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paddy molloy The Globe and Mail

I was writing my dad a card for his 87th birthday recently, and I could not help reflecting on the contribution of his generation versus mine.

Mom and Dad were part of that group of Canadians who lived through the Depression and Second World War before they turned 30. Each of these calamities put them through hardships I have never had to face, yet like most of their generation, my parents have never focused on how difficult their lives were but on how fortunate they have been.

Most of the talk about the Greatest Generation is about war. Their victory was no small achievement and we should honour their sacrifices, as we do every Nov. 11. But I often wonder if perhaps we should take time to honour all the other contributions of my parents' generation.

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My father has occasionally spoken to me about the enormous desire in the aftermath of the war to create a better world, and he was clear about the values upon which that world ought to be based - that we have responsibilities to one another, that we as a nation are only as strong as the least among us and that we must never again be divided along the lines of race or religion or other such categories.

And so, after the trials they had been through, they did not sit back and take it easy. Instead, my parents and other Canadians of their time rolled up their sleeves and created a social safety net, a much stronger public infrastructure, a universal health-care system and a postsecondary education system that up until recently was affordable to most Canadians.

It was not easy what they did. We take many of our public services for granted because they have been there all our lives. But it took enormous work and great sacrifices over many years to create them, sometimes in the face of powerful vested interests.

As I was writing the card to my dad, I thought about my own generation. We were handed these gifts and what did we do? Did we build on these foundations to create the next stage of supports for our children and grandchildren? Did we even maintain what we were given? No, we were too busy investing in our RRSPs to care about the erosion of CPP. What has been the big contribution of my generation? Mutual funds. (It's all about me.) We have well and truly dropped the torch the generation before passed to us.

In a thousand subtle ways, my parents showed us that we are connected to so many people around us, that we depend on them for our well-being and in turn we have responsibilities toward them. This applied not just to relatives and neighbours but to people we didn't even know. What they were teaching us is that there is such a thing as the common good and that, as citizens of a free and prosperous country, we have obligations to nourish and defend it.

What a contrast to now. When the government releases a new budget these days, the media encourages us to think, "What's in it for me?" Instead, I think my parents would have asked, "Does this make us a better country?"

A couple of years back, I lived through the quintessentially Canadian summer agony of having our street ripped up by the city works department so they could replace the sewers and other services.

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One day, I was walking by the excavation pit that used to be our road, and I noticed a pile of bricks mixed in with the dirt and rock at the bottom of a hole deep enough to lose my car in. I asked the foreman what happened, assuming that somehow a load of bricks had accidentally gone astray. He told me it was the previous sewage pipe, the one they were replacing.

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"I'm sorry?" I asked, thinking I had misunderstood.

He went on to explain that the sewage pipe his crew was replacing had been installed in 1895, built of brick.

This impressed two things upon me: One, they sure knew how to build stuff to last in 1895, and two, many of the effects of the taxes I pay or don't pay today will not show up until long after I am gone. In other words, I can hammer my government for tax cuts and offload my responsibilities to the next generation, and at least some of the damage I do will not show up for years.

When my dad was growing up on a farm in Saskatchewan, the possibility of him going to university was pretty much out of the question. But then the war happened and, like so many young men, he joined up. After the war, veterans had their university tuition paid for, so my father jumped at the chance.

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He never looked back - he went on to study at the University of Toronto and Columbia University and collected his doctorate along the way. Then he became part of the folks who built the University of Calgary and started one of the faculties there, which has educated thousands of people since. It's a pretty neat example of how investment in one generation creates prosperity in the next.

In the past few years, my father has reluctantly joined the world of cyberspace and is getting used to using a computer (although he is much more of a holdout than my mother, who has been online longer). A while back I found out he was using the computers at the community centre and the library to check out the Internet. How typically anachronistic of him to think that public services are, well, for the public. But then, he's from another generation.

Lynne Tyler lives in Oxford Station, Ont.

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