One unavoidable feature of living in a small country is having your perceptions warped by larger ones around you. For Canadians, who number less than 40 million and reside next to the world’s most powerful nation, the problem has always been especially acute: American impressions of Canada invariably shape how the country sees itself. When those impressions are favorable, the result is a kind of feedback loop in which Canadians’ self-perceptions are torqued around those imported from abroad. Though there are certainly other reasons, this partly explains why so many Canadians tend to assume that the issues plaguing America barely exist north of the 49th parallel.
Suffice it to say, this is a big mistake — and it elides plenty of discomforting facts about Canada’s unequal society and the extent to which wealth and power are slanted toward a small few. The problem is one that the authors of a new report published by the advocacy group Canadians for Tax Fairness seem keenly aware of. As researchers Toby Sanger and Erika Beauchesne point out in the introduction to their study, “There’s a convenient fiction perpetuated that Canada hasn’t experienced the great extreme inequalities of wealth at the top end that the United States has.” While it’s true, they add, that Canada’s wealthiest people don’t possess fortunes on the scale of Jeff Bezos or Warren Buffett, the overall number of Canadian billionaires has actually grown at a rate outpacing that of the United States — as has the sum of their total wealth.
In 1999, for example, Canada’s twenty-three billionaires possessed a combined wealth of $72 billion. By 2018, their ranks had more than quadrupled to one hundred — their wealth totaling a whopping $339 billion, a nearly fivefold increase and more than that held by the poorest 12 million Canadians combined. As Sanger and Beauchesne illustrate, the basic trend in recent years has been one of upward redistribution to the wealthier segments of Canadian society, with billionaires being only the tip of the iceberg, and the poorest becoming even poorer:
The wealthiest 10% hold over twice as much as the poorest 80%, and the top 1% now have almost 26% of all wealth in Canada, up from 17.9% a decade ago. Meanwhile, the share of the poorest 50% has declined from 5.9% to just 4.7%. In fact, figures from Credit Suisse show that only Canada’s top 1% increased their share of total wealth between 2010 and 2019. The share of all other groups declined or remained the same.
Mirroring the pattern found in the United States, the report also finds that many of Canada’s billionaires have grown substantially richer during the pandemic — the top forty-four seeing their cumulative wealth expand by a staggering $50 billion, or 28 percent, in the six months between April and October. Though many, like supermarket mogul Galen Weston, have fortunes based in food or basic retail, others represented on the list include media tycoon David Thomson — whose wealth has grown by more than $10 billion since April — and Garrett Camp of Uber, whose riches have exploded by some 88 percent.
Though polls consistently suggest that a majority of Canadians are concerned about wealth inequality and supportive of measures like a wealth tax, it’s probable very few have an accurate picture of just how skewed things really are. A 2014 study published by the Broadbent Institute, for example, found that common perceptions of Canada’s economic maldistribution seriously underestimate the extent of the problem.
In similar fashion, most probably don’t realize that the country’s tax system is riddled with loopholes and exemptions that favor the exorbitantly wealthy — and that are partially responsible for the gains they’ve consistently made in recent decades. As Sanger and Beauchesne point out: “Lower rates of tax on savings, investment income, capital gains, stock options and business income than on income from labour allow those with the means to accumulate more and more wealth.” And, given the absence of an estate or inheritance tax, many large fortunes are effectively transferred from one generation to the next.
Canada may not yet be as unequal as the United States. But, as Sanger and Beauchesne illustrate, it’s certainly not for lack of trying.