- Co-published with: RED Publishing
- Paperback ISBN: 9781552664827
- Paperback Price: $19.95 CAD
- Publication Date: May 2012
- Rights: World
- Pages: 264
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The Year We Became Us
A Novel About the Saskatchewan Doctors Strike
The Year We Became Us is a novel about the 1962 Saskatchewan doctors’ strike as seen through the eyes of a 12-year-old boy and a 13-year-old girl. Roy, the son of a union activist, is a committed socialist and the best Little League pitcher in the entire province. Katherine, the daughter of a surgeon, has fallen in love with two novels by Ayn Rand and aspires to be just like her. Both are forced to write letters to President Kennedy as punishment for always arguing politics in their Grade 8 class at Saint Michael’s Catholic School in Moose Jaw. Part romance, part adventure and part political philosophy, this historical novel moves between1960s Moose Jaw and present-day Boston and follows Roy and Katherine as they revisit their letters to President Kennedy forty years later.
The 1962 Saskatchewan doctors’ strike was one of the pivotal moments in the creation of Medicare — the quintessential Canadian institution that sets us apart from our U.S. neighbours. To be released on the 50th anni- versary of Canada’s first socialized medical plan, The Year We Became Us is a work of historical fiction portraying a crucially important moment in our history, one that is often overlooked or forgotten in contemporary Canadian society and by younger generations.
About the Author
GARY ENGLER worked as a journalist for 20 years, including time as both a writer and editor at the Vancouver Sun. He is the author of The Great Multicultural North.
During the summer of 1962, a series of editorial headlines in the Moose Jaw Times Herald suggested that Saskatchewan had fallen under Stalinist tyranny. “Ugly image of dictators” screamed one. “The rankest kind of persecution” said another. One of the most scathing read: “The day that freedom died in Saskatchewan”.
“The people of Saskatchewan are now awakening,” that particular editorial began, “and finding that their province has been slowly and in recent months much more rapidly transformed from a free democracy into a totalitarian state ruled by men drunk with power.”
So what caused the editors of the Thomson Corporation–owned Times Herald to go into conniptions? The Co-operative Commonwealth Federation government had just introduced medicare, which provoked a bitter doctors strike. The newspaper was in an uproar over a public-insurance plan ensuring that the provincial government—and not individual residents—would pay physicians’ bills.
East Vancouver journalist Gary Engler dug up these editorials while researching his new novel, The Year We Became Us (RED/Fernwood), published to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Saskatchewan physicians strike. During an interview in a Kitsilano coffee shop, Engler tells the Georgia Straight that this labour dispute was one of the most important events in Canadian history yet hardly anyone knows about it.
“What do people say when they’re polled about what makes Canada better or different than the United States?” he asks. “The number one thing they say is ‘medicare’. It’s an overwhelming response. And yet if the doctors strike in Saskatchewan had gone the other way, we might not have medicare in Canada. Strangely, we don’t want to talk about it. And there’s some good reasons why we don’t want to talk about it. There are people who don’t want to be reminded that they were on the wrong side of history.”
The Year We Became Us is mostly set in Engler’s hometown of Moose Jaw in 1962. It looks at the labour dispute through the eyes of a left-wing 12-year-old son of a union activist and a reactionary 13-year-old daughter of a surgeon. After they disrupt their Grade 8 class with a political argument, they are each assigned to write to U.S. president John F. Kennedy. In a series of letters, they spill out their thoughts on the strike, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and their political views.
The boy, Roy Schmidt, is the best baseball pitcher in the province. He grows up to become a Langara College instructor after giving up on a promising screenwriting career. The girl, Katherine Anderson, becomes a high-profile, right-wing radio talk-show host in the United States. As kids, they shared a first kiss. And 38 years later, they rekindle an awkward romance after meeting in the JFK Library in Boston in the wake of the disputed 2000 presidential race between George W. Bush and Al Gore.
Engler says that it was fun creating the character of Katherine, an unabashed right-winger with a deep admiration for novelist Ayn Rand. He recalls meeting objectivists (followers of Rand’s philosophy) at Carleton University in the early 1970s and never dreamed that they would one day end up controlling the world’s most powerful government.
