Read ‘Ten Lost Years’ (if you can find it) and stop your belly-aching

It’s safe to say that these are not the best of times.

For two years, we have been stalked by an invisible, shape-shifting enemy who has sickened and killed millions, bringing everyday life to a standstill. In Europe, a peaceful, fragile democracy has come under attack by a nuclear superpower ruled by a ruthless dictator, resulting in scenes of destruction and tragedy not seen since the Second World War. On the home front, we are seeing inflation rates unlike anything we’ve seen in 40 years, with gasoline prices in the stratosphere. A recession looms. And politically, Canada – and most of the world – has never been more divided. 

Riding the rails in depression-era Canada

Yep, these are grim times. But they could be worse. And it HAS been worse … much, much worse.

Remember the Great Depression?  Of course not; with apologies to nonagenarian readers, nobody does. It’s ancient history, and like so much history – particularly Canadian history – it is largely forgotten.

What little we know about the Great Depression comes from American culture and history: the stock market crash; ‘Brother Can You Spare A Dime?’; the Dust Bowl;  the Grapes of Wrath, etc. While the Canadian story of the Great Depression can be found, but it’s not easy. 

Recently, while browsing the shelves of the library at a seniors’ centre I frequent (yes, that is as sad as it sounds), I came upon a book I read back in the 1970s, titled Ten Lost Years, by Barry Broadfoot.

Broadfoot was a newspaperman (remember them?) at various Western Canadian papers. In 1972, he quit the business and took off across Canada with a tape recorder and a typewriter. He traveled across the country four times, recording hundreds of stories from average Canadians about their Great Depression experiences. 

Ten Lost Years is not a weighty history tome. There are no charts or graphs, no explanation about how the Great Depression came to be, and almost no mention of the politicians of the day. It’s all verbatim stories from survivors of the Depression. And the stories are jaw-dropping. 

It has been said that no country suffered more in the Depression than Canada, and due to an unparalleled drought, the West was hit the worst. Ten Lost Years bears that out. Whole families living on potatoes. Thousands of out-of-work, homeless young men riding the rails from city to city. When ‘relief’ from hard-hearted government was made available, many men were too proud to take it, such as it was. Work camps were set up for men, which paid – and this is true – 20 cents a day for hard labour. Honest people turned to petty theft to stay alive. The Canada of Ten Lost Years is unrecognizable from the Canada of today. 

Ten Lost Years (and Broadfoot’s follow-up book of WWII experiences, Six War Years) should be in every library and bookstore in Canada. But good luck finding it. Edmonton and Calgary public libraries only have online copies available. You won’t find it in Chapters, or Indigo, or whatever they call that pseudo-bookstore. Ten Lost Years is a priceless historical artifact, preserving the true stories of people long dead, filled with stories that should be remembered. But this is how we treat our history, and our historians. Despite writing bestselling books, Broadfoot (who died in 2003) is mostly forgotten. He doesn’t even get a mention in the Canadian Encyclopedia online. Maybe because he wasn’t a professional historian, his work got short shrift even with it was popular.  

“History is the lies you believe,” Broadfoot said in an interview. “It’s being rewritten all the time because generals, industrialists and academic historians all serve different interests.

 “The academic historians resent what I do because they say it isn’t history and somehow I’m taking away from the pool of money that might go toward history books. But the people I talk to have no vested interests, beyond the desire to tell their stories as honestly as they could. Precious memories and our heritage.”  

I recommend Ten Lost Years unreservedly. You’ll never complain about 21st-century life again. 

By Maurice Tougas

Maurice Tougas is a lifelong Albertan, award-winning writer and reporter, and a former MLA for Edmonton-Meadowlark.

3 comments

  1. Those that I knew from that generation are the people that I think of most often. Now that they’re gone, it seems as though there’s something missing. I wish we could get it back.

  2. A great reminder, Maurice. Everyone needs to read this. In southern Ontario, the drought didn’t have a direct impact. My grandmother, a French immigrant and widow with seven kids, was lucky. They had a house with a backyard, a garden, a chicken coup and a rabbit hutch at a time when municipalities didn’t ban such things. So they were fed. And my little gran (4’10”) was the one cutting the heads off chickens for the stew pot. When homeless, unemployed men came to the door, they were always handed a bowl of soup or stew to eat while sitting on the porch. She also made the kids underwear and pillow cases from sacks from local flour mill. She made their clothes. Their “wheels” were the two bicycles they all shared. My mother says they didn’t suffer. They were happy with what they had. Perhaps our expectations of what is important to our “bucket list” also needs a rethink.

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