has proven to be an issue which sharply divides the country in terms of rural-versus-urban. For those who live in big cities, guns tend to be associated with inner-city crime, particularly gangland murders, and support to severely control or outright ban gun possession is usually high. Canadians who live in more rural parts of the country, in contrast, usually associate guns with fairly benign hobbies like hunting, sport shooting and collecting, and see gun control as an undue burden that seeks to punish the otherwise law-abiding.

While the Canadian government does demand its citizens possess a gun owner’s licence and undergo a background check before they can legally buy weapons, efforts to establish a nation-wide gun registry in the early 2000s proved costly and unpopular, and the project was recently scrapped.

Homosexuality

Gay pride parade

Most large cities in Canada hold lavish "gay pride" parades in the summer, though the exact dates vary from city to city. Seen here, the Vancouver Pride parade though the city's "gay village."

Canadians’ attitudes towards same-sex relationships have greatly liberalized over the last couple decades. Beginning in 1969, most legal bans on sodomy were lifted, and since then, more and more Canadians have been comfortable living “out” lives as open homosexuals. Most provincial governments now explicitly prohibit discrimination in employment or housing on the basis of sexual orientation, and the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that it is constitutional to impose fines or bans on those who spread aggressively anti-gay “hate speech.” At the same time, however, homosexuality continues to be something of a taboo in day-to-day Canadian life. Many gay or lesbians may experience tension with their families in the aftermath of “coming out” (particularly in more rural or religious parts of the country), and public displays of same-sex affection are rare, except in certain “gay-friendly” venues or neighbourhoods.

After years of opposition from both major parties, in 2005 same-sex marriage was legalized in Canada when the government of Prime Minister Paul Martin (b. 1938) passed the Civil Marriage Act that redefined marriage as simply a “lawful union of two persons.” The law was opposed, and continues to be opposed, by many Christian groups and political conservatives, but the Conservative Party itself has long since abandoned its promise to reverse the legislation.

Prostitution

Paying for sex is technically not illegal in Canada, but offering the service is, as is profiting from it. This means that Canadian law is effectively biased against prostitutes but not johns, which has caused some controversy among the country’s growing “rights for sex workers” movement. From the perspective of both sides of the legalization debate, Canada’s current prostitution laws are exceedingly archaic in their language and scope, and will probably be revisited at some point in the near future.

Gambling

Casino de Montreal

Quebec's massive Casino de Montreal was at one time the largest casino in North America.

First legalized in 1969, government-run gambling underwent a dramatic boom in Canada during the 1980s and 1990s, largely as a way for provinces to increase budget revenue without raising taxes. All provinces are now home to a wide variety of legal games of chance, including slot machines, casinos, lottery tickets, sports bookies, animal racing tracks and video lottery terminals. In 2010, the province of British Columbia went even further and became the first jurisdiction in North America to legalize online gambling as well. It should be noted that in all these cases, however, gambling services are government-run; it remains illegal in Canada to run a private casino or betting house.

Compared to some of the other issues discussed on this page, gambling is generally only a minor controversy in modern Canada. While most Canadians may not want a casino in their neighbourhood and may be aware that there are health problems associated with too much gambling, casual gambling once in a while is a fairly common pastime unlikely to evoke much judgment from others.

The Death Penalty

From 1859 to 1962, the Canadian government executed 710 convicted prisoners, mostly by hanging, for various crimes involving murder or treason. After a series of controversial cases, a moratorium on further executions was imposed in 1967, followed by the outright abolishment of the death penalty in 1976, by the Liberal government of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (1919-2000).

Despite being execution-free for more than 30 years, public support for executing murderers remains high in Canada, though no Canadian political party officially supports reversing the current ban.

Animal Rights

Though pet ownership (cats and dogs, mostly) is common in Canada, it’s not a right, and pet owners are often discriminated against in law. Many public buildings, including apartments, forbid animals and in many parts of the country the types and breeds of animals you’re allowed to own is limited by law. The physical abuse of animals remains a crime, however.

Pensions and Welfare

Compared to other western democracies like the United States and Europe, Canada does not offer super generous forms of social security and welfare to its citizens, though this has been credited with helping the country avoid some of the debt and spending problems that have posed so challenging elsewhere.

Welfare lineup

Welfare remains most actively sought by Canada's poorest neighbourhoods, as well as regions like the Maritimes, where seasonal industries such as fishing create a very up-and-down labour market.

Every Canadian’s paycheque includes a deduction for the Canadian Pension Plan (CPP), which is then pooled by the federal government and redistributed in the form of pension cheques to all citizens over the age of 67. In addition, there is also the similar but optional Old Age Security (OAS) pension program, which can be opted into by retirement age seniors who have lived in Canada for a significant period of time. Of course, this is just a broad summary. Both programs are, in fact, extremely complicated and bureaucratic, and likely to get even more so as the government is forced to deal with a population that is aging rapidly but also living longer.

Welfare is a broad term that basically refers to various forms of government handouts that are given to people who, for whatever reason, are not working. Unemployment Insurance (recently rebranded with the more upbeat name “Employment Insurance” or “EI“) is the most common form of this, and is available to Canadians who have been unexpectedly laid off or forced to quit their jobs for reasons such as pregnancy, illness or injury, or to take care of a sickly loved one. Most provinces offer similar forms of compensation as well. In general, welfare is a fairly controversial government program and there’s a real taboo associated with taking too much of it for too long. Since the 1990s, welfare regulations have gotten steadily stricter, and now it’s usually expected that welfare recipients will be actively seeking jobs or otherwise making plans for their future while on it.

Quick Facts:

  • Canada is usually considered to be a fairly liberal country in terms of the government's permissiveness towards several controversial social issues.
  • Abortion, divorce, gambling, gay marriage, are all legal in Canada with few restrictions.
  • Prostitution, marijuana and hard drugs are not legal, though attitudes may be shifting in a more permissive direction.
  • Canada's provinces provide government-run health insurance for all their citizens, which guarantees mostly complete coverage.