Canada’s headline writers and sonorous anchor voices spent much of 1985 regurgitating the absurdities of our submerged banks and barfy tuna. But beneath the surface of Canadian society the earth began to move.
For the first time since the Great Depression of the 1930s signals of class polarization were identified by the professional pulse-takers of Canadian public opinion. Reported Allan Gregg, chairman of Decima Research Ltd., which Maclean’s commissioned to gauge the national mood: “The most significant trend we picked up during the year right across Canada is a growing and potentially dangerous class disparity, in terms of response to common behavior. This is not a question of class definition but the beginning of classbased thinking.”
The phenomenon revealed in the second annual Maclean’s/Decima Poll found its most immediate expression on the federal scene: the rich sidestepped participation in the political process, and the poor felt powerless to influence it. That meant the important core of middle-class values—essential to the Canadian experience—was being eroded.
Canadians have in the past prided themselves on belonging to one of the world’s few classless societies,
with most of us categorizing ourselves as adherents of what George Orwell termed “the lower, upper-middle class.” The egalitarian impulse that first forged a new nationality across the top half of the North American continent is under intense pressure.
For many of us, that may be just a disquieting thought; for Brian Mulroney it could mean a political lynching. Here is a Prime Minister elected mainly because his pragmatic style and thousand-watt smile suggested he might be able to reconcile the country’s social and economic interests. But instead of being benign burghers ready to put aside individual concerns for the sake of the national good, we have become a hard-bitten crew of canny crofters, more concerned with protecting our own turf than in improving our neighbors’ lot.
That tight-fisted attitude was most apparent during the past 12 months in the backlash to Ottawa’s tentative pokes at the gargantuan deficit left by Pierre Trudeau. Everyone, it seemed, agreed that federal funding had to be slashed, so long as not a penny of the cuts was removed from their own pockets. Demand for deficit reduction remained as strong as resistance to the means of achieving it.
In such jealous times, polarization of the haves and have-nots, the tension among geographical regions and even the conflict inside families were growing worse.
The blighting economic recession of the early 1980s turned Canadians’ anger on the Trudeau and Clark governments, blaming not the process but the people in charge. When Mulroney swept to power, most voters were pleased that they had changed the players and expected their problems to be resolved. But with last summer’s bank bailouts, the tuna affair and all the other things that went wrong, the conclusion was that it isn’t the people who are to blame but the system itself.
In the face of such widespread and exponentially multiplying disillusionment, governments—including the provincial administrations of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, which are all facing elections during the next 12 months—are caught in a trap. With widening class disparity making any kind of operational consensus increasingly difficult to achieve, the temptation of elected politicians was to do very little, so that voters at least did not have anything new to get riled about. Yet “doing nothing” proved to be an equally certain prescription for defeat, because an inactive government inevitably becomes a victim of the popular assessment that it is not a viable agent of change and therefore deserves to be turfed out. (The Ontario and Quebec administrations have already lost power due to just such a squeeze of circumstances.)
Despite the political unrest the signs of renewed economic prosperity, while not universal, were easy enough to observe. Car sales had climbed to a new plateau, and most of the action was concentrated at the top price ranges. Housing starts—a valid indicator of consumer confidence—were buoyant, with close to 165,000 expected for the year, the highest total since 1981. The stock market—a fairly reliable forecaster of economic trends—was setting new highs. The fabled
yuppies, who bolster their pretension by being adamantly conspicuous consumers (and will one day all grow up to look like professional bowlers), were caught up in feverish spending panic.
By the end of 1985 Canada was in a dangerously fractious mood. Even those Canadians fortunate enough to be part of the good life were feeling uneasy, certain there were more potential benefits to be gained than they were already enjoying. Selfishness, for a growing segment of the population, seemed to have become Canada’s official religion.
The 1985 event that crystalized that and all the other stirrings of disquiet was the midyear federal budget. That ill-conceived document seemed to broadcast a signal that the government was sanctioning the dismal notion that there was nothing wrong with the rich getting richer while the poor grew poorer. The fact that old-age pensions were cut back, while millionaires were allowed to claim tax-free capital exemptions for their old masters and their young mistresses, reinforced the incipient class-structure split. The perception that Ottawa had turned against the old and the needy crumpled the government’s numbers ratings, causing one of the steepest drops in popularity since that sort of poll was first taken. The barriers to social and economic advancement were becoming institutionalized.
And so, at mid-decade, Canada was caught in a peculiar bind. The economic indicators were pointing up, and, compared to most other countries, Canada was a land left sprouting with more opportunities than it was cursed with problems. Still, many Canadians were beginning to feel that the solution to what was troubling them could not be found within orthodox politics.
That essential middle ground between smugness and despair was growing dangerously narrow.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.