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Rebel for societal change

When David Woodsworth, a Professor Emeritus, retired from his job as director of McGill University’s School of Social Work decades ago, he decided he wanted to work with senior citizens. A colleague who had taught courses on gerontology suggested Woods­worth’s knowledge of the elderly was limited.

“This was true, but I learned,” says Woodsworth, 91. In 1986, he became a founding member of the NDG Senior Citizens Council. Prior to this, there had been no organization looking after the specific interests of seniors in the area.

“I don’t think the average person understands what it means not being able to hear,” he says of the types of infirmity that typically beset the elderly. “Hearing and sight are a couple of the major physical problems. And then there’s the increasing immobility.

“You cannot go into the Metro, you cannot go up and down the Metro stairs, and so therefore what do you do? You have to take a taxi everywhere, but you can’t afford a taxi.

“If you’re ill and you need attention, no doctor will come to the house. You have to go the doctor’s office somehow or to emergency, which is an impossible task for almost anybody at six hours [wait time] or more. Access to a physician’s care is a very significant issue.”

Woodsworth comes from a family for whom social consciousness is a tradition.

His uncle, J.S. Woodsworth, was the first leader of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), which became the New Democratic Party. David Woods­worth’s grandfather, Rev. James Woodsworth, was a senior Methodist missionary in western Canada. His father was also a Methodist minister, as was another uncle. Strong faith would become a powerful factor in determining Woodsworth’s social convictions. Woodsworth acknowledges that all this led him into social work. Despite his politically activist heritage, he insists he isn’t partisan and will usually vote for the party whose policies he favours. While he says he has voted for three of Canada’s leading political parties, he admits he never supported the Conservatives. But he says he admired Tory prime minister John Diefenbaker because of his stance on human rights.

As a social worker and commentator, Woodsworth says he feels compelled to warn others in his field of a tendency brought on by public policy, which leads them to accept bureaucratic and legalistic requirements to bring about changes in individuals.

David Woodsworth is a founding member of the NDG Senior Citizens Council Photo: Martin C. Barry

“It’s the fault of the individual; in other words, it’s not the fault of the society,” he says, describing the mindset. “I would rather emphasize the fault of the society.”

Acknowledging that this professional framework corresponds to a rightward shift in politics that started in the 1980s, Woodsworth adds, “I think there is a class difference related to that. The people who manage things, the movers and shakers, are out to protect their own interests. They come to believe sincerely that that is the way to do it. I don’t doubt the sincerity of the prime minister of Canada. I think he believes what he says and does. I just think it’s wrong.”

Woodsworth is cynical about the direction our society has taken in recent decades.

“The dominant politics in modern times is the politics of private enterprise and ownership. That has been greatly supported by the demise of the Soviet Union. So all of these things contributed to a great victory.”

Woodworth blames George W. Bush for furthering the interests of private enterprise as a way to deal with societal organization or problems. “The consequence of that has been a whole range of errors, omissions and suffering, which were avoidable had there been different politics. “But you couldn’t have a different politics because the people who own the power thought otherwise,” Woodsworth adds.

“So it’s basically a power struggle. The Soviet Union was a prime example of authoritarianism in the name of doing good for the people.

“It was probably more repressive than what we’ve got. But it doesn’t make our system the right one.”



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