Social class is much less important in Canada than it is in the UK. For the vast majority of Canadians who, if you asked them, would call themselves middle class, it's a non-issue.
- Canadians have essentially the same accent all the way from Ontario, in the east-central part of the country to British Columbia in the west. There is, however, a distinct Maritime accent in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, and an even more distinct Newfoundland accent. Canadians will tell you that there are differences in accents across their country, even amongst different parts of the same province. However, in the opinion of this author, those differences are nothing like as noticeable as the differences amongst UK accents. Also, the intra-provincial differences don't raise red flags in people's minds and peg a person's class on the basis of his/her accent.
- Canada has a high degree of social mobility. There are many instances in which people have moved from one social class to another from one generation to the next. There also are many instances in which individual people have moved from one social class to another in their own lifetimes. Just as an example, some of Canada's Prime Ministers have come from working class families. Brian Mulroney and Jean Chrétien had fathers who worked in pulp-and-paper mills. (But, with that having been said, the movement is not always upwards. Sometimes it's downwards.)
- Private schools play a much smaller role in Canada than they do in the UK.
- Canada lacks an aristocracy.
All in all, "class" is not something that enters the consciousness of the average Canadian. The word typically does not carry any emotional baggage.
Rather than describing someone as lower, middle or upper class, a Canadian often will describe someone as having a low, middle or high income. Income implies a present-moment phenomenon rather than an entrenched one.
If you were to press an average Canadian and ask him/her to describe socio-economic groups in Canada, he/she probably would say there are three groups, the rich, the middle class, and the poor. The average Canadian's definition of middle class would encompass the vast majority of the population, the 90% or so who work for a living.
Canadians sometimes make a distinction between people in white collar jobs and blue collars jobs. This equates to some extent to the distinction between the English middle class (Canadian upper middle class) and the English working class (which straddles the Canadian lower middle class and Canadian working class). But the distinction is not consistent with the English English meanings, because some blue collar workers (e.g., some skilled tradespeople) earn very good wages, better than the salaries of several white collar workers (and the term "white collar worker" itself encompasses poorly paid clerks as well as high flying lawyers). So "white collar" and "blue collar" in Canada are not really synonymous with any English English terms.
Sociologists are more precise in defining social classes in Canada. They classify people according to the amount of wealth, power, education, and occupational prestige and satisfaction they have.
They have identified factors that influence a person's social class:
- They note that ancestry does count for something. Having parents who care about education is an advantage. But, because Canada provides opportunities for social mobility, it is not the only determinant.
- Gender is another factor. Although women have made great strides, they still are at a disadvantage compared with men. They still have not accessed highly paid jobs to the extent that men have accessed them. Because they can pool their incomes with those of their husbands and because they generally enjoy greater security, married women typically are better off than single women. Divorcees and single mothers tend to be poorer and less secure than married women.
- Ethnicity also is a factor. Aboriginal Canadians, on average, fare far worse than "mainstream" Canadians. In the first generation, "new Canadians" (especially immigrants of colour and immigrants whose first language is not English) take many years to catch up with "established Canadians."
Although different experts use different terminology, there is a rough consensus regarding the following terms:
- Rich or Upper Class - This group comprises 3 - 5 % of Canada's population. Children typically attend private schools, and people in this class tend to have a strong influence on society (industry, politics, etc.). Some sociologists further divide this category into:
- Super Rich or Upper-upper Class - Constitutes about 1% of Canada's population. Most members of this class have inherited their wealth.
- Rich or Lower-upper Class - Constitutes about 2 - 4% of Canada's population. People in this class tend to have created their own wealth. They may be business owners, top executives of large corporations, or successful investors.
- Middle Class - This group comprises 40 - 50% of Canada's population. People in this group earn their living from working. However, they tend to have some accumulated wealth (equity in houses that they own, savings towards retirement, etc.). Most sociologists further subdivide this group as follows:
- Upper Middle Class - Believe it or not, this group can be subdivided even further:
- One subset of the upper middle class are highly educated and well paid professionals, such as doctors and lawyers, or senior managers in corporations. They typically have post-graduate degrees. In this sense, the Canadian "upper middle class" equates roughly to "middle class" in England. But note that there is no accent that distinguishes members of the upper middle class in Canada, members of this class often have attended public (state) schools, they may have come from lower middle class or even working class families, and so on.
- Another subset of this group have only high school educations. Examples of this latter subset include successful business owners.
- There is no single rule, but in general one can expect the more educated members of the upper middle class to behave in a more understated manner while the less educated members of this group tend to behave in a manner that might be described as nouveau riche (conspicuous consumption, lots of toys, lots of bling). But please realize that this is a very broad generalization, and definitely is not applicable to all members of the group.
