Shirley Tillotson

Published on August 30, 2016

Shirley Tillotson is a professor at the Department of History of Dalhousie University. She specializes in the social history of citizen contributions, from volunteering to tax-paying. She has published several journal articles on tax history in Canada, and her book manuscript, tentatively titled The Power to Govern: Taxation and Democracy in Canada, 1917-1971, is currently under review at UBC Press.


An interview by Cory Verbauwhede. Professor Tillotson will be participating in the round-table discussion which will close the social question and citizenship conference.


Cory Verbauwhede: The round-table discussion in which you will be participating will attempt to open up the conference to future research and collaborations. We invited you to read the interviews thus far – what is your initial impression?

Shirley Tillotson: Well, one thing I will say about the interviews I’ve read is that there seems to be an emerging consensus about the 1920s – 1970s period, roughly, being an analyzable whole, even if World War Two can be seen as a rupture in its own right in terms of social policy. This realignment of traditional periodizations which start after the war means that we also have to rethink the “neo” of neoliberalism. Hayek and Friedman, for instance, were deeply rooted in the 1930s; they were responding to Keynes, they read Mill and, along with the Catholic Church, were adepts of laisser-faire economics. Events in the mid-1970s and 1980s were of epochal significance – the oil crises, stagflation, and 20% interest rates – but calling the liberalism of the 1980s and onwards “neo”-liberalism obscures the connections between current market-fundamentalism and much of classical liberal thinking.

CV: Tell us a bit about your own work, and how you see it interacting with the conference themes.

ST: My research has focused on citizen engagement and, in my current project, that focus has brought me to the study of taxation – the practice, the policy, the politics, and the culture that underpins these matters of state. These themes are deeply rooted both in the changing notion of citizenship and in the difficult head-on confrontation of the social question that is apparent in debates about who should be taxed, how, by how much, and especially for what reason. There is a very real sense in which more money from my pocket is less money from yours, and that gives rise to heated arguments and to resistance of all kinds. Taxation debate is about conflicting interests. The wisdom of the “old” liberalism was that it valued political conflict. Consensus is often a convenient fiction produced by those in power for their own purposes. Good public policy is made by people who understand what’s driving those who are opposed to them. I’m a fan of conflict if it is done right, and the conflicts around taxation certainly give lots of material to the social historian – material that I must emphasize is vastly underexploited!

Court cases are precious windows into the stakes of tax conflict, but so are the everyday letters, for example, that were the basis of my work on the self-interested pocketbook politics driven by lower-income Canadians who opposed tax innovations such the 1942 Income Tax amendments. The views on taxation presented in those letters, and the labour politics which reflected those views, greatly contributed to the implementation of universal family allowances at the end of the war. As John Kenneth Galbraith argued, popular organizations such as unions provide a socially useful mechanism of conflict in modern economic life as a countervailing power to big business. And Galbraith was in some way just extending Mill’s view that civil society organizations were valuable as a check on the power of the state. As historians, we only do our job well if we really work to understand all the parties to conflict, what their assumptions and daily realities were, and so forth. This is perhaps another common thread in the interviews I’ve read on this blog: the conference presenters are interested in understanding social conflict on the actors’ own terms, thus questioning some of the common assumptions we hold on social issues and ultimately on citizenship, and especially on its relative triumph, which is too often taken for granted.

In my own field, the history of taxation, so much was done behind the scenes until the 1960s that it is hard to be optimistic about the democratic nature of the politics before that time. Linda McQuaig, then a journalist for the Globe and Mail, wrote a book in the 1980s from an anti-elitist perspective on “how the rich won control of Canada’s tax system,” but there is more to the picture than that. Along with my colleague Elsbeth Heaman, whose book on taxation in Canada between 1867-1917 will soon appear from McGill-Queen’s, I tell a story that shows Canadians to be tax resisters and eager participants in tax debates at Confederation and since. I think you can say that our work all but destroys the picture of the cheerful, compliant Canadian taxpayer. Though such essential works such as economist Irwin Gillespie’s 1991 book, Tax, Borrow and Spend, are useful, they are too often top-down, based on official reports and House of Commons debates. There’s a lot to learn from digging down into the histories of the people involved at all levels.

