COLUMN

In a land of spreading despair

Allan Fotheringham September 13 1982
COLUMN

In a land of spreading despair

Allan Fotheringham September 13 1982

In a land of spreading despair

COLUMN

Allan Fotheringham

The most fashionable spot to be in Vancouver these days is on a once slummy industrial island that still contains a cement-mixing plant and a few other relics of ugliness. Granville Island, in the middle of False Creek, is a model of urban renewal: funky and charming. All the old warehouses have been retained, cleaned up, painted and now contain theatres, restaurants, bakeries and farmers’ markets that have made it the place to be seen. When a trendy new restaurant advertised the other day for three positions, it received 250 applicants. But the attraction wasn’t the trendiness; the motivation was the climate of fear one can sense in the country, certainly in British Columbia.

With no leadership in the land, with no feeling that those in charge know what they’re doing with the economy, the sense of fear has gripped those who have jobs, since there are so many without them.

The threatened general strike in British Columbia, the showdown that was going to set the tone for the rest of the country’s response to the government restraint program, has fizzled as the other resentful unions have failed to come to the aid of the secure B.C. Government Employees Union. You can’t get into a parking lot in Vancouver colleges, as young people, frightened by the job picture, try to improve their education rather than drift aimlessly on the unemployment rolls. Capilano College has received some 2,000 early mail-in applications for fulland part-time students, a 25-per-cent hike over last year. Admissions are up 21 per cent at Vancouver Community College’s Langara Campus. The waiting list for full-time programs at Vancouver Vocational Institute is up 40 per cent, to 6,000 students. University of Victoria’s early registration has jumped 13 per cent, and it’s up 10 per cent at Simon Fraser University. This is at a time when Premier Bill Bennett’s restraint program has ordered the college system alone to slash $8.5 million from its

Allan Fotheringham is a columnist for Southam News.

spending. While the government cuts the money, the kids, out of fear for their future, swamp the gates.

At the giant B.C. Hydro dam at Revelstoke, one of the few mega-projects surviving in the province, the always restless construction camp is serene. There is none of the usual turnover of casual and drifting labor, young men who want to make a bundle in the wilderness and then head for the city to spend it. Supervisors find an unusually low turnover. Those who have jobs want to keep them. It’s why there has been so little sympathy for the workers of the

government union, 40,000-strong and brandishing—as its leaders unwisely boasted at the start of the strike—a strike fund of some $29 million.

British Columbia’s famed labor solidarity has not come unstuck, it has just become indifferent. The unemployed are fearful enough that their jobs will never return; when they then find that their brethren have shut down the ferries to ruin their camper holidays and have shuttered the liquor stores, the bond of solidarity becomes very frayed. The once belligerent government union is swaying in the wind, trying sporadic spot strikes, breaking off talks, maintaining it is still on strike while sending its members back to work—but never again daring to shut down such precious concerns as the ferries and the liquor stores at one time.

The climate of fear has overtaken the most militant jurisdiction of the most prosperous trade in this country: the B.C. doctors. In response to Victoria’s call to roll back their scheduled fee in-

crease, the doctors instead have offered to return $30 million to the government—$8,000 per doctor. B.C. dentists decided to fall in line, rolling back, from 12 to six per cent, the fee increases they won from the government earlier this year. The chiropractors responded similarly. The teachers, facing massive cutbacks in spending, have offered to work free days in lieu of salary cuts.

The climate of fear, of distrust, of despair—in a land so obviously rich and so well endowed—spreads because of the incompetence of those we always assumed to know what they were doing.

The bankers, the base of conservative Canadian well-being, the Presbyterian rock upon which we built this financial church, have proven just as greedy and misguided as the masters in Ottawa. It is not just Dome Petroleum and such real estate giants as Daon Development Corp. that have become so overextended that they cannot continue their interest payments, thanks to slavish grasping by banks after takeover bids and wild expansion. Canada’s supposedly solid banks are involved in the international ^disasters involving the ïdebts of Poland, Mexico, SCuba, Brazil, Argentina and Chile, now at the begging bowl before the perturbed World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in their annual meeting in Toronto.

It doesn’t really matter that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was not the true author of “we have nothing to fear but fear itself.” Francis Bacon and Henry D. Thoreau said it before. The point is that F.D.R. rallied a nation with it in the middle of the Depression. He gave the impression that he believed it, and so the Americans believed it. He was a symbol, rich himself, but he gave a signal and it was followed. In Canada at the moment there is no symbol and there is no signal. Those in charge are seen as discredited men clinging to power only for reasons of self-justification—the prime minister attempting to arrange an artfully staged retirement, the finance minister refusing to admit he might have been wrong about anything. They have no credibility, and no one trusts them. As long as they remain, the climate of fear will remain.