Bernie Sanders speaks at Con Hall

Former Presidential candidate talks health care, human rights, Tommy Douglas

Bernie Sanders speaks at Con Hall

Convocation Hall buzzed with energy the morning of October 29. Senator from Vermont and former Democratic presidential nominee Bernie Sanders was in town to give a talk titled “What the U.S. Can Learn from Canadian Health Care” to a packed house at the University of Toronto. The talk came a day after he toured Toronto hospitals as part of his broader efforts for American health care reform.

“We had a wonderful trip,” said Sanders. “We learned a lot about your system and the extraordinary things your system is doing.”

Canadian and American health care

Sanders’ talk centred on the successes of the Canadian health care system in comparison with its American counterpart, and it reflected Sanders’ prescription of struggle, grassroots action, and human rights in light of an unequal society.

“We in the United States have got to ask a simple question,” posited Sanders. “How is it that here in Canada, you provide healthcare to man, woman, and child, and you do it for 50 per cent of the cost that we spend on health care in the United States?”

In her introduction of Sanders, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne said she hoped Canada’s system would serve “as a beacon for Americans as they consider health care options.”

Sanders is pushing a new bill in the US called Medicare for All. The bill would, in essence, bring a form of universal health care to the US, but it would go further than the Canadian system to cover dental care and prescription drugs.

Sanders identified prescription drugs and dental care as a shared gap in Canadian and American health care. “Our job is to tell the pharma industry that they cannot continue to rip off the people of the United States, Canada, or anywhere else while they are making unbelievably excessive profits,” he said. “Dental care is a part of health care and cannot be ignored.”

Dr. Danielle Martin of Women’s College Hospital and the University of Toronto joined Sanders on stage for a discussion after his remarks. Speaking to the media after the event, she addressed salient issues in Canadian health care head on. “We’ve been doing an excellent job in many Canadian jurisdictions in addressing wait times, but there’s a lot more work that has to be done,” she said. “There’s also a lot more work that we need to do in ensuring access to prescription medicines.”

Health care and “struggle”

Much of Sanders’ rise to mainstream fame came with his popularization of a new social democratic wave in the United States, and he played to the key themes of that in his talk.

He mentioned the work of Tommy Douglas, leader of the first social democratic government in North America, and its role in bringing public health care to Saskatchewan. Douglas’ political party was able to win 47 of the 52 seats in Saskatchewan’s legislature; Sanders praised this example of voter mobilization.

“It never happens from the top down. Real change happens from the bottom on up. All of you know that change never takes place easily,” he said.

Recalling the philosophy of Frederick Douglass, a prominent figure of the American abolitionist movement, Sanders said, “Freedom is never given to you — if it’s given to you, it’s not real freedom. You’ve got to struggle for it, you’ve got to fight for it, you’ve got to take it. And that is the history of all real change in this world.”

Sanders stressed the importance of asking questions in the face of injustice. “Our mission is to have the courage to ask the questions that may not be appearing on television tonight, or on the front pages of the paper,” he said, noting that many are “uncomfortable about asking those questions” because it involves taking on “very powerful special interests” like campaign donors and large conglomerates like the fossil fuel industry.

“I will tell you with 100 per cent certainty: there are people who are enormously powerful, who have more wealth than you can dream of, who couldn’t care less about your lives, about your children, about your parents,” he continued. “They want it all economically, they want it all politically… We’ve got to stand together and tell these oligarchs that this planet belongs to all of us.”

Ed Broadbent, former leader of the New Democratic Party (NDP) and founder of the Broadbent Institute — one of the event partners — said that when social democrats brought universal healthcare to Saskatchewan in 1962, it was widely expected to fail. “Instead, it spread across the country.”

Broadbent said that the struggle for progressive health care will continue with “the man who will lead that battle, Jagmeet Singh,” the newly elected leader of the federal NDP. When Broadbent motioned to Singh, who was in attendance, there was a round of applause from the audience.

In an interview with The Varsity after the event, Singh said that his campaign was “inspired” by Sanders’ ability to mobilize at a grassroots level, and he complimented Sanders’ Medicare for All plan. “I want to push our public health care to the next step and include pharmacare and dental care,” he said. “I feel the Bern!”

Students on Sanders

Sanders captivated American youth in his run to lead the Democratic Party in 2016.

“For me, at least, Bernie was a big part of my political awakening,” said Jeffrey Ma, a first-year student who waited in the rush line from 8:00 am. “It really enlightened me about a lot of the issues and injustices in our society, and American society.”

Azana Hyder, a third-year student who made it inside Con Hall, said that she thinks “everyone is a fan of Bernie Sanders, whether you admit it or not.”

Robert Xu, a student Governor at U of T’s Governing Council, said before the event he had doubts about the productivity of the discussion. Sanders, he said, “is often criticized for not having enough real, practical ideas” and usually promotes “those general ideas we all think are really good.”

Another student Governor, Amanda Harvey-Sánchez, said she was excited to see Sanders — whose Democratic leadership campaign she campaigned for — but had some reservations.

“One concern that I have is that perhaps it’ll be a self-congratulatory thing where people are just patting Canada on the back for having universal health care and not noting a lot of the important issues we do have in our health care system and how a lot of marginalized people in the country still aren’t getting access to full health care,” said Harvey-Sánchez in lead up to the event.