- Average Middle Class, Middle Middle Class or Lower Middle Class - This group is made up of:
- university graduates in professions that enjoy an average amount of prestige (nurses, teachers, social workers, IT professionals and the like), and
- the more highly paid skilled tradespeople.
- In fact, some tradespeople earn more money than some university graduates.
- Some sociologists do not use earnings to distinguish between lower middle class people and working class people. According to the sociologists who belong to that school of thought, lower middle class people tend to place more importance on education and culture. For example, lower middle class people might spend their discretionary income on music lessons for their children. Working class people are more inclined to put their spare money towards a flashy car or something of that nature.
- The English concept of working class to some extent straddles the concepts of lower middle class and working class in Canada.
- Upper Middle Class - Believe it or not, this group can be subdivided even further:
- Working Class - This group comprises about a third of the population. People in this group tend to be the less well paid clerical workers and blue collar workers. Their jobs tend to be repetitive, to have less scope for creativity and to be less satisfying. This group usually is able to make ends meet, but tends not have any accumulated wealth. This group is vulnerable during economic downturns. The jobs in this category are under threat from automation, offshoring, recessions and so on.
- Poor or Lower Class - This group comprises 15 - 20% of Canada's population. It is made up of a combination of people who cannot work at all (owing to disabilities, etc.) and the working poor (people who do work but cannot earn enough money to live on). There are a variety of reasons for this. People may be in poorly paid, unskilled jobs and/or they may only be able to find seasonal, intermittent or part-time work. This group constantly lives on the edge, and is extremely vulnerable to adverse circumstances. Of all the socio-economic groups, this one has the least amount of security, the poorest health, etc. Members of the BE forum often have expressed surprise by the number of homeless people they have seen in cities that supposedly are booming, e.g., Vancouver and Calgary. The paradox is that an economic boom increases the price of real estate and prices out people with low skills or other challenges.
Canada is a relatively egalitarian society. The gap between the richest and poorest members of the society is smaller than it is in the UK and the USA. Canada allows opportunities for social mobility. In addition to that, although Canada's health care insurance system does have gaps, it is comprehensive enough to protect Canadians from catastrophic medical expenses. In this regard, Canadians have an important safety net that Americans lack.
Canadians generally don't have a consciousness of social class. This is what endears Canada to many Britons and draws them to migrate to Canada.
But Canada has seen a gradual increase in the gap between rich and poor in the last couple of decades. This is partly attributable to automation and offshoring, which have eliminated some semi-skilled jobs (and even some skilled jobs). In some cases, environmental pressures have crushed certain industries (e.g., the fisheries in Atlantic Canada). At the same time, some Canadian jurisdictions have grown more conservative, they have increased tax breaks for the rich, and they have tightened social assistance (welfare) for the poor.
Perhaps in response to these trends, Canadian parents gradually have been showing an increased interest in private schools or at least special schools within the public (state) school system, which offer extra advantages (whether real or perceived) but which still provide free tuition. A Calgary example would be the charter schools and the traditional learning schools, which have huge waiting lists. Public (state) schools that offer the International Baccalaureate tend to have a competitive atmosphere. But please note that, if you live in a "decent" community, it's still possible for your child to receive perfectly fine schooling from the local neighbourhood (state) school.
This article is being written in October 2008. Until recently, there had been a dramatic economic boom in Alberta (owing to the high prices of oil that had prevailed until recently) and parts of British Columbia (2010 Winter Olympics, etc.). The Alberta boom had started to spread to Saskatchewan. Nova Scotia and Newfoundland had started to feel the beginnings of an economic boom, owing to offshore oil developments, etc.
However, even more recently there has been a worldwide stock market crash and the beginnings of recessions in many countries around the globe. The subprime mortgage crisis is hurting millions of Americans. Members of the forum who still are in the UK have reported a considerable softening of real estate prices.
So far Canada does not seem to have been hit as badly as some countries. Canada has very cautious banking regulations, and these appear to be a godsend in the current times. All the same, Canada is feeling the pain to some extent. There has been a softening of real estate prices in many markets across the country, and employment prospects are looking less rosy in most regions.
It's tricky to predict the future, but there seems to be the potential for many Canadians to experience some downward mobility in the near future.
There are potential implications for would-be British immigrants. During hard times, when jobs are scarce, Canadians have a tendency to "circle the wagons" and to look after their own first. Most Canadians are incredibly polite, and would never reject you to your face. But, on the other hand, they rarely contact you to let you know how your job application went. If you contact them and press them for an answer, they'll often fumble around and mumble something to the effect that you lack "Canadian experience." That is the one-size-fits-all reason that they often quote. It's reasonable to assume that there will be more of that if a recession actually takes hold in the coming months.
If you are dead set on migrating to Canada, it is recommended more strongly than ever that you take on board the suggestions in the articles in the Job Hunting-Canada section of the British Expats Wiki. You are likely to need the advice.