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Prime Minister Stephen Harper is greeted by a group of Canadian Rangers as he arrives in Whitehorse, Yukon in this file photo from Aug. 18, 2013.Sean Kilpatrick/CP

Former prime minister Stephen Harper says the year-long global pandemic has exacerbated the gulf between elites and the majority of working people, whom politicians are ignoring at their peril.

Speaking to the Ottawa Conference on Security and Defence, Mr. Harper said the economic dislocation from COVID-19 is far worse than the 2008-09 financial crisis he faced as prime minister because the income inequality has increased significantly over the past decade.

“Elites are thriving and large segments of the rest of the population are not thriving,” he said. “The increase in income and wealth for the highest echelons of society has been unprecedented frankly since the age of the robber barons.”

Vast segments of working and middle-class populations in many Western countries have experienced stagnant incomes and even falling standards of living, Mr. Harper said. The pandemic has made the gap even wider despite billions of dollars of government assistance to help people cope with the economic shutdown.

He also drew a distinction between public servants and private-sector workers.

“To be blunt, if you are a public servant for the most part you are getting 100 per cent wages for not going to work and if you are a fairly large corporation – corporate employer – the central bank has been buying your bonds and making sure your business is sustained in all kinds of ways. But if you are a small business, you have probably gone bankrupt.”

Blue-collar and service workers have been relying on government-support cheques to survive, he said, as well-off segments of Canadian society are able to prosper and save money.

Although he did not offer any policy solutions, Mr. Harper said the gap separating the haves and have-nots must be addressed or it could lead to social upheaval.

“The burden has been borne by distinct segments of the population. This is exactly the problem that caused populist upheavals in the last decade or so and I predict is going to cause even greater upheaval as a consequence as we come out of this,” he said, adding that the the technological revolution that is under way needs to accommodate the economic needs of working people.

Mr. Harper devoted most of his comments to China, which he called a global threat to Western democracies while under the one-man leadership of President Xi Jinping.

The former Conservative leader decried business leaders and former politicians hired by Chinese employers to become “effective mouthpieces for their interests.”

He said Canada should not allow Huawei Technologies into the country’s 5G telecommunications networks because of the cyber security risk, but added the larger problem is how China has been able to gain access to Western markets while placing restrictions on companies doing business within its borders.

“As a consequence of this we are seeing in many Western countries, the United States and Canada, enormous trade imbalances. There is a lot of economic activity and jobs that we have lost to China that have not been compensated in terms of economic opportunity for Canadians.”

Huawei may be a private company “in form” but “in practice” is an extension of the “Chinese state security apparatus,” Mr. Harper said. When he was prime minister, the “answer of everybody connected with security” was a “categorical no” to the question of whether Huawei should be allowed into Canada’s 5G networks.

“There was no debate on this – that this is not a desirable outcome,” he recalled.

Canada is the only member of the Five Eyes intelligence-pooling alliance – which includes the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Britain – that has not taken any action to ban or curb the Chinese telecommunications giant from supplying 5G equipment.

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