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The Ugly Canadian: The Rise and Fall of a Caring Society

by Barbara Murphy

Anyone who wonders how Bay Street brokers can blithely zip their high-end cars past haggard figures on heating grates might ask whether Canadians have become less compassionate.

It’s a question Ottawa social policy consultant Barbara Murphy hopes to probe but, unfortunately, The Ugly Canadian suffers from a lack of focus and, well, care.

Murphy’s work is on shaky ground beginning with the cover, which ironically places the words “Ugly Canadian” over a dishevelled and likely homeless man. Follow this with sloppy editing (Murphy refers to a particular premier or minister without providing that person’s name and neglects to mention Saskatchewan’s Tommy Douglas, who was instrumental in founding Medicare), and what might have been an interesting approach to our pressing social ills instead strains for credibility.

This is a shame, because some of the material Murphy unearths is of import. The arguments made against social assistance at the turn of the last century are dead ringers for those of the Kleins, Harrises, and Bouchards of today.

However, in limiting the scope of her research into Canadians’ compassion index to opinion polls and newspaper coverage (both of which tend to reflect the elite views of owners like Conrad Black and Kenneth Thomson), Murphy comes to the remarkable (and largely unsubstantiated) conclusion that social programs have declined not because of corporate or governmental influence, but because Canadians’ collective conscience has gone missing.

Not only does such a claim completely ignore the massive private sector and media campaign to demonize the poor, it might also come as a major surprise to the millions of Canadians who annually donate time and money to charitable good works and progressive social change.

Murphy would do well to have spent some time reading the far-better documented and argued works of Linda McQuaig or Murray Dobbin. So would anyone else hoping to gauge what’s really going on with Canada’s rapidly fraying civil society.