During much of the Great Depression, both Liberal Prime Minister MacKenzie King and Conservative Prime Minister, R.B. Bennett believed with absolute fervour that the government had no business involving itself with social handouts or public works projects.
The history of the great depression in Western Canada was horrific, yet each man, King and Bennett, while Prime Minister refused to consider government relief or any substantive public works project. A balanced budget was their number one concern and handouts to people would just make them ‘lazy’.
President Roosevelt in the United States was employing millions of unemployed men to build their interstate highway system. In contrast, Canada was putting the unemployed into camps in the wilderness and assigning purposeless make-work projects. It was little wonder that young men were riding the rails and eventually riots and discontent became the order of the day.
Both Prime Ministers said social services was the province’s jurisdiction. Provinces said it was the municipalities’ jurisdiction. And municipalities were flat broke, because their ratepayers were flat broke. Things haven’t changed much!
But eventually both men changed their attitude enough to understand that there is a role for the government to help those on the bottom from falling into the abyss. Lifting people up in times of trouble actually helps maintain societal stability, which in turn, helps everyone.
Ironically, it was Conservative Prime Minister Bennett who established the Bank of Canada, the Farmers’ Credit Arrangement Act to help debt-ridden farmers, the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration to tackle the drought and paved the way for unemployment insurance and our national health scheme. Today, without annual government programs, our farming industry would be unsustainable.
For over seven years in the 1930s, both Liberal and Conservative Prime Ministers cared not a whit about Canadians who were going hungry, losing their farms, unable to find jobs and losing their homes.
Business leaders had the ear of the Prime Ministers and their focus remained on balanced budgets, small government and the hard-hearted belief that a hand-up in times of trouble made people lazy. Yet a hand-out to big corporations is somehow sacred!
Some of our young politicians need to bone up a little on their Canadian history. Without government assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic, however imperfect, without an increase in government debt and the resultant worldwide inflation, we’d have had a repeat of the 1930s.
The pandemic and its outcomes are a set back, but not an insurmountable mountain requiring a revamp of Canadian values. American and Canadian values diverged greatly after the 1930s.
Looking at the mess today south of the border, it’s hard to understand how so many conservative leaders want to bring that hard-hearted individualism back to Canada.
My mother, Maxine Nelson (née Anderson), was a wise woman and I think her words are worth pondering to remind us that we’ve got it pretty darn good here in Alberta.
“Those were the days of little money,” she said. I remember dad selling a couple heifers for $5. We children thought it was such a lot but dad said he owed it to the doctor. There was a man who came around selling fresh meat. He was saying how bad times were. He offered to trade purses. Dad wouldn’t as he knew a cheque for $5 had come that day and didn’t know if mother had put it in his purse. As it turned out she hadn’t and he only had .05 cents. In the worst years, dad finally took relief. He refused the first time it was offered.”
A good reminder to rejoice in our plenty because we do have plenty.