And Now For The People Who Don’t Make News

WALTER STEWART July 1 1970

And Now For The People Who Don’t Make News

WALTER STEWART July 1 1970

THE QUESTION WAS banal, but then, I hadn't seen Alex Gay in more than 20 years, when we were in high school together. He stayed in London, Ontario, and became a car salesman; I left, and became a reporter. Our points of contact were few, it seemed to me; there wasn’t really much we could talk about, except other old friends, and now, picking away at an overdone omelet in a crowded restaurant on the fringe of the city, I was ill at ease. So I asked this banal question: what did he think was the greatest problem facing Canada today? I knew roughly what the answer should be — separatism, perhaps, or inflation, rebellious youth, or the decline of morality. There was an outside chance it would be the White Paper on taxation or urban decay.

Alex picked up a potato chip and examined it as carefully as if it had some hidden message scrawled on the side. “The Canadian Indian,” he said, and popped the chip in his mouth. He looked up, clear blue eyes in a round, ruddy face, and waved his fork over the food on our plates. “I went up to Seal River on a fishing trip last year,” he explained. “We were just catching the fish, not eating them. There was an Indian village nearby, and an Indian asked us what we were going to do with our catch. 1 said we’d probably feed ’em to the dogs; I said fish make pretty good food for dogs. Well, he looked at me in kind of a funny way, and he said, ‘It makes pretty good food for Indians, too.’ So we gave him the fish. The next day, we were sitting around after dinner. Our food had been flown in with us, and we’d been eating steaks. Huge, bloody things — you could never get through one of them. Our guide came over and asked if he could have the scraps to feed his family. He gathered everything up, scraped the plates clean, and took the whole mess back to his tent. Well, Jesus, I thought, what have we done to these people, what are we doing to them?"

Alex pushed his plate away. He had just dealt a body blow to my preconceived notion of what the Middle Canadian should think. I had come to London on impulse, in pursuit of Middle Canada, of that vague group of people who seem to have been lost in the shuffle of recent years, when all our attention — and I mean the attention of the media, of Maclean’s magazine, for one — has gone to separatists, hippies, Yippies, student activists, New Leftists and other exotic breeds. Reading the newspapers, watching television, reading my own magazine, 1 never seemed to meet the kind of people I grew up with in London. Decent people, most of them, although set in their ways; perhaps decent because set in their ways. They still believed in God, the Queen, their country, law and order and, with all its imperfections, the system that gave them security and moderate prosperity.

I had a pretty clear idea of what these people would be like; after all, U.S. television has given the Middle American a thorough going over in recent months, and Time magazine, in an article full of trenchant authority, made Mr. and Mrs. Middle America Man and Woman of the Year. Time showed the Middle American as confused, bitter, hostile, narrow and reactionary, and there was no reason to suppose the Middle Canadian would be much different. It didn't work out that way, perhaps because I lack the assurance that allows Time to impale a whole class of people on a single, stinging phrase, perhaps because the Middle Canadian is more complex, less definable, more engaging than his American counterpart.

Whatever the reason, I have not found the Middle Canadian easy to classify, even though I began with a number of arbitrary guidelines by restricting myself to Canadians who are neither rich nor poor, who are 25 years of age or older, and engaged in ordinary occupations — laborers, housewives, salesmen, lawyers, farmers, tradesmen, businessmen. These people should share the same ideas and attitudes, but they don't; like Alex, they keep slipping sideways out of the niche I want to prepare for them. (Everybody knows the Middle Canadian is supposed to consider the Indian dirty, drunk and the author of his own misfortunes.) While they exhibit some common concerns — anxiety over the future of law and order, an ambivalent attitude, compounded of homage and hostility, toward fractious youth, a growing impatience with Quebec — Middle Canadians do not speak with a single voice, and most of them shun the simpleminded phrase that shunts all problems into a single breath. My pursuit of the Middle Canadian, then, was just that — I'm not sure I ever found him.

I flew from Ottawa to London on a Tuesday afternoon, made a few telephone calls, then went out to eat a rubber steak at a modest little restaurant — modest in everything but price — on Dundas Street, London's main commercial artery. While the steak and I struggled for mastery, I found myself listening to a conversation at the next table, where two businessmen were exchanging views over a casserole. When the younger of the men — I would put him in his mid30s — began to explain his domestic financial arrangements, I eavesdropped shamelessly.

"I’ve started to cut back on the grocery budget," he said. "I’ve cut the thing right back. The way I see it, if ever anything should happen to me, Mary would have to get along on a lot less, and she might as well get used to it now."

