The Year We Became Us
A Novel About the Saskatchewan Doctors Strike
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