It is a very great honor that you bestow upon me today, the more so since this fine institution was the academic home of my uncle, the late Dr. Wilfred Templeman, whose lifelong partner, Eileen, still lives in St. John's. It is also a special pleasure because joining me here today are her brother, my own dear father William McGrath, a man with his own very distinguished career in public life, and one of my two wonderful sons, gifted writer and musician William Barlow. I am also joined by Dorothy and Gordon Inglis, citizen activists and Newfoundland writers I am proud to call friends.
It is also my honor and privilege to say a few words to my fellow graduates, many of whom are at another stage of life than I. Every generation can claim that theirs is the best time to be alive, and that is always true for them. But this is a fabulous time to be launching into adulthood, because you do so on the eve of a millennium, something not many get to do.
As such, it is a time to ask some profound questions about what we have become as Canadians and as members of the human race. What are the dominant operation assumptions and values of our time? What have we done right, what not? What traditions and institutions from the past do we want to take with us into the brave new world of the 21st century and what must we vow to change?
We have, in fact, much to be proud of as Canadians.
Our world class universal health care system entitles every Canadian to equal health care regardless of income, and allows us to plan for wellness, not just react to illness. We learned the hard way why this matters. Before medicare, many people died because they could not pay for private care. In the U.S. today, 40 million Americans have no health coverage at all and another 30 million have substandard coverage. Many families lose their homes when a member becomes ill.
We have one of the finest public education systems in the world, as we believe that equity in education is the foundation stone of democracy. We are winning the war on illiteracy. When I was a student, 60 per cent of my classmates would drop out before completing high school; now, the drop-out rate is under 20 per cent. Our university graduates are as good as any in the world; we stand first in the G7 countries in engineering, science and mathematics graduates per population.
We have almost eradicated poverty among seniors through a system of universal pensions. This came about in part as a desire to recognize the great sacrifices older Canadians have made to bequeath us this great country.
We have made enormous strides in obtaining equality rights for women. The pre-1917 Canada Elections Act said, "no woman, idiot, lunatic, or child shall vote." In the lifetime of women still living today, women did not have the right to own property, be called to the bar or take their seats in the Senate. Now, 50 per cent of our law and medical schools are filled with women students, women sit on the Supreme Court of Canada and more than hold their own in the House of Commons.
We have built a great multicultural experiment. Except for First Nations peoples, we are all immigrants here, whether first or 10th generation. While we have indeed some shameful history of racism and intolerance, we have, nevertheless, tried to create an important experiment on the northern half of the continent in the belief that people can come from all over the world and leave behind ancient grievances to live in harmony. At the same time, they can retain their own heritage, for, indeed, we celebrate our rich cultural diversity.
And, with exceptions to be sure, we have built a largely non-violent society. We enter war only when we feel morally compelled but not to extend our political or military influence. Our capital city, Ottawa, is filled not with the symbols of war, but of peace. We are a peaceful people, proud of our international peacekeeping role. That is particularly important to me today as my other son, Charles, is about to leave for Bosnia with NATO to try to ensure the passage of a peaceful election process.
But there is some very bad news as well.
We are betraying out great natural environment heritage. We are clear-cutting an acre of forest every 12 seconds. (As a note of comparison, Brazil cuts one acre every nine seconds). We are no longer enforcing our own pollution emission control regulations, have stopped assessing the environmental ramifications of oil and natural gas exports, and we are gutting our famous Freshwater Institute and our National Forestry Service. The federal government has reneged on promised legislation to protect endangered species, and is considering privatizing large parts of our national parks. A Washington-based environmental think-tank recently said that Canada has the second-worst pollution record in the industrialized world in the last 25 years.
We have slowly replaced the long-standing government policy of full employment for one called structural unemployment -- that is, high unemployment as an intentional policy used to maintain labor discipline. In the name of global competitiveness, federal and provincial governments across the country are allowing the creation of a contingent workforce -- part-time, no benefits, and little security. Unemployment among the young is at a shameful all-time high.
