Professor of Political Science and Director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada
Surrounded by students on McGill University’s downtown campus, in the park facing the Arts Building, I have the tremendous privilege of receiving a crash course on Canada’s political history from Daniel Béland. Born in Montreal in August 1971 to a family of Catholic faith, he’s an expert on Canadian public policy who completed a bachelor’s degree in sociology at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) and a doctorate in political sociology at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences in Paris. Every day is a marathon for this passionate and inquisitive researcher who’s also popular with national and international media—he’s given over 1,200 interviews since January 2019.
His résumé is truly exceptional. He has written 20 books and 170 articles for peer-reviewed scientific journals. He’s been a professor and guest researcher in Denmark, Singapore, Finland, Germany and Uruguay, as well as at George Washington University (Washington, D.C.) and Harvard University (Cambridge, Massachusetts). Professor Béland has taught in Alberta and Saskatchewan, including holding a Canada Research Chair at the University of Saskatchewan from 2009 to 2018. He is also consulted on a regular basis by various governments and the Canadian Parliament on questions of public policy and finance. From his undergraduate days on, he was a highly motivated student. He loved reading, including the classics, German philosophy and Canadian history. While he says his English ability was very average at first, he has now been teaching in that language for over 20 years.
Speaking with enthusiasm and confidence, he talks about key moments in the country’s political life. Major transformations of Canadian public policy, which have undoubtedly shaped the national identity, occurred due to the interplay of internal and external pressures. First of all, it’s important to mention the injustices of Canadian immigration policy, which, in past decades, encouraged immigration by Europeans at the expense of visible minorities, not to mention the internment of German- and Japanese-Canadians during World War II. Our country’s relationship with immigration was also shaped by the struggle for civil rights in the United States (Martin Luther King), the decolonization of Africa, the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1949), Canada’s role in the U.N., black rights and the mass non-European immigration that began in the 1970s. Economic development needs and the opening of Canada to the world, notably demonstrated by Expo 1967 in Montreal, offered favourable conditions for establishing modern policies on immigration and multiculturalism. These were implemented while the bicultural and bilingual nature of the country was being solidified by the Laurendeau-Dunton commission launched in 1963 by Lester B. Pearson and completed in 1970.
“It became necessary to address immigration, which was now associated with visible minorities,” explains Daniel. “That meant helping cultural groups preserve their identity, ensuring their integration, success and well-being, and assisting immigrants in learning at least one of the two official languages. Recent actions by the state and various communities have provided support for refugees, such as Afghans (1991-), Syrians (2016-), and Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians (1978-1982). In fact, Canada’s immigration criteria and regulations enjoy a certain amount of recognition around the world. The success stories of economic immigrants, of people arriving to reunite with their families and of refugees fleeing oppressive regimes are becoming more and more well-known.”
“Given the effects of colonialism, the coexistence of Indigenous groups within Canada has led to periods of confrontation, dialogue and, in some cases, agreements with the Crown, but there’s still an immense amount of work to do across the country…,” remarks Daniel. “Following the debates provoked by the Meech Lake Accord (1987) and the Oka Crisis (1990), it has become imperative to recognize land rights and treaties and to reach agreements on unceded territories. Guaranteeing decent economic conditions and acceptable healthcare in Indigenous communities, along with access to education, remain priority issues.”
For Daniel, the political recognition of Indigenous nations, the fight against racism and discrimination, and gestures of reconciliation are central to the contemporary challenges facing Canada’s governments.
When considering the history of Canadian politics, Professor Béland believes it’s important to remember key actions taken by post-war governments to develop the welfare state - i.e. the governmental social programs that define it. Through the tax system, the government shares collective wealth with the provinces, municipalities, families and individuals.
“We need to mention the creation of unemployment insurance in 1941, the Family Allowance program in 1945, Old Age Security in 1952, the Canada Pension Plan and Quebec Pension Plan in 1966 and, finally, the Medical Care Act adopted in 1966, which guaranteed universal healthcare access to all Canadians,” notes Daniel. “The past four decades have given birth to a host of agreements, strategies and programs focused on health, well-being and social equality. Those include improvements relating to provincial and territorial medical insurance plans, increases to health transfer payments, the Kelowna Accord aimed at supporting and investing in the country’s Indigenous communities, agreements with the provinces about daycares, the child benefit program, provincial and federal strategies to reduce poverty, benefits for families and workers affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement and more.”
If you ask this leading figure in the study of Canadian politics about the prime ministers who influenced the post-war period, he can provide you with a lengthy answer. For Daniel, the scope of the social progress made during that time speaks to their impact, as do the actions they took. Referring to the programs mentioned above, he cites the likes of Louis St. Laurent (1948-1957), Lester B. Pearson (1963-1968) and Pierre Elliott Trudeau (1968-1979 and 1980-1984) as key players in expanding the welfare state.
As a researcher whose work focuses on universal social policy and its relationship to fiscal policy and the development of the welfare state, Daniel shares his thoughts on the principles that should guide elected officials and those who influence government decisions. These include efforts aimed at “ensuring the inclusion of minorities or marginalized groups in economic and social policies and integrating pluralism into those policies.” He also notes that “preserving the principles and vision of liberal democracy in the development of public policy continues to be a balancing act—balancing individual rights and freedoms against the public good.”
“Managing our shared heritage is another significant challenge, which requires policies and investments that respect the principles of sustainable development and environmental conservation,” he adds. “Social justice also means fighting inequality relating to ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and socioeconomic status, along with improving economic and health conditions in Indigenous communities.”
Education and language are two other priorities for the expert on Canadian politics: “Following the example of other western countries, education support, provision of high-quality teaching and the development of professional skills are often correlated with the economic success of regions or populations. This remains a challenge for remote regions. Learning multiple languages continues to be an asset.” He adds with conviction: “While some may not see the advantages, fluency in foreign languages is an economic and cultural benefit for the country. No, the use of multiple languages is not a threat to the survival of francophone communities in Quebec and other provinces.”
Interestingly, Daniel, a keen traveller and photographer, is also a passionate devotee of classical and orchestral music from the past two centuries. He even took the time to host a classical music show on CFCR 90.5 in Saskatoon! As someone who hopes one day to visit Newfoundland and Labrador as well as Nunavut, he offers the following suggestions for the country’s youth: “Travel all over Canada. Experience living abroad. Get your information from various sources. Expose yourself to people from different backgrounds.”