Rose Gulati, a first-year who was with Ma in the rush line, was quick to vocalize her stance on the difficulty students had securing tickets for the talk. About 20,000 people flooded the event page when it went live, and the free tickets were claimed almost immediately. In addition, a number of tickets were reserved for people with ties to the host institutions. “It was honestly so disheartening, it was heartbreaking,” Gulati said of her inability to get tickets online. “I felt that because it was a U of T event, it should have been available exclusively to U of T students.”

Robert Xu sits on The Varsity’s Board of Directors.

Who got to feel the Bern?

Bernie Sanders tickets claimed in seconds, raising concern among general public

Who got to feel the Bern?

On October 29, US senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont visited U of T to speak about health care. Tickets were made available to the public online on October 20 at 10:00 am, and they were claimed within a minute.

According to U of T Director of Media Relations Althea Blackburn-Evans, there were 1,600 seats available for the event, though some were removed due to obstructed view. Thirty seats were allocated for U of T governors and 20 for “administrative staff,” including health science deans, vice-presidents, and staff working the event. Blackburn-Evans said roughly 50 media members would be present at the event.

“Our hope has always been to have many U of T students at the event,” said Blackburn-Evans. “Through the Vice-Provost, Students’ Office, we reached out directly to the 44 student societies across the three campuses. Those interested in attending were given two tickets per society, although UTMSU, SCSU, GSU, UTSU, APUS were given tickets for all members of their executive if requested.”

Seats for students were also offered to certain U of T faculties, such as the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, the Faculty of Medicine, the Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education, the faculties of Nursing, Dentistry, Social Work, and Pharmacy, as well as the Centre for Study of the US at the Munk School of Global Affairs.

“We have confirmed that just over 50 per cent of Eventbrite registrants have identified as U of T students,” said Blackburn-Evans. The event was livestreamed by one of the partners of the event, the Broadbent Institute, for those who did not get tickets.

On the day of the event, over 30 spots remained empty among the floor seats, with dozens empty amidst the crowds in Con Hall.

The root of all evil?

Cashing in on the alleged threat of campaign financing

The root of all evil?

For quite some time Donald Trump has been the frontrunner for the Republican nomination to the US presidency. After hitting a brief setback in Iowa, Trump won in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and then Nevada. Heading into ‘Super Tuesday,’ he is favoured by 12.9 per cent nationally compared to Ted Cruz, and by 16.5 per cent over Marco Rubio.

Conventional wisdom would have it that Trump, the billionaire real estate magnate, would surely outspend the Republican field, to the detriment of democratic politicians. After all, we’re told that money buys politics, especially in the US.

The reality is that in eight months of campaigning Trump and his allied political action committees (known as PACs) have raised $27.3 million. This is tied with the relatively unknown John Kasich for the least amount of financial contributions to candidates in either party. To put this in perspective, consider that Cruz, Rubio, and their respective PACs have raised a combined $188.8 million, yet are in all likelihood just a few weeks away from losing the nomination to the controversial political amateur, Trump.

Furthermore, the Trump campaign and pro-Trump PACs have spent $25.5 million, which is the second least among the remaining candidates.

In Canada, we have also been told that money taints elections; however, election results have not shown this to be the case. In the 2015 federal election, the Conservatives had a fundraising advantage, and yet the Liberals won a majority.

If campaign financing is not the corruptor of all things democratic, how, then, should we understand its role in politics?

Campaign financing is a neutral and legitimate form of political expression, just like any other.

When it comes to advertising, there is merely a difference in degree, not in kind when comparing the running of a 30 second television commercial and, say, speaking into a microphone at an event. The only thing money decides is how many people hear the speaker.

Additionally, there is more than enough cash to go around so that no single candidate, party, or political ideology has an insurmountable advantage. For every Koch brother, there’s a George Soros. Small but enthusiastic donors can still prove formidable, as Bernie Sanders’ unlikely success has shown. His campaign has raised $96.3 million thus far, without the aid of a PAC.

Campaign spending is not a determinant to voter turnout either; in 2012, Mitt Romney outspent President Obama and won the white vote by 20 per cent, but Obama scored decisive victories among the black, Hispanic, and Asian votes, who together made up almost 28 per cent of the electorate, their largest share ever.

Finally, thanks to traditional grassroots activism and social media, those with limited funds can achieve national recognition without ever having to buy a billboard or television spot. Donald Trump has more followers and fans on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram than any of his competitors, and other than Bernie Sanders, he is the only candidate whose rallies can fill professional sports arenas.

The power of social media and on-the-ground organizing has also been demonstrated by the activist movement Black Lives Matter.

An election, after all, is a competition of ideas, and consequently we should ensure that more of them are shared.

Through sustained social media campaigns as well as protests, Black Lives Matter has managed to drive the conversation around criminal justice reform for over two years, with no signs of slowing down.

This is not to naïvely say that politics is free of corruption, or that money has no influence on our leaders. But if we want to clean up politics, perhaps we should look deeper into what happens after elections. This includes staying vigilant and redirecting our attention to when foreign interests make donations to a cabinet secretary’s private charity, when a justice minister’s husband works as a lobbyist, or when the banking industry and its federal regulator share a revolving door.

That is the kind of money in politics we should be vigilant of: the money that trades hands during governance, not during campaign season. A campaign, no matter how loud, ugly, or chaotic it gets, is still the heart of democracy. An election, after all, is a competition of ideas, and consequently we should ensure that more of them are shared.

Emmett Choi is a fifth-year student at Victoria College studying philosophy and American Studies. His column appears every three weeks.

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