We in Quebec are now waiting with not-so-bated breath for Madame Marois to call for an April provincial election, while the federal political parties are jostling to position themselves for their campaigns in advance of the statutory spending limits (or whatever’s left of them if that “Fair Elections Act” passes) that will govern a 2015 general election.

All major parties at both levels of government are aiming their pitches at what they consider to be the “middle class.” Exactly whom they think that class contains is worth a closer look.

Tamsin McMahon of Maclean’s underlined the vagueness of the term in “Who belongs to Canada’s middle class?” [ http://www2.macleans.ca/2014/02/26/who-belongs-to-canadas-middle-class/ ] this past week, in a way that dispels the all-too-common belief that “we’re all middle-class except for a handful of trust-fund babies and a lot of lazy, shiftless bums on public assistance.”

Once—long ago, in my 20th-century childhood—class distinctions were still fairly clear. The “aristocrats” of a democratic Canada were not just the few descendents of British and French nobility-by-birth who chose (or were paid by their families) to stay in “the colonies” but the rich and powerful who had risen to that level by trading in furs, sugar, booze, banking, votes or whatever, even if they happened to be Scots or Irish or French-Canadian or (heaven help us!) Italians or Jews.
The “working class” were people who worked primarily with their hands, whether as day labourers or skilled tradesmen, many of whom left school as soon as legally permissible and almost none of whom would even dream of attending a university. The “middle class” was everyone in between: namely, the people with “white collar” jobs from typist and store clerk and teacher to doctor, lawyer and executive. Post WWII, although few even aspired to join the elite, most Canadians expected that hard work, combined with higher education or a good trade, would enable them to provide well for their families and perhaps enable them to give their children a better life than they themselves had.

Of course, that rosy picture had some unpleasant underpinnings few thought it polite to mention. Issues of overt racism, the “Red Peril” and “Yellow Peril” nonsense, the prevalent Anglo view that French-Canadians were inherently incapable of anything intellectually demanding, the unholy alliance between the French-Canadian politico-business elite and the Church to keep the majority in ignorance, and the systemic discrimination against women were rarely discussed, let alone considered remediable, except by “radicals.”

It seems to me that these days most Canadians have no idea how much they owe to those “radicals.” That is, those who unionized the blue-collar workers, compelled politicians to pass labour laws and employers to pay decent wages, equip factories with safety devices, set up pension funds, etc. That is, those who persuaded the union-averse “middle class” that the wages of nurses and teachers and typists and clerks should be sufficient to keep them housed and fed (which they hadn’t been) and that a woman shouldn’t be fired automatically if she got married, let alone pregnant. And that is those like the late René Lévesque who stood up to the election-day goon squads and enabled ordinary voters to unseat the corrupt bastards in power in Quebec and start building a functional social democracy where everyone had a chance at a decent life. It seems that after a few decades of reasonably civilized progress, people forget how that progress was achieved and why the economy was doing so much better as a result.

Nowadays, both federally and provincially, the political rhetoric leans heavily on the idea that the “middle class” voter is a selfish, narrow-minded and bigoted type whose highest aspirations are expensive cars and gadgets, a fat stock portfolio, luxurious vacations and the like…and the opportunity to despise and disempower the 70%+ of their fellow-citizens who know full well they will never have those things. It is assumed what will win votes is a promise of perpetually-lower taxes, bolstered by the premise that it is simply “unsustainable” (i.e., too costly, unproductive, anti-competitive) to treat the young, the poor, the sick, the disabled and the foreigner as if they were human beings with the same human rights as the politicians and lawyers and business executives and their good affluent suburban families.

The endless talk about “the economy” blithely sidesteps the simple fact that the *real* economy is suffering because the majority of Canadians simply cannot afford the standard of living they once had, back when employment was reasonably stable and wages kept up with the price of necessities like food and shelter and transportation, which left them with enough disposable income to buy other things and/or educate their kids. Much of the *real* middle class, like most of those who formerly had well-paid blue-collar jobs, have been tightening their belts for the past thirty-odd years or else undertaking the massive debt required to buy a home or send a child to university. Naturally, either way, these “lower classes” are not labelled as such and have grown accustomed to endless scolding from their “betters” over their lack of retirement savings, household debt, and unwillingness to give up on public health care.

