Days of Social Democracy: A Memoir

By Stan Persky | August 24, 2004

Dave Barrett was the first social democratic premier of the western Canadian province where I’ve lived for 40 years. The province is British Columbia, a huge, coastal, mountainous, forested tract of territory stretching from Washington State to Alaska. Barrett was the premier of the province from 1972-75. His New Democratic Party government had been preceded for more than two decades by that of a regional conservative party known as Social Credit, headed by a small town hardware store owner named W.A.C. (“Wacky”) Bennett, who presided over the resource-rich region during its boom years of the 1950s and 60s. Wacky’s favourite slogan was, “The finest sound in the land is the ringing of cash registers.” Barrett’s brief tenure was followed by another decade of Social Credit conservatism (contracted to “Socred,” in popular parlance), led by Wacky’s son, Bill Bennett, a dour real estate entrepreneur.

Barrett was a boisterous, somewhat rotund figure, with a booming if high-pitched voice. He was a former social worker who had made his reputation by blowing the whistle on various mistreatments of the poor and disadvantaged, displaying a passionate sympathy that may have been rooted in his Jewish heritage. I knew Barrett only casually, but well enough that he once proposed that I might ghost-write his political memoirs. “I’ll do the talking, you do the writing,” he laughed. Though the project never came off, Barrett remains emblematic for me of the period and of my flirtation with mainstream, left-of-centre politics. It’s a subject I’ve never addressed seriously before.

The story will have to be round-about. At the end of summer 1975, in Vancouver, I got a telephone call on a Friday afternoon from Leonard Minsky, a former English professor at Simon Fraser University whom I’d known for several years, from literary and radical student political circles. “How would you like to teach at a college?” Minsky asked in his instantly recognizable Brooklyn accent.

“Teach what?” I asked. “A college where?”

Minsky skipped the first question. “In Terrace,” he said.

“Where’s that?” I asked.

Terrace, it turned out, was a small town of 10,000 people on the Skeena River in northwestern British Columbia, about 600 kilometres, as the crow flies, north of Vancouver. Minsky had been hired as the organizer of one of four instant, regional colleges that the Dave Barrett provincial government had recently authorized as part of its program to make post-secondary education more accessible to citizens in British Columbia’s outback. The college was to open almost immediately, with classes beginning that fall. One of Minsky’s several chores was to round up a faculty for the school.

“Where are you calling from?”

“Terrace,” Minsky said, a little impatiently, as if this, and much more, ought to be obvious to me.

“But what would I teach?” I persisted.

“Anything you want,” Minsky replied. When I pointed out that colleges were normally organized into departments and disciplines, he grudgingly allowed that I might teach sociology, a subject in which I had a degree. But it was clear that teaching wasn’t Minsky’s first priority.

“Gee, Leonard, I don’t know.”

I was, at the moment, working as a story editor for a morning radio news program broadcast in Vancouver by the publicly-owned Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s station there. The program was produced by a man I liked named David Cayley, whose soft-spoken demeanour belied the program’s radical reputation. In local media circles, Cayley’s show was known as “Radio Peking.” The CBC’s offices and studios were located in a slightly shabby hotel in downtown Vancouver, which is where I was sitting, in my slightly shabby cubbyhole, when Minsky phoned.

“Listen,” Minsky said, closing the deal, “why don’t you fly up here and take a look?”

That weekend Minsky met me at the Terrace Airport, and we drove over to nearby Lakelse Lake, which had a restaurant and lodge on its shores, to meet Peter Burton, a mutual friend of ours who had become a labour leader at the Alcan Aluminum plant in the neighbouring town of Kitimat. While waiting for Burton to drive in from Kitimat, Minsky and I walked along the shore of the lake and he told me about his plans for the college. Minsky was a remarkably animated figure in his early 40s, with a corolla of greying, curly hair, and a cackling, distinctive laugh that sounded as if he was just about to put something over on the world. He was a Chaucer scholar, whose students reported that he was the only English prof who was able to relate Chaucer to the recently-ended Vietnam War, which may have had something to do with Minsky not getting a tenured professorship at Simon Fraser. This time around, in his new role as a college organizer, he really was planning to put something over on the world.

