June 2006: On Becoming An Octogenarian

Getting older doesn’t mean getting any less committed
June 1, 2006

Two of my oldest friends died during the past year: Malcolm (“Mac”) Maclaren late last summer and Harold Horwood a few months ago. Of course, the laws of time and mortality being immutable, I’ve lost quite a few old friends over the past few decades. But those two were special. The three of us set up and published a progressive alternative weekly newspaper in Newfoundland in the early 1960s. Looking back, I would describe it as an early forerunner of The CCPA Monitor in the sense that it had the same purpose: to find and print news and views not readily found in the commercial media.

Our tabloid—The Newfoundland Examiner—lasted only a year. Harold, Mac and I had been among the few journalists who tried to remain fair and objective in covering the bitterly divisive loggers’ strike in 1959 that was brutally terminated by the government of Joey Smallwood. It was such a heated and emotionally charged labour dispute that journalistic objectivity was simply not tolerated. As with George Bush post-9/11, you were either with the paper companies and the government, or you were with a gang of mainland union thugs, which was how the International Woodworkers’ Union leaders were unfairly depicted.

I can’t say that Harold, Mac and I were blacklisted after the strike was broken and the IWA decertified and expelled from the province. But let’s say that we found ourselves jobless and at loose ends. To keep ourselves occupied, we started up The Examiner.

In its short life, the paper exposed government corruption and corporate wrongdoing. It proposed better ways to run the province and develop its resources. But its days were numbered. It never could sell enough copies or attract enough advertisers to make it viable. It depended on a subsidy from the Canadian Labour Congress—money left over from a national strike fund established to support the loggers—to pay the printing bills.

The Examiner lost that labour funding after U.S. President John Kennedy launched his ill-fated Bay of Pigs assault on Cuba. We ran an editorial scathingly denouncing this attempt to crush the Castro-led revolution and bring back Batista and the American plantation and casino owners. These views, however, were not shared by the CLC, which was dominated at that time by industrial and craft unions affiliated with the AFL-CIO. This large U.S. labour central approved of the Bay of Pigs debacle, so that also became the official CLC position.

We got a stinging letter from the Congress denouncing our editorial and informing us that we would receive no more financial support from organized labour. With our advertisers even less enthused with The Examiner’s editorial content than the CLC, it wasn’t long before the only ads we were getting came from the beer companies. We had no choice but to fold up shop a few months later.

Harold, Mac and I parted company, taking different roads and rarely meeting in the nearly half a century that has since elapsed. But all three of us remained steadfast, each in his own way, to our involvement in the struggle for a better world. Mac worked with the NDP and the unions, as did I, and Harold wrote several socially and politically insightful books, one of them—Joey—the definitive biography of Premier Smallwood. Mac and Harold were still active in this all-important endeavour right up to the time they became terminally ill in their early 80s. I hope I can come close to matching their dedication in my final years.

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This may seem a shamelessly personal and irrelevant reminiscence, and I suppose to some extent it is. We tend to reflect on the past as we get older, especially when we join the octogenarian ranks, as I will this month. But we oldsters also think more about the future, too. We won’t be around to see it unfold, but we desperately want it to be a future in which our descendants—and humanity as a whole—at least have a future, even if a marginally liveable one. It alarms us that this prospect is getting increasingly less probable in an age of uncontrolled corporate greed and power. So we redouble our efforts to restore sanity and long-term survival instincts to a seemingly suicidal human species.

There are now more than a million octogenarians in Canada, and over 600,000 are over the age of 85. Many are in such poor health that they can’t do much more than cling to life and depend on their families for care. But many others remain vigorous and alert, both physically and mentally, and those of the social democratic persuasion have lost none of their fervor.

I know that for a fact, because thousands of them are members of the CCPA and readers of The Monitor. I hear from them almost every day. They phone, write, and send me e-mails. I am constantly amazed by their interest, enthusiasm, intellectual rigor, and, above all, their deep and unabated commitment to social and economic justice. They flood me with ideas and suggestions for reducing poverty, spreading the wealth, cleaning up the environment, democratizing politics, developing renewable energy, averting ecological collapse, and for addressing just about every other major problem that confronts us.

This geriatric enthusiasm never ceases to astound me. It would be very easy for someone, after 40 or 50 years of useful work, to relax and leave the saving of the world to younger people. Or to succumb to cynicism and despondency and give up the fight for a brighter future as unwinnable. No doubt some seniors have fallen into that despairing mindset, but a surprisingly large number of them are keeping the flame of hope alive—and perhaps, in the process, keeping themselves alive as well. There may be something to the belief that longevity can be enhanced by continuing to exercise the mind as well as the body.

(A seeming lack of success, of course, doesn’t necessarily preclude an ongoing effort. One of our members, a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps, tells me that for many years she has had a pill by her bedside that will quickly remove her from a world she has lost all hope for. But, after talking with her and perceiving her still unquenched thirst for reform, I doubt that pill will ever be used.)

As encouraged as I have been by the evidence of so many dedicated seniors among our CCPA membership, I used to worry sometimes that their perseverance might not be matched by younger Canadians. The CCPA’s membership being so heavily weighted to the upper age brackets (average age pushing 55), it could be seen as reflecting disinterest or apathy among the nation’s youth. But I no longer have that concern. There have been many demonstrations of student and youth activism in recent years. They’ve been in the forefront of anti-poverty, anti-pollution, and pro-social-justice campaigns. The fact that so few of them have joined the CCPA may simply be because ours is not an activist organization, or because even $35 is a lot to part with from a limited budget drained by rising tuition and living costs. On the plus side, a great many of the 35,000 visits to the CCPA web-site every month are undoubtedly made by students and other young activists, who are using our material for their essays, rallies, and other activities.

We have several very talented and committed young people on the staff of the CCPA in our national and regional offices. It’s their drive and unflagging devotion that mainly keeps the Centre going, and I’m privileged to be part of their efficient and energetic team.

My old friends Mac and Harold were also fortunate to find outlets for their enduring zeal as they grew older. They, too, were able to keep on contributing to the battle for global fairness and decency. They didn’t live to see the outcome of this momentous endeavour, but they had the consolation of knowing in their final hours that they had dedicated their lives to the ultimate worthwhile cause.

They’ll be forgotten by all but their surviving relatives and some old friends like me. But, if the forces of all that’s good and just in our civilization eventually do prevail—and, with time running out, that will have to be before the middle of this century—then perhaps a monument will be erected in their honour. It won’t have their names on it, of course, nor the names of the millions of other selfless souls who have fought corporate and political infamy over the centuries.

Like the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, it will be a Monument to the Unknown Social Activist. Among the millions of names left uncarved on that obelisk will be those of Harold Horwood and Mac Maclaren. Whether we knew them or not, they were our comrades.

Ed Finn is the CCPA's Senior Editor.