How to Be a Meritocracy: Lessons From My Father

On May 22, my father raised his glass at a dinner table filled with 22 members of his family, my husband and my in-laws and congratulated me for completing medical school. 

"This is a great accomplishment.  But for me, the reason it really matters is because it means that we - all of us - can do anything.  We are good enough and capable enough."

My father grew up the youngest boy of eight children in the west end of Toronto in the 60s.  His father was a trucker and his mother was a home-maker and door-to-door saleswoman of Fullerbrush and all sorts of other goods.  They were raised on farms in early 1900s rural Ontario and rural Manitoba, respectively.  Their lives were difficult and complicated.  My grandfather struggled with alcoholism.  My father was told all of the time that he should take the less advanced classes at school and that his family was not a very smart one.  When they built a vocational school in his neighbourhood, the teachers told he and his siblings that they should attend.  

My father ended up attending college for a few semesters.  He did well but needed to support himself so he went out west to Edmonton in his early 20s to work with his elder brother.  

My father always knew that if he was to get by, it would be through sheer grit because he didn't believe himself to be particularly smart.  So when his daughter became a doctor, it was not confirmation of his identity - it was a challenge to it.  One he happily accepted. 

My dad is gritty.  He is inelegant and awkward.  But he is gritty.

What do I mean by grit?  Grit researcher Dr. Andrea Lee Duckworth says gritty people can, "maintain effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress.” Grit is not talent, sometimes these two constructions are inversely related.  However, the brain can grow and change over time.  So gritty people tend to be curious and open to growth, or what Duckworth calls "optimistic explanatory style and growth mindset."  

In a classroom, this might mean that the very smart people catch on quickly to a new concept.  The gritty students may be a bit slower, but through commitment and effort they can actually meet the goal of understanding a new concept.  In this way, they become smarter and more talented.  

My father's grit arose from necessity.  His very survival depended on his own effort.  The same is true for my mother, though her childhood circumstances were outright Dickensian.    

The Canada that witnessed my parents' youth was one in which poor kids, despite challenges, were able to access education, health care and other social resources.  Merit mattered in Canada.  My mother joined the Navy right out of high school and she said that basic training was one of the first times that she remembers feeling equal to everyone else, even though she was the extremely poor kid in a family of 16 with addicted parents.  

Income inequality in Canada is growing.  As inequality expands, merit matters less and less to the children born to very low-income families.  If pulling oneself up by the bootstraps is to remain possible, social institutions have to play a role in leveling the playing field.  University has to be affordable.  Wages have to allow livability, even in Canada's big cities.  Kids who grow up in  rural areas can't feel like they're living in the second tier of the country.  Very marginalized groups, especially Indigenous Canadians, need to be self represented at the highest levels of government.   

I've been asked before in an interview, "if I could implement one policy in Canada, what would it be?"  The answer is obvious: access to high quality early childhood education and daycare.  The Human Early Learning Partnership from the University of British Colombia has shown that kids who show up to school vulnerable in one of five domains - physical, social, emotional, communication, language - are more likely to remain vulnerable throughout their adulthood than kids who are prepared for school.  Some parents cannot provide a nurturing home environment for their children.  Those children, if left without support, are more likely to struggle in school, end up incarcerated and experience unemployment.  The economic cost of vulnerability is in the billions of dollars.  We cannot afford inequality. 

In my old neighbourhood in Vancouver, about 45 percent of kids are vulnerable in one or more domains.  In Strathcona, the neighbourhood containing Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, every child is vulnerable in more than one domain. 

In West Vancouver's Ambleside district, less than 15 percent of kids are vulnerable in more than one domain.  

These two neighbourhoods are different in every possible way.  You can basically see one from the other across Burrard Inlet but that is the extent of their likeness.  People in Strathcona often don't have fixed addresses, identification or bank accounts.  People in West Vancouver run banks and lobby governments.  Government must get involved in the wedge between these two neighbourhoods to make sure those vulnerable kids in Strathcona aren't stuck in a poverty loop. 

The last decade in Canadian history has seen an erosion of the social welfare state.  Inequality is massive.  We don't even have a proper census anymore so we can't adequately capture the extent of the wedge nor its implications.  The best available data on income inequality shows that when societies are more equal, even the rich are richer.  This is a no-brainer win-win. 

This isn't some theoretical academic exercise for me.  It is personal.  If I was born in the US to the same family, I would have had an even slimmer chance of becoming a doctor.  This stuff matters.  When my Dad congratulated me, he was toasting the set of good social policies and institutions in which I have operated.  Let's protect them.