The most eloquent response to Wednesday’s gun killing at C.W. Jefferys high school in Toronto may be to keep it in perspective. It wasn’t Columbine, or Virginia Tech. (One news report had parents streaming to “the campus.”)

Stu Auty of the Safe Schools Network often hits the right note. He doesn’t scream for metal detectors and cops in the corridors. He talks about prevention and trying to identify the kids most at risk in a crisis that seems to involve a loss of respect or authority, along with a turn to violence. But how to do that?

Youth is always in crisis. Youth is a crisis. Childhood is gone, adulthood looms, with ever-changing prospects. These centre on what you can offer your society, and what it will give you in return. So it’s about work. In the olden days in Ontario, that often meant farming. Now, after globalization, we no longer provide or even monitor most of our food; it largely comes from abroad.

But what has also been lost in the process is a sense of dignity that came with farming. Farmers know they’re the butt of jokes, yet they carry an inherent pride through feeling that they provide something everybody needs. Here in the city, you still see that in the way farm kids show their prize sheep and chickens at the Royal Winter Fair. I’ve been at meetings where the farming representatives arrived late because they had to do the winter planting. Everyone else sighed at the very thought of such useful work.

In the past century, the work prospects for youth often lay in manufacturing. It wasn’t the same as working the land, but it still had a dignity: You were “making” things needed by the rest of your society. There was also a moral dignity, based on a deep sense that got built into the left-wing ideologies and working-class parties of the era. It was the “workers” who produced the goods used by all. Then the “bosses” swiped those products and “exploited” the workers.

Whether you see this vision as noble or whiney, it at least helped make sense of the world of work into which youth had to move. That reality is on the way out, too, due to globalization. Canada has lost 250,000 manufacturing jobs in the past five years.

Grim as agricultural or manufacturing work could be, it linked you to the real needs of others around you. They all required food, shelter, clothing, transport etc. So the world of work provided an underlying sense of purpose and value, along with its many negatives. Perhaps that helped people maintain a certain equilibrium, which kids may be less likely to find today, working in hazy realms like finance, hospitality, IT — or standing around a film set talking into a cellphone and scratching your bum. (I hate film crews on my street.)

C.W. Jefferys, after whom that high school is named, was a Canadian painter and illustrator. One of his famous sketches shows the farmers and “mechanics” of the time, heading to Toronto during the failed rebellion of 1837 (32 years before the artist was born), carrying guns and pitchforks to demand justice and right the wrongs of their society. Many were jailed, hanged or exiled. Still, they had a way to try and make sense of their plight, and some hope for fixing it, along with a plan.

What’s the work world into which teenagers today project themselves? The apex might be a regular gig on TV: a veejay or journalist.

Well, the shabbiest job on Wednesday’s sad news was done, for my money, by the on-air people at CITY-TV. We had host Ann Rohmer, dolefully proclaiming, without evidence, that the words, safe and schools, no longer go together. All night, they kept repeating excitedly that many people at the school were getting their information “from us!” They interviewed each other and asked how they were doing after a hard day of poking mikes in parents’ faces and saying, “How do you feel?” (Please, CRTC, ban this question.)

At last, they had their own Columbine. What a template, to offer the young.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.