Bootstraps Need Boots

One Tory's Lonely Fight to End Poverty in Canada

By Alex Himelfarb

by Hugh Segal
University of British Columbia Press
2019/$32.95/216 pp.

Hugh Segal’s Bootstraps Need Boots, much like its author, defies classification and is almost impossible not to like. Part personal memoir, part political history, the book is held together by the story of, as the book’s subtitle puts it, “One Tory’s lonely fight to end poverty in Canada.”

That story starts in Montreal in 1937 with Hugh’s birth to a Jewish family living “on the margins of poverty,” not far removed from the refugee experience. While Segal describes these early days as “the cheery edge of poverty,” he soon learns how a precarious life with bouts of desperation puts insecurity at the centre of one’s existence, and how much worse things are for those whose desperation is unrelenting. He discovers too that hard work and family values, however important, are not enough to insulate people from the want and indignities of poverty and the hopelessness that can result; poverty, not poor people, is the problem.

Segal makes these lessons come alive through childhood anecdotes that have obviously helped shape the man we know: the day a bailiff came to repossess the family car; the second visit to take away the furniture; his parents’ anger at “frivolous” spending at an amusement park with money the family needed for bare necessities. Perhaps most telling is the story of the mahogany toy box. Though young Hugh had no idea where it came from, the box had become a prized object, uniquely his. One day, to his horror, he discovered his father had given it away to a desperate family who needed the wood to heat their home. Segal dedicates the book to his late mother, who explained to him the meaning of the missing box: that we have an obligation to care for and even sacrifice for others; that those who have more must “make noise” for those who have less.

These are the ideas that have animated Hugh’s adventures in politics and policy including as top adviser to Brian Mulroney and Bill Davis, Senator appointed by Paul Martin, and architect of Kathleen Wynne’s basic-income pilot (tragically killed by the Doug Ford government). Segal offers a nostalgic reminder of a time when the words “progressive” and “conservative” didn’t clash, and when Red Tory captured a distinctly Canadian brand of progressivism. Leave it to Segal to become the irrepressible champion of “basic income,” a cause that has fierce supporters and equally fierce detractors on both the right and the left. This has, for decades, been Segal’s passion, to free people from the insecurities, hopelessness and indignities of poverty and the arbitrariness and humiliations of our welfare system.

I could quarrel with some of what Segal says or doesn’t say. He takes a few unnecessary and frankly clichéd jabs at public servants that seem out of tune with his characteristic “politics of civility” and lead to a cartoonish portrayal of the left’s concern about basic income as driven by desire to save public-service jobs. The book would have been stronger had it confronted the legitimate concerns that basic income not be seen as an alternative to essential services and labour protections, which would only undercut Segal’s worthy goals.

But perhaps this is churlish given the timeliness and importance of the debate Segal is enabling. As we watch COVID-19 prey on our inequities and magnify the increasing precarity of work, as we imagine a just transition to a green economy, what could be more important than ensuring that every Canadian have access to essential services and enough money to meet basic needs with a little breathing room to manage tough times and build a better life for themselves and their children?

—Alex Himelfarb is an author and academic. He served three prime ministers as Clerk of the Privy Council, 2002–2006. 

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