There, by God, was a man who believed in looking after the little woman. If that casserole were to turn on him and choke him, right there, Mary could gc on, scarcely skipping a beat, like the well-insured lady in the Great West Life television commercial, who seems to be so well off, now that her husband is safely planted.

London is a great town for insurance men, and I spent the rest of the evening with one of them. David Howell-Harries and I grew up together in the city's south end. went to school together, chased girls together (he, having curly hair and an engaging grin, with considerably greater success) and even, on one notable occasion, shinnied up telephone poles together to post signs for the CCF during a provincial election. David has lost both the shinnying slimness and the socialist leanings of those early days -— though not the hair or grin — and if he returns to active politics, it will be 4s a Conservative. Why not? He has much to conserve.

He took me to meet his wife, complaining bitterly and openly about the wig she wore. "She doesn't need a wig; she has lovely hair." He cajoled her into taking off her wig, and she did indeed have lovely hair. Waiting for me to say so, as we sat in the comfortable clutter of his living room, David looked so proud and anxious you’d have thought that her hair was his own creation, that he had grown it. His wife was embarrassed but pleased, and patted her auburn locks (the wig was blond and overcurled; it made her whole head look borrowed). "David, stop being so silly," she said, but she flashed him a smile of such promising intimacy I thought I should leave. But I didn't. Instead, we looked at pictures of the children — terrific kids, I was to understand; they get along terrifically at school. The boy plays hockey, and David helps out with the league. “It's kind of corny, but I enjoy it.” David enjoys many things.

We discussed the state of Canada, and he expressed a view of this nation that I was to hear time and again over the next weeks. Essentially, Canada is a pretty good place, reasonably well run, and the people who want to tear it down or break it up are beyond understanding. René Lévesque, for instance, should be put in jail, or a madhouse; he is always stirring up trouble. French Canada is doing itself more harm than good by pressing its demands on the rest of the nation. Perhaps it would be a good thing, well, not a good thing, but perhaps it is inevitable that the French language should disappear from North America. After all, the majority of the people here are English and, in a democracy, the majority rules.

We argued about American domination of the Canadian economy, a subject of abiding interest to journalists but, I was to learn, a bore to the huge segment of Middle Canada. The Americans are our friends and relatives, David said; their capital and know-how helped us to develop, and to turn them out now would he bad business and worse chauvinism. The U.S. is in trouble, with its crumbling cities, its futile Asian war, its racial unrest, and we are proud to be different, to be non-American; but that doesn't mean we should be antiAmerican. Nationalism is a danger, a disease; look at how small-mindedness and regionalism are tearing Canada apart today.

Later, David drove me back to the hotel, and he seemed anxious to dispel the notion that he had settled down to blind smugness. “There are a hell of a lot of things wrong, and I know it,” he said. "There are a lot of unjust and stupid people around, and some of them live in London. But” — he grinned sheepishly; I was going to think he was still a hometown boy, that he had never outgrown his roots — "this city has been pretty good to me, and I don't think I should be ashamed to say so.”

The next day I went to call on a former teacher, Ernie McTavish, now an official with the London School Board. I remembered him as a muscular and upright man who said, “Golly,” when seriously provoked. He was utterly unchanged. He used to coach the football team at London South Collegiate, and in practice he would shout a litany that went, “Hit hard, but hit clean, hit hard, but hit clean.” I hit clean enough, but not hard enough, and he had to cut me; he did it so judiciously I felt it was almost an honor to be excused from practice, and signed on as a water boy to be close to the team.

Í guess he treated everybody with the same consideration, for when Ernie’s first wife died a few years ago, his former players swarmed to him from all across the city. One who didn't come to the funeral home was a close friend of mine, whom I’ll call Joe, a superb athlete who, tormented by his own private devils, had become a falling-down drunk. The other former players had gone to call on Joe, but he was in a stupor; they weren't sure he understood what they were saying; he was too drunk anyway to come. Late that night Joe turned up, trembling, unshaven, but undeniably sober, to tell his old coach he was sorry that his wife had died. “He didn't say more than a few words,” Ernie told me, "but by golly it took a lot of guts to come.”

Ernie is a square. He has remarried, has a growing family, a solid job, a nice home, a little summer place to escape to. His values are the values of middle-class Canada, with an emphasis on respect, loyalty, hard work and clean living. But because he works with youngsters in high school, at a stage of ferment and rebellion, he is beginning to wonder if those values are enough.

“We have a tremendous problem with drugs in the London schools," he said, “but there's not much point in throwing kids in jail for that. The drug bit is a symptom of something bigger, of unrest right across society. You have to wonder whether we really have learned to live in an urban setting. We're putting 10,000 people into a square mile; it may be we’re building a society nobody can live in.”

