Is Canada more than we can hope for?
A sober assessment of our road to survival
Nobody can foretell with certainty what lies ahead for Canada. All we can be sure of is the main direction in which the currents of our age are set. The trends and tendencies of the present are our only available guide to the future; and there can be no doubt that ever since the close of the Second World War, Canada has been moving with increasing momentum along a very definite course.
The past quarter-century has, in fact, been an astonishing period, astonishing with respect to what the whole western world regards as the most significant aspect of modern society, its growth. Growth and development are, indeed, the most mystically potent ideas in the mind of 20th-century man; and Canada, during the past three decades, has provided a striking manifestation of their power and influence. Its growth during this period has been impressively exceptional; and the most extraordinary feature of this development lay in the fact that it was not confined to the economic sphere, although expansion here was indeed spectacular, but was extended through a wide range of human activities, social, political, intellectual and artistic.
In 1941, Canada was a country of 11.5 million inhabitants; by 1971 their number had increased to 21.5 million. In 30 years, the nation had virtually doubled its population, an achievement reached during only one previous 30-year period, the period 1901-1931. Two factors — a sustained high birthrate and a vast influx of immigrants — had once again resulted in an exceptionally rapid population growth. The labor force began its swift upward climb; enrollment in universities and colleges soared to the astounding total of 317,000 students. It was an immense increase in human resources; and it was accompanied by an equally valuable expansion of our natural resources, and particularly by the discovery of large deposits of metals, and of the two main modern forms of energy — oil and natural gas.
Industrialization and urbanization
moved forward with increasing speed. City and town life became the prevailing style of Canadian society. The building of houses, highrise apartments, hotels, shopping plazas, and city centres never seemed to catch up with the demand. The network of services by which food, clothes, heat, light, comfort and convenience were all made lavishly available to Canadians increased steadily in complexity. The airplane and the motorcar took over most of the business of transport; and huge airports, and
“An indefinite prospect of contentment stretches before this country, if only Canadians have the wisdom to ensure it . .
multilane highways, bordered with garages, service stations, hamburger stands and motels, appropriated more and more of the countryside.
Technology, which created machines as huge as the 747 aircraft and as small as the laborsaving devices of the normal Canadian kitchen, lightened the business of living to an extent that would have seemed miraculous only 30 years before. The average Canadian of the 1960s, it has been calculated, enjoyed the benefit of services which, in ancient times, could only have been provided by 400 slaves. A king in the heroic age who possessed 400 slaves would surely have been regarded as a rich monarch; and during the past 30 years Canada reveled in a prosperity that grew steadily into affluence and was checked only occasionally by brief recessions.
Before 1939, many of the human benefits of such a prolonged boom would have been monopolized by a lucky minority; but in the 30 years that followed the opening of the Second World War, a revolutionary change occurred in the purposes and functions of the Canadian nation. In 1939, Canada had been a laissez-faire, noninterventionist state; but
by 1970 its various governments were actively engaged in promoting and encouraging growth, equalizing development throughout the country, and redistributing the national income among different classes and regions. They had built up an elaborate social security system, with allowances, pensions, and insurance schemes, and had provided comprehensive medical and hospital services for all at public expense. The scope of post-secondary education was enormously expanded to enable young Canadians to fill the needs and grasp the opportunities of the new technology. In 1970, there were 20 more universities in Canada than there had been in 1945; a network of colleges in applied arts and technology extended through the country; and a generous distribution of government grants made college students out of a large proportion of the young people who were coming to maturity in the early 1960s. Before the opening of the Second World War, state aid was granted only to research in the physical and biological sciences; now it was also made available to scholarship in the social sciences and the humanities. A new generation of poets and novelists, many of them assisted by the Canada Council, made its appearance; and the performing arts, theatre, ballet, and opera, where, before the war, Canada had shown almost no independent initiative at all, were now alive with varied and sophisticated talents.
