Deborah Dundas | Issue 27
Excerpt from On Class - On Privilege and Expectations
Excerpt from On Class
On Privilege and Expectations
WHEN I WAS in grade eight, we were evicted from our subsidized apartment in one of the poorer areas of Toronto. I was a kid, I don’t know the reasons and straight answers can be hard to come by. What I do know is that I came home from school to find a yellow sheet of paper from the Sherriff’s office taped to the door and that my key wouldn’t fit in the lock. I sat down in the hallway, crying, wondering what to do.
Kind neighbours took me in as I tried to get hold of my mother to tell her what had happened. Within a few days our possessions were thrown into boxes, tossed into the back of our ancient blue Rambler or left behind. We moved to a much smaller apartment at the other end of the city, and I started at yet another school. When the possibility of subsidized housing doesn’t exist for those in crisis, the choices for affordable living are limited.
The new apartment was dark and damp. Where, a few weeks before, we would have taken an elevator up to a carpeted hallway, and the only steps were down to the sunken living room, now we took old tiled stairs down to a dark, echoey basement hallway, our apartment only a few doors from the rattle of the laundry room’s washers and dryers. In the kitchen, dirt gathered where the cor- ners of the old linoleum had curled and broken. I looked out the bedroom window, my eyes level with the street. A chip in the paint showed layers of lives coloured in blue, white, pink, beige, yellow, and the muddy green that now covered the walls.
But the part of the city we moved to was nicer, with more single-family homes and leafy streets; the school I went to was better, too, with teachers who worked to include me in class and in extra-curricular activities, even though I started halfway through the school year. I joined the after-school choir, ran in the city cross-country meet, came amongst the top in my school on a standardized test, read aloud in class stories I’d written—and people liked them. One day, a friend introduced me to a boy who smelled of clean laundry. He asked me where I lived. I told him. “You live there?” he asked, surprised. He lived in one of the post-war bungalows that populated the rest of the area; the kind of home where, I imagined, he lived a life free from the drudgery and dirt and abuse and addiction and eccentric characters crowded into our little brown building. This was a small moment, but it’s the sort of moment that helped me see other possibilities: even if he was surprised at where I lived, I could hold my own. Those little moments are the kind that help lift you up if you let them.
WHEN WE TALK about class, part of what we talk about is our expectations: of what type of education or job we might aspire to; of networks and connections—whether through family, friends, or work—that can help us; possibly of owning a home. All these factors help provide a safety net, a sense of comfort, knowledge that you have the skills you need, someone to help you out, or a cushion of equity in your home or investments if the going gets tough.
Canadians still overwhelmingly aspire to home ownership—according to a 2016 poll, 85 percent feel it is a priority.But, as home prices have risen and it’s become more difficult for young people to save for a down payment, the possibility of home ownership is now often dependent on parental help or an inheritance. In Ontario, 40 percent of parents of younger homeowners assisted their children financially, with the average gift being more than $70,000.
“Boomers have been paying off their homes,” the Globe and Mail reported in March 2021, “and now have a lot of money to play with. And give away.”They’ve also been on the receiving end of inheritances worth some $750 billion from their parents, the so-called Silent or Depression Generation, born between 1928 and 1945, in what’s been termed the “great wealth transfer.” Coined by financial planners in the US and used by planners here in Canada, too, the phrase describes the inheritances that are continuing to accrue to the baby boom generation from their parents—and will continue for the next few decades as the boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964, transfer that money and more to succeeding generations—their Gen X and millennial kids and grandkids.
Think about it: while this wealth transfer affects close to 48 percent of the population, that means 52 percent of the population is not expecting an inheritance. There’s no planning for a great wealth transfer when there is no wealth to transfer. The passing down of intergenerational wealth helps to keep in place the gap between the haves and the have-nots, and increasingly high prices for homes has made that intergenerational help even more necessary, making the gap between the haves and have-nots wider still.
