Thursday, September 22, 2011

Pierre Berton's "The Great Depression"

Pierre Berton is always a delight to read. His style is excellent. He melds broad history with personal detail to create a tapestry that maintains interest and gives a deeper understanding by blending policy with the effects of policy on real human lives.

This book is organized into chapters by years from 1929 to 1939 to tell the story of the Great Depression in Canada. It is a unrelentingly grim picture of the depression and the utter incompetence and indifference of political leadership to the savage effects of politicians that the rich elite on the lives of the 27% unemployed who struggled hard to keep body and soul together as year after year "hard times" ruined more and more of their lives.

The politicians simply never "got it". They never understood the depth of the pain and misery. They kept worrying about how to either deny relief benefits or to shuffle the costs from off their layer of government onto another. As well, the story shows how a weird ideological hatred for "commies" led the politicians to use the police to commit horrible crimes against the innocent. Even when they came down on real "commies" the brutal treatment by the police was all out of scope with any threat from the political agitators.

This is an ugly, raw, cruel portrait of a Canada so different from the Canada of today that I don't recognize it. This is a Canada that hates "ethnics" and paranoid about "commies". It is a state that is absolutely indifferent to suffering and a state that is never held accountable for its cruel treatment of those down and out through no fault of their own. It is a searing tale of political conniving to shred political rights in a mad hunt for "commies". The portrait of R. B. Bennett is one of a cruel rich man who simply refused to believe that the government should ever provide relief to the starving unemployed. Mackenzie King comes across as a cross between a crazed spiritualist/neurotic and a politician pettily scheming about his "image" while ignoring the real suffering of the people.

The only glimmer of hope is the bits about the founding of the CCF. But even here, the founder, J. S. Woodsworth, ends up being an idealist who fails to come to grips with the real evil of the Nazis and the need to face up to an impending world war.

Here are some bits from the book so that you can get a taste of the style and the focus on facts by Pierre Berton:
It is true that the Communists were using the unemployed for their own political ends.So, indeed, were the major parties. After his defeat, Mackenzie King viewed the unemployment crisis as a bonus for his own Liberals and a chance to get in a lick at Bennett. Although "sorry for the country's sake," he recorded on March 31 his satisfaction when told by Woodsworth and other Labour M.".s that things were far worse than they had been the previous year under a Liberal administration.

That the Communists were sincere is beside the point; after all, so was Hitler. The gospel according to Karl Marx made them just as blindly orthodox as their capitalistic opponents, who clung to the dogma of the balanced budget no matter what the cost in human suffering. Yet in the ranks of the Reds and, indeed, among the leadership there was also a sense of genuine outrage not unmixed with human compassion for those who had been felled by economic disaster.
Two topics covered by this book that I found especially interesting were laws used to suppress "dissent". One was Section 98 that banned "unlawful assemblies" and was wielded brutally. Even worse was the Padlock Law in Quebec that seized property when the police "found" communist literature, but was so broadly used that it was invoked to seize Protestant literature from an evangelizer. These laws were used in the most heavy-handed way and the broad public simply ignored the effect: rights and liberties were cast to the wind. Here's Berton:
Section 98 was in force for fifteen years. It was the government's big stick against radical thought because it made mere membership in an illegal organization convincing evidence of the political or economic system by force of violence, then every member was guilty. If you went to even one of its meetings, gave it money, spoke publicly in its favour, distributed its literature, or wore its emblem you were liable to twenty years' imprisonment. And contrary to British legal practice, you were held to be guilty until you could prove your innocence. Anyone who rented a hall to an illegal group was subject to a five-thousand-dollar fine. Anyone who printed its literature advocating violent political change, or who imported similar literature, could also go to jail for twenty years. In fact, anybody who advocated violence in this context, whether he belonged to an illegal association or not, could go to jail.
The treatment of suspected "commies" was brutal in Canada:
... it was not just die-hard communists who faced deportation from Canada under the Bennett regime. Anyone who had been in the country for less than five years could be deported as a public simply by applying for relief. That regulation covered not only the "undesirables" but also thousands of others who had been recruited to come to Canada in the twenties by a business-oriented community looking for cheap labour. The Canadian Manufacturers' Association had lobbied the government to broaden its immigration policy, and in 1926 the two major railways and the Canadian Bankers' Association quietly backed the campaign. In fact, until the Depression, Canada had not only welcomed newcomers, it had also wooed them and subsidized them with low rail fares and free land, especially in the West. The immigrants, in turn, had helped make the country prosperous. Now, with hard times returning, the government was callously prepared to throw them out.
Finally, this bit by Berton shows the priggish morality of Canada at that time. It is a story about William Aberhart, a teacher with fundamentalist religion, who rose to control the province of Alberta with his "Social Credit" philosophy:
Under the Canadian moral standards of the middle thirties, sex was held to be dirty and therefore not to be discussed in public, on the radio, or in the newspapers. William Aberhart had come up against the taboo in January when he told a joke in Calgary, in which he talked about the hard time he was being given by his critics.

"It brought to my mind," Aberhart said, "the story of the young lady in the maternity ward who was in agony. She asked the nurse if there was a young man in a brown suit and brown fedora outside in the corridor.

"The nurse said, 'Yes, I saw one there when I came in.'

"'Well,' said the girl, 'tell him that if this is anything like married life, the engagement is off.'"

That parable, inoffensive by almost any standards, got Aberhart into a heap of trouble. The Social Credit leader was assailed by complaints that he had told a "lewd" joke. Efforts were even made to take him off the air.
I highly recommend this book both for the sheer joy of the quality of the story told and for the history of Canada that it reveals.

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