As I’d intuited, Minsky’s first priority wasn’t teaching. It was revolution. Teaching literature, sociology, psychology, and history were the least of Minsky’s plans. The big idea was that the college would be a base from which to organize the community for a great and democratic people-controlled future. The academic stuff was just window dressing. Groups had already been lined up, Minsky told me, to put on community-controlled programs in aboriginal, labour and women’s studies. As well, Minsky had hired another mutual friend of ours, Jeff Marvin, and armed him with a Landrover to penetrate distant native villages and organize the masses. The chairman of the local labour council, a Danish-born carpenter named John Jensen, was onboard. Key figures had been identified in the neighbouring towns of Kitimat (like Peter Burton), Prince Rupert, Smithers, and other habitations along the Skeena.

As we peered out across Lakelse Lake, looking at the distant mountainous backdrop, Minsky cited some tidbit of Maoist wisdom that went, more or less: the mountains surround the countryside, the countryside surrounds the cities, etc. Capture the mountains and the countryside, and you’ll conquer the cities. He came down to earth long enough to also try to persuade me of the sublime pleasures of canoeing on Lakelse Lake. I was wary of the surrounding mountains-you could easily get lost-and I definitely wasn’t going to get into some flimsy canoe and paddle around the lake, in which you could easily drown.

By now, I was having doubts about whether the college existed or if it was just Minsky’s fevered fantasy. But he assured me that it actually had some buildings on the uplands at the edge of town, which now housed a provincial vocational school whose administration and staff we would have no trouble taking over.

Back in Vancouver, just as the autumn rainy season was beginning, two things convinced me to take the job. First, one morning at about 6:30 (the show ran from 6-9), I was at my post at the radio station lining up the guests slated to appear on that day’s edition. The show consisted of a half-dozen telephone interviews, along with breaks for news, weather, stock market and traffic reports. It was raining. I was standing at the window, looking at the rain falling onto an ugly fountain below in front of the city courthouse. I had two telephones to my ears. My job was to keep the about-to-be-heard guests entertained and to check the pre-interview material for any last minutes glitches. On one phone was Herman Kahn of the Hudson Institute, who was a sort of futurologist and enthusiast for World War III. On the other phone was a worm farmer who had a ranch somewhere west of Prince George, B.C. I’d just said to one of them, “Now, Dr. Kahn, what are the two major problems facing the world?” and he was launched onto a rapid-fire answer in a heavy New York accent, when I interrupted to say, “Can you hold that thought for a sec?” and I turned to the phone with the worm farmer to check on just how far west of Prince George the wiggling worms were located. That was the moment-holding the two phones to my two ears and gazing at the dreary rain-when I thought to myself, This is crazy.

The second reason for taking the college teaching job was that the 1960s, unbeknowst to most of us, had just ended in April 1975 with the conclusion of the Vietnam War, and the volunteer newspaper collective I was a member of was breaking up. The paper was a weekly called The Western Voice and was subtitled “a newspaper of working class struggle.” When the war ended, the paper held a celebration and fund-raiser for the reconstruction of Vietnam in a local hall, which we decorated with slogans on large pieces of red paper, in the Chinese “big-character poster” style. I made a pass-the-hat speech.

The Voice had evolved from a series of local counter-culture newspapers, starting with The Georgia Straight, a weekly founded in the late 1960s by a local poet named Dan McLeod, whose staff I had joined early on. When it was sundered by a political squabble-the feminists on the paper became aggrieved at their treatment, occupied the paper’s offices, and were only cleared out when McLeod, a heretofore mild-mannered defender of hippies and free speech, obtained an injunction from the courts-I went with the new, more radical group that started a rival paper called The Grape. That’s where I became friends with Peter Burton, who later became a union leader in Kitimat. Eventually, The Grape also split, which gave birth to the pro-proletarian Voice. Then the Voice embarked on its own political travails, which took the form of what was then known as a “two-line struggle.” One “line” was discovered to be reactionary, while the other line, the “correct” line, was properly revolutionary.

