The War Generation
A portrait of the Canadians who won the Second World War and, proud and confident, went on to build the nation
Even after 50 years-and never more in this special year of remembranc-my generation still measures time by what we did before, during or after “the war.” The Second World War and the 1930s Depression were the pivotal events in our lives. They made us over-60s what we are today.
We were not warlike people, yet over six years 1,086,343 Canadian men and women joined up. For most of us, it seemed right and necessary. Millions more at home worked for the war effort, and worried and waited for people they loved to come back safely. Forty-two thousand died. The rest of us grew up in a hurry even if we had not been tested under fire. We all had to make decisions,” says Arnold Steppier, 70, of New Westminster, B.C., “and the lives of others depended on those decisions.”
Steppier and I, RCAF airframe mechanics, went overseas together late in the war. He served on the Continent in the last days of fighting. I went to Bomber Group in Yorkshire and then to Germany for the first bleak winter of occupation. Like everyone else in uniform, we went home irrevocably changed and glad to be alive. We had taken a shortcut to adulthood.
At university on veterans’ gratuities, we were unusual students, no smarter than others, but infinitely more motivated and mature. We challenged and argued with our learned professors (delighting some and alarming others). We drank the mandatory gallons of beer but, with our British pub training, kept it down and got to class the next morning. We were eager to learn, get out and make up for lost time.
Canada, too, was transformed. It entered the war as a producer of grain and ore and came out a manufacturer and trader. A nation of only 11.5 million people had become the world’s fourth-largest supplier of wartime munitions and machines. Its troops had fought valiantly in every theatre of war. A million women had gone into the labor force and proved they were as good as men. Canada took a seat at the United Nations without question. (A generation earlier the League of Nations had shunned it.)
“In 1945, no country in the world was more confident than Canada, or had better cause to be,” wrote Ralph Allen, a postwar editor of Maclean’s, in his book Ordeal by Fire.
Four years later, Canadian Press reporter Douglas How travelled across the land with the new prime minister, Louis St. Laurent. “The country was absolutely glowing,” remembers How, 76, now an author living in St. Andrews, N.B., and Toronto.
We all shared in that pride and optimism. We expected to live in peace, get a job, get married, raise kids and have a house with a picture window and a basement recreation room. All of that was within reach. Call us Generation L, the Lucky Ones, but after a war and a depression we felt we’d earned some luck.
We found an uneasy peace. The Cold War was a constant frightening fact of life, but we learned to live with it. Korea was barely a blip on our consciousness, except for those 20,000 Canadians who fought in what is aptly called the “forgotten” war. We rushed straight out of uniforms and coveralls into bed, creating the baby boom: some six million children bom between 1945 and 1960. Over time, most of us got houses with affordable National Housing Act mortgages. Being Depression babies with modest aspirations, we didn’t expect a house immediately at marriage. The average wage in 1950 was only $45.08 a week (almost exactly what I earned that year as a beginning reporter on The London Free Press). We waited, saved and toughed it out in basement apartments.
In 1958, six years and two children after marriage, I bought a $17,500 dollhouse in suburban Toronto with, yes, a picture window and, yes, a basement rec room built over a winter of sweat, profanity and smashed thumbs. A university friend, Jack Brown, then with Ford public relations, bought his first house with $1,500 in savings, another $1,500 from the bank and two mortgages.
“That second mortgage at six per cent damn near did me in,” says Brown, 69, retired secretary of the University of Waterloo. “But I paid it off.”
We knew we could pay our mortgages because jobs were plentiful. By mid-1947, only 1.6 per cent of the 950,000 men and women who had left the armed forces were on unemployment benefits. From 1946 to 1959, the average unemployment rate was 2.9 per cent.
Everywhere, the country was building, discovering, bursting out: St. Lawrence Seaway; Trans-Canada Highway; Toronto subway; a river of oil in Alberta; aluminum at Kitimat, B.C.; uranium in northern Saskatchewan; nickel at Thompson, Man.; iron ore in the Ungava. We applauded it all but didn’t much invest in it. The Americans did. As the Royal Commission on Canada’s Economic Prospects warned in 1957, control of Canada was slipping out of Canadian hands. Between 1955 and 1965, the total foreign investment in our country almost doubled to $34 billion.
Nearly three-quarters of it was American. The United States owned 90 per cent of our auto manufacturing,
70 per cent of our oil and gas, 50 per cent of mining and smelting. Our generation let it happen by default.
We socked our money away in savings bonds and bank interest. Debt was and still is anathema to us.
Declaring personal bankruptcy would have been dereliction of duty, and duty was rubbed into our pores. “We never learned to be profligate,” says Toronto financial planner Barbara McNeill, herself a Depression product.
Credit cards were emerging, but most of us paid the balances in full every month. We bought 3.5 million cars during the decade, but many people, like me, worked up through a succession of second-hand oil-burning clunkers until we could pay cash for a new model.
