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Canadians are in the fight of their lives to defend public services, and CUPE is a key player in the battle, says municipal and environmental advocate Glen Murray.

Murray gave the keynote address at the opening of CUPE’s national all-committee meeting in Ottawa. The former Winnipeg mayor and newly-appointed head of the Canadian Urban Institute described his frustration with the Harper government’s environmental record, calling it an “appalling disgrace.”

It’s part of a broader right-wing assault that Murray says “is turning us from citizens into consumers. And it’s driving an ideology that tells us to act as individuals in our own interest and abandon the fundamental principles of being a citizen and to abandon a commitment to a civil society.”

Murray described the importance of building coalitions to turn the tide of privatization and rebuild inclusive, healthy neighbourhoods.

He spoke strongly against privatization of public services. “You cannot transfer the public trust for the quality of your water or sewage treatment – you cannot trust those things to the private sector, any more than you can trust your personal health to the private sector,” he said.

Public services, he said “have to be a direct contract between the citizens and the people we elect to control them.” The profit motive, according to Murray, diminishes “the direct accountability that is required to protect public health and public safety between ourselves and our elected officials and those critical services.”

He had harsh words for the Conservative government’s program of tax credits instead of direct funding for services like child care and public transit.

“This is treating us as consumers, it is giving us a price. It’s trying to bribe us and pay us off and it doesn’t add a daycare spot, it doesn’t add a bus route, it doesn’t add a kilometer of subway line, it builds no capacity. It is an assault on … the quality of the public realm, the shared space, the platform that gives us a place to celebrate together and puts some equality under it,” he said.

He warned of growing class-based divisions that are created as public services are cut or underfunded.

“We’re all wealthier when we have a library in our neighbourhood. When we have a pool in our community. When we have a better-quality school in our community. That makes us richer. That gives our kids a better future. That is much more important for our sense of inclusion and well-being and net personal wealth than a stupid $60 credit on a bus pass.”

Murray had high praise for the work CUPE members do, delivering public services and as activists in their community.

CUPE members are the people “who physically and emotionally and socially build an inclusive community,” he said.

“It’s critically important that you are a catalyst, a convenor, an advocate and a change agent, and you put wheels under what seem to be the impossible dreams for marginalized communities and you help them get across the finish line. And that is an extraordinary gift.”

He credited CUPE support in helping get him elected, and in shaping progressive policies and politics in the City of Winnipeg.

CUPE and the broader labour movement are “absolutely essential to catalyzing an agenda, to building an inclusive coalition and to driving change and to getting us governments in this country that respond to the needs and realities of working people,” says Murray.

He urged a focus on building a society based on citizenship, not consumerism, concluding with these thoughts:

“Never every be a consumer, never be a conservative. Never forget being a citizen is about looking around you, especially if you’re in a union, and looking at what you can do to change the world one person at a time. Never give up our collective ability to create things together for a cheap tax break.”