Canadian Citizenship and the New Barbarism

By Broadbent, Ed | Queen's Quarterly, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Canadian Citizenship and the New Barbarism


Broadbent, Ed, Queen's Quarterly


As Canadians, we like to think that we have always been a more caring and compassionate society than our neighbours to the south. But in many respects, the United States led the way in the struggle for more equality for much of the twentieth century, while both our nations learned a great deal from programs developed and refined in a host of other societies around the world. Ed Broadbent, who has watched and worked within this process since his school years, feels that Canadians are threatened with the loss of postwar gains in the meaning of citizenship. However, at the outset of the new millennium there are glimmers of hope that what he calls "the new barbarians" may not get their way.

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IT is often said that the 1960s were the years of great change. The truth is that the real transformation had come earlier. When I graduated from university in 1959, as a working class kid from Oshawa, I was full of optimism. I thought the world was my oyster--and I was right. Within a year my student debts were paid off, and I never looked back. My friend, a fellow philosophy student from Brooklyn, had the same expectations. This was because 1959 was also the year that, for the first time in their history, a majority of Americans identified themselves as being middle class. (1)

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By the end of the '50s Canadians and Americans had transformed themselves. During the previous two decades as democratic peoples they had changed significantly in their views about the role of government and the nature of citizenship. Citizens in both countries no longer accepted high levels of inequality and insecurity as being inevitable. Following the Depression of the 1930s and the Second World War they, and a crucially important group of political leaders, had reached the conclusion that more equality and security were desirable and achievable.

Although I want to concentrate on Canadian citizenship here, it is worth emphasizing that for a brief period Americans and Canadians seemed to be taking the same direction. In fact, during the march towards greater equality in the middle third of the twentieth century, the Americans did much of the leading.

Those who admire contemporary American fiction and have read either John Updike's In the Beauty of the Lilies (the early passages) or E. Annie Proulx's remarkable Accordion Crimes will have a powerful picture of how difficult life was in the United States for the large majority, whether native born or immigrant, before Roosevelt came to power in 1932. In subsequent years, something happened that never occurred before in such a brief period of time. By 1959 the real income for the average worker doubled. (2)

There are those in the United States and Canada who would have us believe this was simply due to the vigour of capitalism. They are mistaken. The principal reason for this change was the presence for the first time of a government committed to the equality of its citizens. For it was precisely this period that saw the emergence in the United States of programs and policies designed to achieve this goal.

Beginning in 1935 with his Social Security program (the model for our Canada Pension Plan which came 30 years later) Franklin Roosevelt launched a series of initiatives that transformed the life of the average American. In addition to universal pensions, there were housing programs, unemployment insurance, municipal works, money for the arts, loan guarantees, tax-subsidized mortgages, and tuition-free state university education. And, very importantly, there was the rise of industrial unionism, strongly supported by Roosevelt.

Laissez-faire was replaced with ongoing governmental activism on both sides of the border. In 1937, as a percentage of GDP, government spending in Canada had been a mere 18.6 percent. By the end of the '50s this had risen to 28.6 percent. In the United States, the transformation was even more significant. …

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