The Past Is Not Passe, the Struggles Never Over: Contemporary Lessons of Economic Problems, Resistance Politics and Social Programmes in Canada

By Prince, Michael J. | Journal of Canadian Studies, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

The Past Is Not Passe, the Struggles Never Over: Contemporary Lessons of Economic Problems, Resistance Politics and Social Programmes in Canada


Prince, Michael J., Journal of Canadian Studies


Unwilling Idlers: The Urban Unemployed and Their Families in Victorian Canada. Peter Baskerville and Eric W. Sager. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998.

Planners and Politicians: Liberal Politics and Social Policy, 1957-1968. P.E. Bryden. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1997.

The Vertical Mosaic Revisited. Eds. Rick Helmes-Hayes and James Curtis. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998.

Lone Parent Incomes and Social Policy Outcomes: Canada in International Perspective. Terrance Hunsley. Kingston: School of Policy Studies, Queen's University, 1997.

Promised Land: Inside the Mike Harris Revolution. John Ibbitson. Scarborough: Prentice-Hall, 1997.

Patrick Lenihan: From Irish Rebel to Founder of Canadian Public Sector Unionism. Ed. Gilbert Levine. St. John's: Canadian Committee on Labour History, 1998.

Foisted upon the Government? State Responsibilities, Family Obligations, and the Care of the Dependent Aged in Late Nineteenth-Century Ontario. Edgar-- Andre Montigny. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1997.

Open for Business, Closed to People: Mike Harris's Ontario. Eds. Diana S. Ralph, Andre Regimald and Neree St-Armand. Halifax: Fernwood Publishing, 1997.

History, it has been said, is past politics. This collection of titles clearly shows, however, that we live in an age where history is present politics. As far as public discourse, social and economic policy making and governing is concerned, the past is far from quaint or extinct in contemporary Canada. The question is not who killed Canadian history1 - for these books ably demonstrate that the study and interpretations of our recent and distant past are teeming - but can we as a society collectively learn from the past, and intelligently and democratically use it for today and for tomorrow?

Together, these books cover a 150-year stretch of Canadian studies, from colonial era social services and local administration, through developments in social activism and sociology over much of the twentieth century, to the angry and difficult politics of Ontario in the 1990s. A common feature in the books, more fully and explicitly addressed by some than others, is the human condition of striving and struggling for a decent life, a fuller understanding of our place and space and a better world. A great deal of that striving and struggling is played out and experienced in the interaction among families, markets and governments. That interaction is not new, as Unwilling Idlers and Foisted Upon the Government effectively illustrate. The building of the welfare state is examined by Levine and Bryden. Its restructuring is surveyed by Hunsley, by Diana Ralph and her colleagues and, in The Vertical Mosaic Revisited, by Patricia Armstrong and Julia O'Connor. These writers reveal that the politics of social policy is about ordering and reordering the distribution of resources and responsibilities among the state, market, family and community. The dynamics in and around these major institutions are shaped by power relations revealed by gender, race and other social categories; by dominant and counter ideologies; and by various classes, including workers and trade unions, businesses and the corporate elite, politicians and their party officials, government bureaucrats and planners.

The past is far from passe in three important ways. First, the issues examined in these books - unemployment, the rights of workers, the care of the elderly, the capacity of families to meet human and social needs - are still relevant and timely policy matters. Second, and closely related to the first point, several of the authors convincingly argue that historical studies are pertinent to a better appreciation of present issues and trends in our economy and society. Third, particular power relationships, social myths and economic doctrines of previous periods in our history, patterns of influence and ideas thought by some to have disappeared or largely faded, have been revived and reintroduced by neo-conservative governments.

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