These, it seems to me, have been the dominant trends in Canada during the past three decades. Are they to continue unchecked and substantially unaltered, or will they be modified or changed, and in what ways and to what extent? At first sight, it looks as if the chances of any serious alteration are very slight indeed. The ideal of growth dominates the entire modern world. The government of Canada, like that of every other nation in Europe and the Americas, has growth as its principal object. Growth is the aim of every bank, every trust company, every resource /
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industry, and every manufacturing corporation in Canada. The eyes of the vast majority of Canadians are fixed undeviatingly on more money, more comforts, more conveniences, more services, more leisure, and more travel.
Progress is conceived as the only good in life, and progress means the liberation of man through the progressive conquest of nature by technology. For a great many Canadians, life has become freer and easier, experience has grown more rich and varied, and there are far more opportunities for self-cultivation and self-expression than there ever were before. In the satisfaction of man’s wants and desires lies the only meaning of human existence; and man’s desires can be endlessly increased, and altered, and refined by modern advertising. The nation’s natural resources must be ransacked in order to provide the goods and services that man longs for. The nation’s monetary income must be constantly enlarged so that man may buy the things he wants at constantly rising prices. Central banks augment the money supply; chartered banks, loan companies and credit-card systems make it instantly available to almost everybody for any purpose whatever. The welfare state itself, which provides basic sustenance and care for its citizens whether they are employed or not, has virtually ensured a constant consumer demand and a constant purchasing power. Statesmanship in Canada, as Health Minister Marc Lalonde’s recent proposals clearly demonstrate, has come to mean simply the enlargement of free government services and unconditional government grants. The “just society” may be defined as the nearest possible approach to a guaranteed annual income for everybody.
Every generation is the mental prisoner of the age in which it lives. Truth for any man, said Spengler, is the pic-
ture of the world which was bom at his birth; and for Canadians the dominant mental picture of the world of the 1970s is formed by those who are 35 years of age or younger. Only much older Canadians — Canadians of 50 years perhaps or more — can have had any vivid and concrete experience of what the descent from prosperity to depression could mean. The war and the postwar generations have no knowledge and can have no conception of a serious national decline. For them, the picture of the world is one of inevitable and never-failing growth. For them, continuous and uninterrupted growth is the first law of modem existence. They literally cannot conceive of a world in which it does not operate; and even the slightest pause in its beneficent operation is cause for concern, dismay and bewilderment.
All this suggests that the prevailing Canadian tendencies of the past 30 years are likely to continue unchecked and unaltered. Is there any important evidence to the contrary? In theory, a people might alter the direction of its course for either one or both of two chief reasons. A drastic change in circumstances over which a nation had no or little control might compel it to change; or it might prefer change in the belief that its plans had been wrongly chosen, that they had not yielded the hoped-for results, and that they had had unforeseen and unfortunate consequences. If, for any of these reasons, a change of course seems either necessary or desirable, a democratic country, even the typically regimented democracy of modem times, has still some ways of expressing its wishes. Its citizens can call public meetings, plan demonstrations, print propaganda, utilize the mass media, and organize protest movements. Above all, they can vote, in municipal,
provincial and federal elections; and elections can induce recalcitrant politicians to change their minds more quickly and radically than anything else. The federal general election of October, 1972, abundantly proved this point. Its results, considered by themselves, were indecisive; but in comparison with the overwhelming endorsation the Liberal Party had received only four years be-fore they could be regarded only as a sharp reaction.