AS MY HIGH school friends got ready for university, I was at a loss—I had no idea where I was going in life or what I was going to do. I had, during previous summers (barring the time spent at the import-export job), worked at the law library at Toronto’s York University. My mother had worked there as a secretary for a time, and the law librarian hired me to photocopy old books. The year I graduated from grade thirteen, I returned to that job, not knowing what I was going to do once the summer ended.
I am still haunted by the irony of it all: I thought of the university not as a place I could attend as a student but as a place at which I could work. Eventually, someone suggested that I could get a full-time job there. So I did. Once again, as a secretary.
I felt lucky—it was a good job, with benefits. And it opened my eyes to other possibilities too. Where I had previously had no expectation of furthering my education and getting myself in a position where I might one day make it into the middle class, accumulating wealth, or even owning a home—which opened up the further possibility of creating intergenerational wealth—suddenly that seemed more of a possibility. My benefits package included free tuition, and I began to take night courses. Professors I worked for—people I wouldn’t have met otherwise—would ask me what I was doing here, knowing I could be something more than a secretary and wondering why I wasn’t.
Sometimes, to get where you’re hoping to be means being able to fit in as someone who belongs.
Order On Class from Biblioasis
Deborah Dundas grew up poor in the west end of Toronto. She is now a writer and journalist, has worked as a television producer and is currently an editor at the Toronto Star. Her work has appeared in numerous publications in Canada, the UK and Ireland including Maclean’s, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Canadian Notes and Queries, The Belfast Telegraph and The Sunday Independent. She attended York University for English and Political Science and has an MFA in Creative Non-fiction from the University of King’s College. She lives in Toronto with her husband and daughter and their loving, grumpy cat Jumper.
On Class by Deborah Dundas Biblioasis, 2023
Deborah Dundas is a journalist who grew up poor and almost didn’t make it to university. In On Class, she talks to writers, activists, those who work with the poor and those who are poor about what happens when we don’t talk about poverty or class—and what will happen when we do.
Growing up poor, Deborah Dundas knew what it meant to want, to be hungry, and to long for social and economic dignity; she understood the crushing weight of having nothing much expected of you. But even after overcoming many of the usual barriers faced by lower- and working-class people, she still felt anxious about her place, and even in relatively safe spaces reluctant to broach the subject of class. While new social movements have generated open conversation about gender and racism, discussions of class rarely include the voices of those most deeply affected: the working class and poor.
On Class is an exploration of the ways in which we talk about class: of who tells the stories, and who doesn’t, which ones tend to be repeated most often, and why this has to change. It asks the question: What don’t we talk about when we don’t talk about class? And what might happen if, ﬁnally, we did?
Praise for On Class
“I really enjoyed Deborah Dundas’s small and brave book On Class. She addresses the need to speak about the different classes in Canada, and the ways it is almost impossible to cross their divides.”
—Heather O’Neill, author of When We Lost Our Heads
“On Class is urgent and wise, written with Dundas’ trademark wit and crisp prose. Raw and smart, it urges readers not to look away from the complexity of issues affecting the poor and working class, especially in a time of constant political, economic, and social turmoil.”
“On Class is a great read, perfect for readers less familiar with the notion of class and what it really means, but also interesting and thoughtful enough for those who have already begun to engage with the topic. Dundas pulls a lot of threads together in this volume, but it works really well and serves as an excellent, broad starting point.”
—The Miramichi Reader
The Canadian Press, “Home Ownership a Priority to Millennials: Poll,” Global News, March 25, 2016.
Chris Fox, “More than 40 Per Cent of Young Homeowners in Ontario Got Financial Help from Parents: Poll,” CTv News, February 22, 2022.
Gary Mason, “The Great Generational Wealth Transfer Is Under Way,” Globe and Mail, March 12, 2021.
Keith Costello, “The ‘Great’ Wealth Transfer: An Opportunity or Threat?” Investment Executive, October 11, 2016.
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