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Nellie McClung: The world needs more workers, not more leaders

This column first appeared in the Victoria Daily Times on March 16, 1940. A big, throaty voice was calling on the radio for leaders.

This column first appeared in the Victoria Daily Times on March 16, 1940.

A big, throaty voice was calling on the radio for leaders. Leaders like Joshua, Moses and Amos! Leaders like Lincoln and Wilberforce, who would flash a message, meteor-like across the sky! He said: “Humanity is stalled on life’s highway for lack of leaders.”

I knew what I wanted to say. It is not leaders we need — we have always had leaders. We all know enough, at least we know more than we are using, and so perhaps the best way to increase our knowledge is to put into practice what we already know.

“Words,” I said to myself, quoting an old proverb, “are the daughters of earth but deeds are the sons of Heaven.”


That cry for leaders is an old excuse. What we need today are followers. Someone who will work without being told just what to do. Someone who will work continuously and not sit back after their first effort waiting to be thanked or reported or complimented.

We have all the elements of successful living in Canada. We have freedom of speech, assembly and thought. We are not only literate, we are intelligent. We have organizations of which we are proud. We have auxiliaries to almost everything.

Even so, there are men and women who have not yet found themselves. They go on their way, untouched by the turmoil around them, feeling no responsibility for the problems of their fellow men.

They are not hard of heart or dull of mind. They are merely detached and take the spectator attitude to everything. If we could ever get through to people of this class, they would release a great new force for the building of citizenship here in Canada.

The war has complicated all our problems. We had a full allotment of problems prior to September 1939. We still have these and a complete set of new ones. If they could only be solved by oratory, resolutions and letters to the paper, all would be well, but unfortunately, these can only be solved by hard thinking and patient and enduring toil.

We have many new people in Canada today, people who are here because of conditions in Europe. They are naturally distraught, homesick, unsettled and lonely. They need friends more than anything in the world. If we reach out to them and draw them into our society, Canada will be infinitely richer for their presence.


This type of friendship takes time and energy, tact and understanding. And we still have our problems of unemployment. One person in every 20 is dependent on the other 19. And yet the Minster of Transport has recently said that there may soon be a labour shortage in Canada. He means, of course, a shortage of trained labour.

We have never exercised our fullest energy in this matter of finding work for our own people, nor have we exercised our best efforts to train people. We all know people who hold onto jobs long after the time when they should retire and give the younger ones a chance. We all know people who are well able to employ labour and yet are not doing it.

Why do people hold so tightly to this elusive thing called money? Are we allowing our desire for security to blind us to the dangers about us? It is safer to put money in a new house, or a new room on the old house than to leave it lying in the bank.

That is what we mean when we speak of houses and lands as “real estate.” A house may depreciate by wind and weather but money depreciates still faster by the chill winds of depression, and depressions always follow war.

There is a higher motive, too, than this selfish one. Our people are our glory and our wealth. The very essence of democracy and Christianity lies in the value of the individual. Germany and Russia stand convicted before the whole world in their disregard for human life. They sacrifice human beings without mercy, turning back the clock of civilization to the Dark Ages.

We know we must help our own people. “Unless you bring your brother with you, you shall not see my face.” That is what Joseph said when talking to his brothers who came to Egypt to buy corn. In saying this he uttered an unalterable truth. In a Christian democracy, no one can be allowed to grow bitter in idleness. The success of a democracy depends on the individual.


There never was a time when people were thinking so earnestly of this, and looking so eagerly for channels through which their energy can flow. It all becomes very simple, if we are each willing to do the thing which lies nearest to our hands, however humble that may be.

A young man called at a house in a western city, asking for work. He was neatly dressed, well-spoken and desperately anxious to earn money. The first impulse of the lady of the house was to tell him she had no chores to be done but, fortunately, she was touched by the eagerness of his manner and set him to wash her car.

There were some apples in a box in the garage which needed to be picked over and he asked if he might do this. She found out that he had a wife and two children and the more she talked to him the more she became interested in his case. She took his address and the next day went to see his family and found a case of dire poverty.

A month-old baby was sleeping in a cardboard carton, wrapped in a blanket and nothing else. There was no bed in the house and very little food, but the people were intelligent and hopeful. Their new friend, who happened to be a teacher, gave them something for their immediate needs and told her pupils about them.

The results have been interesting. The family has been established in a better house — the children are now clothed — the man has been given work, and the pupils of this Grade 4 school have learned something about social responsibility. All because the teacher was ready to do what came her way.

The theorists will cry out that charity is not a remedy, but if we can multiply charity over and over, it will hasten the remedy. Interested people, if we have enough of them, will provide a remedy for anything.

No one need be idle these days if they have in their heart the faintest glimmering of a desire to help their country. Many women find their place in doing war work, looking after the welfare of soldiers.

In one city, eight women met at a luncheon three months ago and talked about the need for recreation in some place where the soldiers could bring their women friends — where they could read and write and have refreshments at cost. There were eight young women at the luncheon — not one of them either rich or socially prominent, but they had brains and energy and they were in earnest.


Now the “Georgia Dugout” in Vancouver is open every day in the week for the members of the Armed Forces and their friends and there are 300 women enrolled as voluntary workers. There is an orchestra, a dancing floor, a writing room, a library. More that this, there is good talk and fellowship over the tea tables.

No, it is not a matter of leadership; it is a question of who is willing to work. Who will knit for a soldier when they would rather be making something for themselves? Who will hunt out the lonely ones who live on the other side of the tracks? Who will go down back streets looking for some newcomer in a rooming house who may be homesick and discouraged? Who will upset the even tenor of a busy life to befriend the needy?

The various elements in our country are like the stones needed for a building. They are strong, beautiful, durable. But they cannot be held together without cement, and this social cement is the thousand little acts of understanding of which we are capable — insignificant taken singly, but mighty in their accumulation for the up-building of our nation.