What had gone wrong? The country was certainly prosperous. Most Canadians were well fed, comfortably housed, with plenty of money for drinks, drugs, travel and entertainment. They ought to have been contented, but the general election seemed to suggest that they were not. Few definite issues and specific grievances could be isolated; but a feeling of general disappointment and vague disillusionment undeniably existed. Many people regarded the state of the nation with doubt, concern and a measure of resentful bewilderment. They were nagged by the disquieting suspicion that their apparent affluence was not a reality but a delusion. Why — and this was perhaps the most important reason for their disquietude — why were consumer prices and unemployment climbing steadily up together in a fashion totally unprecedented historically? On the one hand, 614,000 people or 6.9% of the labor force were out of work in September, 1972; but, on the other, the cost of living was rising with scarcely any interruption. Why were the Canadians forced to suffer unemployment, the worst result of a slump, and inflation, the most unfortunate consequence of a boom, at one and the same time? Apparently these monstrous phenomena no longer counteracted each other. Efforts to check inflation seemed to produce more unemployment. Attempts to promote employment simply resulted in more inflation. The fact seemed to be that economic controls and social security had failed, almost as badly as laissez-faire and individual enterprise, to cure poverty and control high prices.
This failure was perhaps the greatest, but by no means the only crime with which the new system was charged. Like the liberal, individualist regime which it had replaced, it seemed to be stained with a surprising amount of fraud, corruption and injustice. All Canadian governments had been busily attempting to promote economic growth by granting tax exemptions, subsidies, and “forgivable loans” — as they were quaintly called in Ontario — to large business corporations. At the same time all Canadian governments had been engaged with equal zeal in redistributing the national income through all sections and classes of the community by means of
pensions, allowances, unemployment insurance, health and other welfare services. This whole benevolent system, though undoubtedly conceived in heaven, began to take on a suspiciously familiar and very earthy appearance. Canadians suddenly began to realize that government largesse to corporations and individuals, which could be paid for only by themselves as taxpayers, was open to some very serious criticisms. David Lewis charged that the big corporations, or “corporate welfare bums” as he called them, had been given financial help or exempted from taxation at the expense of the already overburdened individual taxpayer and with very little benefit to the community at large. Other critics of the Liberal government insinuated that it had given its regional subsidies — “goodies” they were frankly called — to politically favored provinces, such as Quebec.
This was not all. Another revelation produced an even greater shock. After its last revision, the Canadian Unemployment Insurance scheme had become more nearly a system of unemployment relief. Canadian taxpayers began to recognize that a man or woman could do as well, or nearly as well, or perhaps a little better, on relief or unemployment insurance than on the immediately available job; and that a good
many ingenious and indolent Canadians were taking advantage of this attractive opportunity. “Jobless freeloaders” and the “welfare rip-off’ became an influential, but not openly acknowledged, issue in the election campaign. A month later, Reuben Baetz, the Executive Director of the Canadian Council on Social Development, publicly criticized some of the provisions of the Unemployment Insurance Act, pointed out its vulnerability to fraud, of which he gave some telling examples, and predicted that its benefits in 1972 would reach the “astronomical” total of $2.2 billion, an amount approximately double that originally calculated. Early in the session of the new parliament, the government hurriedly introduced some amendments to the act, and the commission began to enforce the regulations somewhat more strictly. As a result of an investigation carried out during the first four months of 1973, 88,000 unemployment insurance claimants, or 61% of the number investigated, were removed from the rolls, 27,000 being reinstated on appeal. The slightly under two billion dollars, which turned out in the end to be the total expended by the Unemployment Insurance Fund in 1972, was a striking illustration of the fact that Canada’s rapid social progress had been purchased at enormous cost. Undoubtedly governmental expenditure
had its swiftest ascent in the 1960s, with the vast expansion of post-secondary education and the introduction of medicare. The unqualified public belief in the value of more and more education, and the confident assumption that the need for it would grow annually greater, seemed to justify the most grandiose ambitions of presidents and boards of governors; and the fixed charges for new buildings, more administrators, and enlarged and better-paid staff piled up and up. The huge demands which the public immediately began to make on free medical services, as well as the rapacity of a few doctors determined to exploit the system for their personal advantage, drove the cost of public health up to alarming heights.
