WHAT GOES ON HERE
Says this observer : We'd fight a better war if we knew what sort of nation we wanted to make of Canada
This is the second of a series of articles on current trends of thought in Canada. The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint of Maclean’s. Benge Atlee is a Nova Scotian medical man who has been a frequent contributor to this magazine.
IT’S WEIRD, really. It’s like the first act of one of those spook melodramas: you see a lot of people who look normal—and then suddenly you realize that they aren’t. That’s the sort of impression you get in Canada these days. You read the newspapers and find in them nothing to indicate that anything is going on in the Canadian mind that wasn’t going on there three years ago; then you talk to people and suddenly realize that things are going on in the Canadian mind that weren’t going on three years ago.
You realize that people are entertaining doubts and fears. That is natural: we are at war, and some of these doubts and fears have to do with the war and the way we are conducting it. But others of them have to do with what we are going to make of the world that the war will leave in its wake. Are we really going to remold it into something better, or are we just uttering pious hopes such as the one we cried out during the last war, when we called on our young men to make the world safe for democracy? Others of our doubts and fears have to do with our lack of fervor in our war effort—a lack that seems to imply an absence of faith in democratic principles to solve those problems, failure to solve which in other countries has resulted in totalitarianism.
Let me illustrate what I mean by quoting certain actual conversations which I have heard recently, and which I have chosen because they seem best to convey what is going on in the Nova Scotian mind. I claim nothing outstanding for them. Anybody who wants to listen where two or three are gathered together these days can hear as good, if not better revelations of that tremendous flux of opinion of which, as yet, our newspapers seem to have caught only the faintest whisper. But let us be fair to our newspapers. I think they have heard these voices, but have shut their ears to them out of what they deem to be the national interest. With the purest patriotic motives they cleave—with one or two notable exceptions—to Pollyannism; on the basis that Pollyannism is better for us at this time than disturbing doubts and fears. But for their information let me say that the intelligent Canadian public realizes that it is getting Pollyannism, and knows why. Let me add further that the intelligent Canadian public is growing tired of Pollyannism.
I was talking the other day to a woman who has a son with the forces in England. Since there is something very special about a woman and her son, something so special that it has become one of the central dogmas of Christianity, I think we might
well take note of what a Canadian woman says about a son who is fighting in this war.
“If one could only be sure,” she said, “that all this sacrifice wasn’t for nothing. I mean if—” And she let it go at that, with a gesture of her hands that conveyed a poignancy deeper than words.
What she meant was this: “If I could be sure that the death of my son and all the other Canadian sons would ensure a better world, I could reconcile myself to his death. I could feel that this war was a Cross on which my son was being sacrificed— as Christ was sacrificed— so that men might inherit a better life.” There must be thousands of Canadian mothers who yearn for such an assurance.
Have we given them that assurance? That mother didn’t seem to think so. She was in doubt. I believe that thousands of other mothers are in doubt. For they ask themselves—and who that is intelligent doesn’t—is it enough simply to vanquish Hitlerism? They realize that merely to vanquish Nazism is to accomplish a negative victory. When Hitler is gone we are back where we started from. The same factors that gave birth to the Hitlers and Stalins and Mussolinis will remain to give birth to others of a similar breed. These mothers want to know what we are going to do to remove those dictator-breeding factors. It is a vital question. If it is not answered—if, being answered, nothing is done about it—this war will be in vain, and the peace that follows it merely another armistice.
You can dismiss the problem by saying with a shrug, as I heard a man dismiss it last week: “There’ll always be wars—that’s the way we are.” But that voice is the voice of defeatism. It says that human nature is hopelessly incorrigible. That there is no sense in hoping or working for a better world. That the passions on which wars breed are uncontrollable and impossible to discipline. In accepting such a statement we repudiate the redeeming power of human conscience, and deny Christ more vehemently than ever Peter did.
A Soldier Speaks
WHAT steps are we Canadians taking to build a future out of which no Hitler can arise? Hitler came to power on a wave of social and economic unrest: if there had been no social and economic unrest in Germany there would have been no Hitler. What are we planning for Canada after the war that will make social and economic unrest unlikely here?
I have heard of no blueprints for such a Canadian future, but I know of one ominous sign that there are unlikely to be any such blueprints. I refer to what happened about the Sirois Report.