On one hand, the tax officials are human beings whose engagements with taxation are not simply rational. Kenneth Eaton, a World War I veteran from rural Nova Scotia who came to Finance as its first income tax specialist in 1932 with a Ph.D. in public finance from Harvard complained contemptuously of progressive income taxation, a system he helped design and administer. Looking back in retirement, he said of the arguments for progressive income tax that they were “merely a good try at an intellectual post-factum defence of what in practice is pure political expediency.” A fervent Millsian/Gladstonian Liberal, he also proclaimed, exasperated, that “Canada, God help us, is a federation!” Eaton’s wry, passionate voice is unmistakable and makes the emotions of taxation come alive, along with the despairing voices of mothers, in letters to the Minister of Finance, writing of the “cruel income tax” directed at the poor man, asking how the minister expects they will be able to feed their children. By paying attention to the ideas, emotions, and identities in tax talk, I hope to have shown in a fresh way what was at stake in debates about tax, and in that way something of the nature of Canadian citizenship.

To really understand what was going on, it is useful to foreground people with personality such as Eaton, but also housewives and wage earners who complain about the rate of taxation and threaten to stop working if policies aren’t modified. Paying attention to personal voices is a good way of avoiding the two problems that beleaguer tax policy scholars: on the one hand, the subject’s forbidding technical aspects, and on the other, the impoverished intellectual environment of tax debate, with cartoonish and sometimes erroneous argumentation on both sides of the political spectrum getting the bulk of attention, from A Nation of Serfs on the right by Fraser Institute author Mark Milke to The Great Revenue Robbery on the left by Richard Swift, a former editor of the New Internationalist magazine. To really understand, one must move beyond the “free rider” obsession of both of these currents: for the left it is global tax havens; for the right it is those insatiable “tax eaters” who never pay anything themselves. However, this is not easy to do, not least because the Canada Revenue Agency doesn’t publish data on tax compliance! Discoveries such as the Panama Papers are useful in providing documentation on the “rich free rider,” but what lies behind the “poor free rider,” insofar as it isn’t just a bogey man created to argue for cutting taxes for the rich, is an age-old practice: avoiding the tax collector and the census taker. Not declaring some of one’s income has long been a working-class survival strategy.

The history of tax compliance is key to understanding how people consider themselves to be part of a collective project, of “society.” This sense of participation is not automatic, and events such as world wars can increase such sentiment, whereas the current “wedge” politics certainly have the opposite effect. Not to mention social media, which contribute to fracturing society by mirroring back to us our own opinions!

CV: Can you tell us a bit more about your sources?

ST: I have cast a wide net: I want to discover who had what to say about tax in Canadian history. Tax is where the relationship between the individual and the state is made material. To explore that relationship, I have tried to go beyond the high-level, quantitative approaches or elite policy-bargaining, and instead, I have looked for ways of discovering popular voices. These can be gotten at through letters that one can find in the Ministry of Finance papers and the papers of politicians at all levels of government, as I have already mentioned, but also through the records of various groups organized around particular social identities and interests such as labour unions, farm organisations, women’s groups, even chambers of commerce. News reports and related letters to the editor also provide a wealth of information, as do election campaigns. One challenging feature that I have already alluded to is the problem of data, since the tax resister’s first line of defense is to argue against the state’s inquisitorial methods on the grounds of a right to privacy. Tax evasion and avoidance leave no traces, if they’re successful. Economists have worked hard to try to estimate how much income goes unreported, but their methods always involve extrapolation. In a study for the Bank of Canada, Dunbar and Fu estimated in 2015 that between 35% and 50% of households in Canada under-reported their income in 2004, and that of all household income, somewhere between 14% and 19% is undeclared. Their findings are always rightly qualified with terms such as “appear to be,” though. For economists, tax collectors, and historians, finding out who hides income (or sales or property, depending on the tax base), how, and why (aside from the obvious) is a research problem of real interest and difficulty. For anyone interested in how social regulation works, and the justice questions of contribution and distribution, the history of tax compliance offers a lot of great opportunities, well beyond what I’ve begun to explore.

CV: What would you recommend reading for further research?

