What does it mean to be working class in Canada?

Socio-economic lines are often erased or ignored in Canada. Here’s how I came to see my working class roots clearly.

I first interviewed Wolfgang Lehmann, professor and acting chair of sociology at Western University, a decade ago.

When I went looking for him recently to follow up on his work, I couldn’t recall his name, but I vividly remembered where he worked and what he’d found in his research. I interview many academics, and he’s the only one I can recall whose work caused tears to prick at my eyes.

I remembered that Lehmann taught at Western because that’s where I did my undergrad, and I never forgot his research because he was talking about me, explaining my life in ways that simultaneously made a deep sort of sense and had never occurred to me before.

Among other topics, he researches and writes extensively on working-class kids who are the first in their families to go to university—so-called “first-generation students.” Beginning in 2005, he recruited a group of them on campus and interviewed each at length during their first, second and fourth years of university, and again five years after they graduated.

Based on those interviews, the last of which took place in 2014, he’s written a whole constellation of papers. They trace the ways in which university was a door thrown open to a wider world for these young people, or a conveyor belt that carried them inexorably away from everything they knew and defined themselves by; how they revelled in their new environment, or chafed at its expectations, or cringed over how they couldn’t seem to play the game right, or resented its callowness, or a bit of all of that; how their understanding of who they were took shape when they were suddenly no longer surrounded by people pretty much like them.

I was not one of Lehmann’s interview subjects at Western, but I fit the profile: my dad was a mechanic and my mom an hourly-wage teacher’s assistant—both are now retired—and I was the first in my extended family to attend university. Without the mirror held up by his research, I’m not sure I would have had the framing, even now, to fully understand my own experience, or even to see that it was distinct.

My working-class roots are a fact I find becoming more central to my identity, and more conflicted, with every year that goes by, even though—or rather, because—I am now fully ensconced in a middle-class life. Given the way we elide, erase and ignore socio-economic class in Canada, my background feels like an invisible fact that shapes everything, but is acknowledged nowhere.

“I think there is a way that you never completely become fully middle class. There is a certain sense of working-classness that remains with you,” Lehmann told me recently. “To me, that’s a good thing.” He’s always shocked when he talks about this in one of his classes and students approach him afterward to thank him for discussing the thing none of their other classes do; colleagues with now-hidden working-class backgrounds do the same at conferences. “I’m thinking, how can this be? We’re sociologists, isn’t this our bread and butter?” he says. “But I think if you haven’t lived it, maybe you don’t feel compelled to even deal with it.”

READ MORE: Why everyone feels like they’re in the middle class

One of the most ubiquitous melodies in Canadian politics, guaranteed to feature prominently in the fall federal election, is the hopes and fears of the middle class (and, if you’re a Trudeau Liberal, “those working hard to join it”). But as Lehmann points out, that conversation is really about the working class under the wrong name: people who work in factories, auto plants or physical labour, whose jobs once provided a solid path to home ownership and a comfortable life, but now feel threatened and precarious.

“There’s this notion of conflating class in Canada and making everybody middle class who isn’t rich—there’s the one per cent, and the rest of us is all middle class,” Lehmann says. It’s nothing to boast about. “This idea that we’re kind of a post-class or a no-class society is maybe more dangerous than having some awareness of class,” he adds. “In the same way that it is dangerous to make the argument that we’re completely multicultural and there’s no racism in Canada.”

Lehmann’s work has been a way for him to understand his own life, too. He grew up in Germany, with his father working as a skilled tradesman and his mother in factories, as a homemaker and later delivering mail. They weren’t poor, but culturally they were very working-class: his parents weren’t educated or recreational readers, but they very much aspired to higher education for their children.

Working-class people where Lehmann grew up spoke a distinct dialect, so when he went off to university, he found himself consciously speaking High German. But it never felt like adequate cover. “My first year, I hated almost every moment being there. I felt completely like a fish out of water,” he says. “Now I have theoretical language to describe it, but at the time I didn’t.”

