At 89, I know I am not a historian, but I am history and I fear its repetition. Perhaps this is the price or curse of advanced age – to witness a timid present unfit to face either its future, or its past mistakes.
Long ago, I experienced the same crisis of ideas and faith that we face today. You see, I was born in the shadow of the first Great War, during a decade that roared with innovation, social injustice, debt and revolution. A midwife delivered me into the tired arms of my mother and the backward world of a coal-mining town in the north of England divided by class, education and wealth that was held by too few families.
My memories stretch back to a time when lamp lighters trolled dusky, teatime streets and lit the way home for my sister and me. I was 5 and I was the colour of night because along with my sister, I had spent a frozen afternoon foraging for coal on top of a slag heap at the edge of town. Our bounty was to be used to heat the rooms our parents rented in a flophouse, whose tenants were the unemployed, the infirm and the unwanted. They were victims of changing economies, national debt and plain indifference by those with a better roof over their heads.
Many a night I went to bed hungry, my sister beside me, and fed my soul with nursery rhymes and lullabies. There were also too many mornings when I awoke and was forced to forage for breakfast in the dumpsters along my route to school. I was not alone. Many other children shared my hunger and kept me company while I dug through garbage looking for discarded fruit. We were a whole generation of men, women and helpless children, tossed into the gutter after the economies of the world collapsed.
My family fell sooner, quicker and harder than most because my father was considered redundant labour after injuring himself at work. He was spent capital to the mine owners and struck into the books of the unemployed, like a neat mathematical formula. His subtraction from the labour pool meant that for my family’s survival I was added into the workaday world of adults, at the age of 7.
I became an afternoon barrow boy and plied a cart filled with beer bottles down despair-filled cobbled streets. I delivered ale to those in my neighbourhood looking for a short respite from their diminished lives, which were being suffocated by the Depression.
As I grew, so it seemed did the problems of the world, and by the time I was 16, the world was at war. At 18, like the rest of my generation, I joined the armed forces and did my bit for king and country. In many ways the great cataclysm of the Second World War irradiated for most nations the economic cancer of the past decade.
Along with so many who witnessed or participated in that war, I fell into the heady optimism of peace. I believed in governments that promised better days were nigh. I believed in prime ministers and ministers of state who said from this day forward, no child would go hungry. I agreed when industries and economists said no one was to be without work, if they were willing to pull their fair share of the load. I accepted that unions had a moral right to demand safe and secure employment. Work was to be a means to a better life, not just a threadbare existence. For me, it was truly a new era and required a new and promised land: Canada.
My wife and I disembarked in Montreal in 1953 and made our way by train to Toronto. I was in awe at this country’s size and depth. To my eyes, Canada was large enough to hold every new voice, divergent idea and difference of opinion coming to her shores.
As a young immigrant I paid my dues to this new country. I found work, paid my taxes and accepted my civic responsibilities. My hard work was rewarded and I was able to purchase a home for my young and growing family. In summer, I cut my backyard grass, and in winter, I shovelled the snow from my driveway. It was marvellous to me how far I had travelled: from street urchin to respectable, middle-class man.
Each day, I reminded myself how hard-fought was the road I had taken from the slums to the suburbs. Each day, I gloried in my three sons, who experienced childhood without poverty or hunger. Yet even then, I understood I was fortunate and owed a debt to my country.
I accepted that my tax dollars, along with every citizen’s contribution, helped pay for and sustain the nation. My friends, my peers and my superiors also held this notion of supporting the common good. It crossed political, social and religious divides because it seemed reasonable and just. Back then, everybody knew somebody who had died in the war or suffered during the Depression and knew the brevity of life.
Today, however, as I reach the end of my time, I find that we are returning to the blackness of the thirties. The evening streets may be awash in an electric afterglow, but children still go to bed hungry and hopeless. A great many people are being written up in the black book of redundancy, as if they were waste from the cutting-room floor.
Too many of us ask for expedient solutions to our society’s ills but want to push the tab down the table. Too many of us read or watch economists, bankers, investment brokers as if they alone were the answer to our problems in Canada and the Western world.
But the problem is not just debt and economic malaise. All of us must work together – the middle class, the poor, the rich – to make a balanced country, a society that can reward entrepreneurs and protect the vulnerable. Instead, like in the thirties, we are divided by class and money.
Many historians have said that the people of my epoch were tested and found true. I don’t know if that is true or not because I am not a historian. But I do wonder, what will tomorrow’s generation say of us today?
Harry Leslie Smith lives in Belleville, Ont.
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