A hand-out by any other name

Who says I'm not happy?

Premier Brian Gallant’s decision to ask the newly elected Liberal government of Justin Trudeau to pony up new money for seniors’ care in this province is a bold move. But it could also be a very bad one.

In his end-of-the-year interview with the Saint John Telegraph-Journal, Mr. Gallant welcomed an $80-million-plus increase to New Brunswick in federal transfers next year. “I am very happy to hear that we are going to have the transfer conversation,” he said, sounding almost dismissive.

Still, he continued, “I have always made it very clear that we need extra support from the federal government because of our aging population. . .New Brunswick is facing an aging population that is more significant than almost any other province in the country. Therefore, the federal government has an opportunity to test run what programs will work to overcome those challenges.”

This is the tried-and-true “canary in the coalmine” argument that one level of government, fiscally subservient to another, routinely makes when it can’t quite figure out how to address the economic and demographic realities it faces.

Newfoundland and Labrador now faces an annual deficit of $2-billion, which dwarfs New Brunswick’s by a factor of four. Canada’s western provinces, reeling under a spot price for oil that barely nudges the $36-per-barrel mark, are teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.

Do these jurisdictions – whose populations are, by the way, also aging – deserve any less consideration from Ottawa than does New Brunswick?

Yet, Mr. Gallant, all of 33 years old, persists. This province, he says, could and should become a test lab for federal programs (read: handouts) over and above the Canada Health Transfer that will putatively teach legislators at all levels of government across this great, aging nation how to properly care for old folks in their senescence, in the sunset of their years.

It sounds great, but it feels wrong and for a variety of reasons.

Presently, even the smartest, most perspicacious New Brunswick bureaucrats can’t tell you exactly when, how or why the province’s aging population will compromise the ship of state in these harbours we call home. Some say, doom has already descended. Others insist we have several years before we notice a deleterious difference in our standards of living. Still others declare, optimistically, that septuagenarian baby boomers represent an untapped resource – a resource whose potential is yet to be fully plumbed.

What’s missing in all of this is real, credible research that would justify a broad, multi-million-dollar ask from the feds to address a problem New Brunswick hasn’t actually parsed with any degree of social-policy, let alone scientific, rigour. It feels panicky, precipitous and, in the end, disastrously misaligned.

There’s also something distressingly infantilizing about all of this.

Shall the rest of Canada care for the elderly in New Brunswick over and above the degree they already do simply because an actuarial table over at Statistics Canada shows that the population here is getting older?

Again, how many of these people live below the poverty line? How many live well above it? Answer these questions, and then, perhaps, have a useful, evidence-based chat with Ottawa.

Fundamentally, no government anywhere in this nation has money to burn. Our grown kids can’t find the sort of work we once hoped they would. They can’t locate affordable, high-quality childcare. They can no longer expect to be better off, more prosperous or happier than their parents.

Building the base for their futures seems, to me, a better use of public money than securing the dwindling years of people like me.

Trust me, I ain’t near rich enough to afford a government-backed handout to myself.


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