He dropped out, worked in a factory for a while, and found his way back to university through a business program. He never warmed to the program, but he did well enough to gain confidence that he could handle university. On an exchange to Canada, he met the woman who would become his wife. Being in a new place where he could reinvent himself led him to give sociology another chance and he eventually completed a masters degree and PhD.

“My parents wanted a better life for my sister and myself,” he says. “In some kind of ways suggesting their own life wasn’t good enough, even though they did really, really well.” That tension—that for working-class kids, success in life and fulfilling their parents’ brightest hopes for them means not being like the people who raised them—runs through the heart of Lehmann’s work.

The extent to which we ignore class in Canada is illustrated by the fact that when he was recruiting participants for his study, Lehmann didn’t specify “working class” in his posters and student newspaper ads, but rather described those who were the first among their parents or grandparents to attend university, and whose parents worked in fields like construction, factories or hairdressing.

How exactly to define class is a tricky question. Some scholars and observers rely on hierarchies in occupations, Lehmann says, moving down the ladder from owners to managers to professionals, then middle managers, skilled workers and unskilled workers. Others look at a combination of educational attainment, occupation and income—a bucket of attributes commonly labelled “socio-economic status.” And then there is a more cultural definition of class, which includes your tastes, social networks, the culture and media you consume.

Lehmann’s research aligns closely with the last definition, and he bases much of his work on Pierre Bourdieu, a French sociologist who was himself a former working-class kid. Bourdieu took the Marxist idea that capital determines people’s position in society, and extended it from the economic realm into “social capital,” meaning that your preferences, education, the things you own, who you know and how you present yourself all shape your social status.

When Lehmann interviewed the students in his study—he started with 75 in their first year, and followed 37 of them through to fourth year—they rarely talked explicitly about class, until he asked in one of the later interviews what category they thought their families belonged to. Almost every one of them said, “Oh, middle class.” When he asked why they thought that, they would talk about living in a house and having parents who were employed. Then the students would ask Lehmann how he defined class, and he suggested they compare their families’ financial situation to other students they knew at university—almost all said their families had less—and he outlined how low levels of formal education, jobs that are not professional or managerial and income below a certain level is generally considered working-class.

“And then most of them would say, ‘Well, in that case, we’re working-class,’” he says. This seemed like surprising news to them. “If I asked ‘Well, how does that make you feel?’ they would very quickly say, ‘I’m super proud of my parents. It’s not an issue, it doesn’t matter, and my new friends don’t care either,’” he says. “There’s recognition, but also denial of class.”

When I was growing up, people in my hometown of Sault Ste. Marie seemed, with minor variations, pretty much like me; there were doctors’ and lawyers’ kids, of course, but it never occurred to me to consider the education that got them those jobs. It seems ridiculously naive now, but I thought of higher education as a generational thing: everyone aiming for a certain kind of life goes to university now, because that’s just what you do, but it wasn’t like that before. The notion that many people’s parents and even grandparents had gone to university seemed ludicrous.

My transition to university was easier than Lehmann’s; his research suggests that the working-class kids who have the smoothest road are the ones who do a lot of preparation and go in with specific, realistic expectations and career goals. University, for me, was simply the obvious next step: I was ambitious, I was academically strong, so when I finished high school, off I would go, even without specific job aspirations sorted out.

But I think that’s exactly what worked so well for me: what I wanted was simply to go to university, to the place where I could take entire courses in the deliciously esoteric things I had brushed up against in books or in high school classes with ambitious and curious teachers: classical studies, archeology, art history, politics.

Still, I was 19 and my parents had no experience in navigating the world of higher education—another fact it did not occur to me until years later was not the case for everyone. That is how I ended up nonsensically applying to the University of Waterloo, that fine incubator of engineers, even though it was obvious I wanted an arts program, and why my mom and I went to the financial aid office at the small university in my hometown, even though I had no interest in attending it, to find out how to apply for student loans. We were completely transparent about our intentions, and the financial aid officer was cheerfully helpful anyway, and both ends of that transaction encapsulate what I will always love about where I grew up.

