The impulse to shift people from where they are to where the government wants them to be is a recurring motif in Canadian history. On the prairies, to cite an extreme example and the one that I know best, an official program of relocation lies at the very heart of nation building. The formative gesture of the young Dominion was to clear the territory — forcing Indigenous peoples to abandon their lands and settle on reserves and filling the emptied space with incomers, themselves uprooted and displaced from elsewhere. Once the players were in position, the new arrivals were assigned the challenge of creating a market economy, while the Aboriginal people were expected to modernize and retool. Apart from brief spasms of violence in the late nineteenth century, this transformation was accomplished in the quintessentially Canadian way, through the hushed power of bureaucracy.
Fast forward to the mid- to late twentieth century, where the University of British Columbia historian Tina Loo finds a similar dynamic at work, albeit on a less sweeping scale. In her fascinating new book, Moved by the State, which emerged from the prestigious McLean Lecture series at UBC, Loo presents five case studies that span les trente glorieuses, 1946 to 1975, and cross the country from coast to coast to coast (with a lacuna in the prairies, to my disappointment). Chapter by detailed chapter, she chronicles the efforts of civil servants to impose “spatial justice” on populations that were judged to be in need. These interventions included attempts to deploy Inuit hunters turned miners from the central Arctic as a mobile labour force; to persuade thousands of people from isolated outports and backcountry settlements in Newfoundland and eastern Quebec to resettle in perceived “growth centres”; and to cajole residents of low-income neighbourhoods (some would say slums) in Halifax and Vancouver to submit to urban clearance. In each instance, the goal was to extend prosperity by rationalizing the economy and, at the same time, to upgrade the population, which was seen as backward and its own worst enemy.
“Whatever the specific problems identified,” Loo writes, “the solution seemed to lie in transforming the beliefs and behaviour of the poor.” Throughout the book, she shows how such problems ran the gamut from “an apparent mismatch of resources and population” and “an obsolete settlement pattern” to plain old blight. With each problem, she explains, “government bureaucrats and university social scientists believed a ‘culture of poverty’ prevented Inuit, Newfoundlanders, Gaspesians, Africvillers, and Vancouver’s East Siders from prospering.” The perceived solution, consistently, was to cultivate a “ ‘capacity to aspire’ among the poor, and through it, the kind of modern community government wanted.”
If a Dickensian atmosphere continued to hang over these interventions, the strategies and intentions of the state nonetheless evolved with time. In Loo’s persuasive account, the forced relocations of the post-war period are illuminated by a high-minded allegiance (sometimes superficial, often sincere) to principles of “social citizenship,” equality of opportunity, universality of services, and poverty reduction. As Trudeau père put it, aphoristically, in 1968, “Every Canadian has a right to a good life whatever the province or community he lives in.” Aware of the likely outcome of relying on good intentions alone, the state turned to social scientists and other credentialed professionals, within and beyond the civil service, for guidance. Their involvement was “propelled by a remarkable and widely shared confidence in the power of social scientific expertise to understand and transform the world, and especially its peoples, for the better.” At its zenith, this faith was given expression in a two-thousand-page, ten-volume report published by the Bureau d’aménagement de l’Est de Québec (the Eastern Quebec Development Office) in 1967. Based on the findings of seventy-five researchers, it recommended the immediate closure of ten communities, including Saint-Jean-de-Cherbourg and, ironically, Saint-Octave-de-l’Avenir, and laid the groundwork for the closure of eighty-five more, with some 60,000 people ultimately slated for removal.
But the process wasn’t to be straightforward in Quebec (nor was it anywhere else), for alongside this top-down, technocratic approach was an equal but opposite insistence on community engagement. We’re talking about the 1960s and 1970s, after all, when the cool kids were marching to the beat of “power to the people, right on.” It would be unseemly to bully entire communities into moving against their will; far better to persuade them that they wanted to go. And even if the state did succeed in shifting targeted groups from place to place, the success of the whole expensive and time-consuming undertaking would ultimately depend on the people’s ability to keep the good times rolling for themselves. The prescription for long-term viability was “community development,” and Loo devotes much of her discussion to chronicling the various strategies of empowerment that were invoked, including participatory filmmaking initiatives in both Newfoundland and Quebec, and the federal government’s adoption of neighbourhood consultations as an instrument of policy development. In the words of a young Lloyd Axworthy, then assistant to the minister responsible for housing, a community-based task force “sought answers from the kinds of people that rarely are consulted in policymaking. It was in fact a means of giving some life to the philosophy of participatory democracy.”
If you ask members of the public which way the wind blows, they are likely to rock your boat, and most of the projects that Loo follows took a turn for the shambolic. In the central Arctic, for example, the emphasis quickly shifted from creating a mobile labour force to mobilizing local talents and resources, through the formation of cooperative enterprises. (“I don’t believe that the government is infallible,” a senior civil servant conceded in 1963, “and the co‑ops make it possible for the Eskimos to give us hell.”) In Newfoundland, where thousands opted to accept relocation allowances, fewer than half actually settled in government-approved centres, with the majority picking their own destinations, often just down the road or across the bay from where they started. On Vancouver’s East Side, an activist Chinese Canadian community not only blocked the destruction of its neighbourhood but also assumed a leading role in administering its revitalization. Meanwhile, in eastern Quebec, the rural population rose in sign-waving revolt against the BAEQ’s austere plan and conceived its own program of local improvement. Only in Halifax’s Africville did the erasure proceed more or less as foreseen by government officials. (And even this led, belatedly, to the formation of political movements like the Black United Front.)
Under Loo’s astringent gaze, each of these acts of resistance carries a tinge of defeat, since an engaged and aspiring citizen is the ideal subject of the liberal state. “Development disciplined as it enabled,” she observes. “It was a technique of governmentality that aimed to inculcate a set of values associated with modernity. Once internalized, these values made people self-regulating and thus facilitated the ongoing imposition of a liberal order.”
But as Loo’s own study demonstrates, the state is not monolithic. Power is wielded by individual actors, and while some of the bureaucrats who animate her pages were determined to preserve the status quo, a few emerged as class A shit disturbers. Foremost among the rebels was a career bureaucrat named Walter Rudnicki, who used his successive positions within federal agencies to shift decision-making power, as best he could, into the hands of Indigenous organizations and other marginalized groups. (Fired in 1973 for sharing government documents with the Native Council of Canada, he sued for wrongful dismissal, won a landmark case, and returned to the civil service a decade later.) By resisting the racist and classist assumptions on which the Canadian state was based, Rudnicki and a few of his fellow-travellers, including my former neighbour and acquaintance the late Robert G. Williamson, emerge from Loo’s telling as unlikely heroes. Although the optimism of the post-war era has faded, the story of their determined behind-the-scenes advocacy makes it possible to hope that we may one day complete the move from the society we have inherited to the more equitable future to which they aspired.