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Federal Politics
Election 2015

Harry Smith Is Coming for Stephen Harper

The 92-year-old anti-austerity campaigner, a UK sensation, sets his sights on Canada.

Jeremy Nuttall 21 Mar

Jeremy J. Nuttall is The Tyee's Parliament Hill reporter in Ottawa. Find his previous stories here.

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A sparkling-clean nation where everyone willingly paid their taxes is the Canada that Harry Leslie Smith remembers choosing as a place to raise his family and live his life decades ago.

Now, at 92, Smith has become a sensation in the United Kingdom for his opinion pieces and memoir Harry's Last Stand, in which he draws parallels between his brutal childhood in the U.K. and where the western world is headed today as government austerity grips many of its countries.

Smith, who splits his time between Canada and Yorkshire, was recently asked by the U.K. Labour Party to be a spokesman for its campaign in advance of the May 7 election. He now finds himself in the midst of a gruelling speaking tour, travelling through 30 cities in 50 days, to rally the fight against austerity and corporate greed.

When that's done, Smith told The Tyee, he will be returning to Canada to do the same, in a ''full-tilt'' effort on his part to help oust Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

''He is really, to me, the worst prime minister that ever existed,'' Smith said over the phone from Manchester, pausing for a drink of water. ''Since Harper has come into power, everything has gone downhill. He has one consideration, and that is to let the rich get richer and the poor fend for themselves.''

Smith said the ''epidemic'' of child poverty in Toronto, government service cutbacks, and tax loopholes used by corporations are some of the most concerning threats facing the country today.

It's a stark difference from when he first arrived in Ontario in the 1950s to start anew after serving in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War.

''I've seen this province and the rest of the western world slip back to a society that reminds me of my boyhood,'' Smith said. ''Today is starting to have that same edge -- the same cruelty, the same divisions between those that have, and those that have not, that polarized the 1920s.''

A 'miracle' middle class story

Born in 1923 and raised in crippling Depression-era poverty in England, Smith and his wife moved to Canada in 1953, eventually settling in Belleville, Ont. where he opened a carpet business.

At the time, Smith saw Canada as a virtuous country, where buildings weren't hundreds of years old and he could raise his family. He knew he could put food on the table, own a home, and perhaps have grass in the back garden.

It was a far cry from the slums of his youth in England, where his 10-year-old sister was buried in an unmarked ''pauper's pit'' after dying of tuberculosis -- a story he retold in front of thousands during a speech to the Labour Party conference last year.

But there was no longer such torment for Smith, as the Canada of the 1950s delivered on its promise of prosperity.

''It was almost a miracle to me that I came from nothing to be a respectable middle class man,'' Smith said. ''It was not just me, it was everyone around us.''

Back then, none of his friends or neighbours had a problem with paying taxes. Most of them, having grown up in the Depression, thought services paid for by taxes were what made the country a safe and good place to live.

But the decades of prosperity for those like Smith have slowly slipped from view, as corporations and politicians robbed the public of its social safety net, he said. It's a trend that began with Margaret Thatcher in the U.K., he added.

''[The public] has suffered so much under different governments that they now feel that they can't trust anyone anymore, that no one is going to come along and rescue them,'' he said.

That's led to a desperate situation where poor people are overwhelmed by the affects of austerity and don't know how to make ends meet, he said.

Voting for 'compassion'

Smith said he will tour the country in the run-up to the Canadian election, delivering speeches aimed at youth about the perils of austerity and attacks on government services.

He said young people in Canada need to realize their futures are at risk if they don't oust Harper and vote in someone with ''compassion'' who cares about them.

His upcoming speech at the Broadbent Institute's Progress Summit, starting Thursday in Ottawa, will touch on some of these themes.

Smith was originally to appear in person to deliver a speech at the progressive conference, but the request for him to support the Labour Party pulled him back to England, and he will now speak via video.

The touring will begin once Smith returns to Canada, and he said he's ''looking forward to seeing the back of that monster,'' Harper.

He stressed that young Canadians must be warned their inaction risks the return to an uncivilized, brutish reality -- one festering with poverty and indifference to those drowning in it.

For Smith, that reality is long ago, but not forgotten.

''We were a generation of people who received nothing and we had to fend for ourselves to improve our standard of living," he said. "But it was much easier for us than it is for the young people of today.”  [Tyee]

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