ST: Internationally, Nicolas Delalande’s Batailles de l’impôt is a must-read overview of the politics of taxation in France, especially from 1870 onward, and Martin Daunton has written two excellent volumes on British tax history from 1799 to 1979. Closer to home, the work of tax law scholars such as Lisa Phillips, Colin Campbell, David Duff, and Michael A. Livingston often has an historical dimension. Historians need to remember to search further afield than usual: this excellent literature is mostly found in legal journals and is not included in history periodical indexes. In the American case, texts in historical sociology such as Isaac Martin’s Rich People’s Movements are also very useful, as is the work of Ajay Mehrotra, a lawyer-historian in the “law and society” tradition. Romain Huret’s American Tax Resisters is an excellent survey. There aren’t many Canadians working on these issues, but one should certainly have read Irwin Gillespie, J. Harvey Perry, and Neil Brooks. Brooks in particular represents the 1960s reform current which undertook, with formidable energy, a vast project of public education about tax policy. There will be a host of new Canadian tax history books in 2017, because of the 100th anniversary of the federal income tax, including mine, Elsbeth Heaman’s, and one by David Tough.

CV: What would you say historians and other scholars can contribute in thinking about citizenship through the lens of the social question?

ST: Well, my own work has focused on voluntary community participation: what motivates it, what facilitates it, what impairs it. I first looked at volunteer work in community organization for recreation, and then I explored charitable fundraising – a kind of voluntary tax. Recently I have been directly examining legislatively-imposed contributions. Everywhere one turns, there is more volunteerism than one would imagine, and this says a lot about citizenship and its social foundations. Because there are “tax planning” methods, income tax has a larger voluntary dimension than we generally acknowledge, especially for the self-employed, even if it is no longer the “gentleman’s agreement” it once was. By contrast, taxes such as user fees and tolls, where there are few opportunities to dodge, use more directly coercive forms of collection. We all fear the element in taxation in which we are treated as a debt-dodger rather than a citizen. There are class dimensions to the ideas about what kinds of taxes are suited to what kinds of people and purposes. For example, a percentage of homeowners’ property tax bills always languishes unpaid in cities across the country, whereas payroll deductions are remitted on a monthly basis with few possibilities of cheating or delaying.

Much can be learned about citizenship by exploring tax culture, and it is not innocent that where the on-the-ground tax vocabulary is extraordinarily diverse, calling up different metaphors for different functions – e.g. “dues,” “premiums,” “insurance,” “contributions” – the political right wants to streamline all of this into the one big metaphor of “extortion,” thus evacuating tax’s collective meaning. No liberal democratic state collects tax simply at gunpoint; to be efficiently collected, taxes must have legitimacy, and there must be some kind of broadly shared notion of “fair return” and “fair share” – both of which end up being at the centre of many debates: what is “fair”? Governments that judge wrongly what matters to their citizens face not only electoral punishment, but resistance to the raising of the revenue. As much as I cherish tax compliance as part of the practice of good citizenship, and as much as I deplore narrow self-interest as a motivation for tax resistance, we can learn a lot about social justice by looking at the reasons that the vulnerable, and not just the powerful, resist taxation.

Exploring community participation and resistance, be it through the lens of tax, bureaucrats, “deviant” youth, or any of the other creative ways in which the conference presenters have approached the question, is true “social work” in its nineteenth-century sense. It’s about teasing out the interconnecting tissues of our lives and creating a common project, and it’s what teachers, members of the clergy, and politicians are all doing. The conference participants explore varying historical mechanisms of social control, along with the challenges facing those who wanted to impose it and the resistance of those subjected to it. What is fascinating about the debates during the trente glorieuses is that policy-makers at that time truly seemed to make deep and genuine attempts to extend democracy as a living social phenomenon. But being nostalgic is not the solution – we need to make myths that are more “adult.” A senior Canada Revenue Agency employee recently told me that, before reading a chapter from my book manuscript, he had been convinced that in some time gone by, people paid their taxes from a sense of honour, but that he had been saddened to discover that such a time never actually existed! If he had read the rest of the book, he might not have been quite so sad. But he was right to recognize that I have tried to challenge a romantic past. We have to understand the ever-changing nature of community participation and the need to constantly recreate its foundations. That is what scholarly work on citizenship and the social question can contribute to, and there’s lots of it to be done.