We need to talk about class to tackle inequality in Canada, author argues
Deborah Dundas says discussions about working, middle or upper class are wreathed in buzzwords and shame
In 2021, author Deborah Dundas found herself attending a gala in Toronto. Celebrities in the local art scene and other wealthy people ate oysters and drank Moët champagne, while bidding up to tens of thousands of dollars in a silent auction.
But Dundas, the Toronto Star's books editor, couldn't help but notice a group of homeless people sitting just outside — as the gala had closed off what's usually a public space.
"It's a bit bonkers," Dundas, who grew up poor, told The Sunday Magazine's Piya Chattopadhyay. "Is that a good way of supporting these people who are waiting outside to come in? It's charitable, it's philanthropy, but there's a bit of cognitive dissonance."
Dundas's parents divorced when she was four years old. She spent much of her childhood moving between poor households, from subsidized housing in one case to "the crappiest basement you could imagine" in another.
"One of the apartments that we moved into was a flat in a house that didn't have a refrigerator, so we would put the milk outside on the windowsill," she recalled.
"We would fold a coat hanger in half and put it over the stove element so that we could have toast."
Dundas's story isn't unique. She says that even though class divisions exist in Canada, we don't talk about them openly. She hopes she can broach those conversations with her new book On Class.
In her research, Dundas says there are three key reasons people don't talk about class. First, there's no hard definition of the middle class, which she calls an "amorphous" term frequently used by politicians.
Second, there's shame about being poor or working class. "Nobody wants to admit the difficulties that come with being of a lower-class income," she said.
Finally, there can be a reluctance from from those who are wealthier to acknowledge their own privilege.
"They don't really want to engage in the conversation, because it might make them question how they got there and why they got there."
'I work here, but I can't go here'
Dundas eventually got a summer job working at a university library — "a stroke of luck" itself, she notes, as her mother used to work there. The job came with the perk of free courses, so she attended night classes when she wasn't working.
But at first, it didn't even occur to Dundas that university could be for her, let alone affordable.
"I thought, 'OK, well, I can work here, but I can't go here,'" she said.
She cited a study from the 1960s by U.S. sociologist Melvin Cohn, who posited that people with working-class parents were more likely to be taught to follow rules — often out of a need for survival.
People in middle- or upper-class families, however, were more likely to be raised with the belief that they can carve out their own path in life, or even change the rules around them.
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Success and shame
Modern conceptions of class and class mobility changed in the Western Hemisphere after the Second World War, according to Bryan Evans, a sociologist and political science professor at Toronto Metropolitan University.
The economic boom included "home ownership, automobile ownership, consumerism in a fairly broad way," he said.
But he also noted that not everyone, including women and Indigenous people, equally benefited from it.
As author Jeremy Seabrook wrote in The Guardian in 2014: "When the good times came — in the 1950s and 1960s especially — most were swift to accept personal responsibility for this happy development.
"Shame is the most persistent attribute of contemporary poverty," he wrote.
In other words: It's your own fault if you aren't a self-made success.
But that's not how the real world works, says author and actor Jo Vannicola.
Vannicola left an abusive home as a teenager and worked "a lot of odd jobs as a young person in order to survive" — even as reruns of their childhood appearances on Sesame Street aired on TVs in North America.
"That kind of stuff doesn't leave you when you've had to deal with that for a very long time," they said.
And they said living with that constant pressure to make ends meet means little time to do things that bring joy.
"The majority of people will not be able to join the 10 per cent or the one per cent.... It's not possible, because those people are only there as a result of the poor working for them."
Dundas noted how our language about the working class shifted early in the COVID-19 pandemic, when front-line workers in food, health care and other industries, where working from home was not an option, were given a salary bump.
At the time, it was called hero pay.
"And then they took it away. What does that say about how people who do those sorts of jobs in our society are seen? That's a class thing," she said.
Vannicola pondered whether simplifying language about class could help raise our awareness of the needs of those most in need: talking about the poor and not-poor, for example, instead of debating what it means to be working class or middle class.
Evans, on the other hand, says class consciousness — and the language that comes with it — is a good thing.
"Class consciousness gives you the equipment to say: 'OK, I understand what's going on. It's not about me coming up short. It's not about me making bad decisions or failing,'" he said.
"It's made by decisions made by business, made by government and how they work together to shape the reality in which we live."
Ultimately, Dundas says she hopes her book sparks more open, honest conversations about class, so we can better shape that reality for ourselves.
"How do we make things better? How do we make sure that people are respected? How do we centre dignity, as opposed to profit ... in our society?" she said.
Interview with Deborah Dundas produced by Andrea Hoang