Economic Grounds and Social Factors Promoting Humanitarianism in Canada

Economic Grounds and Social Factors Promoting Humanitarianism in Canada

Part 5 on The Indo-Chinese Refugee Private Sponsorship Program


Howard Adelman

Political events around the world seemed to provide an opening for Canada to make a mark on the world. Canada was a relative military pygmy in such a tumultuous world and really just a sidekick to the U.S. Canada was not an economic powerhouse, though the country was growing in strength financially in spite of my nationalist friends leading the charge to the rear towards a protectionist strategy when the economic future lay in becoming part of a globalized economy. But it takes money to be a philanthropist. And significant numbers of Canadians were in a philanthropic mood.

Why? The 1970s had been a period that replaced the dominant mood inherited from the thirties that Canada was on the edge of a precipice headed towards economic disaster. That sense of economic uncertainty was replaced by its opposite, the illusion of limitless prosperity. We had hit the economic jackpot and would be propelled willy-nilly into a new economic age by the twin forces of an information revolution and globalization. Nationalism may have been a predominant rhetorical trope, but the world, and Canada, was moving in the opposite direction.

This illusion of unending and unlimited wealth with any probing could be exposed by the combined disasters of rising unemployment as the era of mass manufacturing was being superseded. This process was twinned with rising rates of inflation. Over the decade, of the seventies, the price of oil had risen from $3 to $40 a barrel and the rate of increase was accelerating. I mentioned previously that the price of oil in 1979 had risen 30% in three months, but that was just the signal that the era of cheap oil was over and massive wealth was in the process of being transferred to the oil rentier states, all well before Canadians in general became conscious that their country possessed the largest oil reserves in the world simply based on the oil fields off the coast of Newfoundland and the tar sands in Alberta. But the new oil boom meant that Alberta had become the home of multimillionaires in Canada and would quickly become the richest province in Canada.

Akin to 2015, Alberta was in for a seismic shock with the economic recession that walloped Canada in the early eighties. However, all this was around the corner. The good times appeared endless and deep recessions appeared to be a thing of the past. GDP between the end of the sixties and the end of the seventies increased 10% and would double over the next twenty years from a baseline at the end of the sixties. (Statistics Canada) But the rate of growth of GDP in the seventies had been 4.4% annually, and even in constant dollars had been 3%. However, the warning signs were all around even if they went unheeded. Like today, the value of the Canadian dollar was dropping – to around 85 cents at the time.

The decline in rates of growth was around the corner and hit Canada in the eighties and nineties averaging about 1.4% in constant dollars, half the rate of growth of the seventies. Real wages had risen 25% in the single decade of the seventies alone, but flat-lined when Canada entered the eighties and nineties. Though economic growth would continue, the wealth of the average Canadian would not; disparities between rich and poor would start to grow rather than continue a long decline. The average Canadian began to carry a heavier tax burden and disposable income halted its spectacular growth of the seventies. It soon became a necessity and not simply an option to have two household members per family. As a consequence, saving rates that had risen precipitously began their long decline until the present.

In 1979, Canadians were living in an economic bubble and felt they could well afford to be generous. The price of homes had not yet risen to the stratosphere, in part because of the insecurity of rising inflation. Young people felt very confident that everyone in the middle class could afford to own their own home. But the pattern of economic security was changing and 1979 was the cusp. Average unemployment rates that used to hover at 6.5% rose to a real average unemployment of 9% in the seventies and eighties even before so-called voluntary apprenticeships and the move of young people to part time and self-employment largely on the margins had become the order of the day.

Before 1979, Canadians had been working less and earning more. After 1979, they were working far more and effectively earning less. It was a time when Canadians could dream big because the realities of a harder economic life lay in the future. This illusory predominant make-up was exacerbated by the character of the sixties generation that were beginning to enter public leadership roles by 1979.

The failures of others helped bring Canada into a privileged place in the world. Economic conditions at home made a stretch possible. But vacuums and economic forces do not determine decisions. They simply make certain types of decisions and directions possible. Canadians had to take advantage of their beneficence and the openings available to them. I have already referred to the enlightened leadership in place whether Canada was governed by the Liberals or the Tories. That type of leadership was merely the tip of a much larger cultural change. To understand that change, we have to look at those who came of age in the sixties and the dominant motifs of that generation.

The sixties generation was made up of many parts. At least four of these parts were the New Left, the flower children, the fantasists and the love adults. The groups overlapped, interconnected and influenced one another. But they were distinct species of the same genus. Fantasists, flower children and love adults were led by the New Left in politics, or, as I prefer to dub our role, the superegos of political life that led the value revolution. (I do not have the space to develop this point in any detail. For an expanded version of this article, see two of my essays published at the beginning of the seventies: Howard Adelman (1970) “Imperialism of the American New Left,” Social Theory and Practice, Spring I:1, 39‑47, and (1971) “The Canadian New Left as an American Daimonion,” Social Theory and Practice, Spring 1:3, 73‑86.)

The most important legacy of the New Left was not its doctrines, for they contradicted one another as one traveled from France to Sweden and back to Canada and the United States in 1968. Their only common feature was that those new doctrines were neither new nor left. They were retro and, if properly understood, would dubbed age cohort as the retro rather than the new generation. Certainly New Leftists worked for peace and justice, mainly racial justice (more on this later). But their vision was not of a world run by the workers of the world but of a participatory democracy; all citizens should take part in the political process. In reality, those with the greatest patience who could sit the longest in meetings often determined the outcomes. What distinguished the New Left, the Retro Rousseauians, was not their myriad of causes and the varied quests for peace and social justice they promoted, but the new mode of organizing politically that would adumbrate the new age of communications.