My political ideas were a mish-mosh whose only coherence was, as a line in a Robert Creeley poem has it, “a small boy’s idea of doing good.” My understanding of politics ranged from Socrates, whose wisdom I had imbibed in Bob Rowan’s philosophy classes at the University of British Columbia, to the latest New Left works of the German-born thinker, Herbert Marcuse. A few tidbits of Marx, social contract theory, and anarchism were sprinkled in. On the whole it was not an altogether bad mish-mosh and when it was threatened by the madness of the moment, such as the internal debates at the Voice, it was leavened by a temperamental core of reasonableness I’d inherited from my father.

Meanwhile, in the real world, in British Columbia, circa 1975, there was a social democratic government about which we radicals were too contemptuous, even when, like me, we were card-carrying on and off members of the governing party. And in a dark basement staff meeting, the “correct line” of the Voice, rather than the fact that it only had about 600 readers, required the paper’s “liquidation.” A final, fat issue of the paper, crammed with “position papers” and turgid analyses of the present political moment, brought our journalistic enterprise to a conclusion. Most of the members of the collective then went on to several years of attempting to build a revolutionary Marxist-Leninist political organization, an effort that petered out only in the 1980s. But by the time the last issue of the Voice rolled off the presses, I was on the road-to Terrace.

While Terrace is 600 kilometres north of Vancouver as the crow flies, as the road rolls it’s 1200 kilometres plus. I was in a small Honda Civic, crammed to the gunnels with books and belongings. The road from Vancouver goes east for about 150 kilometres to a town called Hope, then north up through the daunting Fraser River Canyon until you reach Prince George six or seven hours later, then you turn left onto the Yellowhead Highway, heading west along the Skeena River, which runs out to the coast at Prince Rupert. Terrace is on the river, 135 kilometres inland from the Pacific Ocean. The whole journey is an enormous geographical zig-zag.

Minsky was living in an apartment in a motel-like building on Loen Avenue, a place I would soon inherit as Leonard moved into a large, rambling house to accommodate his wife and kids, who were arriving shortly. I pulled into the driveway and was greeted by Minsky’s grin. My arrival was clearly part of what Leonard was putting over on the world, as he marshalled his troops. Inside, in the kitchen, Jeff Marvin was there, and a heavy-set, dark-haired man named Ray Jones, one of the leaders of the nearby Gitksan native band, through whose territory I’d just driven. Jones’ first words to me were, “Not another Jew!” It was true. Minsky, Marvin, and me. Leonard cackled with pleasure, and began whipping up a lunch of fried chicken, while Jeff poured the drinks from a bottle of Minsky’s brand of choice, Cato’s Scotch.

Eventually, I was taken up to the college which, I was happy to see, actually existed. It mostly consisted of workshops, where students learned to become welders, auto mechanics, electricians and heavy equipment operators, along with a few classrooms in which to teach accountancy and office management. The vocational staff, who were justifiably suspicious of the T-shirt garbed mad conspirators who had arrived in their midst, were dressed in shirts, ties, and shop coats. I was introduced to the administrators, who were mostly former business managers from town. Across the road from the school’s undistinguished architecture was a fallow expanse of land known as Frank’s Field, where migrating geese pulled in for a pit stop on their way south. By early October, the field was already covered by a light dusting of snow.

The semester began, and the hastily assembled staff-an English teacher, a psychologist, an anthropologist, a chemist, myself, and an early childhood education instructor I became friends with named Larissa Tarwick-began doing what college instructors everywhere do, and a sufficient number of the children of the local middle classes turned up to fill the classrooms. We were peripatetic teachers-imagining ourselves, on the Maoist model, to be travelling “barefoot doctors”-who drove through logged valleys to teach classes in Kitimat, Prince Rupert and other towns along the Skeena. There was also a lot of extracurricular, “revolutionary” activity. The special programs in aboriginal, feminist, and labour studies were launched with democratically-controlled boards staffed by community representatives. Jeff Marvin wandered through the countryside and remote valleys, doing something called “community development.” And there was a good deal of strategizing and plotting, as the old vocational school principal was eased out and plans were made to install a more politically astute college president. The rhetoric of Minsky’s revolution was over-dramatic, but the idea, which was really straightforward social democratic doctrine, was sensible. Despite the fashionable sloganeering, the idea was simply to make education available to more people, on the theory that a better educated society would be more sensitive to human suffering. The idea was really old-fashioned 19th century liberalism, modernised in a social democratic way to ensure public funding, government oversight, democratic control, and a commitment to previously marginalised groups of people.