Engler, father of left-wing nonfiction author Yves Engler, maintains that 1962 was the year “we became us” in Canada, thanks to the creation of medicare. He also says that this was when U.S. conservative senator Barry Goldwater began organizing heavily, offering a hint of what was to transpire in American politics. According to Engler, 1962 was also when people concluded that nuclear war wasn’t an option, even though at one point, Katherine confesses in a letter to Kennedy that her father “doesn’t believe saving millions of lives by avoiding war is doing right”.
When asked if Katherine was modelled on American right-wing author Ann Coulter, Engler laughs and says she was actually inspired by “a few people I’ve run into in newsrooms over the years as senior managers”. He refuses to divulge any names.
“I’m not saying they were in the Vancouver Sun newsroom,” he adds with a mischievous smile.
He says that Roy is a combination of himself and his older brother Jerome, who was an outstanding baseball pitcher. It’s not the only part of the book borrowed from his childhood. Roy’s father and Engler’s father both worked for Robin Hood, and both were exasperated by the U.S. government’s not allowing the company’s flour to be sold in China.
The book demonstrates how the doctors strike polarized the province and attracted outside meddling from the American Medical Association, which opposed socialized medicine. Engler says that people have forgotten that Kennedy made references in the 1960 presidential campaign to creating medicare in the United States, which generated intense hostility from the U.S. medical industry.
“They very much viewed Saskatchewan as a test case,” he states.
Engler believes that if the doctors had forced the government to back down, and there had been no medicare in Saskatchewan in the early 1960s, it probably never would have spread to the rest of Canada.
“It was a difficult task to achieve medicare,” he says. “It wasn’t simply a question of passing legislation. It required, essentially, the efforts of tens of thousands of people in a province of a million people…to resist the will of some very powerful forces in society.” – Charlie Smith for Straight.com.
“I kissed the Queen of Rightwing Talk Radio today. The really weird thing? I enjoyed it.” That’s Roy Schmidt talking, one of the protagonists in a fascinating new book by Vancouver novelist, journalist and trade union leader, Gary Engler. Roy is a lifelong leftist, failed novelist and faculty union officer; “The Queen of Rightwing Radio” is Katherine Anderson, a high school flame from Moose Jaw he’s reconnecting with in Boston in 2000. In youth a fan of the odious Ayn Rand, Katherine has gone over to the Dark Side, at least in Roy’s prairie socialist view, and become a kind of female Rush Limbaugh in the U.S. Their kiss, and the frisson of desire that bridges their lifelong political differences, is a key plot element in The Year We Became Us, a book one character calls “fiction and history making out in the back seat of a 1959 Chevy.”
The book is a competent and informative, but in the end, slightly pedestrian novel set during the 1962 Saskatchewan doctor’s strike, (a massive job action by prairie physicians taken to sabotage the province’s creation of North America’s first system of comprehensive public medical insurance.) The story is told through letters written to President Kennedy by the two Canadian young people, whose families support opposite sides in the dispute. This ‘60s coming of age story is framed by a 21st century narrative that sees the two, now well advanced into uneasy middle age, reunited at the JFK Museum in Boston, where they have both arrived hoping to retrieve their letters from the institution’s archives.
A pivotal year in the history of North America, 1962 saw the battle over Medicare in Canada and the Cuban Missile Crisis in the U.S. each marking a defining moment for national identity. Engler links these two momentous events by having his novel’s protagonists disciplined in their Moose Jaw Catholic school for over-enthusiastic political debate. Their punishment is to draft letters to President Kennedy about the crisis he was facing as the U.S.-sponsored debacle at the Bay of Pigs gave way to threats that the U.S.S.R. would install missile silos on the island.
Roy is the product of a union and CCF family and Katherine’s father is one of the physician ringleaders in the attempt to scuttle the province’s new public health system. They each generate a package of letters in which they detail their attitudes toward each other, Kennedy, Cuba and communism, Saskatchewan health care and social democracy. They also reveal an ornately complex drama of teen life that includes stolen kisses, gossip, conspiracies, betrayal, fist fights, hockey and baseball.
Roy is presented as a kind of social democratic Tom Sawyer, a clever political animal who would rather use his oratory to prevent violence than to provoke it. Instead of tricking his neighbours into white washing a fence, Roy tricks them out of gang fights and into more cooperative, inclusive activity. All of this is charming, and some is pretty funny. The baseball games are lovingly portrayed, too, but the author’s vision of teen life in the early ‘60s is oddly pallid. I think I remember a lot more terror, angst and madness flickering around the edges of the classroom and the playing fields of the 1960s than Engler brings to his narrative.
