Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Elections and Kids: Desperate Times

The first election I remember clearly was the federal election of 1972, in which Robert Stanfield ran as leader of the Progressive Conservatives against Pierre Trudeau. The reason I remember that political race in particular, has to do with my best friend Ann. I adored Ann and her family. Her father was an executive at Coca-Cola Canada, her mother a kindhearted former kindergarten teacher, and their airy suburban side-split (a literal mirror image of ours) overflowed with beautiful, happy children. Ann's parents seemed to be more particular about certain things than mine. For instance, they cared about brands. They drank Coke, never Pepsi (although after Ann's father transferred to Pepsi, this allegiance abruptly switched, something that puzzled me somewhat); they ate Kraft peanut butter, and Kraft macaroni and cheese. Store labels were not acceptable substitutes. Store brands were acceptable to my parents, and I complained about this state of affairs to my mother. She tried to explain that the products themselves were mostly the same, so it didn't really matter, but this explanation struck me as feeble. My parents clearly didn't understand the world the way Ann's family did.

Another brand Ann's family liked was the Progressive Conservative brand. Pierre Trudeau was anathema to her family, as he was to many of of our neighbours. The sign on Ann's front lawn was oversized—and blue. I spent a lot of time with Ann's family during that election; I spent a lot of time with them in general. I fantasized about being part of their perfect family, although I was fond of my own less perfect version as well. So that June, I practically lived with Ann, which meant I spent a considerable amount of time riding around in her parents' station wagon, as her mother and father carried out their chores. I remember one day in particular when Ann, her younger sister and I were being driven around our neighbourhood by Ann's father. I don't recall how it started, but the three of us, sitting happily seatbelt-less in the back of the car, windows wide open and a warm wind whipping our hair, began to cheer every time we passed a Conservative sign, and boo when we passed a Liberal sign. (In our suburb, NDP signs were conspicuous by their absence.) Ann's father chuckled and smiled at us as we did this, and I remember the whole outing being a lot of fun.

That evening at the dinner table I told my parents what we had done. My father laughed; he said nothing. It wasn't until years later that I discovered my parents had never voted Conservative in their lives. My mother supported the NDP and my father was a Liberal, who occasionally voted NDP. Yet at the time, they felt no need to tell me this. They seemed unperturbed by my unbridled enthusiasm for Robert Stanfield and the Progressive Conservatives.

Fast forward almost 40 years. My 11-yr-old twin daughters are in the car with my husband and me. We're driving around our neighbourhood during a spring election, and my daughters are noting the preponderance of Conservative signs. We pass a Liberal sign and the girls begin to cheer. From that point on, they cheer every time we pass a Liberal sign. (In our suburb-in-the-city, NDP signs are conspicuous by their absence.) Sitting in the front seat listening to them, I realize that we have become Ann's family—a family in which children are initiated at a young age into the world of partisan politics. I begin to think about how this situation came about, especially in light of what I thought were my beliefs about children, politics and indoctrination. (See here, for instance.) For the truth is, in retrospect, I admire my parents' restraint. I respect them for refusing to tell us what to think politically, for allowing us to mature, and figure out for ourselves where we stood on serious issues.

In the family that my husband and I have created, things are different. At the dinner table one evening not long ago, one of my daughters asked what the Conservative Party of Canada stood for. My husband answered flippantly, "They stand for the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer." My daughter seemed a bit shocked so I added, "That's not how they would describe what they stand for," and I proceeded to try to explain the CPC in a manner more in keeping with how a supporter might explain it. I talked about how some people believe the role of government is to tax citizens who can afford to be taxed so as to provide services and programs to all people, but especially to those who would not be able to afford such services otherwise. I went on to explain that other politicians believe government should be as small as possible, and that taxes should be low, so people can decide for themselves what to to with their money. That was as much fair-mindedness as I could muster, and I couldn't help but add that the problem with the latter approach is that it disproportionally favours the rich.

So why have I chosen not to exercise the same degree of restraint during this election that my parents exercised effortlessly throughout every election that occurred during my childhood?

The answer is complicated. My mother and father were quite possibly more mature in their parental role than my husband and I. Or perhaps they were simply less willing to talk openly to their children about politics and other sensitive issues. But I believe there's more to it than that. The political landscape in Canada has changed drastically in the last four decades, but most noticeably in the last decade. In 1972, there was a consensus among the major political parties about what Canada could or should be. It was not a well-defined consensus, but I believe it stemmed from and incorporated Trudeau's notion of a Just Society, which I interpret to mean a society interested (at least in theory) in providing a decent quality of life for all its members. Am I indulging in pure nostalgia here? Possibly. But the fact is, "red Tories" like Stanfield—and at the provincial level, Bill Davis—would be considered liberals by today's standards. So my parents had no real reason to fear a Progressive Conservative government. But in the wake of the merger between the Canadian Alliance (successor to the far right Reform Party) and the Progressive Conservatives in 2003—which brought into being the Conservative Party of Canada—conservatism has taken on an entirely different cast. I do fear another Conservative government—with reason, I believe. Though he has never managed to achieve a majority in Parliament, Stephen Harper has attempted to remake Canada in the image of the worst elements of American Republicanism. He has used loopholes in parliamentary law to perpetrate innumerable abuses of power and to subvert the democratic process. He has prorogued Parliament on two occasions: once in 2008, while facing a confidence vote in the House of Commons (and the perfectly legal prospect of an opposition coalition forming the government), and again in 2010, to avoid handing over disturbing information regarding the Afghan detainee file to the House of Commons. In March of this year, his government, having refused to furnish adequate budget information regarding its plan to build new prisons, was found in contempt of Parliament, a first for Canada, and indeed for any Commonwealth country. (For a full list of Harper's abuses of power, see here.) Currently, Harper is running for re-election on an strikingly Bushian platform of sustained tax breaks for corporations and their wealthy shareholders, increased military spending, and a promise to build shiny new prisons, even though the crime rate in Canada is down.

So perhaps we can be forgiven for being a little more forthright with our children about the current political scene in Canada. The truth is, as a parent, I'm afraid: afraid that should Harper achieve his majority, the Canada I knew as a child—a Canada which my parents and Ann's took for granted, one which poured money into schools, health care, and social programs, and taxed its citizens progressively in order to do so—will cease to exist as my children grow into adults. Perhaps, in other words, desperate times call for desperate parenting.


  1. 1972 is the first election I remember, too. I have vivid memories of marching through the school corridors with my fellow second-graders chanting, "Nixon, Nixon, he's our man, McGovern belongs in the garbage can!"

    I don't recall my parents or siblings talking politics at all when I was that age, but maybe I just tuned it out. I do remember all of us rooting for Nixon's resignation less than two years afterward. I later learned that my parents had cancelled each other's votes out for as long as they had been married. That changed when Reagan ran in 1980 -- my father stopped voting Republican and never looked back.

    I think you've raised a very interesting issue. We do talk politics a lot in our house, and I suppose there wouldn't be any way to hide our views from our kids. But I also think it's important to let them form their own opinions. It's hard to know sometimes how to balance that against our desire to be candid with them about how we see the world.

  2. "...chanting, "Nixon, Nixon, he's our man, McGovern belongs in the garbage can!"

    This is so funny! It sounds as if you grew up in a neighbourhood similar to the one I grew up in.

    It is indeed difficult to achieve a balance between allowing kids to form their own opinions, and being forthright with them about how we feel about important issues. I'm not sure my husband and I have managed to strike that balance--at least not during this election.

  3. Yeah, it's funny -- if you Google that chant, you find a bunch of other people with similar memories. It's a good story for me to remember when my kids do root for my candidates . . .