How familiar do these words seem to you?
“We do not believe that the people…have abandoned their sense of decency and democracy; that they do not wish this government to destroy decades of economic and social progress. We believe that the… deficit, whether it is real or fabricated, is being used as an excuse in order to direct undemocratic attacks against the social and economic conditions of all working people – employed and unemployed, native and non-native, women and men. We do not believe that the…government…was ever given a mandate to decimate our hospital and health system, our social service system, support agencies for women, native people and the elderly.”
This excerpt came from a 25-year-old press release put out by the Prince Albert Citizens for Tomorrow (PACT). As a community coalition, PACT attempted to challenge the cutback policies of the Saskatchewan Conservative government of Grant Devine. Now you can fill in the blanks above. This week I found the release among papers from one box among many that my wife, Eva, urged me to look at. This is in a vain attempt to reduce the piles of paper that seem to grow up around both of us, I fear.
For a while in 1987, PACT held information meetings to try to get their message out on the negative impacts of the Devine government’s cutbacks. Dry, serious discussions, however, just didn’t garner the attention of the community. Whereas when the decision was made to hold a Summer School of Social Action, adding a bit of humour and play to the equation, PACT went viral – or the 1980s equivalent of it.
Sessions on effigy making, proper preparation of placards and picket signs, protest singing and soapboxing or street corner rhetoric drew wide attention. CBC sent in a crew for the National to Prince Albert, as did CTV. One session even made it on to CNN. As It Happens from CBC Toronto covered it, and so did most of the local and regional radio and newspapers.
The Devine government did eventually fall. It even gained lasting notoriety with political history buffs for seeing more cabinet members and back benchers jailed for various felonies related to their abuse of power than any other modern government in Canada. However, the free market and less-government policies they advocated have been widely emulated.
The impact of their legacy is not hard to see in Saskatchewan. Once the heartland of co-operativism in Canada, Saskatchewan has seen the institutional landscape it took generations to build, decimated in not much more than a few decades. For example, the farmer-owned Saskatchewan Wheat Pool is gone. Viterra, its publicly traded successor, just got taken over by a Swiss multinational corporation. The Canadian Wheat Board, a linchpin of the whole collective marketing system, also fell. The story goes on.
The Saskatchewan Party government, ironically, did recognize the 50th anniversary of Canada’s first Medicare legislation adopted on July 1, 1962. The celebration occurs at a time when the basic fabric of the Canadian social system seems threatened on many fronts by an implacable free market logic.
A real philosophical divide exists today between the libertarian position expressed by Robert Nozick in his 1974 “Anarchy, State and Utopia” where he concludes that “only a minimal state, limited to enforcing contracts and protecting people against force, theft, and fraud, is justified” and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s clear and succinct 1944 position defending government’s role in creating a welfare state, “necessitous men are not free men.”
The quarter of a century-old Summer School for Social Action press release sounds like it could have been written yesterday – just change a few names. Arguably a refresher course in the basic skills needed “to make distant, uncaring government hear our voices” wouldn’t be bad today. A significant percentage of our Whitehorse community this past spring, though, appeared very much up to the task of letting all levels of government know which side of the divide it stands on.
Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact email@example.com.