All during the 1960s, governments had been generous, almost prodigal. They had welcomed, even anticipated, public pressure for more welfare services. But eventually even the buoyant revenues of the boom proved inadequate to the demands made on them. Then, with startling suddenness, the brakes were applied. Capital and special grants to hospitals and univerities were sharply curtailed. Boards of education were firmly told that they must reduce expenditure to certain defined limits. Doctors contemplated with growing
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anxiety the prospect of becoming salaried servants of the state.
All these were monetary costs which could, with some difficulty and heartburning, be curtailed; but it already had become clear that monetary costs were not the only costs of continuous growth, just as fraud, injustice and political corruption were not its only unfortunate accompaniments. The greatest cost, beside which all other charges in the account seemed trivial in the area, was the cost in basic human needs and values. Six years ago a professor in London University published a book called The Costs Of Economic Growth. The cover of the paperback edition portrayed a man hanging from a tall gallows which, on closer inspection, turned out to be a stylized drawing of the familiar pound sterling sign. The hanging man is shouting “Help!” Below, another man, in spectacles, perhaps intended as a caricature of the author, replies, “As ye grow, so shall ye weep.” It was not long before Canadians began to realize that there was good cause for tears in the monstrous society they were creating. The quality of life in their towns and cities had become vitiated by the overcrowding of highrise apartment blocks, the traffic of packed streets and expressways, the contamination of fumes and exhausts, and the endless racket of innumerable internal combustion engines. Their best agricultural and recreational land had been sacrificed to electric transmission corridors, multilane highways, huge airports and suburban community projects invented by self-interested conspiracies of developers and politicians. Sewage and industrial wastes had fouled the waters, and infected the marine life of their lakes and rivers. Oil-drilling, pipelines, huge hydroelectric projects in the far north
threatened to disrupt its natural drainage systems, damage its vegetation and wild life, and seriously injure the native culture of its Indians and Eskimos.
There were many reasons for tears; but a number of Canadians, instead of indulging in vain weeping, decided to take action. Some were so sickened by the intolerable consequences of the national “growthmania” that they simply “opted out.” They retired early, sold their businesses, left their jobs and fled to whatever seclusion they could find. Others entered the ranks of the conservationists and environmentalists and joined the fight against the contamination of air and water, the rising crescendo of noise and the destruction of rural peace and fertility. Citizens banded together to oppose new highrise apartment blocks, elevated expressways, and unneeded air terminals. In Toronto, Vancouver and Victoria, they elected new reforming city councils, pledged to resist the ravages of development; and the “developer,” once the venerated exemplar of municipal growth, became an execrated and hunted figure. The new Minister of Municipal Affairs in BC announced the revolutionary doctrine that cities were for people, not cars. The provincial government of Ontario began to subsidize public transport.
All these efforts to protect the natural
#onment and to preserve human s certainly reveal a strangely new attitude to the popular ideas of the postwar period. But is this new, critical spirit strong enough to check or alter, in any serious way, the prevailing trends of the past 30 years? Without doubt, Canadians have shown increasing dissatisfaction and disgust with many of the painful consequences of unrestrained growth; but have they yet begun to question their basic assumptions about
the good society, or to consider any drastic change in the direction of their course? It seems obvious that the great majority are not prepared for any radical new departure; but, at the same time, this does not necessarily mean that the nation will continue indefinitely in the old way at the same speed. Canadians may not change their beliefs or values in a hurry; but their circumstances may alter considerably. The great upsurge of the past three decades did not grow solely out of renewed hope, energy and creative power; it also had its origin in certain fundamental factors of the postwar period, in a rapid population growth and in the discovery and exploitation of new industrial materials and sources of energy. And from now on, these two forces may exercise a restrictive not an expansive force.