I rode up and down the highway with John Jensen, to labour halls in places like Smithers and the small mill-town of Houston, where I gave amateurish talks about labour history in the evenings to gatherings of trade union members. We drove home in the middle of the night, the highway following the course of the great, dark Skeena River, which I thought of as the god or spirit of the region.

Jensen was the most interesting person I got to know in the years I was there. He was a master carpenter, about 15 years my senior, a wiry, compact man with a greying brush mustache and sparkling eyes that signalled his amusement at the follies of his fellow humans. Most of all, Jensen was a man of impeccable integrity with a wry sense of humour, and a range of experiences that he had fashioned into a sort of immediately recognizable wisdom.

One summer, before the semester began, I was permitted to serve as his carpenter’s helper as he built a new house for himself and Larissa Tarwick in a sparsely inhabited area outside of Terrace called Jackpine Flats (which we instantly dubbed Jackass Flats), My job mainly was to carry things around, and Jensen let me hammer in a few nails, presumably in places where I could do the least amount of damage. I once asked him where were the plans for the house, since I knew houses had plans. We were in the midst of lifting massive railroad ties by means of a pulley that Jensen had rigged up, installing them as ceiling beams. Jensen paused, pulled out his carpenter’s pencil, used for marking off measurements, and drew the entire thing for me on a 2×4 plank. The house was in his head. I was in awe.

Another year-this was after the “revolution”-I suggested that we begin a regional monthly newspaper. Jensen took about a second to think about it, and said, “Okay, let’s do it.” He didn’t ask what would be in it, how it would get written, or where the money would come from. The answers, by the way, were: a) stories about the world from the perspective of an imaginary pro-native, pro-feminist, pro-labour reader; b) I would write it; and c) Jensen would finance it through the various regional labour councils who provided the funds simply on Jensen’s word that it was “okay.” For a year, then, every one of the 15,000 or so households in the region received the paper, delivered by the postal workers’ union.

Most of the revolution took place at Minsky’s sprawling house, taking the form of wonderful, large parties of Minsky’s closest conspirators (consuming sufficient quantities of Cato’s Scotch), and consisted primarily of Chairman Minsky fuming, fretting, plotting, and imagining the counterplots of his many mortal enemies and the betrayals of his loyal friends. As revolutions go, it was a pretty benign affair, and we even had some fun, an unusual accomplishment in the annals of changing the world.

Obviously, it was too good to last. Minsky’s “revolution” ended on December 10, 1975, the date of a provincial election that Premier Dave Barrett had prematurely called, a little over three years into his term. The campaign that autumn, long before the invention of modern “negative” or “attack” political advertising, was as vicious as electoral politics could provide. Barrett, a social democratic populist, was portrayed as a raving socialist. British Columbia’s owning classes weighed in with all the third-party anti-government advertising that could be purchased. “Thanks for the memories,” warbled the mocking farewell of the insurance industry, aggrieved by Barrett’s establishment of public auto insurance. The logging and mining industries plastered bumper stickers on vehicles all over the province to warn voters that resource-based jobs were doomed under the rule of the socialists and their trade union toadies. Real estate developers, landlords, and farmers declared their opposition to social democratic schemes to control rents and protect agricultural land. And for good measure, everybody charged the social democrats with “tax and spend” policies and pandering to fraudulent welfare recipients. The media wasn’t subtle about its preference for Barrett’s opponent, Wacky Bennett’s tight-lipped son, Bill.

That evening I was in the basement rec room of chemistry instructor Norm Webster’s house, watching the election returns on TV, with others from the college. Outside, the snow was banked up two metres high. Inside our bunker, the gloom settled over the soon-to-be former revolutionaries. It was over in a few minutes. There were scenes from NDP headquarters, where Barrett made the ritual concession speech, calling, rather sentimentally, for “love” in the face of his enemies’ rancour. We shook our heads in bewilderment and trooped out into the snow.

Practically the first act of the new provincial government was to fire the college board, dismissing the little group of feminists, natives and trade unionists appointed by the social democrats, and replacing them with more suitable business managers. Minsky was doomed. But there was a final comic epilogue.

