Ken Cuthbertson is a writer based in Kingston, Ont. His latest book is 1945: The Year That Made Modern Canada.
It’s now a rare day when you don’t hear someone sigh wistfully and then muse about how grand it will be when the pandemic ends and life returns to “normal.”
Underlying this belief is the assumption that the prepandemic world you and I, and most other Canadians, were privileged to have inhabited for the 75 years since 1945 – a world of domestic peace and economic prosperity – really is “the norm.” And so, the good times will return once we have the silver-bullet vaccine that slays the COVID-19 virus. On that happy day, all will be right again. Crank up the tunes and let the party resume.
At the risk of sounding like Cassandra, the armchair historian in me can’t help but wonder if maybe much of what so many of us have taken for granted was really an anomaly – a blissful interlude that came about because of a unique set of circumstances that spun out of the Second World War.
There’s no doubt the war was a historical watershed. Similarly, with each passing day it seems ever more likely that the COVID-19 pandemic will be no less transformative. If that indeed proves true, it means all bets are off when it comes to any return to “normal.” We’ll need to adjust our expectations and accept that many aspects of our comfortable prepandemic life are toast.
The saying is it can be difficult to see the forest for the trees. That’s true. The big picture, which is never easy to fathom in real time, only comes into focus in retrospect. Given the appallingly low level of historical literacy nowadays, it’s not surprising that so many – if not most – Canadians have forgotten that Canada hasn’t always been a prosperous, “have” country.
From the very beginning, we’ve been hewers of wood and drawers of water. The Canadian economy, resource-based and export-dependent, has always been cyclical. As a result, prior to the Second World War, even in good times, Canada was a sleepy economic backwater. Ours was a sprawling, thinly populated land of perpetually unfulfilled promise.
In the mid-1920s, the Canadian economy was on a par with that of Romania, and it lagged well behind the economies of such middling European counties as Belgium, the Netherlands and Poland.
The Great Depression in October, 1929, hit Canada hard. It killed exports and resulted in an almost 50-per-cent drop in the gross national product (the measure that was used to chart economic performance of countries prior to the 1944 adoption of gross domestic product as the recognized international standard).
Although the Second World War would define the previous century, claiming more than 60 million lives and devastating large areas of Europe and the Far East, the war also brought unprecedented levels of industrial productivity and prosperity to Canada and the United States, both of which were geographically insulated from the ravages of war.
Seventy-five years ago, in October, 1945, Canada was just emerging from the travails, traumas and sacrifices of six years of conflict. Canadians were tired of it all. Understandably so.
This country had punched well above its weight while playing a pivotal role in an Allied victory that hadn’t come easily or cheaply either in human or financial terms. Canada’s wartime population was only 11.5 million, yet 1.1 million Canadians – including more than 50,000 women – answered the call to “fight for King and country.” Forty-five thousand servicemen and servicewomen paid the ultimate price while doing so. Another 55,000 veterans returned home physically wounded; countless others did so bearing scars that were invisible, but no less debilitating.
The Second World War also dearly cost Canada financially. The Liberal government of prime minister Mackenzie King ran up a net deficit of $11-billion while battling Adolf Hitler. King, a fusty fiscal conservative for most of his more than 21 years as prime minister, was uneasy going into hock for anything. But when faced with the dire challenges involved in meeting Canada’s commitments to our allies, he had no choice other than to borrow and spend. Grin and bear it.
In 1945 dollars, this country’s wartime net national debt amounted to roughly $983 for every man, woman and child (112 per cent of GDP). In today’s inflated dollars, that would be roughly $14,580 per capita. And remember, this was at a time when the average hourly wage was about 75 cents, and a million dollars was still a lot of money. For most people in 1945, a billion was just a word in the dictionary, a number so large that they had no grasp of it. (Like a trillion today.)
The human toll aside, the war threw up huge economic benefits for Canada. Not only was there full employment, there was actually a shortage of workers. Organized labour prospered, while corporate profits and wealth soared. All this came about on the strength of the urgent demand for Canada’s raw materials and agricultural produce and a tsunami of government military spending.
The upshot was that, for the first time ever, Canadians got a palpable sense of this country’s true potential. In what truly was a light-bulb moment, people realized that if there was enough money to fight such a costly war, going forward there surely was also enough money to guarantee Canadians a decent standard of living. More than a million veterans – the “Greatest Generation” – who’d put their lives on hold and sacrificed so much to win the war now expected to be compensated.
The King government responded to public pressure with a package of legislative measures that would prove to be among the most vital, transformative and forward-thinking in Canadian history.
The Veterans' Charter provided educational opportunities, housing, medical benefits and so much more.
In addition, when the first “baby bonus” cheques went into the mail in July, 1945, the move ushered in the era of universal social welfare programs in Canada.
The confluence of historical events, political will, a belief in the virtues of Keynesian economics, a unifying national sense of purpose, and a slate of progressive social welfare initiatives redefined and reshaped postwar life for our parents and grandparents.
The end result was a satisfying new “normal.” The 8.5 million Canadians of the baby boom generation – myself among them – who were blessed enough to be born during the first decade after the war shared in the bounty.
What did it matter that the national economy remained heavily dependent on exports of wheat, wood and minerals? Despite the cyclical nature of the markets, life was generally pretty good for most Canadians during the last half of the 20th century and into the early years of this one.