They were networkers. Networking rather than hierarchies was their primary legacy. The Retros led, not by imposing norms, but by old-fashioned witnessing. They communicated, not by issuing orders, but by envisioning new realities even when those visions turned out to be recreations of old ones re-invented for a new age. The New Left imagined and succeeded in stopping the most powerful countries from spreading strontium 90 as the fallout from nuclear testing around the world producing genetic mutations. They helped bring the Vietnam war to an end and to get America running along the last lap ending legalized racism in the United States. Last evening I finally caught up to the very moving movie, Selma, the story of Martin Luther King’s leadership of the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama to confront Governor George Wallace on the myriad of laws that prevented Blacks voting in southern states. The main purpose of the march was to get President Johnson to take the initiative and put in place an Act to protect the right of all citizens in the U.S. to vote. The march succeeded. The era was a glorious period of advance while looking backwards for standards and principles; it left a deep mark on the participants.

In 1979, the New Left generation was coming into its own and had not given way to a successor generation that faced a far more ominous, formidable and seemingly inevitable vision of the destruction of the planet than even the nuclear threat. The eco generation with its melancholy overhang of despair as it tried to change policies and slow down climate change was not like the children of the sixties who firmly believed they could radically change the world in terms of ideals of peace and justice. The Retros of the New Left trusted themselves and they trusted one another. The politics of distrust had been banished to the woodshed. The Millennial Generation would finish the job by burying ideology under a mound of pragmatism.

The New Left were not alone in bringing about the revolution of the sixties. They were the Retros who wanted a future that resembled an idyllic small town past. Unlike New Leftists, flower children lived totally in the present. They took the fantasies seriously and made a life history of living in a world of illusions fuelled by cannabis. Flower children are not to be confused with Fantasists. The latter envisioned the real future and brought it into the present explicitly as fantasy. The flower children lived a life of fantasy and gave the sixties its colour and its sounds. The fantasists gave the sixties its biological and technological dreams.

The New Left, flower children and the fantasists lived side by side in Rochdale College in the late sixties to join together to shock staid uptight Protestant Ontario. However, that country and province of stability, of the rule of law, but also of cold and narrow minds, of repressed dreams which hung on to the prejudices of the Irish north, felt secure enough to allow a young and untested group to loan five million dollars from the federal treasury ($100 million in today’s money) to build what turned out to be a psychedelic tower but was envisioned as a free university. Not that the room and board were free. But education was controlled by students, with the curriculum determined by them with professors only serving as volunteer facilitators. The experiment was at once a throwback to the amateur university that preceded the development of the professional university that had begun with the University of Berlin in the beginning of the nineteenth century, but without the inherited and instilled mores that governed those early modern colleges and their attempt to instil a lifestyle and values approach to those who attended.

From another perspective, Rochdale adumbrated our contemporary colleges, for it was  really just a parody of the consumer university of the twenty-first century that exiled the professional university (the Sanctuary of Method) and superseded the Social Service ideal that succeeded the idea of a university as a training ground for an elite of self-governing professionals. (Howard Adelman (1973) The Holiversity, Toronto: New Press)

Perhaps its most interesting component was not found in its politics or its escape from politics, but in its dreamers, its artists who formed the sculpture collective that produced the statue of the unknown student still sitting today in front of the building now serving as a seniors home like a fat Buddha but staring in at its own belly button. After all, Rochdale College was home to Coach House Press, Theatre Passe Muraille, the best classic films in the city, and, of course, Dennis Lee, who became famous as a children’s poet, but who founded House of Anansi Press and was the leader of the educational ideal of Rochdale.

Most of all, and perhaps least known, it was home to the largest science fiction collection in the world contributed by that ex-New Yorker, Judith Grossman, originally a Bostonian and child of Ethel and Shlomo Grossman, who used her pen name of Judith Merril. The collection eventually found a home in the Toronto Public Library system originally as the Spaced Out Library and eventually as the Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation & Fantasy. The collection epitomized Rochdale specifically and the sixties more generally, the belief that one could envision the future and make it part of everyday reality either as a political expression (the New Left), a drug trip (the flower children) or a product of one’s creative imagination that envisaged a new future.

Living in the midst and around the edges of this heterodox experiment were the love adults, forerunners of an age that allowed women to emerge from their domestic cocoons and compete in the world on a level playing field. In my class of 61 in the Faculty of Medicine, the entry of women into Medical School was restricted to 10% on the silly, even if partially accurate, argument that investment in women’s medical education would not be nearly as productive as investment in male education, as women would leave medical practice in order to bear and raise children. The reality was that men and women of subsequent generations were no longer willing to work all hours and sacrifice their lives for a career. They wanted a career as well as a balanced life, an ethos that began its development in the sixties, that demanded that doors open to women, and where women finally took control of their reproductive system with the development of birth control drugs and devices.

So the sixties produced a brash generation, full of itself and confident in its ability to change the world, an innovative generation that was both willing and able to take on large challenges and presume it could solve the problems of the world. One of the largest challenges to emerge was the refugee exodus from Indochina. The inheritors of the sixties, whether in government as civil servants and politicians, in the media, in churches and synagogues, or in secular life, took on the challenge with a gusto and energy that overran all obstacles. Though having no comparison to the fortitude and courage of the refugees themselves, they too demonstrated the values of self-sacrifice and dedication, not to save themselves but to express themselves and the values they upheld.

To be continued


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