On my floor in residence in first year were several former private school students, which was up to that point a species I genuinely thought only existed in big U.S. cities and novels. One of the first close friends I made was from the GTA, rowed crew and pledged a sorority, so I maybe didn’t do a terrific job of finding friends with common ground right away.

In a first-year art history survey course, I fell head over heels in love with the discipline: here I could use my analytical brain—stronger and smarter than the sketching hand or conceptual imagination required to make art of my own—to unravel the messages of centuries-old paintings and cathedrals. By the time I completed my undergrad in art history at Western, I had wandered into the Gazette newsroom and all at once, found my people and the thing I was meant to do.

Wolfgang Lehmann on campus at the University of Western Ontario. (Photograph by Emily Gethke)

It never occurred to me until I was writing this that I would have been hard-pressed to find a more genteel, middle-class academic program than art history, and that journalism—and academia, in Lehmann’s case—might be the perfect careers for class-vaulters like us: thoroughly middle-class worlds in which your role is to observe closely but skirt the edges of every room, understanding the unwritten codes, but always questioning them.

Moving from one social class to another is like what I imagine it feels to move to a different country and learn a new language as a teenager: years later, your vocabulary may be flawless, you might have no trace of an accent, but a small part of your brain is always working very hard to translate and wondering if you got it right.

That 2009 paper of Lehmann’s that I’ve never forgotten hinges on the simultaneous recognition and denial of class. He outlines the various hurdles these working-class students face: money worries, balancing school with part-time and summer jobs, a shortage of relevant extra-curricular experiences to garnish their resumes, bewilderment about technical issues like selecting classes or understanding more broadly what was expected at university.

But even as the students acknowledged these disadvantages, they were “almost instantly turned on their head and reconstructed as moral advantages” that gave them resilience, a strong work ethic and a sense of nothing being handed to you, Lehmann writes. He quotes a student he calls Lori: “A lot of the people here have a good amount of money behind them, or their parents are paying … and at times it’s like ‘Oh man, I wish it was that easy,’” she says. “‘But honestly, I like the struggle of it. I think it makes me a better person.’”

It makes perfect sense to Lehmann that these students basically ignore social class except to obliquely cite it as a source of individual strength. “It’s not particularly in their interest to be very classist about this, to be offended by middle-class advantages, because they’re at university to get that,” he says. As he writes in that paper, the very conditions they credit with giving them the advantages of grit and maturity—their financial struggles and hard labour—are “precisely what they wish to escape.” If your whole life project—and your parents’ deepest ambitions, too—relies on scaling several rungs on the ladder, you pretty much have to buy into the idea that the view is better there than where you started, and deservedly so.

In the 2009 paper, a student Lehmann calls Jane tells him, “You know, like when you’re a little kid you want to be exactly like your parents. And my mom was always like, ‘No, you’re smarter than this, you can be a doctor or something.’”

I have no way of knowing if it’s difficult to perceive the swirl of heartbreak, pride, loyalty and betrayal in an experience like that if it’s not your life. Once, my dad piped up with an unsolicited opinion about a class or internship I was contemplating, and my reaction was not default young-adult annoyance about parental overreach, but rather a nearly grief-stricken realization that he had no idea what he was talking about.

Even now, there is a brightness in my parents’ pride at my achievements that is simultaneously so warm and almost too much weight to bear. The same week I was interviewing Lehmann, I was preparing for a reporting trip, and I emailed my dad to tell him I was going to the White House. “Wow,” he replied. “You always want your kids to do better than you.” He has said this to me a lot.

Lehmann’s mother died last year, but he continues to return to Germany regularly to see family. He vividly remembers a conversation with his father a few years ago, when they were sitting around with a couple of glasses of wine. “How did you become so smart when we are so dumb?” his dad asked him. “I found that really hurtful,” Lehmann says. “Because I thought, ‘No, you’re not dumb, you just haven’t had the opportunities I’ve had.’”

