Me, You, Us
By Michael Valpy

We still love our country. But increasingly, ordinary citizens are feeling left out, “excommunicated to the margins,” through lack of decent employment and a sense that their voice doesn’t count, writes award-winning Canadian journalist Michael Valpy. In his new Star Dispatches ebook, Me, You, Us: How Canada Is Falling Apart and What Can Be Done to Fix It, Valpy explores why social cohesion is on the wane in this country. Unless we restore it, he writes, we risk losing the glue that keeps us together. Me, You, Us, is the result of a year of research undertaken by Michael Valpy, with the support of the Atkinson Charitable Foundation.

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Me, You, Us

My project for a year, supported by the Atkinson Charitable Foundation in partnership with the Honderich family and the Toronto Star, has been to examine the state of social cohesion in Canada.

What is social cohesion? It’s what makes us feel we belong to one another, what gives us a public life in common and allows us to trust one another because of the values we share. Its lack pushes us apart and makes us feel marginal,

My investigation has introduced me to a Canada that I hadn’t much thought about, paid little attention to, that has not been part of my adult life in the relatively elite Toronto worlds of mass media
and the university in which I’ve moved.

It is not what I started out to look for.

What I heard was the sound of a society losing its glue: middleaged men with their jobs taken away after 20, 30 years on the factory floor, answering questions in unison in a basement room in

Who’s on your side?
Who is showing solidarity with you?
Like the ritual responses in a mass.
What happens to your world?

Your world gets devastated, they say, because unemployment is not just statistics and a pay cheque.

“The majority of your life you spend with your co-workers,” says Charlie Jonczyk, who spent 34 years building buses. Until you no longer belong. Your status in the community, your sense of self-worth, your purpose and reason for going out the door in the morning, the talent you hold in your hands — it all gets taken away.

The sound of a society losing its glue is heard in the voices of former employees of bus make Orion International, shuttered in 2013 by Daimler of North America. It is heard in the words of men like Jonczyk, talking about us and them and inequality.

A few blocks away from the basement room in Oakville is a new housing development advertised — these are the words — as a millionaires’ estate.

“The rich ones are flaunting it,” says Wally Symes, a welder at the bus factory for 17 years.

Canadians’ trust in their government and their democracy has reached unprecedented lows on the pollsters’ surveys.

The sound of democracy losing its glue is a mouse click, says the poet Sonnet L’Abbé, who after her first year teaching at the University of B.C.’s Okanagan campus spent two months last summer travelling the country, inquiring into Canadians’ thoughts about their land.

“Politics is reduced to pushing ‘share’ on BuzzFeed,” she says — which, in addition to being an observation on civics, illustrates Canada’s generational fracture: people over 60 won’t know what she’s talking about. (Which doesn’t matter: they vote; the young don’t.)

The sound of generational fracture is UBC professor Paul Kershaw talking this spring to young people in Powell River, B.C., about the aspirations of an advocacy organization he’s founded called Generation Squeeze.

“I stand before you with a simple proposition,” he says when he walks out on stage. “The proposition is this: that Generations X and Y, those under 45, deserve a chance, a chance to deal with lower wages and higher costs of living today without compromising the families they have now or the families they may one day want.”

He tells his audience that governments spend just $12,000 annually on benefits and services for every Canadian under 45 compared to nearly $45,000 for every retiree. He tells them the Canadian economy has more than doubled in size since 1976, producing an extra $35,000 per household per year on average. “But that average increase in prosperity is simply not trickling down to younger generations today.”

His website declares: what’s been good for the previous generation “is bad for us.” A call to rise up, that’s what this is.

The sound of something going wrong with multiculturalism — the ethos of Canadians’ pride and their sense of community — is my conversation with Richard Wang early one morning as I drive him from his apartment to maybe his 60th, 70th interview for a temporary job. Wang was a university professor in China before immigrating to Canada. Since his arrival almost a decade ago, he has worked in call centres and as a doorman, janitor, washroom cleaner, shopping-mall retail clerk and a host of other low-paying, low-skilled jobs.

He belongs to that new word in our vocabulary, the “precariat,” people in the precarious employment that accounts for as much as 40 per cent of today’s jobs, a proportion growing rapidly. The precariat are people who work without benefits, without pensions, without job security, without career futures. They are the shuffling foot soldiers of the temporary work agencies that are becoming the doorkeepers to employment in Canada, like the pass-law administrators of apartheid South Africa.