In the interests of full disclosure, I am and have always been middleclass. My parents came of good bourgeois families back in the old country. As immigrants, they worked blue-collar jobs for some years and we were far from affluent in my early childhood but our values were middleclass nonetheless: that is, we valued the arts, believed in hard work and democracy, and thought higher education was important for reasons other than eventual paycheques. When my family (re-)achieved middleclass comfort (a mortgage *and* an ever-full fridge) in the 1960s, those beliefs in hard work and democracy put me firmly in the ranks of the “radical” bourgeoisie. I wanted to see peace, social justice, a healthy environment and a decent standard of living for all.

The Parti Québecois did not exist yet back then but the people who would found it were already around and talking about those same ideals.
As an Anglo girl in a $35-a-week office clerk job, I could see other “middleclass” people simply hated the idea that things could change.

There are always some people who hate any change, knowing they don’t adapt easily to new conditions. There are always some who hate it for other reasons—usually because the desired change will cost them something, whether money or power or both. The bosses didn’t like the idea of equal pay for male and female, French and English or having to pay their share of social benefits. The (real) Anglo elite didn’t accept that their attitude to French-Canadians needed to change. The French-Canadian elite didn’t want to be challenged to explain their conduct and certainly objected to political equality for fellow-citizens who hadn’t attended the right private colleges. The Catholic Church was terrified that education would break its tight hold on social and political power (as it did, of course) and the politicians with whom they had had a tacit agreement to freeze Quebec in the 19th century knew perfectly well they would lose their privileged position, not to mention a lot of public money. And, believe it or not, all of those folks were “middleclass” too.

Unfortunately, I was naive in thinking back then that a decade or two of seeing real democracy in action, with the general improvement to everyone’s life as a consequence, would change those middleclass attitudes. Instead, it seems, once everyone had realized the world didn’t end when society became fairer and more open, they became complacent. Then, when events (and a large cabal of unprincipled individuals) put a serious dent in collective prosperity, those who had been doing rather better than the average obeyed that old instinct to “kiss up and kick down” and took to blaming, not the perpetrators of the massive theft, but their fellow-citizens who use public services a little more than their more-affluent selves.

To get back to the Maclean’s piece, whether one sees Canadian society as 35% upper and 40% lower with only 25% in the middle or judges things by some calculation of discretionary income to spend on “vintage wines, stocks and bonds, [and] vacations[,]” it seems pretty clear from recent federal and provincial election results that most politicians are concentrating their efforts on a fairly narrow band of voters, assuming that the critical suburban seats will be won pandering to the most selfish concerns of the classic yuppie.

Presumably popular measures include things like cutting cellphone roaming fees (saving a few dollars for those who travel for business or pleasure) while leaving basic cellphones and Internet plans unaffordable for 20%+ of the population, increasing user fees for public services (while saving a bit by reducing access to them), disregarding impacts on local communities and industries to please those who can profit from energy and mining stocks, and concentrating arts and sports funding on a few high-profile institutions while denigrating the contributions of most people working in those areas to the economy. Ever more popular is the pretense that access to public education is a privilege, not a right and a social good, and should therefore require ever-increasing fees—not just university tuition but even access to the lunchroom and activities at the elementary level—rather than adequate funding by governments. After all, “we” do not want to pay taxes if the money is to be spent on something “we” do not need ourselves at the moment.

I suspect “we” is indeed a small segment of society that benefits from living in those critical suburban districts that can make the difference between majority and minority or rout a party entirely. It is certainly a smaller segment than that which created Quebec’s “orange wave” in the last federal election and brought the PQ to (tenuous) power on the strength of social-justice promises made over the student strike and “casseroles” parades.

