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Six Wisdoms from Tyee's Evening with Harry Smith

Anti-austerity campaigner continues his Canadian tour. Here's a taste.

By Jes Hovanes 9 Jul 2015 | TheTyee.ca

Jes Hovanes is an editor with The Tyee.

Superstar anti-austerity campaigner Harry Leslie Smith continues his speaking tour across Canada this week, promoting his book Harry's Last Stand and sharing lessons from his experience surviving the Great Depression.

Harry weaves together political history and personal struggle, filling auditoriums across Canada and Britain. The Tyee hosted Harry for a conversation about Canada's future on June 16 in Vancouver. Here are six highlights from the event.

1. On social progress, history repeats

"I am 92, which is very old by anyone's standards. I should be able to look back and see great social progress since I was born, but I don't. Since the start of the 21st century I have seen this country and the rest of the Western world slip back to a society that reminds me of my boyhood.

"Today is starting to have that same edge, that same cruelty and the same divisions of those that have and those that have not, which polarized the 1920s and 1930s. It was those divisions in Europe and North America along with extreme poverty, perverted ideologies and lack of social safety network that were contributing factors in the Second World War, The Holocaust and ultimately Europe being divided by an iron curtain for over 50 years."

2. On sacrificing our young

"During the Great Depression the youth of my generation were sacrificed first through unfettered capitalism, the greed of unregulated industrialists, government incompetence and myopia and finally pressed into the charnel house caused by the Second World War.

"Today my grandchildren's generation is also being sacrificed, and it must end. But for this to end we have to start looking at the true culprits: austerity and the death of the social safety networks. It's not the poor, new immigrants, or welfare cheats that are robbing the citizens of this country of a decent and fulfilling life. It is the elites and the right wing politicians that serve their interests.

"Their message of austerity and restraint to the ninety-nine per cent and untold wealth to the one per cent will return Canada to the dog-eat-dog world of my boyhood in the 1930s. The Harper government has robbed the vulnerable of their benefits through massive cutbacks."

3. 'Austerity will spell the end of democracy'

"I took employment at seven and pushed a cart filled with beer -- not because I wanted to buy something special for myself. I took that job because it was a matter of life and death for my parents and my sister, Alberta.

"So when corporate leaders and Tory politicians tell the people of 21st century Canada, that austerity is necessary, I shake my head and remember with pain how long-dead, low-taxed business leaders compelled politicians to enact austerity to preserve their bottom line while millions of children went to bed hungry in cold, inhospitable, squalid rooms. But back then I was a boy and didn't have a voice. I just had to suffer and starve with everyone else.

"Today however I will not be quiet, because the austerity enacted by Harper's government is outrageous, reckless and cruel.

"Austerity will spell the end of democracy, unless we the people take back our right to a dignified life through the pragmatic protection of the social welfare state. Whether it was in the Britain of my youth or today in Canada, when it comes to the shameful treatment of our less fortunate citizens the establishment has always believed in the same: out of sight, is out of mind."

4. On housing: nests, not nest eggs

"As for housing, it's time people stop looking at their homes as nest eggs rather than nests. We have to start investing in affordable housing for all our citizens.

"The citizens of Canada have to remember they are worth more than the profits of hedge fund managers. You are worth more than flat wages, high student debt and few prospects. You are worth more than a cost of living crisis that insures you will never have a home to call your own. You are worth more than corporations who won't pay a living wage and hide their profits offshore in tax-free havens."

5. The 'miracle' of national health care

"When Clement Attlee, the labour minister, promised that [if he were elected] the first step would be the National Health Service, we figured that would be a hell of a good start to get things rolling in the right direction. That was in '45. Attlee won the election with a resounding vote and he went to work so quickly that from '45 to '48, the National Health Service was in force.

"And people had this free service for illness or whatever ailed them. It was just a miracle. It seems to take forever to build something but he builds a National Health Service in a matter of, just over three-and-a-half years? It's uncanny to me.

"The thing that struck me was: in 1948 my time was up with the air force and I went back to Halifax in Yorkshire and I had contracted bronchitis. I didn't have any money -- they don't pay you very much to join the air force and get yourself killed, you know. I went to the hospital and I was so surprised when I saw a doctor in no time at all and he gave me antibiotics and he told me to see him again in a week. I walked out of there like a rich man. I felt like a somebody."

6. On the greatest 21st century generation

"They called us the greatest generation because we seemed to achieve so much -- I like to think that the youth of Canada and the West can stand up and fight for their rights and I would say they have the opportunity to be the greatest generation of this century.

"I think there is a great need for the young people to be given hope; they've lost hope that is the trouble. And they just figure that there's nothing I can do about it, I've tried and nothing changes, so what the hell -- I'll just float along in this miserable existence.

"I want to hit as many young people, universities, or schools, high schools to get them to listen to me and maybe energize them to realize that if they all get up en masse and go out there and register to vote and on voting day go out there and swamp the ballet boxes with their votes, they will change this society to what they would like rather than the status quo.

"Nothing is cheap, nothing is easy. We have to work for everything we do. I'm sure everyone in this room knows that we don't get anything for no effort. I didn't get to 92 with no effort either."

Proceeds from this event went towards The Tyee's federal election reporting fund. In Spring, 2015, Tyee readers pitched in over $75,000 to fund The Tyee's independent federal election coverage. Support the Tyee by becoming a Tyee Builder.  [Tyee]

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