In 1960, the Canadian birthrate, which had remained exceptionally high ever since the Second World War, began to decline and for the last dozen years it has been lower than at any other period in the previous half-century. This steady and increasingly serious drop over a decade appears to have established a trend, a trend directly the opposite of that which characterized Canadian development from 1945 to 1960. Nobody can foretell — in this matter perhaps above all others — how long a trend will continue. In the late 1930s, when the birthrate was low, but not so low as it is now, Canadian demographers predicted a very slow population growth, much slower than in fact occurred. The event falsified their prophecies; and it may do so again. The population will continue to grow, even if the low birthrate persists; and it will be a long time before we reach equilibrium. Yet, in the meantime, some important changes will occur in the composition, by age, of the Canadian people. There will be fewer schoolchildren, fewer university students, fewer recruits for the labor force, fewer young couples buying houses and household equipment. This decline will come gradually and without the shock that university administrators felt recently when they were confronted by a sudden, sharp drop in student registration. Up to then, they had always budgeted for growth. Henceforth they will have to plan for decline or stability.
As the consternation of university presidents and anguished protests of school boards show, planning for decreases, instead of the familiar increases, may be a demoralizing business. Yet this is not the only painful new experience the Canadian people may have to undergo in future. The slackening of the population growth rate is only one of the fundamental changes in Canadian circumstances; another, equally portentous, is the depletion of our natural resources, and particularly of new
sources of energy. Oil and natural gas, unlike water power, cannot be renewed, they can only be conserved; and, instead of being conserved, they are, in fact, being squandered in the most prodigal fashion. Canadians are guilty parties to this waste; but they are also next-door neighbors of another people, 10 times as numerous as themselves, with a far more voracious industrial system and an even greedier appetite for luxurious living. The scarcely concealed aim of the American government is to persuade Canadians that their natural resources, including oil and gas, are really continental resources freely available to Americans in exactly the same way as their own domestic supplies; and, up to now, the Canadians have been only too ready to sell out their birthright for a quick buck. Obviously this prodigious consumption of non-renewable energy cannot go on accelerating forever; and if Canadian resources are to be wasted in the satisfaction of a continent of 300 million extravagant people, the end may come more quickly than we think. It is only 25 years since the famous discovery of the Leduc oil field, and already the exploitation of our last reserves in the Arctic has begun, and the possibility of the Athabasca tar sands have come under consideration.
Older forms of energy, such as coal and electric power, are of course available; newer forms such as nuclear power already exist or may be invented. No doubt we shall be able to obtain natural gas and oil for a good many years to come, but only, it now seems clear, at steadily increasing prices which may eventually put them beyond the reach of a large part of our population. Man’s love affair with the automobile may come to an end for a great many Canadians, simply because this mistress will become too expensive to keep. Home comfort at the touch of a thermostat may grow so costly that large numbers of Canadians will be driven back to the coal or wood-burning furnaces of prewar days. For a quarter-century, we have enjoyed affluence on the cheap, instant mobility and instant comfort at bargain prices; and a great deal of this luxury we owe to oil and natural gas. Any serious decline in the supply or any important increase of price in these fuels could effect a transformation in the basic circumstances of our existence, the extent of which it is almost impossible to imagine. All we can be certain of is that the consequences will affect Canadians much more than other North Americans. For many citizens of the United States a “continental” oil policy would result simply in a little discomfort; for most Canadians it would mean a grievous ordeal.
Changes, whether we will them or not, are probably on their way. How will
Canadians cope with them? They have, it seems to me, two choices. They can start making small changes and increasingly painful economies which will enable them to adjust to the narrower limits of the future; or they can begin to plan now for a radically different manner of existence. For 30 years they have acted on the principle that economic growth and prosperity were the only road to the good life. Their motto has been “enough does not suffice” or, to quote the old Indian squaw’s opinion of whiskey, “a little too much is just enough.” The time may come soon
when there will not be “a little too much” of everything; but there will be enough, if Canada tries, as far as possible, to live on her own and to aim not for growth but for equilibrium. An indefinite prospect of contentment stretches before this country, if only Canadians have the wisdom to ensure it; but this radical change in the direction of our course requires a new conception of the purpose of life, a strong belief in the value of Canadian independence and a real capacity for united action by Canadian governments. And all this is perhaps far more than we can hope for. ■