The society Ernie was talking about is the American one, for, like many Canadian cities, London tends to react to what is going on in the U.S. as if it were happening here. Violence erupts through the city's television sets, and housewives form Citizens Crime Alert to help the police. Citizens Crime Alert members press the administration for better street lighting, and conduct a daily court watch. The campaign has been a great success, not so much in stamping out crime as in helping people to Think Police.

Another push in this direction was given by Mrs. Eileen Speechley, a housewife and real-estate saleswoman, who suggested a weekly television program to carry Wanted notices and police propaganda. The suggestion was embraced at once by the local force, and a cable-TV company provided free program time. I went to call on Mrs. Speechley, a pert and pretty blond, to see why she thought conditions were so dangerous in this quiet community as to require new and extraordinary measures.

“Because of what’s going on across the border,” she told me. "Whatever happens in the States happens here eventually. Our students didn’t have uprisings before they had them in the States.”

Middle Canadians are rallying to the police all across this nation. The Chamber of Commerce in the Winnipeg suburb of St. James-Assiniboia was pressing for a Citizen’s Information Committee when I was there (the mayor didn’t think much of it; he thought it smacked of a police state); in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, I was told of the Respect For Law program that has sprung up under the tending of a local service club, and in Portage La Prairie, Manitoba, a burly citizen I stopped on the street told me he was thinking of starting his own Crime Alert program. His particular beef was against the leniency of court sentences. "We seem to want more leniency for the criminals, and when are we going to pay some attention to the citizen who pays the bills and gets beaten up in his own home? To me, it gets a little sickening."

One night I went to a Bingo game at the London Arena, which I remember as a roller-skating rink. I arrived late, paid my 50 cents, was given a Bingo card and ushered a place among five long lines of crowded tables, where devotees, hunched over their cards (I saw one man playing 21 games and listening to a hockey game on his transistor radio, all at the same time). I tried to get my neighbors to talk, and was bellowed into silence. But at the end of each game there was a pause of perhaps three minutes into which all activity — conversation, trips to the john, trips to the cafeteria, ordering of new cards and complaining about the management — was compressed, and I tried to learn what I could during these bursts of sound and motion.

I asked, “What would be the reaction here to just one word — Quebec?” A short, wiry man in his mid40s leaned across the table and began to poke a sturdy index finger into my Bingo card, thumping the card to emphasize each word, which made the little plastic counters bounce and skitter. “The trouble with them Frogs,” he said, “and I don’t mind using the word Frogs — the trouble with them Frogs is that they're pushing too goddam hard.” Up and down the table, heads nodded in unison, as if on a string.

On Sunday, I went to Calvary United Church, the church I last attended as a teenager in the mid1940s. It was all as remembered: the writhing organist — he was directing the choir and wringing fervor from the organ at the same time — the wriggling children, the nodding parishioners. There was a good cross section of young people in the audience, trim young mothers and proud young fathers keeping a wary eye on the front rows, where the Sunday-school students sat for the first part of the service. The Reverend D. Graham Tipple, BA, BD, DD, prayed over us. “On the Sea of Life,” he intoned, “may we have a good compass and a strong ship to sail.” His sermon, the Rhythm of Religious Experience, explained how the responsibility for grace passed from God to man and back to God and back to man. Like Ping-Pong. I remembered reading that 92% of Canadians believe in God, and I wondered how many of those in church that day accepted the words we sang in Hymn 644:

Oh, taste and see that God is good;

Who trusts in Him is blessed;

Fear God his saints, none that Him fear

Shall be with want oppressed.

Not a creed I would want to press on the people of Biafra.

I don’t complain of the peaceful irrelevance of the service; we did not go to church to be disturbed, but to be ritualized, to be told that in a world of chaos and pain there is a pattern and a hope. As I emerged, blinking, into the soothing Sunday sun, I couldn't help thinking that if Dr. Tipple had said anything meaningful, he’d have emptied the church as effectively as if he had fired a stink bomb over the crowded pews.

I drove through downtown London on my way to the airport and saw the Union Jack flying from Simpsons’ roof, in defiance of common sense and current history, and looking thoroughly at home.