In my cynical old age, I can’t help wondering about the timing of Mme Marois’ election call. She and her colleagues must know how deeply they have offended many former supporters, what with broken promises about access to education, regressive measures on healthcare and daycare, backtracking on protection of the environment, and especially the blatant bigotry contained in the “secular charter.” On the plus side, no doubt the PQ counts on tapping into the ignorance vote with that charter, whether from the rural bigots or the suburban ones whose reasons are less obvious (reluctance to see unconventional garments, unwillingness to accommodate holidays of other faiths in work schedules, fear of immigrants getting civil service jobs). It may also be a significant, if unacknowledged, gamble that the Charbonneau inquiry will dig up some good dirt on Quebec Liberals but won’t have time to excavate into certain members of the PQ before election day.
In any case, the PQ can certainly count on some support from people who haven’t forgotten Jean Charest’s Conservative past and views, and the Harper Government’s behaviour may pull in some “anyone against Harper” votes. Ironically enough, most of the people who will vote in that election will be middleclass (as well as middle-aged and up), and it’s a fair bet that their votes will be split based on multiple factors, some of them matters of principle. The outcome is anyone’s guess but a clear majority by any one party seems unlikely.

As for the federal level, with over a year to go, it would be rash to make any predictions about the outcome in 2015. At the moment, all one can say is that Canadian society is deeply divided…in several different dimensions.

The old left-right distinction which we once thought was old hat has become significant again, though in practice the choice is between “far right” and “somewhere around what used to be the centre.” Something well above half of all Canadians does not like the policies of the far right but that didn’t stop them from winning enough seats to take over; if anything, their so-called “Fair Elections Act” will make it even easier to collect and spend under-the-table money, thwart Elections Canada audits, and prevent investigators from uncovering and prosecuting illegal acts. Perhaps not coincidentally, it will also prohibit Elections Canada from telling young people how important it is for citizens to get out there and vote—the Conservatives having learned from their American Republican friends that winning is as much about stopping non-supporters from voting as it is about getting maximum spending money from your supporters.

Still, it seems to me that the other social divisions matter more than the partisan issues. The majority of Canadians are (perhaps notoriously) decent human beings. They want everyone, not just themselves and their families, to live safe, decent lives in a healthy, sustainable environment. They want the economy to be good, not just for the investing classes but also for the sake of those who need our help to survive, whether that need arises from a natural disaster, a birth defect, an illness or a man-made catastrophe like Lac Mégantic’s tragic explosion. They want to see everyone’s children grow up healthy and find good jobs. They want to see food banks and homeless shelters become unnecessary, as they should be in a country as wealthy as Canada.
They are proud of fellow-Canadians’ achievements but ashamed of the injustices committed by their successive governments towards First Nations peoples, poor orphans, and sundry ethnic groups deprived of their rights on the pretext of national security. They are proud of the Canadian military, especially as peacekeepers and providers of disaster relief but also as soldiers serving the nation, but ashamed of politicians who rate arms contracts and upper-ranks perks above the needs of those soldiers and their families. They grumble about taxes but pay them, knowing that while some of the money is inevitably misspent or misdirected into private pockets, most of it is needed to provide services any Canadian may use when needed.

On the whole, the distinction between Quebec and the Rest of Canada is immaterial here: the people are on the side of basic humanity and fair treatment of everyone, here and abroad. As for the distinction between classes, whether we admit it out loud or not, the vote splits between those who want the status quo, those who want a return to the 19th century, and those who are hoping 21st-century Canada can build on the progress it made in the mid-20th. That distinction is not purely a matter of class, however one defines it. The real question is, who can that last group vote for who not only shares their values but is committed to putting them into practice? Campaign speeches and party brochures are notoriously unreliable. Policies approved at party conventions can be overridden or reversed by the will of the Leader and his immediate circle, regardless of what the membership thinks, let alone the voting public. Media coverage concentrates on leaders’ personalities, followers’ most notorious gaffes, and the horse-race aspect of polling. In that race, it’s the citizen, not the “horse,” who is handicapped: how can he or she make a well-informed choice?

I think of an old piece of graffiti—”If voting could change anything, it would be illegal”—and can only say that somehow we citizens do have to keep trying. It’s not the only thing we should do, of course, but staying away from the polls or voting based on images and sound-bites is what got us into this mess in the first place. Let’s put the class-consciousness aside and do better when we get the chance.