The most poignant and illuminating of Lehmann’s work, for me, is a 2013 paper he wrote based on interviews with 22 of the students who had flourished academically and socially at university. They were in fourth year, firmly on their way to middle-class lives and mostly revelling in that, but essentially dual citizens and stateless at the same time: They no longer fit in where they used to, but there were still moments when they would feel like cultural outsiders in their new world, too.

When Lehmann asks directly whether they are betraying their working-class roots by moving away from home and climbing the socio-economic ladder, one student named Kristen perfectly encapsulates for him how the others felt, too: “[My parents] always wanted me to have something better, so I think if I stayed there I’d be letting them down,” she tells him. “No, I don’t feel guilty at all.”

In quotes from the interviews, you can see the students bouncing back and forth. They gingerly admit to feeling stifled and alienated by the limited perspectives back home, at the same time that they express deep affection and even defensiveness toward the people there; they’re frustrated that their parents can’t relate to their new lives, and saddened by their own frustration; they’re proud of these urbane new interests they love, even as they mourn old friends who clearly find them baffling or pompous now.

There is, to Lehmann, a central problem here that no one acknowledges. As a society, we tend to “romanticize working-class status,” he writes, while at the same time treating social mobility through education as an essential sign of progress. The very universities these students attend in pursuit of a better life, and the professors they encounter there, are, to Lehmann, implicitly reinforcing this notion of success and failure, and the social hierarchy that places all things middle-class indisputably above the working-class world. “I do really struggle with this idea that mobility is the be-all and end-all,” Lehmann says. “And that’s why I also tried to show . . . that it comes with a bit of a cost.”

Put bluntly: if living the same life as your parents and everyone you grew up around is somehow a failure, how are you supposed to feel about that? How are they supposed to feel about that? How are they supposed to feel about you when you come back home for a visit?

In that 2013 paper, Lehmann writes that rather than finishing university with a deeper understanding of the challenges and value of their former working-class life and that of their friends and family, “the students have joined a middle-class chorus that renders working-class knowledge and experience deficient if not pathological.” In the margins of his paper, I drew a bracket around this sentence and wrote “Holy s–t!” for I apparently remain my father’s daughter.

When I first went away to school, the designation of “home” always belonged to Sault Ste. Marie. But after some time went by, I noticed that “home” referred to wherever I was not. I would leave London to go home for Christmas, and then in January, I would head back home to school. Even now, I leave Ottawa to go home with my kids to visit my parents, and then I leave the Sault to come back home to Ottawa. Last year marked the point where I had lived more years away from Sault Ste. Marie than in it, so this seems destined to always be the way it is.

Social class feels the same to me. I was lucky enough to fall into a career that suits my personality and talents perfectly, and I love so many of the contours of my middle-class life. I derive enormous pride from the fact that my kids will grow up with a bouquet of educational and cultural advantages I didn’t have. But it’s a sort of pride and a precarious sense of security that can only come from such a thing seeming like a precious novelty and not simply the only way it could be.

And it’s tempered by the fact that I am also deeply conflicted about raising middle-class kids whose life is so different from my own growing up. I harbour plans that my kids will not go on overseas vacations until some milestone teenage birthday, so that it always seems mind-blowing and never ordinary; that they will earn half of the cost of any big-ticket item they want; that they will always have a job just because it’s good to have a job, even if it’s often hard, too.

But I know, even as I set up these mental checklists, that just as you can’t completely fake your way into the middle-class—even after two decades learning its rules and advancing up its ladders—you can’t fool your way out of it, either.

And, as the core of Lehmann’s research shows, that fact is an enormous victory in terms of the life my parents wanted for me and the life I wanted for myself, but it will never stop feeling like a deep loss and betrayal, too.

Just as “home” will always be the spot on the map where I am not at the moment, class is the same: one foot in each world, at home in both, never completely belonging to either.