The emergence of the neoliberal containment state in Canada | Part I


AUTHOR’S NOTE | This article emerges from 5 years of working as a community organizer for the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU). Thank you to the VANDU Board for allowing me to lean on their community organizing work and to collaborate in developing an analysis of the ‘mass incarceration agenda.’ And thank you to all the VANDU members who shared their experiences, challenged my ignorance and encouraged me to contribute this analysis to the struggle against the drug war and the war on the poor.


The last decade in Canada has seen the strengthening of the instruments of repression of the Canadian State such that we can now begin to describe and analyze the neoliberal containment state as a specific set of policies and institutions. These policies and institutions are aimed at containing the growing social ‘disorder’ and emerging resistance that have resulted from 30 years of the neoliberal economic order.

Far from being a sinister machination of the “Harper agenda,” the neoliberal containment state enjoys a consensus across the ruling class and between electoral parties. No mainstream political party is putting forward a coherent alternative vision for managing monopoly capitalism. The appeals to a softer gentler capitalism coming from the labour bureaucracy and the ‘left’ wing of the NDP have no coherent economic program attached to them. The reality is that the strengthening of the police/incarceration containment state is intimately tied to the social consensus of the bourgeoisie about how to manage capitalism and accumulation in this historical period. The neoliberal containment state is a necessary corollary of the other components of the neoliberal project in Canada:

i. Trade liberalization beginning with the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement and NAFTA.
ii. Privatization of former state enterprises and public services.
iii. De-funding of redistributive social programs under the cover of austerity and debt reduction.
iv. Weakening and dismantling of regulatory frameworks including environmental and labour regulations.
v. Diminishing the use function of social programs for working class communities and increasing their control function.

It is important to understand the institutions and instruments of this containment state, their connections to the economics of neoliberalism, and their functionality for the Canadian colonial capitalist project as we build movements of struggle, resistance and revolution.

Components of the neoliberal containment state

Legislating criminals

While people often view the components of the neoliberal containment state as purely a product of the Harper government, several important elements were already in place before the conservatives came to power. These include anti-gang legislation and anti-terrorism legislation which interact with and give ideological cover to the broader sweeping criminalization of poor people, drug users, Indigenous people, immigrants and refugees that has emerged in the legislation’s wake.

Under anti-gang legislation, concerns about ‘gang violence’ – stripped of any structural analysis of gangs, where they come from and why people join them – have become a justification for more cops on the streets. In particular urban working class communities of colour and Indigenous communities are targeted by increasingly militarized and violent gang units which exacerbate horizontal violence and effectively criminalize whole communities. As a component of the drug war, these police strategies are much more likely to target and arrest poor low level sellers and users (the low lying fruit) than the big time dealers. Poor people are singled out within what is essentially a criminalized capitalist enterprise with multiple layers of security protecting the upper managers from law enforcement.

Police use gang labeling in much the same way that the imperialist countries use terrorist labeling – to take violence out of its historical and political context and define large groups of people as simply ‘bad guys,’ justifying any level of repression against them.

The terrorism legislation, especially the list of ‘Listed Terrorist Entities’ which includes numerous movements of national liberation and resistance to neo-colonial oppression, has in practice been used as a means to sow fear within immigrant communities, to divide them from their liberation struggles, and to target institutions of Indigenous resistance. The first direct application of the terrorist legislation was against such an institution, the West Coast Warriors Society, in 2006. Since 2001, labeling of Indigenous resistance as an ‘internal terror threat’ has emerged as a normal feature of settler-colonial societies from Canada to New Zealand, Australia and Israel.

We can view these antecedents – anti-gang legislation and anti-terrorist legislation – as the thin edge of the wedge in the initial development of the neoliberal containment state. Main legislative components of the neoliberal containment state have, however, come under the Harper majority government since 2011. They include key pieces of legislation like the so-called ‘Truth in Sentencing Act,’ the ‘Omnibus Crime Bill’ – which includes the dismantling of the Youth Criminal Justice Act leading to harsher sentences for young offenders – and intensified criminalization of immigrants and refugees, including arbitrary and indefinite detention (incarceration) of im/migrants.