In our attitude towards debt as in scores of other ways, those times seem sweetly innocent now.
Political correctness meant voting Tory or Liberal. Environmentalism was not in our lexicon. When in 1957 the eerie beep of Russia’s Sputnik came over my car radio as I travelled the West for Maclean’s, I was awed, like Early Man discovering fire.
Child or spousal abuse was not talked about. We had discovered free love during the war, but, the pill being a decade away, extramarital sex was not yet rampant. We were still wrestling with prewar prurience. Divorce was rising—6,000 to 7,000 a year, triple the rate of the we blamed that on the American influence. Even our crime was relatively benign. A good old-fashioned bank robbery was big news. The best-known serial killer was Jack the Ripper. “Swarming” was for bees and “home invasions” were for termites. We went to the office sedate in suits and skirts. Open-neck shirts for men?
Slacks for women? Unacceptable. Even our musical idols were sartorially correct: Fifties album covers of The Diamonds or The Four Lads reveal clean-cut young guys with short haircuts, dark suits, white shirts, skinny neckties and a square tab of handkerchief peeping coyly from breast pocket.
We entertained at home, partly because it was cheap, partly because, except in enlightened Quebec, there was scarcely a decent dining or drinking establishment from sea unto sea. A high old time in Anglo Canada meant a night at the beer parlor, where men hunched over ale slopped formica tables and got soddenly drunk. Women, excluded from these sordid dives, had their own depressing ‘Women and Escorts” premises. A few restaurants let patrons bring booze in a brown paper bag and dispense it under the table.
This wasn’t good enough for our 1.5 million immigrants or for veterans of overseas who had discovered convivial pubs and wine that wouldn’t strike you blind. By 1959, cocktail bars and licensed restaurants had brought Canada kicking and screaming into the
20th century. The newcomers—Czechoslovaks, =
Poles, Hungarians, the Dutch, Italians, Yugoslavs,
Ukrainians, Brits—also spiced our lives with their exotic foods, the lilt of new accents and their fervent apg predation of the freedom we took for granted. °
But we were still hard-pressed to find a drink on
Sunday, except, of course, in Montreal. ~
To many of us Anglos, Montreal with its lively bars, exquisite food and naughty night life was Q French Canada. Most of us had Quebec friends in z the services, but were ignorant of the province’s 1 aspirations. We knew Maurice Richard and Les ^
Habitants, but didn’t know that a Quiet Revolution | was quietly brewing. In 1950, Pierre Trudeau and g
Gérard Pelletier launched a new periodical, Cité libre (open society), a passionate forum for democratic change. Their adversary was Premier Maurice Duplessis, the wily old despot who held Quebec in his thrall until his death in 1959. Few of us in English Canada anticipated the uprising in the making.
We were preoccupied with jobs, families and a hypnotic new toy. In 1952, the CBC brought television to Canada. Within two years, the nation sat silent and bug-eyed in front of one million sets. It was gentle fare. Just as Letterman, This Hour Has 22 Minutes and the Geraldo freak show reflect today’s tastes, so did Don Messer and His Islanders, Our Pet Juliette and Ozzie and Harriet hold a mirror to our generation. When Ed Sullivan brought Elvis to national TV, he ordered the cameras to shoot the King from the waist up, lest his gyrating pelvis drive North America’s youth into everlasting damnation.
Here again, Quebec was different. Having no use for U.S. programming, it devised its own— notably, novelist Roger Lemelin’s La Famille Plouffe, probably the best-ever Canadian sitcom, with a fanatical following. Sometimes, priests shortened their Wednesday evening services so the faithful could hurry home for Les Plouffe.
The rest of us wallowed in Jackie Gleason, I Love Lucy and Milton Berle—the fledgling CBC TV depended largely on American imports—but we would have happily watched the test pattern. For a while, the sheer novelty of television deadened our taste. Gradually, though, rumblings of discontent rose from the ranks: what was happening to Canadian culture?
True, we had the Stratford Festival, bom in 1953, and some splendid writers and artists. But many of our Fifties stars ultimately migrated to the United States. (Producer Norman Jewison went to Hollywood, singer-violinist Gisèlle MacKenzie did comedy turns on The Jack Benny Show, announcer-actor Lome Greene rode south to become Pa Cartwright.) A1951 royal commission headed by Vincent Massey examined our cultural condition and warned of our increasing dependence on all things American. One outcome was the Canada Council, created in 1957. Early on, the Council rejected some harebrained (even by modem standards) requests for money: to build a chain of rest rooms, to write a song about the Dionne quintuplets and to develop a new high-tech brassiere.