I’m holding no brief here for the Sirois Report. It may have been the poor lame thing that its critics said it was. But it was an attempt to make Canadian democracy more flexible
in the face of contemporary problems, and as such deserved our most earnest consideration. We turned it down without consideration. At a time when, as never before, democracy was being called into question, we refused to look into the face of Canadian democracy. At a time when democracy was being cried down as a stinking carcass by the more vocal totalitarians, we refused to examine the body for possible scores to which a knife might be put.
Is it true what they say about Demos? If it is true, what are we fighting for? If it isn’t true why are we afraid to look it in the face?
The other day I was driving down into the Annapolis Valley and picked up two young soldiers who were thumbing their way home on a week-end leave. They’d be about twenty and were the sons of orchardists. Just run-of-mine young Nova Scotians. One of them was called Joe. We got to talking about things in general, and finally yarned our way through the war to peace. This is the tail end of the conversation that went on in the back seat as I remember it.
“That’s when our troubles start all over again, Joe—getting a job.”
“There’ll be something,” Joe said. He seemed confident about it.
“But all the war work’s going to stop, isn’t it? Everybody—including us—will be looking for work, won’t they?”
“There’ll be something.” Joe persisted almost stubbornly.
“But supposing there ain’t?”
This time, through the rear-view mirror, I saw Joe turn on his pal. This was a look in his face I haven’t forgotten yet—a grim look.
“Listen, fella,” he said, “if there isn’t a job for me after this war I’m going to know the reason why and I don’t mean maybe.”
There was a moment’s silence.
I asked Joe: “Are you a socialist?”
“No,” he answered in his curt way, “I’m a Liberal.”
When a Nova Scotian Liberal— than whom there is nothing more conservative except a Quebec Liberal —gets to talking that way, it has social significance. Neither of these boys had been anywhere before the war except to high school and odd jobs in the Valley. Yet they seemed to feel that, if they did not get the right sort of economic deal after the war, they knew what to do about it.
Thinking about it after they left me it seemed enormously tragic that those two country boys should have needed to talk that way. Tragic for two reasons. First, that they had so little faith in the democracy for which we were asking them to make the world safe. Second, that in the very midst of preparing themselves for that struggle they should have had to worry about their future under that democracy. Then I recalled a remark made by a medical friend during those days when the
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young German parachutists were dropping out of the skies on Crete. “Fanatics!” he growled. “Only fanatics could do it!”
What does “fanatic” mean except a faith in some ideal so blinding that no risk is too great to achieve its end? I believe, and every true democrat must believe, that these young Germans have put their faith in false gods. But if you look the history of the last few months in the face, you have to confess that it is the sort of faith that removes mountains. Are we giving the young Joes of Canada a similar faith with which to strengthen their arm? That conversation in the hack seat of a car travelling westward cries out to the contrary. Yet is there no ideal latent in the democratic way of life out of which we can crystallize a faith before whose shining light the doubts of our Joes will vanish? Is there no new democratic order we can present to our youth more noble and soul inspiring than this Nazi creed of blood and soil?
For all we know to the contrary Joe and his pal have cause for foreboding about their economic future. What are they going to do for a living when the war is over? What are all the people now engaged in making munitions going to do for a living when there is no longer need for munitions? Are we laying plans in Canada to meet this situation, so that there shall not recur the sordid horrors of the depression that ushered in the fatal thirties? Is it possible to lay such plans without amending the British North America Act? And if it isn’t possible were our political leaders justified in refusing to talk on the basis of the Sirois Report that recommended such amendments?
I don’t believe that our Joes have any very precise ideas about what they will do if they are unable to get a job after the war. But I do believe they can become part of an inflammable, disillusioned mass of youth whom it will require only the demagoguery of some Canadian Hitler to set on fire. But why fight Hitler now, only to fall under Hitlerism if you heat him? I believe that a great number of Canadians would sleep easier tonight if they could be sure that, in defeating Adolf Hitler, we were getting ourselves ready to defeat the social and economic sickness out of which Hitlerism arose.