Winnipeg, my next stop, was in the throes of a battle over a provincial invitation to Beatle John Lennon and his wife Yoko to attend a summer folk festival celebrating Manitoba’s Centennial. The invitation was like a call to arms for Middle Manitoba. A nice widow lady, not given to rough talk, told me, “I used to think quite a bit of [Premier] Ed Schreyer, right up until the moment he invited that bare-assed John Lennon and his wife — hah! — to our Centennial.” A local open-line radio show (open-line shows are the natural haunt of the Middle Canadians; they are not a Silent Majority) throbbed with bitter comments, and the letters-to-the-editor sections of the Winnipeg newspapers were revealing. I copied out one missive from the Winnipeg Tribune, which seemed to reflect, in a bare and brutal way, a widely held feeling:

Dear Sir:

Regarding the invitation of Premier Schreyer bringing the Hippie John Lennon and his wife to our city. This is, to say the least, the most revolting and the biggest insult that could be inflicted upon the citizens of our city. In our city, hippies will not work, they ask for money from people, they have long dirty hair and never shave. The female species follow them with long, untidy straggly hair. How can we keep our city free of this terrible sect of hippies if our own Premier upholds this sort of thing?

John Lennon talking of Peace! What a farce. When his own kind committed murders, riots, name it the hippies are guilty. No Christianity, no belief in God. How much more can we the citizens of this city tolerate?

-J. Christie.

Many Middle Canadians, like J. Christie, tie unkempt locks to the evils of today. According to a Canadian Gallup Poll the “Biggest Gripe” against young people in this country concerns slovenliness and long hair. (In this at least. Middle Canadians and Middle Americans are akin. A Harvard Business Review survey found U.S. citizens in overwhelming agreement with such statements as "Good grooming is a sign of self-respect,” “I do not feel clean without a daily bath.” and "Everyone should use a deodorant." The same respondents were also enthusiastic for the statement, "Hippies should be drafted." )

Most of the people I spoke to had a dichotomous view of youth; almost everyone spoke of the excellence of today's young people, their superior education, their sophistication, their idealism and concern; but, they said, the conversation always took a what - the-hell-do-they-know-anyway? twist. At a small party in Winnipeg one man, who began with gratitude that his children were growing up to question the values of their elders, wound up, "But what’s going to happen when these young punks have to do something besides march and protest? Hell, don't you think I wouldn't like to just bog off in the middle of the afternoon and go picket somebody? That’s what gets me about these kids — when -have they ever done anything that contributed one damn thing to the GNP? Let them do something, let them earn their right to be heard, and then maybe we'll see what can be done for them.”

A subject almost as stirring as John Lennon and hell-bent youth rose out of newspaper reports of a study by a Winnipeg sociologist on prostitution in the city. The newspapers said Professor William Morrison had found that many of the local prostitutes were suburban housewives, who did it, at $10 a throw, to help out with the grocery money. Professor Morrison said he was misquoted, and that sections of his study — not yet finished — had been taken out of context. No matter. The Winnipeg public rose up to smite him down on the basis of the published reports. One housewife on an open - line program complained, “He’s insinuating that women from the better districts may also be call girls. I don’t like that.” She didn’t deny it; she just didn't like it. Even more curious was the reaction I got from an elderly woman in Eaton’s, whose objection was to the $2,500 Canada Council grant Morrison used to pay for his research (he paid the girls $10 an interview).

think it's a positive disgrace,” the woaman said.

“That housewives are prostitutes?”

“No. Giving him all that money to find out things like that.” She added, "If you’re going to write that down, young man, you'd better write down that I'm not one of the women he was talking about.”

Morrison hit a sensitive nerve in the Middle Canadian, an unspoken but deeply held feeling that, when it comes to sex, only he is showing decent forbearance. Morrison suggested that, even here, the dykes are crumbling. It is too much.

I thought about this as I drove from Winnipeg to Portage La Prairie, and read religious signs along the highway:

PREPARE FOR ETERNITY, YOU’LL

SOON BE THERE FOREVER.

DON'T LET THE DEVIL GET YOU DOWN,

CALL ON THE LORD AND BE DELIVERED.

JESUS SAYS: SURELY I COME QUICKLY.

The last of these signs is just on the outskirts of town, not a mile from the movie house that, as I drove by, was proclaiming the charms of 99 Women (“Whisper To Your Friends You Saw It”).

In Portage, I talked to Robert Adrain, who farms at nearby Macdonald, and is the reeve of the rural municipality of Portage La Prairie. A large, amiable man with shrewd, blue eyes and square, farmer’s hands, Adrain complained, “Canadians don’t think enough of Canada. We look to the States for guidance, for leadership, for everything. I don't say we shouldn’t have American money coming in here, but we should keep some control over it. I have to keep control over my farm or I might as well walk out.”