Fact was, our generation couldn’t get the hang of government handouts. There had been “relief in the Depression, but most of us abhorred it. Old Age Security was passed in 1951, for Canadians 70 and older. Six years later, a federal-provincial hospital plan paid 50 per cent of specified services. But the Canada Pension Plan,
universal medicare and the vast welfare state were still ahead. We were (and are) distrustful of government promises or government aid. “I ask my older clients, What’s your first priority?’ ” says financial planner McNeill. ‘Without exception, it’s, ‘I want to be sure I’m not a burden on anyone.’ ” Nor were we obsessed with Self. Throughout the Fifties, I never knew anyone in therapy (although my daughters now tell me, nudge-nudge wink-wink, “You all should have been, Dad!”) We didn’t realize we had an Inner Child, and, if we’d known, would probably have sent it to bed without supper.
But we were not harsh or unfeeling parents. Most of us clutched dog-eared copies of Dr. Benjamin Spock’s Baby and Child Care, seeking its solace and wisdom on toilet training and tiny tots’ emotional needs. We lavished everything on our kids, wanting them to have it even better than we did, and expecting them to be grateful.
So we were baffled and hurt when the first wave of boomers turned into Sixties Flower Children. Why were they rejecting all those good square Generation L values? Why didn’t they want to inherit our world with its bomb, incipient pollution and passion for consumer goods?
It turned out they hadn’t a whole lot more to offer. They finally shed their beads and sandals and took straight jobs. But they and we are still light-years apart. Many of them—better educated; trim from rigorous exercise, surgical tucks and low-cal highfibre diets; postponing marriage deep into their 30s or beyond; earning more and casually spending more on things we considered luxuries—don’t want to ever look or be like us.
They are equally alienated from Generation X—designated as a late Fifties/Sixties sub-species by Vancouver author Douglas Coupland. Here definitions become fuzzy: some say the Xers are really disgruntled late boomers. (The baby boom ended about 1965.) They came of age during the early Eighties depression to discover that all the good jobs and houses were gone. Their guts churn with what Coupland calls “boomer envy.”
Others say that, even though most Xers are over 30, they belong with the succeeding Twentysomethings crowd. One thing’s sure: they all regard the main wave of boomers as fat-cat cop-outs who, as one U.S. Twentysomething put it, “gleefully shifted from Sixties hedonism to Eighties materialism.” The boomers didn’t take that lying down in fheir Jacuzzis; one of them described the Xers/
Twenties as a “faceless, colorless, odorless transition group.”
While the children squabble,
Generation L keeps on doing what it does best: saving money.
We’re prudent to the point of paranoia. We can’t shake that old devil Depression. We don’t know how to spend on the boomer scale. (Land Rovers at $42,000-plus to negotiate the rocky trails and towering sand dunes of Toronto? Seems like wretched excess to us, but we’ve got a tinge of boomer envy.)
The Xers and Twentysomethings, faced with underor no employment, dwindling social services and a Canada Pension Plan going broke, haven’t much use for my generation either. Short of setting us afloat on ice floes off the Labrador coast, they want governments to confiscate more of our alleged wealth.
Yet ironically, they and the boomers stand to inherit from us over the next 15 to 20 years the biggest windfall in Canadian history: as much as $1 trillion, if wastrel governments don’t winkle it away first.
That’s because, according to some surveys, an average Canadian household with one or more members over 50 is said to have nearly $350,000 in assets (including home, RRSPs and various other savings). Prof. Jim Davies, a University of Western Ontario economist and a specialist in family income and wealth, estimates the figure at about $300,000 today, of which 35 to 40 per cent would be home equity.
The Coalition of Seniors for Social Equity, representing a half-million older Canadians, disputes the “rich senior myth.” Its studies show that 69 per cent of them (compared with 47 per cent of Canadians ages 25 to 54) live on less than $20,000 a
year. That doesn’t, of course, address the matter of seniors’ assets. But, says Lillian Morgenthau, president of the 180,000member Canadian Association of Retired Persons, “the vast majority of Canada’s seniors had little to do with government’s fiscal mismanagement over the last 20 years. There is no reason they should now pay a disproportionate share of the costs.” Generation L paid for the hospitals where younger generations were bom, the family allowances spent on their childhood, the
schools and universities where they studied. Our main offence is in having lived through times of high employment, healthy real estate markets and a vibrant stock market—and in watching our dollars. If governments, boomers and the rest managed their affairs as well as we did, the country wouldn’t be flirting with bankruptcy.
But maybe there’s hope yet for the young generation. American business consultant, author and self-styled “contrarian” Harry S. Dent Jr. predicts for the rest of the Nineties a boom “astonishing in its intensity, its length and in the heights it reaches.” If it happens, I suspect that the Twentysomethings— who’ve had few choices or chances so far— would respond with a greater work ethic and sense of mission than the baby boomers ever did at that age. They might even learn to manage money. In short, they might be a lot like us.
And there’s a thought that will probably min their day.