Howard Anglin: Canadian class symbols ... they're there if you know where to look

Tims or fast-food franchise coffee? Working class. Starbucks? Middle class.

Starbucks sign

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By: Howard Anglin

“Class is something polite Canadians avoid discussing.” So said Jen Gerson in a piece for Maclean’s about a McMansion on the outskirts of Calgary so garish it could grace the cover of Thorstein Veblen’s collected works. Putting aside the classist implications of delimiting “polite Canadians” from their implicitly ill-bred compatriots, Gerson is right: we mostly avoid discussing class, even when we talk about it.

Our politicians, for example, are constantly invoking the middle class “and those working hard to join it,” and Trudeau’s government even has a Minister of Middle Class Prosperity — the (presumably) impeccably middle-class Mona Fortier — but they are notoriously reluctant to define it. When questioned about who, exactly, he meant, Justin Trudeau replied cryptically that “Canadians know who’s in the middle class.” For interpretation, we must turn to Professor Wolfgang Lehmann, who suggested that “essentially, they're talking about people who go and vote,” which makes sense, because politicians usually are.

Historically, Canada imported her upper class. At the top was the Viceroy, invariably an aristocrat from the mother country important enough to merit the position but not so valuable that he couldn’t be spared to the colonies for a few years. Floating around him was a coterie of second sons recreating on Canadian farms and in crenelated apartment blocks the lives of their titled older brothers back home. It wasn’t until 1952 that we got our first home-grown Governor General, Vincent Massey, an evolution in Canada’s social history immortalized by B.K. Sandwell’s epigram: “Toronto has no social classes — only the Masseys and the masses.”

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Until recently, one could still find a few genuine aristocrats knocking about rural Ontario agricultural shows or Victoria’s Union Club. Some lived in plain sight, like the splendidly-bewhiskered Lord Chatfield, who bought the house I grew up in, and some in very plain accommodations indeed, like the Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna of Russia, who was born into unimaginable wealth in the splendour of the Peterhof Palace and died in a run-down apartment above a beauty salon in Toronto’s East Chinatown. (When the Queen visited Canada in 1959, she invited the Grand Duchess — a distant relative of Prince Philip — to lunch. Apparently she reluctantly bought a new dress for the occasion.) One even wound up, briefly, on the front bench of Canada’s House of Commons. For the most part, however, they inhabited a parallel society apart from rest of the country, so it was easy to believe that the country was, as the Liberals insist, one vast middle class from sea to sea, plus a few best-not-dwelled-upon aspirants toiling somewhere below it.

This comfortably flat image of our social hierarchy, however, belies a more complicated series of gradations that, while clearly marked, are rarely observed and almost never described accurately. Peter C. Newman mapped some of the terrain in his three volumes on The Canadian Establishment, but his account was already dated when he began it in 1975 and it was a work of history rather than social commentary by the time he finished in 1998. Gerson’s own description of the Canadian class system explains why it can be hard for outsiders, and even insiders, to see it: “[W]e manage the cognitive dissonance presented by the haves and have-nots of housing,” she says, “by requiring our rich people to keep quiet. They should wear clothes that are well-cut and well-designed, but not flash. Buy the multi-millionaires car, but paint it in a sedate hue.”

Social sorting is intrinsic to human nature, perhaps even necessary — as the Bard has Ulysses remind us: "Take but degree away ... and, hark, what discord follows!” — and it’s here in Canada too, if you look for it. Like the United States, Canadians early on replaced a class system based on titles with one based on the more easily-acquired currency of, well, currency. And, as in America, this immediately created a new opportunity for class to subtly reassert itself. 


I used to joke that the only meaningful class division in Canada is whether you use “summer” as a noun or as a verb; lately I've developed the Starbucks test. In this analogy, Starbucks is Canada's middle class, with Tim Hortons and fast food franchise coffee below, and specialty cafes and boutique chains (MatchstickPhil & SebastianBridgehead) above. 

Unlike the crude measure of income, coffee choice better replicates a traditional class system because it carries an implicit sense of social solidarity, cultural assumptions and biases. During the days of the Harper government, Tim Hortons became a symbol to a certain sort of conservative as iconic as the Greek fisherman’s cap is to aging Marxists. The Maple Leaf red cup represented the honest values of rural and suburban working families, in contrast to the globalist elites with their overpriced green Starbucks. Starbucks was sipped at dog parks and served in board rooms; Tim Hortons got the job done on a cold winter morning: it was Don Cherry in a mug.

The Starbucks test is a silly heuristic, but it reveals something about the complex nature of class: an aristocrat may be penniless, and a billionaire may love his Tims. It also puts the middle class back in its traditional place as the uneasy middle-child of the social order. 

In the old British system, there was pride in being working class. There was a bond of mutual support that grew out of the shared experience of hard labour and was reinforced by institutions like working men’s clubs, the British Legion, and the trade union movement. The middle-class striver with his airs and pretensions, his flash new car and his evolving accent, was a figure of general mockery, even more to the working men he left behind than to the upper classes he aspired to join. Class was about more than money; it was an identity. And there was nothing that gave you away as middle class more than worrying about being middle class — an anxiety exploited by Nancy Mitford in her tongue-in-cheek guide to “U” and “Non-U” language and behaviour. The Starbucks test reveals something similar, something more reflective of Canada's reality than the Liberal vision of one big happy middle-class family.

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Our highest social stratum may no longer have that distinct mid-Atlantic accent that Irving Layton said “makes even Englishmen wince and feel unspeakably colonial,” our version of Locust Valley Lockjaw, but subtle markers remain, which is why Gerson could so easily identify the new prairie palace with its “life-sized golden statues of horses and a winged man in a chariot” as “gauche” and most definitely “non-U.”

John Stuart Mill, that most middle-class of philosophers, once proposed a tax on such conspicuous consumption, which he justified on solidly classist moral and aesthetic grounds. “A great portion of the expenses of the higher and middle classes in most countries,” he wrote, “is not incurred for the sake of the pleasure afforded by the things on which the money is spent, but from regard to opinion ... as an appendage of station.” He concluded, priggishly, that “I cannot but think that expenditure of this sort is a most desirable subject of taxation.”

The island of Sark, a bucolic British tax haven off the coast of France, actually has such a tax. The “Laws of Guernsey” explains that the island’s “visible wealth tax” is assessed (by most accounts, inconsistently) “based on the value of property related to floor area and secondly on ‘perceived’ wealth on a ‘one inhabitant relative to another’ basis.” Based on the reaction to Gerson’s article, I suspect that such a sumptuary law would be quite popular among Canadians. The government could start with Calgary’s roadside Versailles, and then move on to coffee.

Howard Anglin was deputy chief of staff to prime minister Stephen Harper and is currently a post-graduate researcher in constitutional law at Oxford University.

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