The Canadian State has steadily increased the number of people cycling through the criminal justice system, experiencing regular punitive interactions with the police or other disciplinary arms of the State, and facing actual incarceration. This has taken place through a combination of criminalizing economic survival strategies, increasing prison time with mandatory minimum sentences, eliminating ‘double time served’ practices (where sentences are reduced by double the amount of time spent in a remand facility awaiting trial), making pardons and parole more difficult, and closing off legal avenues to status and citizenship for immigrants and refugees.


Mandatory minimums are a major new component in the war on drugs, serving as a mechanism for the criminalization and incarceration of poor people, particularly poor Indigenous people and Black people, in Canada. These provisions impose a minimum sentence for a range of offenses which are mostly linked to the production and distribution of currently illegal drugs. The legislation strips the judge of the ability to exercise discretion, including in cases where it is very clear that jail time will have no rehabilitative benefit and likely no social benefit.

While the rhetoric of mandatory minimums and the ‘tough on crime’ agenda is that these laws target ‘violent offenders’ and people involved in criminal gangs, the reality on the ground is that low level drug sellers – often addicted to the drugs that they are selling and frequently paid in drugs – are the ones who catch the vast majority of charges. If you wish to hire someone to get away from crime cases, you can get falsely accused sex crime attorneys to fight any kinds of criminal cases, in your favour. Poor and overpoliced neighbourhoods in Canada’s major cities supply most of the ‘candidates’ for incarceration. In a recent case in B.C., where the judge refused to give the one year mandatory minimum, the ‘drug dealer’ is a poor man who is selling to support his own addiction. The mandatory minimum applies because of his previous ‘criminal history’ which includes a previous drug charge.

The legislative component of this containment state has both an ideological function and a control function. Ideologically, the legislation and ‘tough on crime’ discourse exploits and directs the economic insecurity of the middle class and more established working-class:

i. Directing the anxiety (and hostility) of the increasingly economically insecure middle class towards ‘downstream’ threats: the ‘disorderly’ poor and unemployed; ‘criminals’; ‘Indians’ and ‘terrorists.’

ii. Exploiting intraclass divisions between the securely employed working-class and the unemployed working-class; and between working-class people with citizenship and working class people who are temporary foreign workers or migrant workers without status.

The control function also plays on different levels associated with maximizing the rate of exploitation and containing potentially unruly or rebellious populations:

i. Physical control and intimidation of the systematically excluded portions of the working-class – workers with addiction; serious physical and mental illness, the elderly, single mothers caring for children and other caregivers with dependents. Physical containment and intimidation supports the slashing of spending on programs that support this group.

ii. Intimidation of new immigrants, temporary foreign workers and workers without status as a means to maximize the rate of exploitation by the Canadian capitalists who employ them.

iii. Identification and containment of Indigenous assertion of territorial and self-determination rights.

Strengthening the institutions of repression: Police

Despite the fact that the crime rate (including violent crime) has been falling since 1991, the aggregate expenditure on Canadian police continues to rise, reaching $13.5 billion in 2012. In 2012 there was a slight dip in the number of actual cops on the job (slightly less than 70,000), but this is only because new ‘authorized’ (funded) police positions have not yet been filled. Meanwhile, the trend of increasing numbers of private security guards also continued, with over 140,000 licensed security guards in Canada.

There are also about 7,000 uniformed Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) officers across the country of which more than 3,000 are armed with semi-automatic 9mm Beretta pistols. While most of the CBSA officers are deployed at borders, ports, and airports, a small proportion of these are engaged in internal policing and removal of immigrants, refugees and migrants. They constitute an important added layer of the containment state and of surveillance, harassment and violence in the lives of immigrant, migrant and refugee communities.

The main role of police in the neoliberal containment state is functional, as the enforcers of the criminalizing legislation. However, police also constitute a semi-autonomous interest group advocating ‘tough on crime’ policies to justify increasing budgets and perpetuating the cycle of criminalization through aggressive over-policing of poor neighbourhoods and communities, a practice that has been characterized as ‘mining for crime.’

