Abandoning the red Tory tradition hurting the most vulnerable

Posted on August 7, 2018 in Governance Debates

TheStar.com – Opinion/Contributors
Aug. 7, 2018.   By

I will never forget the time I first heard my father in genuine distress. He and my mum were speaking in what they thought were hushed tones, whispers of privacy, but in our small home I could hear through the walls some of what was being said.

I was too young too understand the full details, but I knew it was serious, realized that it was causing the people who were my rocks, who loved me unconditionally, and who I considered superhuman and incapable of ever letting me down, the greatest pain and anguish.

At one point I heard my mum say, “It’ll be OK Phil, it’ll be OK.” Then he replied, “Sheila, love, I just don’t know if it will be.”

I now know what happened. Dad had developed a bad case of pleurisy and pneumonia. He’d tried to work, but simply couldn’t. Then the doctor told him that unless he rested, and did so for some time, he could be seriously ill.

Problem was, when dad didn’t work he didn’t earn any money, and mum was paid very little. The bills were high, the rent had been increased, they had no savings, and their families were not wealthy.

My parents came from humble backgrounds: dad a Jewish man from Hackney whose parents were immigrants. He was in the RAF when he was 17, and then became a cab driver. My mum was pure cockney, from Stepney. She’d left school at 14, and worked as a hairdresser. They were both profoundly intelligent, but in their young days anything approaching equality of opportunity was a remote fantasy.

I don’t recall what occurred next, but I do know that we stayed in the house, that dad got better, and that over the years my parents were insistent that I had to receive an education, find a good job, be secure. Mum and dad are gone now, but the life lessons they taught me will remain forever.

I write this because something cruel and uncaring has developed in Canadian and especially Ontario politics, a new conservatism that has abandoned the paternalism of the red Tory tradition, and replaced it with harshness, division, and a disregard for those who are most in need of our concern and empathy.

Whether it’s using dismissive language about migrants, cutting promised minimum wage and welfare increases, or ending guaranteed income schemes, it stinks of something almost Dickensian

Frankly, I don’t know how some of the more progressive members of right-wing governments can sit still and tolerate this, or even how they can sleep at night.

There’s a wonderful line in Robert Bolt’s play A Man For All Seasons, where Richard Rich, the personification of unscrupulous ambition, perjures himself to send Thomas More to his execution. For this betrayal, Rich is made attorney general for Wales. “It profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world,” says More. “But for Wales?” But for a position in a provincial cabinet?

Those who haven’t been poor and broken seldom understand what it’s like. At root it’s about fear. The desperate are frightened of the future as well as the present, of the steady decline not only of income but also of dignity and worth. How will others see us, where will we go, what will we do?

Yes, of course some people are lazy and rely on others out of selfishness, but if you genuinely knew the situation you’d realize how rare that is. It was recently reported that fewer than 90 families in Canada hold as much wealth as everyone in Newfoundland and Labrador, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island combined. It’s not because they are so hard-working!

My dad survived because of Britain’s National Health Service, I went to university due to the funding of public education, and the policy in Canada of the common good, of redistribution, of compassionate sense and kind sensibility, has made this country what it is.

There is a new, foul wind blowing from the south, and it will hurt us all unless we stand up to it. There is no crime in being poor and requiring help, there is every crime in rejecting those who ask for it.

Michael Coren is a Toronto writer.


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