Wednesday, 25 March 2020

Back to the 30s?

“We are facing a period of profound adversity unlike any we have since the 1930s,” Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said last week. The premier was referring to the province's economy which has, like the rest of the country, indeed like the rest of the world, been hit hard by the COVID-19 crisis. Unlike the rest of the country, however, Alberta's major industry was already tanking before the meat market in Wuhan launched the bug.

Strolling down 17th Avenue in the Beltline—the high street of Calgary's most vibrant neighbourhood—I do indeed witness intimations of the 30s. Its normally bustling shops, pubs, restaurants and coffee shops are disturbingly quiet, many closed. The scene causes a twinge of guilt. I have reluctantly given up my usual afternoon coffee and pastry or lunch, one of the highlights of my day. By depriving these shops of my business I am contributing to the suffering of their small business owners and their minimum-wage staff. But what can I do—the pandemic is upon us and social distancing is de rigueur.

The other day a friend and I were discussing how in our lifetimes society had consistently improved, and now in our dotage it seems to be reversing. And it's not just cranky old age. We aren't imagining Donald Trump, Brexit and the taint off fascism in the political air.

Harking back to the 30s struck a particular chord with me. I was born in Saskatchewan in 1934, in the heart of the Great Depression. That's where I came in. Is that where I'll go out?

Early in the 20th century, Saskatchewan was a province of exceptional promise. Here was the country's breadbasket with vast expanses of agricultural soil among the richest in the world. Then came the 1930s bringing depression, drought and plagues of grasshoppers. Wheat prices collapsed and the fertile land began to blow away. That was the Saskatchewan I was born into. Now here I am in Alberta 85 years later and this province, lately the richest in the federation, watches the price of its major product collapse and waits for its leading industry to dry up and blow away.

I could be pessimistic, wondering if hard times just have a thing for the Prairies. Yet I cannot overlook the fact that the "Dirty Thirties" catalyzed the rise of left-wing social movements on the Prairies, particularly the CCF (forerunner of the NDP), that ultimately resulted in great social progress including Medicare, the jewel in the crown of the welfare state. Perhaps this round of hard times will lead to another social awakening.

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