Wanted: Dynamic Leadership
WHAT WE need in Canada today is leadership,” a man told me the other day. If I have heard that cry once in the last year I’ve heard it a hundred times—and from a hundred sources. I can’t speak for the rest of Canada, but I do know that down here in the Maritimes we feel this need very keenly. And let me make myself quite clear: we aren’t asking for Fuehrerism. But we do believe that it is possible for democratic government to provide more dynamic and inspiring leadership than we are getting from Ottawa or any of our provincial capitals. We believe, moreover, that such leadership in
wartime plays a very important part in achieving victory. Who will deny that Lloyd George’s vibrant optimism proved a vital factor in the Allied cause during the last war, or that Winston Churchill’s equally courageous and inspired guidance is playing an even more vital part in sustaining England through the present ordeal? But when I state that the influence emanating from Ottawa today can best be described as Wetblanketism, thousands of Canadians will understand what I mean.
Perhaps our leaders at Ottawa feel that, in consideration of the long days and arduous nights they are putting in, we should not expect more of them. But if they think that, they are remaining blind to the tremendous value of psychological warfare, a type of warfare that has won Hitler many an easy victory so far. Why, at a time when we need desperately every possible instrument of victory, do we neglect it? Did the Victory Loan go over with such a bang that we are embarrassed by oversubscription? Are young men storming our recruiting centres in such numbers that we can’t handle the rush?
Let me tell you something about recruiting in a certain medical school I know of. Despite the fact that the army needs more medical officers and, to get them, has had to lure established practitioners away from districts where they are badly needed, not more than three or four out of a possible thirty per year, have gone into the medical corps from this particular school. Why? Because these boys are slackers? I happen to know them all personally, and they are as fine a lot of young Canadians as you will find. I am certain that the fault does not lie entirely with them. The trouble is that they have not yet felt in their souls the imperative need to destroy Hitlerism at whatever risk, and one of the reasons—one of the major reasons—why they have not felt that need is the lack of dynamic leadership in Canadian public life. Youth needs to be led. Youth needs to be inspired. Those are psychological facts which no observer of youth can deny. And our youth is not getting the sort of leadership it deserves.
We were talking about money the other day. I suppose it’s a deplorable thing to talk about money at a time like this, but since most of us have been talking about money all our lives it’s not easy to break off so ancient a habit. One speaker said: “Might as well spend it while you have it. None of us’ll have anything in a few years.”' Now when that statement comes from a medical man, you can disregard it: medical men are notoriously improvident. But this statement came from the head of a large and well-established business who is as shrewd and able as they come down here.
You can take three meanings from it. First of all you can pass it off as a rather grim sort of whistle to keep the courage up. Then you can take from it that the war is going to ruin us all financially. Or you can take from it that, if the war doesn’t ruin
us, the sort of reorganization of business and society that must occur after the war will make it impossible for anyone to earn any considerable sum of money. I believe my friend had the third possibility in mind. For that reason I found it an arresting statement. If the businessmen of Canada have reached the state of mind where they envision a future in which their incomes will be forcibly curtailed, they are ripe for conversion to the evangel that in the future we must use all our spare resources, to build up the sort of economy in which unemployment, slums, prevencable disease, scarcity in the midst of plenty and all that sort of thing shall be done away with. And if they do feel that way why don’t our legislators get busy on the blueprints that will capitalize such emotion?
“We Yearn for a Voice’’
AND HERE is the final conversational tidbit I propose to quote. It is one that I hear very often—all too often. Shorly before I wrote this two men said tome: “We really haven’t got down to fighting this war yet.” This must make very disheartening reading to busy cabinet ministers—disheartening and angering. They know the difficulties as we in the street do not: they know the tremendous strides—often against great odds—our war effort has made. Yet, I repeat, it is one of the most frequently expressed opinions that I hear.
Is it worth a busy cabinet minister’s attention? Notice, please, that I hear it in Nova Scotia where, for obvious reasons, our preparations for war should be most apparent. Look at the map and you’ll see why. Nova Scotia is the bastion of Eastern Canada—of North America. So that if the people of Nova Scotia feel that we haven’t yet got down to this war business, it ought to mean something. Perhaps it doesn’t. Perhaps we’re talking through the hat of ignorance. But is it a good thing to leave us talking that way and harboring the sort of doubts that give birth to such talk? Wouldn’t it be better to reassure us? The introduction of conscription, for instance, would reassure us tremendously.
