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]


The New Corporation: How "Good" Corporations are Bad for Democracy by Joel Bakan (Allen Lane/Penguin $19.95)

When fraudster Bernie Madoff and thousands of other Wall Street swindlers jeopardized the lives of millions of Americans, big corporations did nothing to bail out the poor folks who lost their homes. Instead, President Obama bailed out the swindlers.

Empowered by the following presidential administration of Donald Trump, who rejected the Paris Accord, U.S.-based corporations mostly failed to protect the general populace from a plague far more deadly than the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2020. Big business in North America kept those meat packing plants open where Covid-19 was easily spread, sacrificed next to nothing and accepted government bailouts whether needed or not.

When the Dow Jones Industrial Average Index reached a record high, most Americans believed that was a good thing. Meanwhile, it was the dreaded boogeyman of Socialism -- government bailouts -- that kept North American society functioning.

This all comes as no surprise to Joel Bakan. His 2003 documentary and television mini-series called The Corporation provocatively explained why and how corporations are, by their very design, akin to psychopaths. Corporations, he discerned, are constructs invented to absolve their managers and investors of responsibility for their failures and transgressions.

Now Bakan's The New Corporation: How "Good" Corporations are Bad for Democracy examines the ruse of posturing that is currently in vogue with corporations that want to persuade you they are now suddenly and fully on the side of the environment. The UBC-based law professor examines how corporations are attempting to-rebrand themselves as do-gooders, as partners with progressive organizations working to counteract climate change, etc.

Again, in tandem with a documentary of the same name (The New Corporation: The Unfortunately Necessary Sequel), Bakan sets out to convince the reader that by slickly advertising how social and environmental values are at the core of their agenda, corporate entities are simultaneously subverting the public good, seeking more privatization, stagnating wages and only posing as environmentalists.

He also does some math. Between 1979-2013, wages for the top one percent in the U.S. grew by nearly 150 percent, according to Bakan, while for the bottom 90 percent wages grew by only 15 percent. He states CEOs now make nearly three hundred times what the average worker makes -- compared with thirty times as much in 1980.

Bakan echoes the words of Robert Weissman, president of Ralph Nader's Public Citizen (a consumer rights advocacy group), who notes there are no limits in the Paris Accord on continued exploration and drilling on the Alberta tar sands. "Thanks to big oil's help in crafting it," Bakan says, "the Paris Accord is toothless."

The list of corporate entities who have absorbed multi-billion dollar fines is astonishing (Volkswagen tops the list at $25 billion) but companies continue to weigh the probabilities of getting caught; Google, Apple, Amazon and Microsoft continue to evade taxation. Corporations are breaking the law "on a grander scale than anything we’ve seen," says Weissman.

"The real danger," said Greta Thunberg at the 2019 UN climate conference in Madrid, "is when politicians and CEOs are making it look like real action is happening, when in fact almost nothing is being done, apart from clever accounting and creative PR."

If you feel virtuous about using your blue box and putting papers in a yellow bag, you might want to consider why corporations love to promote recycling. It shifts the responsibility onto the shoulders of private citizens and government. According to New York Times reporters Tala Schlossberg and Nayeema Raza, the recycling movement is "the greatest trick corporations ever played."

Marriott Hotels happily reduces laundry costs by asking customers to reuse towels and "Help Save The Planet." Meanwhile, Bakan maintains there is overwhelming evidence that recycling doesn't work. "Much of what goes into recycling bins ends up in landfills and is burned, causing pollution and greenhouse gas emissions," he says.

"It's the same for climate change, where corporations deflect blame by insisting we are all responsible for the problem." He points out that Petro-Canada has stickers on its gas pumps: "Play your part on helping reduce climate change by using our products responsibly" This is a rare Canuck reference. Bakan shows a tendency to overlook or avoid distinctly Canadian perspectives possibly in favour of courting a much larger American audience. The New Corporation is published with a distinctly, non-indie imprint owned by the German media group Bertelsmann.

Essentially, corporations are working hard to convince you that profit is not their primary purpose -- but Bakan declares it's a smokescreen. For starters, the collusion of large corporations with repressive regimes around the planet is rarely deemed newsworthy. He notes these corporations "escape blame, quietly slipping out the back door while they bemoan the dysfunctional state of affairs they've helped create."

In the so-called "free world," Bakan writes that corporations are "leveraging their new personas" to replace government in providing public goods and services. (In December, Canada's federal government announced it would rely on FedEx to deliver its vaccines, not Canada Post.)

He notes the "new" corporations looked "distinctly less noble" as they lined up during the coronavirus pandemic for bailouts despite record profits, tax dodging and stock buybacks while pushing for more tax cuts, deregulation and privatization.

"The decades-long refrain that corporations are our friends and governments our enemy rings hollow now," Bakan writes. "It's telling that even presidential contender [now president], Joe Biden, has veered toward a progressive stance, invoking Roosevelt's New Deal."

Echoing Bernie Sanders, the new U.S. president has insisted "that big corporations, which we've bailed out twice in twelve years, step up and take responsibility for their workers and their communities."

But nearly 50% of the Americans who voted in 2020 failed to repudiate Trump. Joe Biden and the Democrats are now stuck with a crumbling economy due to an unchecked pandemic that will give rise to multi-dimensional social insecurity equal to The Great Depression of the 1930s.

We can now expect to see Joel Bakan's third volume, perhaps entitled The Next Corporation, ten years from now, to once more lay bare the unjust fault lines of our corporate-led society.

978-07352-3884-8 [BCBW 2021]