But in retrospect, long before 2020, there were warning signs the good times might be coming to an end. Think about all the bad stuff that has happened just in the two decades since the turn of the century.
In 2001 we endured that unprecedented 9/11 terrorist attack, which disrupted air travel, stoked sectarian and racial animosities, sparked more terrorist attacks globally and led to multiple wars.
In the 19 years since, we’ve also faced down three potentially grave mass-scale public health emergencies. The Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak of 2003 was a dress rehearsal for the 2009 swine flu outbreak and the 2014 Ebola scare. And let’s not forget the economic crash of 2007-09 that sucker-punched Americans and Canadians alike. Add to our list of travails the ever-accelerating pace of climate change with its myriad attendant problems, the chaos in Washington, the dangers posed by rising inequalities in the world, the festering refugee problem, the shortage of resources needed sustain human life on this planet, and the loss of plant and animal diversity … on and on it goes, the list of woes.
In the past eight months, the COVID-19 virus has killed more than 9,500 Canadians so far. And it has upended life for us all, kneecapped our economy and raised so many questions about postpandemic life that it sets the brainbox spinning. As a result, what the new “normal” will be and exactly what aspects of prepandemic life will endure is impossible to predict, even if a COVID-19 vaccine becomes available. That said, a few realities postpandemic world already are coming into focus.
One is that the economic landscape will be different, even if there is a COVID-19 vaccine that most of us roll up our sleeves to receive. With the pandemic having accelerated the consumer shift to online shopping, many long-established brands, many bricks-and-mortar retail stores – and possibly even the shopping mall as a retail institution – will no longer be in business when the new “normal” arrives.
At the same time, it remains to be seen how many of our favourite restaurants will have survived the shakedown.
How soon, if ever again, will it be before we’ll again see thousands of spectators crowding into cavernous venues to attend hockey games, concerts, plays, movies, or political events?
What long-term impact will the COVID-19 pandemic have on our health care system? If a significant number of people – anti-vaxxers and others who are too lazy or too frightened to be vaccinated – fall ill, will the rest of us be willing to foot the bill to provide them with medical care? Whatever the answer to that question is, it will be problematic.
Will it ever be safe for worshippers to congregate in churches, synagogues, or mosques? And what about students returning en masse to classes in our universities, colleges and schools? With borderless online learning fast emerging as a way of the future, will that mean the end of the postsecondary educational system that emerged post-1945, when thousands of veterans signed up for government programs that enabled them to return to school?
With tens of millions for office workers and professionals no longer commuting each day and now working from home, we can only speculate on what the impact will be for commercial real estate, the fast-food industry, mass public transit and highway infrastructure.
So many vital questions. Then, too, there’s the one that trumps all others: COVID-19′s cost to the public purse.
The Trudeau government has responded to the uncertainties and the crisis – much as the King government did in the Second World War – with an unprecedented flurry of spending on stimulus initiatives and social-welfare programs. It’s still too early to determine the final price tag for Ottawa’s pandemic rescue package, of course, but “guesstimates” are that the net deficit for 2020 may be as much as $400-billion. Meanwhile, the country’s gross national debt is soaring into the fiscal exosphere, to as much as $3-trillion.
Any definitive comparisons of Canada’s finances today to those in 1945 are akin to comparing apples to watermelons. Other than the fact that in both situations the country was awash in red ink, the situations aren’t analogous. Per capita debt in 2020 has ballooned to epic proportions; a recent Fraser Institute guesstimate pegs it as being more than $39,000 a person – and that was before the full effects of the pandemic hit Canada. Even to a mathematically challenged non-economist like me, that’s a lot of money.
Reducing the deficit – let alone paying down the accumulated national debt, record low interest rates aside – will be a long, difficult and painful process. No question.
In 1945, buoyed by a booming economy, the King government could rely on growing tax revenues and real growth to help pay down its debt. Not so today. The war Canada has been fighting to defeat COVID-19 has crippled our economy, not stimulated it.
It now looks as if the world we knew prior to the pandemic and the comfortable life that we Canadians enjoyed for the 75 years since the end of the Second World War is in the rear-view mirror. Even if medical science does find that effective vaccine for the particular strain of COVID-19 that’s bedevilling us (we can only pray the virus doesn’t mutate to become more contagious and virulent and that another new virus doesn’t come along too soon), a host of vexing questions will linger.
Given all of the uncertainties and with the crushing level of national debt Canada faces, crawling out of the financial hole we find ourselves in won’t be as nearly easy or as quick as it was post-1945.
Trite though it sounds to say it, the world really is a different place today than it was eight months ago. Any return to the “normal” that we’ve known and enjoyed the past 75 years will be almost impossible. However, when times are tough, Canadians always have shown themselves to be tough, resourceful, resilient and determined.
The sooner that we accept that we really are all in this together, the sooner it will be that we can draw upon the resourcefulness, resilience and work ethic that have made this country one of the best in the world in which to live.
It won’t be easy, but we can and will arrive at a new postpandemic “normal.” And even when we do so, we should understand that it’s unlikely that it will last the next 75 years.
This spring, The Globe and Mail asked experts to predict the ways the pandemic would affect our lives to years to come. They described a world where masks are ubiquitous, health care goes virtual and old, unhealthy habits die – but around the world, we could be in for a coronavirus-created Cold War.
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