In 2013, Vancouver Police Department Chief Jim Chu earned $314,000, enough to put him squarely in the 1% along with other top police and RCMP managers. Even the rank and file cops, however, make as much as high level managers in capitalist firms – 650 VPD members make more than $100,000 and 3,000 Toronto cops are in this range. They are very highly paid for a job that is neither particularly dangerous (not in the top ten most dangerous occupations in Canada) nor requiring any particularly specialized skills. Moreover while police do not directly exploit workers, they enjoy a high degree of autonomy, prestige, and exercise a huge amount of ‘delegated’ class power as part of their job. So the material interest and class position of cops tie them profoundly to the ruling order.

Associations of chiefs of police as well as various police associations act as lobby groups for ‘tough on crime’ policies, despite their demonstrable ineffectiveness, exploiting the profoundly ahistorical and ideological construction of police as neutral and disinterested ‘protectors of public safety.’

Strengthening of the institutions of repression: Mass incarceration

Canada is currently undergoing what the National Post described in 2011 as “the largest expansion in prison building since the 1930s.” Some of this expansion is happening in the federal system (about 2,000 spots under construction at the time), but the vast majority of the spots (about 9,000 – some of which have now come online) are in the provincial system. Mostly these are remand spots. Remand is prison for people awaiting trial who have not yet been convicted of the crime for which they are charged. The new Edmonton Remand Centre (pictured below) is an example of this type of facility. It is a 16 hectare maximum security facility built at a cost of $580 million and built to house 1,952 prisoners, with room to expand by almost 1,000.


B.C. is also expanding remand space. The province is spending about $500 million to build new prisons in the Lower Mainland and the interior of the province. The recently completed 216-cell remand centre in Surrey makes the Surrey Pretrial Centre the largest jail in the province. In the interior a new 378 cell remand centre is being built on land owned by the Osoyoos Indian Band. In addition to considerably increasing the overall capacity to lock people up in the province, especially individuals who have yet to go to trial, these new prisons are almost entirely privatized. The staff and administration of the prison are public employees, but every other aspect of the facility is privatized: a contract to build-design and operate the facility (in the case of the Surrey facility this was awarded to Brookfield International, one of the largest and most profitable real-estate management companies in the world); health services; food services; and laundry. So while the profiteering is not as crass as it is in the corporate prisons in the U.S, there is nonetheless considerable profit taking in the neoliberal containment state.

Remand is where poor people being cycled and recycled through the criminal justice system do the vast majority of their time. This includes months awaiting trial, often without having committed any violent crime. Remand facilities are built as short term holding facilities even though they are now where the majority of prison time in Canada is served. They are maximum security, with one or more people locked in a tiny cell for 23 out of every 24 hours. They have no access to educational or self improvement programs, and no pretence at rehabilitation (after all the people in these facilities have not yet been found guilty of a crime).  On any given day about 60% of incarcerated people in Canada are in remand.

Conditions in remand are so punitive that some people charged with minor crimes will plead guilty just to speed up the judicial process and get out of remand and into a less punitive prison environment (like a low or medium security facility) or on to some kind of parole. But the conditions of parole are often unreasonable, frequently resulting in rearrest and contributing to the massive numbers of people incarcerated for administration of justice type charges.  For highly criminalized populations, the accumulation of convictions makes individuals increasingly vulnerable to re-incarceration. Administration of justice charges (failure to appear in court, breach of a court order, breach of a condition of parole) now constitute the most common charge in Canadian criminal courts (21% of all cases) and 42% of all charges in B.C.

In a 2011 Op Ed for the Toronto Star, Conservative Senator Hugh Segal notes that “less than 10 per cent of Canadians live beneath the poverty line but almost 100 per cent of our prison inmates come from that 10 per cent.” Segal cites the work by Star journalists Sandra Contenta and Jim Rankin whose analysis of a ‘one day snapshot’ of who is in Toronto jails showed that the vast majority of prisoners were drawn from a few very poor neighbourhoods. This is a process – referred to above as ‘mining for crime’– driven by heavy police presence, stop and search practices, and the policing of so-called street disorder.  In these neighbourhoods the police criminalize almost everyone creating conditions for easy and frequent arrests – especially for warrants for failure to appear, for breaches, for minor drug offences and street disorder charges like panhandling, vending and public drunkenness.