The Year We Became Us tells an important Canadian story in workmanlike prose. The author invites readers to revisit and celebrate the creation of the Canadian public health system. Along the way, Engler takes pains to make his characters plausibly complex and his story more than a set of simple political slogans.
Roy and Katherine are well-developed characters, and their bemused drift into a love affair that offends against their cherished political certainties is presented with some psychological sophistication.
Engler has already proven in his hilarious first book The Great Multicultural North that he can write side splitting comedy. While not as totally successful as that comic masterpiece, The Year We Became Us demonstrates that he is capable of serious fiction as well. This book is highly recommended, especially for readers who have forgotten their recent Canadian history.
Tom Sandborn is a Vancouver-based journalist, poet and activist. He can be reached at [email protected]
—Vancouver Sun, July 13, 2012
A highly risible tactic of the Tea Partyers in the United States has been criticism of president Barack Obama as a “socialist”1 (insulting to Obama but more so to socialists), particularly since he attempted to reform a medical care system in a country where over 50 million were without medical coverage.
North of the border, the situation is a little different. A defining characteristic of Canadian society is its universal healthcare system, called Medicare. Medicare is readily identified by most Canadians as something that sets it apart from its neighbour, the United States.
Medicare had its birth in the prairie province of Saskatchewan. The province had a socialist party, the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), that formed the government there for many years. A major plank of the CCF was to provide universal healthcare coverage for all residents of Saskatchewan.
In 1961, the CCF introduced legislation to implement full Medicare in Saskatchewan. The doctors were unhappy, and a doctors’ strike loomed in July 1962.
Author Gary Engler captures the youthful and polarized mood of 1962 Saskatchewan in his novel, The Year We Became Us. The main protagonists are a 12-year old boy, Roy Schmidt, and a 13-year-old girl, Katherine Anderson, living in Moose Jaw, a small city in the middle of southern Saskatchewan. Roy is a baseball and hockey-playing son of a working class family. He is already a socialist, with a precocious grasp of social justice issues. Katherine is the daughter of an accomplished head of surgery. She has already read Ayn Rand and embraces rugged individualism.
Conveyed through their letters to the US president John Kennedy, childhood shenanigans, and a nowadays encounter between Roy and Katherine, a back-and-forth occurs as to what is the preferential political-economic system. Roy favors solidarity and caring for the masses while Katherine prefers a go-it-on-your-own approach, seeing socialism as stymying intelligent and gifted people.
As cavorting adults, Roy and Katherine continue their polemical exchange.
Roy quips, “Right-wingers always think it takes courage to engage in violence, but the truth is, it takes a whole lot more not to.”
Katherine espouses elitism: “… smarter people used stupider people and that’s the way life worked.”
The Year We Became US explores a gamut of social justice issues ranging from imperialism, internationalism, prejudice, the dispossession of “Indians” (as there were called in 1962), pacifism, and – naturally – class, starkly represented by the doctor’s strike against Medicare. The physicians are supported by the business community and press and opposed by the government and working class.
The press had depicted the doctor’s strike as a “fight for freedom.”
Roy could not let such go unchallenged:
Freedom for a doctor to tell a worried mother: Pay me what I want or your son will die …. You think that’s a freedom worth going on strike for? Or freedom to refuse an operation if people can’t afford it? Freedom for doctors to make as much money as they want, even if it means that poor people have to go without proper care? …
Roy was never a revolutionary, though. Today he believes, “Compromise is the only way to real, lasting change.” This is strange given that right-wingers are not about compromise, while the political parties of left-wingers (to the extent that any parties genuinely were leftist) have vacated any space they ever occupied on the Left. Federally, the Conservatives are clearly right-wing, the Liberals are also on the Right, and the New Democrats (the successor to the CCF) are hardly socialists any longer; I would classify them as to the Right-of-Center.
The Year We Became Us is a little uneven at times. For example, it was not always clear whether a letter written to president Kennedy had ended or whether it had segued into story-telling narrative. Also, the political astuteness of the adolescents stretches credulity.
Nonetheless, Engler draws in the reader, and this reviewer didn’t want to put the book down until the last page was read. The publishers, RED and Fernwood Publishing, have as a motto: “Critical books for critical thinkers,” and Engler’s novel certainly does encourage this with its engaging right-left dialectic.
—Kim Petersen is co-editor of Dissident Voice
—dissidentvoice.org, July 9 2012