Guest Commentary

Prof. Desmond Morton In Memoriam

The Good Years

(Editor’s note: Professor Desmond Morton of McGill University, one of the nation’s most prolific historians, died September 4 at 81. Morton devoted his professional life to chronicling little-known accounts of Canadiana from our political, military and labour past. On December 10, 2009 Prof. Morton spoke with Blacklock’s publisher Holly Doan on postwar years. Following is a transcription of his remarks)

I think the 1950s was a good decade. The Forties had a war, the Thirties had the Great Depression, the Twenties had all sorts of problems of a poor country pretending to be rich. The Fifties are a time when we didn’t have to pretend anymore.

If you found yourself a job during the Second World War, my discovery statistically was that you had a very good chance of hanging onto the job without layoffs until you were at the gold watch stage, retiring in your late 60s. That had never happened to a working class generation before.

Old age had been a time of abject poverty for most people. It was terrifying to grow old because you knew what the fate of your parents had been, and their parents.  They didn’t live jolly lives visiting the grandchildren and chucking them on their knee.  They lived in poverty – desperate, starving, freezing poverty. Growing old was a horror.

That all changed. The Fifties are an era when we actually improve as a society. We weren’t a little, tiny, provincial, self-insulating society anymore. In a way the Second World War had proved that. We couldn’t escape the world; we might as well be part of it.

The biggest achievement for me is that Canadians on the whole ceased to hate each other for reasons of race, religion, gender – whatever – because they didn’t have to anymore. The thought that somebody else’s money might go to build a road or put another sewer in the village, we didn’t need that anymore. We had those. So we can tolerate money being spent on other things.

The 1951 Census reveals most Canadians, a majority, were well enough off to leave poverty. And by the 1961 Census only fifteen percent of Canadians were living in poverty. You could honestly and sensibly say that we could eliminate poverty altogether. All those hatreds this country had in its belly became unreal, meaningless, stupid, embarrassing even! That happened because of affluence.

Merely owning a car had been unthinkable for most ordinary Canadian families; now it became virtually routine. That era really changed a lot of lives. The expectation you’ll have a home of your own – maybe you own it, maybe you rent it – but it’ll be yours as long as you need it. And the old man will work until he’s 65 and they’ll give him a gold watch, and a pension!

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