Saturday, December 13, 2014

Our Lives: Post-War Canadian Life (3)

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At the beginning of WWII, roughly 2/3s of Canadians living in urban centers were tenets. An Advisory Committee on Reconstruction determined that a large majority were poorly housed, 10% of all dwellings needed to be replaced, an additional 25% needed significant repairs, and at least 1 in 5 were overcrowded. Economists also determined that 1/3 were paying too much in rent, by comparison to monies spent on other basic needs like food and clothing. The housing supply needed to be increased by another 1/3 to meet the demand.

After the war, the Canadian government resolved to make the nation one of homeowners. Government policy converted the middle class and an increasingly large segment of blue collar workers to the suburban ideal: a house to call their own on a quiet boulevard far from the hustle and bustle of city life. The Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation began to guarantee entire mortgages for approved lenders. Low-interest loans were given to veterans. The pace of new housing increased in newly planned suburbs like that of North York, which grew more than 916% by 1960. These changed the very patterns of life, especially for wives. In the city core, women met family and friends on the street, in local stores, or the marketplace. By contrast, suburban life required that they make an effort and join clubs or volunteer organizations, or suffer the isolation of an anonymous life .

The suburbs, it was thought, were nonetheless an ideal to which all Canadians hoped to attain. These included 1.76 million immigrants, who were drawn mostly from desirable white European places of origins. Keeping Canada white had been the goal of governments since Confederation. The otherwise progressive policies of a Prime Minister like William Lyon Mackenzie King were not different from his predecessors, in this respect. Even though he repealed legislation banning immigration from China, to satisfy the high calling of the newly formed United Nations, administrative practices assured that the same end were achieved.

Non-Anglo immigrants typically headed for the Prairies or British Columbia until 1945. They also headed to Montreal, where the Quebecois noted with concern that most choose to learn English. After 1945, immigrants communities settled into larger numbers in urban centers. There they encountered exploitive employers, hostile Anglo-Canadians, and an unconcerned government, which forced them to fall back on their resources. Minority communities responded by strengthening community ties, which had the consequence of turning larger urban centers into a patchwork of ethnic enclaves.

The elderly were disproportionately represented among the ranks of the poor. Depressed economic conditions during their best working years meant low wages and difficulties saving for retirement. The situation was hard for elderly men. But for elderly women, especially those who were single or widowed, the situation was almost impossible, unless children or other family members were willing to pay for their upkeep. The Progressive Conservative government of John Diefenbaker government raised the old-age pension from $46 to $55 per month early in the 1960s, but even this was barely enough to rent an apartment.

By comparison, prospects for men of working age were improving in important ways. Men enjoyed a limited amount of social mobility. University education provided a decisive advantage in the workforce. And there was ample work to be done as well. Oral histories from the period reveal that a near universal regret expressed by men was not to have spent more time with their children. Whether this was within their power to change at the time is another question. The structure of work kept many out of the home.

On the other hand, women of all classes enjoyed much less freedom than their husbands. The domestic ideal held that husbands went out to work, and wives stayed home and keep house. Popular magazines in both English and French Canada condemned mothers who went out to work as a disgrace to their sex. Editorials berated the working mother for depriving their children of nurture. Female salespersons were almost universally frowned upon, since they were thought to deprive the married man of gainful employment to support his family.

Trade unions played a large role in bringing about an overall improved economic situation. Trade union membership doubled during the war. In the years 1946 and 1947 alone there were than 400 strikes. Anxious to settle strikes and cash in on the war effort, corporations readily conceded wage raises. Between the years 1945 and 1948, hourly wages rose from 69.4 cents to 91.3 cents, while the average work week fell from more than 44 to 42 hours.

Gains made by unions in Qu├ębec were a foreshadow of things to come. The Catholic Church established a Catholic union to counter 'godless' communistic and socialist unions back in 1921. Its founding philosophy was of cooperation to mutual humility between capital and labor in accordance with God's rule, not man's rule of violence. But the union quickly realized that Catholic workers wanted results as much as any other group of workers, and they would have to behave much like any other union to get them. The union pulled further away from the Church, until it formerly severed ties in 1960.

The Union Nationale government of Marcel Duplessis, supportive of the authority of the Church over social services and education, and in many ways more authoritarian than the clergy, was prone to see Communists in every corner. Relations between the provincial government and union progressively soured through the 1950s, as Duplessis was more than willing to arrest strikers, in the 100s if necessary. The election of the Liberals, who brought Quebec labor laws in line with Ontario laws would help to usher in the Quiet Revolution. Quebec nationalism and Catholicism, which had walked hand and hand to this point in time, would go their separate ways.

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