The board was in the midst of appointing a new college president to replace the departed vocational school principal. The candidate of the “revolutionaries” was a socialist economics professor from Winnipeg, Cy Gonick, who also ran a leftist magazine, Canadian Dimension, and whose academic credentials were sufficiently impressive that he made the short list of even the new college board. Minsky was in his final moments of glory, lobbying various middle-of-the-road board members, on the phone to Gonick in Winnipeg, plotting with his minions, making us at least half-believe one more time.

At the board meeting to decide on the president that winter evening, it was close. At the last minute, Minsky stiffened a wavering board member, and the vote went 6-5 for Gonick. There was only one little hitch. Gonick, on the other end of the telephone, wasn’t sure he wanted to come. His wife, imagining the differences between outback Terrace and relatively civilized big city Winnipeg, was against it. But you only have to do it for a year, Minsky pleaded with him. The revolution was in his hands. Gonick sighed. No, he thought not. Minsky sagged. Gonick’s refusal was relayed to the board and he was dropped from their list. The phone rang. It was Gonick. He’d talked it over with his wife again and, on second thought, maybe he would come. Too late, too late. In due course, a very non-revolutionary college president was installed.

After that, the college was fated to become a more or less normal community institution. Minsky was unceremoniously dumped. Later, he and his lively clan turned up in Washington, D.C., where he got a job working for the anti-corporate Ralph Nader organization, a place where he could plot to his heart’s content. Jeff Marvin remained for a while. Years later, I ran into him in Vancouver. He was on his way to South America to climb mountains. A year or two later, I heard he’d fallen off a mountain in Ecuador, plunging into a crevasse. His body was never recovered. And John Jensen, the man I’d taken for my unofficial mentor in Terrace, remained in Jackpine Flats, settling into his role as a community elder. As for Dave Barrett, he returned to electoral politics for a while, winning a seat as a federal member of the Canadian Parliament, and eventually became one of the senior statesmen of the social democratic party.

Those of us with teaching contracts were legally protected and could stay on. The revolution was over, but not the college. A lot of small, good things happened. My friend, the poet George Stanley joined the English department, and soon developed an affection for the place and the people, as evidenced in his many poems about the region (see George Stanley, Gentle Northern Summer, New Star, 1995, especially “Terrace Landscapes”). I notice that I’ve adopted a self-mocking tone for this bit of social democratic memoir, but when I read Stanley’s poems about Terrace, I remember that it’s a real place-if not the centre of the universe, not Hicksville, either-and that many of us had a dream about its possibilities. I suppose the self-mockery is to protect the dream from getting too bruised.

One year, as I mentioned, we had the newspaper. Another year, in spring 1977, just after the death of Chairman Mao tse-Tung, Jeff Marvin wangled a spot for me on a tour group to China. The visit was disillusioning in terms of politics-that is, “people’s democracy” was not all it was cracked up to be-but China wasn’t disillusioning in terms of a place whose images entered my permanent memory.

There were personal events, too, unconnected to our grandiose political struggles. One autumn, I arrived back in Terrace from summer holidays, with a companion in tow, Martin Bell, a young man I’d met in the Vancouver bars. He became a welding student at the school, and we carried on a bumpy, fond domestic relationship for a year or so. Somewhere in the wreckage of books and boxes that piles up in the wake of our lives, there’s a photograph, taken by Jeff Marvin, of Martin and me grinning happily over a birthday cake at a party for me that Jeff and his girlfriend had put on in his house in Thornhill, a mostly trailer-park encampment just outside of Terrace. So, that too, remains.

But I wanted out. In 1978-79, I took a leave from the college and returned to Vancouver. It was nearing the end of the first term of Bill Bennett’s government. That summer I began writing a book about the defeat of Dave Barrett and the ill-judged policies of his successors, a sort of election run-up warning. I’d written poetry and stories when younger (a volume of those writings had been published as Wrestling the Angel, Talonbooks, 1976), and I’d discovered a flair for journalism ever since I’d been at university in the mid-1960s, but I’d never written a book-length work of popular journalism about contemporary politics. It was mostly a matter of re-writing, gathering up the news clips from the last several years of British Columbia provincial politics, and turning them into a coherent narrative that attempted to make a mild social democratic sense of those events. The book, Son of Socred (New Star, 1979), came out in the spring and became a surprising regional success. I was soon a minor figure of punditry, called on to provide instant quotes and soundbites to the omniverous media.

