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VANCOUVER, B.C. Dec 20, 2015/ Troy Media/ – It was a distinction that I learned early; not one that I earned. I learned about it in various ways: grandparents reinforced it; school concentrated it; society validated it.
Going to an all-boys private school based on the British model also made it more obvious – as if that really needed to happen. By the age of 6, in Grade 1, I was firmly privileged. I was a caucasian male.
Everywhere I looked as a boy in the 1950s, white men ruled the roosts. They were headmasters, mayors, members of Parliament, captains of industry, university presidents, lawyers, doctors, dentists and professors. They made the most money. They socialized in their clubs and married in their ‘tribe,’ and they perpetuated all the good things that seemed effortlessly to come their way.
As a boomer generation, post-Second World War child, I was also party to a period of virtual non-stop economic growth. My father was a doctor and a university professor, and we moved houses regularly as our family’s fortune grew. Each neighbourhood we lived in was full of white, middle class, aspiring families. There was always a summer vacation, organized activities like Cubs, Brownies, Girl Guides and Scouts, and plenty of white kids to play with on our block.
My father, however, was a firm devotee of socialized medicine. After a brief (and dispiriting) fling with for-profit medicine, he became the director of the Outpatients’ Department (previously the Welfare Medicine Clinic) at the Vancouver General Hospital. Dad believed in giving the best service possible to those with the least.
He lectured, “To whom much is given, much is expected.” He taught by example and by expectation. “Don’t rest on your laurels,” became the mantra. Coasting on privilege didn’t cut it. He wanted to see the world change, and his children were expected to play their part.
My teen summers were often spent doing odd jobs for dad: painting clinic offices and outbuildings, organizing his filing systems, and travelling the back roads of B.C. as his research assistant. For several summers, we hit the road to promote his concept of team-based diagnostic assessment and treatment for multiple-handicapped children, especially those who lived in hinterland communities.
Many of his patients were the urban poor, Romani, new immigrants and indigenous people. He would befriend many of their families and the young international physicians he mentored. Their families became part of our extended family.
This new blended family was extraordinarily diverse by neighbourhood standards, including at various times Chinese, Pakistani, East Indian, Tsimshian, Coast Salish and Persian members. Dinners at our house often resembled an anthropology graduate seminar with a linguistic minor.
Dad wanted us to follow in his footsteps, but we all shied away from medicine. I embraced anthropology and civil society, promoting indigenous rights, environmentalism and participatory research – to the point of working with the Gorbachev Foundation and the Sami reindeer herders of the Kola Peninsula after the fall of communism. Dad’s ethos was behind every career decision I took.
If he was sometimes a man of impossible causes, he certainly lived to see progress on many fronts in Canadian society. Health care and life expectancy have improved in remote and isolated communities. Women constitute the majority of students in Canadian medical schools. Members of ethnic minorities sit on major corporate and not-for-profit boards, and belong to every profession. Being a white male is no longer a requirement for much in the world of work.
With the exception of those in the top 10 per cent of incomes, white males are actually in decline in status terms. Their decline, ironically, is fuelling a nasty backlash against those people whose economic fortunes have finally improved.
Donald Trump, a privileged white male, has emerged as the declasse white male spokesman. My father would have seen right through him.
Troy Media columnist Mike Robinson has been CEO of three Canadian NGOs: the Arctic Institute of North America, the Glenbow Museum, and the Bill Reid Gallery. Mike is included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.
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