One thing I can say about the conversations I’ve listened in on down here: I have never yet talked to a Nova Scotian who did not hate Hitlerism and desire earnestly to see the end of it. There is no question of divided opinion; we harbor no Lindberghs or Senator Wheelers along this Atlantic seaboard. “We are not divided, all one body we.” But we are not happy about a lot of things; about the effectiveness of our war effort, about what is going to happen after the war, about our leadership, about our inspiration. We yearn to hear a voice ringing across Canada the sort of message that Churchill’s voice rings across Britain. We desire earnestly to hear some message touching the future. Some message telling us that thus and thus will Canadians live and work after Hitler is defeated; that in this fashion and in this will we make to disappear those abuses out of which Hitlers arise. We would like to hear that voice cry to our young fighting men: “You are not
fighting to conquer Hitler but to create a better world!” I believe that such a voice, crying such a future, would do much to bring to an end the sort of Canadian conversations I have here quoted—and the honest doubts and fears that lie behind them.
If I have conveyed the impression that we Nova Scotians are disillusioned with democracy, let me hasten to correct it. We don’t want the thing here they have in Germany and Russia. We believe, furthermore, that even in Germany and Russia the submerged and betrayed human spirit must eventually, through whatever travail, find its way back to the democratic way of life. We have read our histories and we know that democracy was responsible for those two periodsthe golden age of Greece and the golden age of Victoria—during which mankind made its greatest single strides toward a noble and satisfying civilization. If, under democracy, such tremendous expansions were possible in the past, we believe it also possible under democracy to cure the abuses that have attended these expansions. What’s more we believe that only under democracy is it possible to create satisfactorily newer and better ways of life as these become necessary.
If, therefore, we carp and grumble it is because we are impatient to see the blueprints outlining such a creation. We want to put them into the hands of our youth to strengthen them in fighting democracy’s desperate battle. We want to see that done before it is too late. We believe that there is still time, but that the sand is running dangerously low in the glass.
Steps Toward a Future
WHAT CAN we do?
Our first and most urgent problem is post-war employment. When our soldiers are demobilized and our factories stop making war materials, thousands of men and women will be without jobs. Unless we find employment for these people, we will find ourselves in the midst of a depression that will make the one we had in the thirties look very small potatoes indeed. Obviously, individual industries can do nothing about it: if they have no orders to fill they can’t continue to give employment: to keep from going bankrupt they must both fire employees and cut wages.
Shall we put all the unemployed— including the returned soldier—on relief, on the dole? But we have seen what the dole does. It puts food into a man’s mouth, but it is a soulrotting, character-destroying, minddeadening thing, and those who have to accept it slowly but surely deteriorate mentally, spiritually and physically. We have also seen what putting men to work does for a defeated and disillusioned nation. Hitler put German youth to work. When he couldn’t take them into factories, he sent them to labor camps. After six years he had behind him whole legions of healthy, virde, aggressive young men who were willing and able to perform such miracles as the capture of Crete from the air. If we really are to vanquish Hitlerism, we must be prepared to
do for Canadian youth at least what Hitler has done for German youth. And if the world is to remain a decent place we must defeat Hitlerism not only in Germany but in Ganada.
But when you come to dealing with employment in Canada you arrive smack up against the stone wall of the British North America Act. Whose business is it to handle the affair—Ottawa’s, or the provincial legislatures? It is pretty generally felt that only Ottawa can undertake the thing swiftly and effectively as the need arises. But in order to make that possible certain powers now belonging to the provinces must be yielded to Ottawa. That’s why the Sirois Report was undertaken: in refusing to have anything to do with it our provincial leaders have therefore made it impossible for us to deal effectively with post-war unemployment. Unless they reconsider their recent stand they and we are going to repent in sackcloth and ashes those jealousies and selfishnesses which wrecked the Ottawa conference.
But supposing our political prodigal sons come to their senses, and Ottawa is given the necessary power to deal with post-war unemployment: what can Ottawa do to make work for the thousands who will be looking for work? Without even exerting myself I can think of three avenues of endeavor that cry for our attention.
Forest conservation. They say that we are depleting our forests at the rate of three per cent per year over and above natural regrowth. If that’s true we’ll have no forests in another half century. But our forests are a source of tremendous wealth through the pulp and lumber industries. We could employ a lot of men at reforestation not only to their, but to our own gain.