Adrain gave me some insight into the bitterness so many westerners feel toward Quebec, the feeling that French Canada receives special concessions from Ottawa, and uses its privileged position to attack the rest of Canada. The federal money spent on Expo 67 and the annual Man And His World fairs galls westerners, as does the Official Languages Act. Adrain said he was not a bigot, but he rejected the Official Languages Act, and couldn’t see why his children have to study French at school. “Heck, 1 had a boy quit school because he couldn’t learn the French. He got so upset he ran away from home, ran away to Winnipeg. He’s a bright boy, too, did okay in other subjects, but he just couldn’t get the French. Now he’s out of school because of it. Does that make sense to you?"

The next day, l drove west and north to Hamiota, the small Manitoba town where my father was born. This bit of nostalgia proved pointless; no one I encountered had ever heard of my father, or his father, who had been a minister there. The old homestead had disappeared beneath the river, and the people of Hamiota didn't want to talk about anything except the miserly way in which the federal government treats the wheat farmer. Finally, in the Hamiota Credit Union, I found two young men, Robert Brooks and Ross Embury, both 25, who wanted to put in a good word for the monarchy. “I think it’s a real good thing,” Brooks said. “I like to look up to someone, and the Queen is someone to look up to.” Embury said, “The Queen is just like a movie star. I compare her to Elizabeth Taylor.”

Middle Canada is not agreed about the monarchy. There are two schools of thought, one that says the Royal Family provides an essential link to our past, and that any attempt to modify its role is a dirty French trick, and another that says the monarchy is becoming less and less important, less and less worth fighting over, whether we keep or abolish it. It is possible, even common, to be pro-royalty, yet indifferent to the office of Governor General. “The Governor General,” said Embury, “now there’s garbage.” A Winnipeg teacher made the same point less harshly. “The Queen is like a shining star," she said, “but the Governor General could disappear tomorrow and never be missed.”

From Hamiota I drove to Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, which, as John Diefenbaker's hometown, has some claim to special status as a Middle Canadian city. Here, I followed Diefenbaker’s example and went main streeting. I found that this community, like London, seemed to be anticipating disasters still below the horizon. Drugs are not much of a problem in the schools, but a Drug Alert program is hard at work, along with a Respect For Law campaign, and a general attitude of watchfulness for any New Morality hanky-panky in the younger generation. Quebec is in very bad odor here, and every new Quebec claim — such as the demand for $200 million in tax rebates — is seen as yet another rent in the fabric of Canadian unity. This despite the growing sentiment for western separatism, a sentiment that moved one rural resident (he said I was not to call him a farmer, he couldn’t afford to farm any more) to tell me, “I’d just as soon cut the damn country off at the Lakehead, and let you bastards drift.”

I had my hair trimmed by Roland Brisebois, who explained, as soon as I asked if he were French, that his name means “break wood.” Yes, he is French, but wants no truck with that crazy René Lévesque, and thinks the rest of Canada is spoiling Quebec. His own children speak French, because he sent them to the convent school, but their children do not. He does not consider this a shame. “You have all kinds of people here from all kinds of nationalities — German kids, Ukrainian kids — and they all learn to speak English and there’s no trouble. You have too many old stubborns, that's the difficulty. Why does everybody want to fight all the time?”

I went to call on Kris Eggum, the young lawyer who works in what used to be Diefenbaker’s law office. A slim, serious, slow-spoken 31-yearold, Eggum is the prototypal Middle Canadian, moderately well-off, educated, decent, thoughtful, patriotic and worried. He is worried about violence and drugs, about separatism and inflation, about crooked unions and the steadily eroding standards of a society that, even in Prince Albert, seems to be coming apart at the seams. He had seen a CBC television play that badly disturbed him, not only because it showed a man preparing to give himself a drug injection, but because, in the play, the man’s wife, naked from the waist up, makes him choose between the drugs and her. He chooses her. “You could see her boobies,” Eggum said. “Now don’t tell me they couldn’t have made the same point without showing her boobies. What if there were children watching?”

It seemed to me that a child who was likely to be seriously upset by a pair of breasts on a television screen had more problems to face than censorship of the CBC, hut I could see that Eggum's concern was real, not feigned, that he believes there are sights that must be forbidden, standards that must be upheld and that now, in the conventional phrase of the Middle Canadian, now is the time to take a stand. I am less impatient with this point of view than I was before I began my odyssey. I am, by inclination, anti-monarchy and proyouth, anti-American empire and pro-René Lévesque, anti-church and pro-change, but I am not so sure, now, that all those people on the oth,,er side, the squares, the stand-patTters, the preservers, are simply yahoos. There are too many among them like Alex Gay and David Howell-Harris, like Ernie McTavish and Kris Eggum, and they are the hope and the strength of Middle Canada.