Joel Bakan is the 2013 recipient of the George Ryga Award for Social Awareness in Literature. He was selected for his critical exposé Childhood Under Siege: How Big Business Targets Children (Penguin / Free Press 2011).

The other finalists for the prize, sponsored by Okanagan College and B.C. BookWorld, were Michael Christie's short stories focussed on Vancouver Downtown Lower East Side neighborhood, The Beggar's Garden, and Howard White's labour history of unionist Bill White (no relation) A Hard Man To Beat.

In Childhood Under Seige, Bakan reveals the callous and widespread exploitation of children by profit-seeking corporations and society's failure to protect them. The book painstakingly shows and analyses how corporations pump billions of dollars into rendering parents and governments powerless to shield children from a commercial assault designed to exploit their unique needs and vulnerabilities.

Bakan was moved to write this book when he began asking questions as a parent of two young children, now teenagers.

"The animating idea behind my book was inspired in part by Nelson Mandela who once said that the keenest revelation of the soul of a society is the way it treats its children," he says. "My hope is that this book not only illuminates the issues about childhood today, but holds up a mirror to ourselves as a society - a first step for understanding how we can do better."

Childhood Under Siege is Bakan's second controversial release in a row. Perhaps no book by a British Columbian has stirred as much critical debate as his hard-hitting bestseller The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power (2004), the print version of a feature film that won the top documentary award at Robert Redford's Sundance Film Festival.

Having co-developed the notion of a program that traces the origins and history of corporations with filmmaker Tom Shandel, Joel Bakan and his creative partner Mark Achbar, one of the makers of Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media, attended the Banff Television Festival in 1999, ostensibly as reporters for B.C. BookWorld, so they could pitch their project.

"Achbar and I brought a 25-page treatment document to Banff, a model of concision," Bakan recalls. "Few wanted to read it. 'Get it down to two pages,' was the straight-faced advice from one Canadian broadcaster heavy. That seemed generous compared to the high-brow BBC, which wanted only one page. Television people want to hear you, not read you." Miraculously, the film appeared in a timely fashion-boosted by a publishing contract with Penguin Books.

The Corporation was partially sparked by the anti-APEC protests at UBC in 1997, during which Bakan looked out his office window, grabbed his library card-to identify himself as a professor-and took his copy of the Constitution of Canada with him to monitor the Sgt. Pepper Spray demonstrations. It proved to be a memorable day. The mounting frustration of demonstrators as they tried to scale a fence made a strong impression on Bakan: Canadians who were protesting the presence of dictators in their own country were portrayed on the evening news as anti-social elements. Bakan and Mark Achbar roamed the UBC campus with Achbar shooting proceedings with his video camera. That day became a turning point in their efforts to make The Corporation.

"Most students in the mid-1990s were building investment portfolios, not social movements," writes Bakan in The Corporation. "Yet here they were, thousands of them, braving pepper spray and police batons to fight for ideals. Even more unusual, the students were protesting against corporations-against their destruction of the environment, exploitation of workers and abuses of human rights."

Anti-globalization protests followed in Seattle, Prague and Geneva. Wall Street scandals-at Enron, WorldCom and Tyco-confirmed suspicions that large corporations were often corrupt and largely out of control. "There's a sense out there today that because corporations can be socially responsible," says Bakan, "they can regulate themselves, and we no longer need regulation from the government in the form of laws. There's a real pairing of deregulation on the one hand and the appearance of social responsibility on the other, and that's the point to which I object. It's fine if CEO guys and gals want to be decent, but corporate benevolence is not a replacement for legal standards that constrain what corporations can and should do." Or, as Noam Chomsky has pointed out, "it is better to ask why we have tyranny than whether it can be benevolent."

Born on May 13, 1959 in Michigan, Joel Bakan arrived in Canada in 1971. He studied at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar and served as Law Clark to the Supreme Court of Canada for Chief Justice Brian Dickson in 1985. He became Associate Professor for the faculty of Law at UBC in 1990 and teaches constitutional law and theory. He has won the Faculty of Law's Teaching Excellence Award and a UBC Killam Research Prize.

Bakan also wrote Just Words: Constitutional Rights and Social Wrongs (University of Toronto Press, 1997) and edited Social Justice and the Constitution: Perspectives on a Social Union for Canada (Carleton University Press, 1992). In Just Words, Bakan argues that the Canadian Charter of Rights has failed to promote social justice and may even impede it.

A follow-up to The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power, is Bakan's The New Corporation: How "Good" Corporations are Bad for Democracy (Allen Lane 2020) about the call for a "new kind of capitalism" by business leaders. In the midst of soaring income inequality, stagnating wages, and an escalating climate crisis, they realized the need to make social and environmental values. The problem is that corporations are still primarily concerned with their bottom lines. In reality, Bakan argues, increasing corporate freedom is encroaching on individual liberty and democracy. While he exposes the inhumanity and destructive force of the current order, and other problems, Bakan also describes a hopeful path forward.


Social Justice and the Constitution: Perspectives on a Social Union for Canada (Carleton University Press, 1992). Editor.

Just Words: Constitutional Rights and Social Wrongs (University of Toronto Press, 1997)

The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power (Toronto: Viking 2004).

Childhood Under Siege (Penguin 2011--subsequently Canada/Penguin; US/Free Press, Simon and Schuster; UK/The Bodley Head, Random House)

The New Corporation: How "Good" Corporations are Bad for Democracy (Allen Lane/Penguin imprint 2020) $19.95 978-0-7352-3884-8

[BCBW 2020]