The population of Canada’s prisons says much more about the racist and colonial nature of the Canadian society than the ‘crimes’ of the incarcerated. Indigenous people make up about 4% of the population of Canada but are more than 23% of people incarcerated in the federal system. In the Prairie provinces (Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta) Indigenous people are about 50% of the incarcerated population in the federal system, and an even higher proportion in the provincial system. The mass incarceration of Indigenous women is even more disproportionate, with Indigenous women making up about 4% of all women but 41% of all incarcerated women.

Along with Black people who make up about 2.5% of the Canadian population but over 9% of the prison population, Indigenous people account for much of the 75% increase in ‘visible minorities’ in Canadian prisons in the last decade. Each of these statistics demonstrate the continuing significance of systemic racism and colonialism in shaping the criminal justice system, and this is without including the nearly 10,000 migrants jailed in Canada in 2013 for a total of 183,928 days or 504 years.

Restructuring of social programs to maximize the control function

Under the historic welfare state, government social programs – unemployment insurance, welfare, public education, public healthcare, public transit – were developed to transfer a small portion of the socially generated surplus back to the working class. These programs served both a use function (for the working class communities that rely on them economic stability and survival) and a control function (for the ruling class who uses them to cover up the underlying system of exploitation and to tie people ideologically and materially to the current order). As part of the basic economics of neoliberalism these programs have been gutted through a mixture of privatization, contracting out, and shifting the burden of payment onto those who rely on the program (through user fees), thus undermining their redistributive function. These changes erode or eliminate the use value of social programs for working class people.

Under the neoliberal containment state, the role and purpose of social programs is further transformed. More specifically, new structures and processes are introduced exclusively to increase the control function of social programs, which become increasingly intertwined with institutions of repression.

Transit in Vancouver is a good example. In the first decade of the 21st century the regional transit authority rapidly increased fares, decreasing the redistributive function of the public service for transit dependent working class people (who are disproportionately women and people of colour). At the same time Translink created a new police service, armed with semi automatic pistols on the buses and skytrain. The role of this police force is to ticket, publicly humiliate, and in some cases violently arrest those unable to pay the fare. Translink is also paying $171 million to install fare gates in the metro stations to capture (by their own figures) about  $6 million per year in unpaid fares.

Another example is welfare in B.C. The welfare rates have not risen substantially in 30 years, and are now so low that the Dieticians of Canada published a report showing that a person cannot eat properly on the current BC welfare rates, even if they were to spend their entirely monthly disposable income on food. Meanwhile the control function of welfare, mainly aimed at forcing people into any kind of exploitative low-wage work available, has increased with wait times to get on welfare, regular demands for proof of job searches, and mandatory participation in ineffective job search programs. Most relevant to emergence of the neoliberal containment state, however, is the increased securitization of interactions with welfare and the increasing direct involvement of police.

Under the new set up all requests and inquiries be made over the phone through a centralized call centre and the only face to face interaction in the remaining welfare offices is with clerical staff who accept and give out forms but don’t have any actual decision making power. These offices are routinely staffed by private security guards and all interactions take place through security glass. People on welfare no longer have an assigned social worker with whom they can develop an ongoing relationship.  In interactions over the phone, ‘tone of voice’ or any degree of emotion are used by social workers to hang up and end the interaction.  Thus the predictable anger of people who are being literally starved amid the conspicuous consumption and waste of Canadian capitalist society is met with ‘security’ and containment.

A further illustration is the provincial legislation enacted in June 2010 whereby people with an outstanding warrant anywhere in Canada can be denied or cut off welfare; thus the welfare state institution is transformed in such a way as to prop up and support the neoliberal containment state.

Part II will further explore the history of the containment state