Guest Column

A proposal for the premiers: think small

Dalton Camp September 1 1997
Guest Column

A proposal for the premiers: think small

Dalton Camp September 1 1997

A proposal for the premiers: think small

Guest Column

Dalton Camp

The present government of Canada, of which I am not inordinately fond, is continuing its search for ways to deliver the mail swiftly and cheaply over a sparsely settled land, with difficult terrain and an excess of climate. Nostalgia buffs recall the days when one could write a letter in the serene confidence that, if mailed, it would be delivered. Of all the things that used to work, including the railroads, Eaton’s mail order, and daylight saving, the post office was surely one of them.

No longer. What was once among life’s certitudes—that the mail would get through—is now another of our national uncertainties and unaffordables. The privatization cultists have seized the post office, and after intense time-motion studies, in-depth consultant appraisals,

Zen sessions and much spirited editorial advice, we now have a dysfunctional organization accountable to no one, a black hole in the nation’s communications system.

But this is not, you will be relieved to know, prelude to a tirade against the faceless folk running the post office. I know they share my pain. Instead, this modest and restrained outburst has been triggered by an event that occurred the other day in Fredericton, whose venerable and imposing post office on that city’s main street has been recently closed and offered for lease. Meanwhile, a group of homeless teenagers began using the building as a shelter—a place to sleep— after retreating from the grandstand at the local raceway because of the unseasonably cold weather.

There is not, as it turns out, enough space available in the city to accommodate the increasing numbers of homeless, teenagers among them.

We are dealing in this instance with perhaps a half-dozen 15to 18-year-olds, who had occupied the post office. After their eviction, they took up positions across the street, sitting on the sidewalk with their bags and blankets and other worldly goods at their feet. In front of them, facing the traffic, they had placed a sign that read, “Honk if you care.”

When I drove up York Street to turn left on Queen, passing them on the corner, I honked my horn. They waved. By the time I had reached the next light at Westmorland, I realized I had already done more to support those young people than had Paul Martin, the entire government of Canada, and New Brunswick Premier Frank McKenna, chairman of the council of Canadian premiers.

There is an enduring and absolving biblical quotation to the effect that the poor are always with us. It is likely that so have homeless children always been with us. But not until the Martiniz-

Allan Fotheringham is on assignment. Dalton Camp is an author, political columnist and frequent commentator on radio and television.

ing of the Great Canadian Deficit have we seen so many of them. The sight has not diverted some of our eminent leaders from mourning the decline of family values while exhorting the virtues of workfare, more jails and swifter justice. But it does, obviously, compel their anxious search for more esoteric distractions and diversions.

Fredericton’s old post office is a landmark to the times when efficient postal delivery was both feasible and affordable. As with similar buildings throughout the country, it was a monument to reliability of grand design. The cavernous interior, with its high ceilings and long windows, bespoke a nation of optimism and confidence. That it now stands empty, and invaded by homeless children, is— I suppose—a metaphor for our times.

Fredericton’s post office now stands empty, invaded by homeless children— a metaphor for our times

Since last month’s premiers’ conference in St. Andrews, N.B., at which I was a spectator, the national agenda has once again reverted to the subject of “unity.” To that end, nine of the 10 premiers (Quebec has been excluded) will meet this fall in Calgary to save the nation, plan the devolution of federalism, and reach accommodation, ultimately, with Quebec. Something like that.

Any organization feeling itself competent to attack so daunting an agenda should be able to do something about the rising problems of homeless teenagers during its first coffee break. Especially since it’s their problem.

Based on preliminary research and early throat-clearing pontifications, the premiers are unlikely to strike a gusher in the national unity field while visiting the oilpatch. But without breaking into a serious sweat, they could develop a proposal to deal with the nation’s homeless children before the snow falls. And then, over lunch, they could save the post office. After all, the federal government has already done its part by publicly stating it will not allow any increase in the cost of postage for the next two years. See how easy it is?

Government continues to be the art of the possible. The present generation of political strategists finds this a hard bromide to swallow. The difficulty of merely achieving the possible is twofold: it creates the impression that government can work, which runs counter to prevailing political theologies—all rooted in the belief the world would be a better place if managed by the Club of Rome.

Second, grand designs of national reconfiguration are part of the great Canadian continuum. Getting homeless kids in out of the cold, in our tradition, is church work. But saving the country can’t be left to voluntarism, and the beauty of that is that while first ministers never quite succeed at it, they never quite fail either. In the end, they will be remembered, as F. R. Scott said of Mackenzie King, “wherever men honor ingenuity, ambiguity, inactivity, and political longevity.”