Photo: flickr/Matt Boman

Ninety-two year old Harry Leslie Smith is not your usual idea of a political superstar.

Late last Saturday afternoon, however, at the closing session of the Broadbent Institute’s third annual Progress Summit, Smith was the star.

Smith has lived in Canada since the 1950s; but last Saturday he spoke to the Ottawa Summit via video link from Britain, his home country.

He told the story of his life, which is intertwined with the history of the last century.

Smith was brought up in circumstances of Dickensian poverty, and like many Dickens characters went to work as a child.

He delivered ale, pulling a cart on foot from pub-to-pub.

The Great Depression hit him and his family hard, although they did not have much to lose. Smith tells of being on the verge of starvation and rooting through garbage for food.

Smith was 18 in September of 1939 when Hitler marched into Poland, launching the Second World War. He signed up right away 

Britain’s highly stratified class society had not been kind to Harry and his ilk. But Smith believed, nonetheless, that the German dictator was a deadly enemy and had to be defeated.

He served with distinction in the Royal Air Force. At the end of the War, he says, “together with so many others of my generation, I resolved to create a more equal society to end the class system forever.”

Britain’s NHS: A crowning achievement

In Britain, that resolve resulted in the defeat of wartime leader Churchill and the ascent to power of Clement Attlee as head of Britain’s first-ever majority Labour government.

In power for six years, from 1945 to 1951, Attlee and colleagues, such as the fiery Welshman Aneurin Bevan, put in place the building blocks of the U.K.’s modern welfare state.

Their crowning achievement was the creation of the National Health Service (NHS). A generation later, we in Canada would emulate Britain with our own federal-provincial “medicare” system.

When Smith moved to Canada with his family, in the 1950s, Canadian universal heath care was still a decade away.

Here, Smith, his wife and his sons thrived. They achieved the middle class status that eluded them in Britain.

“I went from the slums to the suburbs,” Smith says 

Now, sixty years on, Smith is worried that Conservative governments in both Canada and Britain are rolling back the welfare state, which his generation worked so hard to build.

“I fear we may be going back to the 1930s,” he says, as he decries the outsized influence bank economists and investment brokers have on government policies. 

“I don’t want Harper to return us to the dog-eat-dog society I experienced as a young person,” Smith told the Progress Summit last Saturday. 

Smith challenged the hundreds who had gathered in Ottawa for three days of policy and strategy talk to commit themselves to unseating the current Prime Minister and his Conservatives at the next election. 

Pledges from five who work at the grassroots

Conveniently, the Broadbent Institute had arranged for five such Canadians to step up and make that pledge.

They were: Toronto City Councillor Mike Layton; British Columbia child-care advocate Sharon Gregson; Hans Marotte of Mouvement Action-Chômage in Montreal, a group that fights for the rights of the unemployed; Kofi Hope of Toronto’s Community Empowering Enterprises, which seeks to find employment opportunities for visible minority youth; and Katrina Pacey of Pivot Legal Society, which provides service to the people of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

Together the four painted a picture of the ways in which the Harper government has taken a big pair of scissors to an already frayed social safety net.

They talked about the Conservative government blocking safe-injection sites; radically reducing access to Employment Insurance; erecting barriers to youth and minority Canadians’ right to vote; and moving further and further away from Parliament’s unanimous, decades-old pledge to eliminate child poverty by the year 2000.

Over the previous three days, the conference had heard from economists, trade unionists, journalists, commentators, Canadian and foreign politicians, lawyers, academics, authors, lobbyists, pollsters, Aboriginal leaders, and a few activists. 

The speakers and panellists had delivered a near dizzying kaleidoscope of analyses, descriptions, prescriptions and more than a few exhortations to the large and enthusiastic gathering (both in-person and online).

Harry’s authentic life story followed by the commitments of five grass-roots workers were a fitting ending for this year’s Progress Summit, the last before the next federal election. 


Photo: flickr/Matt Boman

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...