The book had no discernible impact on the election, held in May 1979, in which the conservative government was handily re-elected, and in fall I returned to teaching in Terrace. But something important had happened personally, namely, that I had learned how to write books. I’d discovered the pleasure of telling stories, and equally important, the pleasure of writing books. In the midst of bookwriting, a lot of existential anxieties disappear. Bookwriting answers the ever-present questions, Where am I?, and, What am I doing? I’m in the book, and I’m writing it, it confidently replies. I wasn’t quite a writer yet-that would come a few years later, along with another kind of book-but I was learning the skills of writing, which weren’t all that different from carpentry. Like John Jensen and his house, I had the book in my head. Having written one book, I quickly saw that I could write others, and did. But the stories of how I became a writer, and how I became a teacher, are different from this one. This one is about politics.

My local notoriety as a political writer and commentator, plus my history as a radical student leader in the ’60s, gave some people the idea that I might do as a political candidate. It was a couple of years later, the early 1980s. I’d gotten out of Terrace and found a job teaching political science (and eventually, philosophy) at Capilano College in a suburb just outside of Vancouver. My flirtation with electoral politics was launched when a couple I knew slightly, Bill and Sandra Bruneau (he was a prominent professor in the University of British Columbia’s education faculty), suggested that I seek the New Democratic Party nomination for the upcoming provincial election in the neighbourhood where I lived. Sandra, a long-time NDP stalwart, volunteered to be my campaign manager.

I quickly discovered that I wasn’t really cut out for electoral politics; I had neither the elbowing ambition required for politics, nor was I sufficiently disciplined not to see the humour in it. The inevitable moment of craziness-something like the time when I was holding two phones to my ears at the radio station-came when one of the local members, trying to decide who he would vote for as our candidate, asked me, “What’s your position on hiking trails?” Hiking trails? I had no position on hiking trails. I had positions on education, women’s rights, public ownership, the universe, but on hiking trails, I drew a blank. I was the last person in the world you’d find on a hiking trail in the wilderness, where you could easily get lost or eaten by a bear. But nonetheless, there I was, babbling away in favour of hiking trails, prepared to discuss gortex fabrics or Cougar boots or whatever it is that’s relevant to hiking. At the same time, I was thinking to myself, “Gee, I’ve only been in politics for five minutes, and already I’m lying.”

Still, I gamely gave my speech-another talent I’d discovered back in university when I was on the student council. It was a pretty good speech, too. The political columnist for the Vancouver Sun, Vaughan Palmer, an old acquaintance from university days, said it was a good speech in his column the next morning. He also added, Unfortunately, good speeches don’t win nominations. They only get you to a second ballot, at best. The riding association wisely chose a more appropriate candidate, who was duly defeated in the subsequent election, as the conservatives, led by Bill Bennett, were handily re-elected. I contented myself with writing another book.

All of that-the “revolution” in the British Columbia outback, the flirtation with running for office, the life of what came to be called “the public intellectual”-took place in conservative times some two decades ago. It was the era of President Ronald Reagan in the United States and Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in Canada (and, on one emblematic occasion, the two of them, arm in arm, singing, “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling”). It was the period of the dismantling of the post-World War II welfare state. I remained active in public affairs-the old habit of wanting to throw one’s two cents into the conversation dies hard-but privately I resigned myself to a mild political despair.

One of the books I haven’t written-one of my “imaginary books,” as I describe them-is called What Is Social Democracy? This isn’t the place to write it, but I’ll say something, briefly (very briefly), about why I’m neither a revolutionary nor a neo-conservative, but a mild-mannered social democrat, even at this late date.

Social democracy is among the most scorned of political ideologies, reviled by both left and right. Within its own political ranks, it is subject to a constant tension between those who want it to be more socialist and those who think its policies should be tempered in the cause of gaining power. As it happens, the country of my citizenship, Canada, is pretty much a social democratic country, even if its social democracy appears under various labels, including “liberalism” and even “progressive conservatism.” Only in the last decade has a full-fledged American-style conservatism, favouring unregulated capitalism, appeared in Canada.

