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CAUT Bulletin Archives

October 1996

What the Heck Has Happened to Liberalism?

Bill Bruneau

The Liberal Record

Most of us romanticize our undergraduate days. For me, the memories are of excitements at the University of Saskatchewan -- a compelling introduction to history, logic taught by a hilariously absent-minded instructor, American literature given by someone who had made a separate career in provincial politics, and great parties.

And visits by high political figures -- among them Lester B. Pearson. He came to the Memorial Union Building in the fall of 1963 to give us vintage Pearson: The nation was an example of civility at work. A civil and kindly society was possible only if the raw forces of capital and foreign interest were held in check. For Pearson, universities were in miniature what he hoped the whole nation would finally become.

Pearson proudly spoke of his support for teaching and research in the humanities and social sciences. He extolled the huge benefits -- social and economic, direct and indirect -- of widely accessible, publicly funded higher education. He recognized that university autonomy was a sine qua non. He bragged about regional economic development and income redistribution. For one delirious moment we thought he was going to argue for medicare, but he caught himself in time (National medicare had to wait a couple of years).

Pearson noted that Liberals had come a fair way since Mackenzie King's "negative government" -- the belief that the state should intervene in society only when something had gone seriously wrong, as, for example, the Great Depression.

But even Mackenzie King turned out to be something of an activist, and by the end of World War II would bring in old-age pensions, federal assistance for health and social services, and national assistance in research and development. It was for Louis St. Laurent to put all this more fully into practice, partly on the advice of the Massey Commission and partly in response to huge changes in Canadian society and economy.

The extraordinary thing was that it all happened while Canada was poor. The response to the Depression came when incomes were falling rapidly. The war was won on a nearly-empty treasury. The vets came back to burgeoning universities, and pensions came in, all when Canadians had only the most modest of incomes, and little hope of better.

In my prairie village, farmers had virtually no disposable income until the mid-1950s. But because there was a network of schools and universities, increasingly accessible to their children, these people took chances, and sent their kids off to "the U."

How odd it is in this year 1996 to think of those creative Liberals. What the heck has happened to Liberalism? The Liberals' talk is now of cuts, efficiencies and economic renewal -- but not of community, or those cultural institutions that make community and confidence possible in the first place.

The "new" Liberals have mistaken economics for politics. The Liberals plead poverty and seek to escape responsibility as builders of community and culture. Lester Pearson must be whirling in his grave, not to mention Messrs King and St. Laurent (Mr. Trudeau can speak for himself).

But of course, governments can change their minds. They can restore funding. They can build rather than cut. There are signs this government is beginning to think of these very things. And in doing so they return to the first, and the true "Liberal Record." We'll be watching and waiting.

Bill Bruneau is President of CAUT.