As well, poverty among children is skyrocketing -- a 51 per cent increase in less than a decade. Ninety per cent of all sole-support mothers under the age of 25 are living in poverty, and our downtown cores contain the leftovers of our society -- the homeless, the hungry, the dispossessed. We are developing an entrenched underclass and becoming, indeed, a class-based society. Corporations no longer pay their share of taxes, leaving governments without revenues to fund public services. Last year private corporations in Canada accounted for only 7.5 per cent of all income taxes collected. The rich are getting richer, and are the almost exclusive beneficiaries of the new economy.
And, most distressingly, we are now unravelling our universal social programs, cutting the ribbons of common purpose that have bound us as a people and a family. The federal government has launched cuts to our national programs so deep that in two years, we will be back to where we were in the early 1950s in terms of social welfare as a percentage of total government spending.
Social assistance, post-secondary education, pensions, housing and health -- all are being transformed. We are well on our way to a private social security system. Survival of the fittest is fast replacing the Canadian national narrative of sharing for survival. I worry every day what this will mean to our country, our future, and our commitment to one another.
In fact, Canada is entering the global economy on its terms -- a global economy in which there are 200 million child laborers; in which 358 billionaires now have an accumulated wealth equal to the bottom 45 per cent of the rest of humanity; in which the large majority of the nations of the world are substantially smaller than the giant transnational corporations who now rule it, and who dictate economic and social policy to most governments; a global economy in which, as a result of the commodification of the natural world, between 150 and 200 species of plants and animals become extinct every 24 hours.
So as you pause on this special day to reflect your future, may I urge you to reflect as well on the future of our country and our planet. It is not turning our backs on progress to ask some very hard questions about unlimited growth, the lack of democratic accountability and the monoculture of values promoted by the new feudalism of the global economy. Or to look to the best of our past to guide us in our future.
As Canadians, we have a proud and unique heritage and traditions worth fighting for. Our most enduring legacy is our love of the land, harsh and unrelenting as it can be. Survival, not dominance, is central to our definition of self.
We honor the generations that have gone before us. Many, like my father, risked their lives fighting in a world war in order that we might have security and peace. We cherish the survival of traditional values in the established customs of our country. We are an evolutionary, not revolutionary people. We believe that individual freedom can be attained only within public order, and we invest in our government the responsibility to safeguard our freedom.
Living next to the biggest superpower in the world, our ancestors knew that our survival depended on creating a culture of independence and so they built social, cultural and economic institutions that bound us in ribbons of common purpose. The Canadian narrative, for elemental reasons, was collective.
So we built a social nation-state, one in which, by right of citizenship, every Canadian is entitled to social equality. The Canadian definition of social welfare addresses the well-being of the whole community. We are a people seeing justice, and we are ashamed of such poverty in our midst.
It is this caring for something outside ourselves that the late Eugene Forsey had in mind when he said, "The only Canada I want to preserve is a Canada that can do something: for its own people, for the hungry two-thirds of the world, for the survival of the planet; not a phantom that can only watch helplessly as we all tumble down a steep place to destruction."
You will hear more and more that we have no alternatives, that global forces beyond our control now dictate the economic and social conditions of our lives. I don't believe this, and in fact, find it a form of intellectual terrorism.
Canadians, and peoples around the world, have the right to productive and fulfilling employment, food, shelter, education, pensions, unemployment insurance, health care, universally accessible public services, a safe and clean environment -- food, water, and air -- the safekeeping of their wilderness spaces, and to develop and celebrate their diverse cultures and freely communicate their distinct experiences.
Fair trade, full employment, co-operation, cultural diversity, democratic control, fair taxation, environmental stewardship, community, public accountability, equality, social justice: these are the touchstones of the Canadian vision. The world is in deep need of it now.
I thank you with all my heart for the great honor you have bestowed upon me today. To my young colleagues, I want to simply say this: you are now among the best educated people on the planet. But it falls to you who know the "how" to ask the "why." You must help us now as members of a society drowned in information but starved for purpose. Nothing is inevitable or irreversible. Change is possible. Choices are available. The future is unwritten and the pen is in your hands.