Slum clearance. Over fifteen years ago upward of 1,200 houses in the city of Halifax were condemned as unfit for human habitation, and it is no exaggeration to state that today not less than 2,000 houses in that city are unfit for Canadians to live in. These houses breed disease and crime and degradation. The people who live in them can never become fit and proper Canadians as long as they live in them.
But Halifax is only one city—a smallish one at that. Probably it is no rash understatement to say that there are at least 100,000 houses in Canada unfit for human habitation, 100,000 houses that are breeding disease and crime and degradation. You could employ a lot of men for a long time clearing away these foulsome abodes and replacing them with something fit for decent people to live in. Not only would you have employed a lot of people, not only would you have created real and valuable assets, but you would have lifted the blight of the slums from half a million Canadian lives. There’s an asset you can’t put a value to: it’s like salvation—you simply can’t assay it in dollars and cents, although you know it’s more real than either.
Proper schools. One of the lasting disgraces of this country, and a shrieking accusation against our smugness, is the typical rural Canadian schoolhouse. Many of them should be torn down and not rei
placed. Others should be torn down and replaced by consolidated schools which would bring to rural communities the educational advantages only available at present in some of our enlightened cities. You could employ a lot of men at this business, and when you were through you would have not only schools that were a beauty and an asset, but you would make it possible to educate the coming generations of Canadians to the highest possible rather than the lowest possible standards.
I believe that these three undertakings would take care of employment in Canada for a considerable period after the war. By that time, if we have the wits, we should have discovered other, equally profitable ways of employing men and women. For instance, we could make it a law that every wooden structure in the country must be painted at least every five years. The painting, done under government contract, would be paid out of taxes. This would have two effects. It would add to the life and value of our wooden buildings, and it would make them look better. Then we could start clearing up the derelict buildings, the deserted, ruined houses and barns, and all the other eyesores that dot so blightingly many of our most attractive landscapes. Then we could begin to landscape such provinces as Nova Scotia and New Brunswick by making better vistas along the highways, cleaning up dead trees and swamps, planting spruce where only alders now grow. This would not only help to make us prouder of our country, but would attract an ever increasing number of tourists, all of whom would leave specie with us which would help to pay for it.
“Moral Steam Under Our Boilers ”
DO THESE things sound ridiculous and absurd? They are not nearly as ridiculous or absurd as leaving our young men and returning soldiers to rot spiritually and physically on the dole. Or to fill them with such unrest and dissatisfaction with democracy that they will be ready to listen to the first Canadian Hitler who happens along. It would be cheaper, too. Hitlers are expensive—
terribly expensive both in money and life. Taxes would have to be pretty high to make a Hitler preferable.
To those who are afraid of high taxes, who cry that taxes and prosperity cannot go together, let me say that prosperity is not really a question of keeping taxes down, but of keeping people at work. Nor does happiness depend on the scale of taxation. The country with full employment and high taxes will always be more prosperous, happier, better satisfied and more imbued with self-respect than the country with unemployment and low7 taxes.
But we ought to stop asking ourselves if it will pay and ask ourselves if it is right. The more I think of these problems, the more I believe that if we are to do justice to the men who are fighting for us, if we are going to make a better Canada, if we are going to make a real democracy, we must stop counting the cost and put some moral steam under our boilers. For the problem that faces us in making a better world is essentially a moral one. We cannot arrive at social and economic justice by consulting our selfish interests: we can only arrive at that goal by means of the sort of moral regeneration that will enable us to slough off our selfish interests. Unless, then, we are prepared to accept the problems that confront Canada as moral—-and not as economic and political—we will not truly or decently solve them. For we will approach them not as men earnestly seeking a righteous way of life, but as horse traders trying to give as little as possible for as much as we can get.
That was what we did at the League of Nations—and the League stands today the crucified figure of our lost ideals. That is what our provincial leaders did recently at Ottawa, and the Sirois Report lies buried deep beneath our folly. For too long we have permitted the realists —the horse traders—to run the world, and where has it got us? Surely the time has come to give idealism a chance—to turn from Caesar to Christ—to start practicing the Christianity we have preached so long.