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20th century Canada « Douglas Fisher



20th century Canada

The 20th century is a horrible catalogue of “man’s inhumanity to man.” A Canadian, prone to caution, tries to muffle the positives about the century past and that ahead, but it is hard. It was such a good century for so many of us in opportunities and good living.

One’s range of opinion about the last century begins with one’s own experience. My father’s working life began in 1900 when he bolted from an Ontario farm to a nearby town and got work wiping engines on the Grand Trunk railway. It ended in 1951 as a locomotive engineer. That was the year when employment on railways, and both passenger and freight traffic reached their peak. After that railroading in Canada declined steadily as transport services by trucks, buses, and airlines expanded.

I was born in 1919, just after the slaughterhouse of the war to end wars, and as a deadly flu epidemic was ending. As this century ends I’m winding down my occupation, so between us, father and son, we spanned it in work, with the same good luck of finding it when we needed it. I mention this because for long stretches in the 20th century jobs here have been hard to come by, and no curse was greater in the first half of the century than widespread unemployment. Its prevalence was the prime reason why parliament and legislatures put together— roughly, somewhat patchy— a country-wide system of social security, beginning in the ’20s with the old age pension and largely completed in the late ’60s with the Canada Pension Plan and medicare for all.

These manifestations of political responses to people’s needs twigs a paradoxical question about Canadians in their regard (or lack of it) for politicians. They type-cast them as self-serving, greedy, wasteful, incompetent, and dedicated to delay and divisiveness, promising and not delivering.

Such characterization seems to contradict my positive vibrations about the past century. How could Canada have developed a milieu of excellence under such widely detested prime ministers as Brian Mulroney, Pierre Trudeau, Lester Pearson, John Diefenbaker, even our longest-running one, Mackenzie King? The answer is that most of our politicians have tried to serve us. For proof of this, consider our continuing high interest in political affairs, the good proportion of electors who actually vote, and the huge variety in interest groups dedicated to informing and influencing political decisions.

Looking back, my childhood awareness of topical matters at home and in our town, deep in the bush of northwestern Ontario, included politics, for example, in a push for a government-sponsored hydro-electric power system, or in the bitter grievances over the Bennett “road-camps” where men earned $5 a month in the Depression.

In 1920 our town was a place just reaching for “inside” conveniences. Decades later one of my sons suggested to my mother that it must have been exciting “pioneering” on the frontier. She scoffed. Civilization and an enjoyable life for a mother with a family only came with new tools for household use. Between 1920 and the Great Depression of the 30s they came into our house in this order: indoor plumbing, a washing machine, vacuum cleaner, radio, and refrigerator, all powered by electricity, and the first family car, a ’32 Plymouth.

In hindsight I know that my parents’ aims and values were very commonplace, and archetypal for hundreds of thousands of families. My father was a lifelong fan of progress, but this did not focus on human beings or of human nature itself improving. No, it was a thorough confidence in technological change, most noticeable in transport, communications, and what we call durable goods. Inventors, scientists, engineers, architects, and builders were his heroes, and I recall his enthusiasm after one of his last runs about the magnificent power and easy handling of the CNR’s new diesel engines.

He and my mother were of a generation which still felt a deep need for church meetings activities. Perhaps no other shift in Canada in the century— not even the emergence of multiculturalism in the 1960s out of an immigration program with a global reach— has been greater than the one away from church-centered neighbourhoods and family life. This change bothered my late parents and at least set me asking why so, whereas my children and grandchildren are unaware anything is missing. Some attribute it to the pervasiveness of entertainment or Sunday sports or blanket TV programming and the recreational hours taken up with tapes and discs.

For my parents the most important persons for a community after the pastors and the doctors were the schoolteachers. And schooling, vocational training, getting a skill or a trade, were just as emphasized in Canada before WW II brought this all forward with great intensity as several million men and women trained for war or for industry. After the war the federal government’s program for veterans bust open the colleges and universities for tens of thousands more students than ever before, and this fillip to higher education was crowned by the emergence in the 1960s of vocational institutes and CGEPs, largely built with federal money and offering more technical and pragmatic courses than universities.

Again, what is noticeable looking back, is the widening of opportunities and the diversifying of occupations for new prospects for the labour force. Despite all the gripes about education in Canada we largely retain our interest in it’s capacities and availability, even as we fret over what computer-based information and the Internet portends for jobs, commerce, and education in the 2000s.

What I recall as the main matters underway in the first half of the 20th century in Canada, continues by and large today. That is we have communities whether local or regional or national, in which appreciation and expectation of change remains strong. Really without much wailing an overwhelmingly rural, farm-based society in 1900 is a hugely urban-centered one in 2000, and throughout the ten decades there was the belief among most Canadians that conditions and opportunities would improve or should improve in Canada.

Although there was never that much brag about it there was always a Canadian sensibility that we were good at doing a number of vital things, including rapid adjustment to innovations as witnessed in the line through the century from railways to cars and trucks to aircraft to pipelines to microwave towers to “wired” cities to computers to internet. It’s no accident that two of the world’s finest, synoptic thinkers on “communications and change” have been Canadians, Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan.

In an appraisal of Canada through the 20th century one must note the significance of our country’s roles and achievements in the 1939-45 world war. Canadians did great things together, say in opening up the west, defining our Arctic, taking in five separate waves of immigrants, and putting together a system in which stronger economic provinces help weaker ones for the good of the whole. In the second war, however, Canadians built on a confidence in themselves created by its troops in the Great War. Canadians fought, on the ground, at sea, and in the air, on many fronts. Behind them in the farms, forests, and factories of Canada millions worked producing food, lumber, minerals, and a wide array of weapons, vessels, aircraft, trucks, tanks, munitions, etc.. And so in a hurry we got the core factors together for economic growth and an advanced industrialized state to match a much inspired people with far more talents. Perhaps, most fortunate although few like to talk about it, our basic Canadian problem of two nations in one caused huge difficulties over conscription but somehow we skated out of them.

Almost as satisfying as what we did together during WW II was what was accomplished afterwards for, and by, those returning to civilian life. And even now, belatedly in some cases. we’re still trying to remember and honour those who gave the most.

One has to say the 20th was the century of the Americans. The basis for this is sheer global reach and impress. But looking at ourselves, back, around, and ahead, we did well, we’re doing well, and even better should be ahead.