Part of the reason that Canada tends to be social democratic is a matter of accident, both historical and geographical. In a country so physically large-7,000 or so kilometres coast to coast-and mainly populated along a narrow strip just north of the U.S. border, there’s an almost deterministic tendency to recognize that certain activities-health care, communications, education and the like-need to be collectively organized. But another part of the reason is conscious. As social pollster Michael Adams shows in Fire and Ice (Penguin, 2003), the notion that values and beliefs in the United States and Canada are converging is a “myth.” Instead, Canadians, at least in the last decade, tend to be more tolerant, less violent, more socially-minded than their neighbours to the south. Of course, since Canada is not a world power, it is spared the inevitable corruption of imperial power, if not the corruption of self-righteousness. Canadians differ from Americans on questions of health care, gun control, public broadcasting, the environment, gay marriage, abortion, and the use of harmless recreational drugs, among many other things.

I think social democracy, as an ideology, can be pinpointed in three or four tenets. First, though it recognizes, however grudgingly, the dominance of the capitalist marketplace, it holds the view that capitalism ought to take a regulated rather than an unregulated form, as much as possible. It’s not entirely clear what that means, or how possible it is in the face of globalized capitalism, but it does include the recognition that certain human activities are better organized publicly rather than privately, and that social values should not be suborned to the dictates of the mall.

One minor concrete example of this is publicly-administered auto insurance, the policy Dave Barrett introduced in B.C. a quarter of a century ago. Though there was vigorous, even histrionic, opposition to the policy, mainly from the powerful insurance industry, it has proven over time to be the most sensible, fairest, and safest way of dealing with one aspect of the necessary evil of private transportation. In one Canadian province after another, as private insurance rates have increased and provided only selective coverage, public auto insurance has gained public support. The examples of such policies can easily be multiplied, but public auto insurance provides a representative example of actual social democracy.

Second, social democracy is committed to care for the welfare of the poorest, weakest members of society. I’m always astonished by the rage of people against the “not truly deserving” recipients of public aid, who are often contemptuously portrayed as lazy cheaters. First, the poor are a tiny percentage of the citizenry, and not a terribly expensive budget item in a country of enormous wealth. But second, why would anyone think that welfare recipients would willfully choose the marginal lives they suffer? What stands in need of explanation is the resentment against alleviating their conditions, not the impulse to do so. As Robert Creeley said in a poem called “The Immoral Proposition,” “If you never do anything for anyone else / You are spared the tragedy of human relation- / ships.”

Third, there’s the current debate about taxation, which reflects a wider range of views about how people ought to live together. The sole governmental promise of more barbarous forms of conservatism is the reduction of public expenditure, and government itself, through reduced taxation. It’s an almost ironic policy, given the condition of wealth in which the majority of us live; and opposition to collective goods, which also serve to protect the rich from reality, is self-destructive, even for the ruling classes. While I’m as aware of government mismanagement, petty corruption, and wrongheaded expenditures as the next viewer of our alarmist media, I remain among the most cheerful of taxpayers. The reduction of taxes inevitably means the cutback of public services in health, welfare, education, culture, environmental protection, and a host of other aspects of collective life.

Finally, social democrats, under whatever label, are for the protection of constitutional rights and the rule of law. In Canada, the advances in a generation for the equality of women, ethnic groups, and people of diverse tastes and abilities, have been largely the result of social democratic advocacy. Unsurprisingly, such gains are accompanied by occasional excesses, self-righteousness, and at worst, a tribalist clamour. Perhaps the crucial aspect of constitutional equality ought to be reflected in educational policy, although admittedly social democracy in recent decades has probably been less than intellectually adequate in making that case. There’s been increased access to education, true, but most of the expansion has been narrowly oriented to occupational training rather than to the shared vocation of being citizens.

Well, that’s the short version of what I began thinking about as I drove alongside the winding route of the Skeena River for the first time, long ago. Now, I suppose I’m thinking more about the river and where it goes than I did then, but I haven’t altogether forgotten the communities along the road.

Berlin, Aug. 24, 2004


  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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