Hewers of wood and drawers of water
In politics you sometimes hear this remark thrown around as a slur, a disdainful description of what certain workers are forced to endure. Indeed, all of Canada, at one time or another, has been described as nothing but a collection of hewers of wood and drawers of water. It is usually by members of opposition parties chiding the government for not having a more evolved notion of what we in Canada are capable of.
Critics wonder if our government believes our citizens are incapable of any activity beyond digging things out of the ground, sucking them from beneath the earth and the sea or chopping them down and then shipping them off, just like they are, to someplace away.
Shipping them off, too far, or in the case of Canada, not so far, corners of the world where other people labour, and earn wages, turning them into finished products. We call what those people do in those far-off or not so far-off corners, “adding value” to the raw materials we Canadians are so practiced at harvesting. Why can’t we do that here, some ask, and keep the jobs at home.
Back in the late eighties in the campaign for the election that ended up giving Brian Mulroney the biggest majority government in Canadian history, it was the threat that the North American Free Trade Agreement would turn all Canadians into hewers of wood and drawers of water that was the most divisive issue.
After the election the greatly diminished opposition parties continued to attack NAFTA. It was at that time that I drew a cartoon for the Toronto Star with two characters representing the feared stereotypes, a pair of guys named Hugh Wood and Drew Water. Hugh was the one with the axe and Drew was the one carrying a bucket of water, some of which was splashing down his pant leg.
At the time hewers and drawers was an expression that everyone in politics was using and so I did too, not really knowing where it came from. Lately, we don’t use the expression as much, but the activities it refers to are going gangbusters. So it’s back on my mind. I went to Google to find out its origins.
It comes from the Bible, the Old Testament. This was a time in the Middle East when a large number of people were smiting each other, much as they still are today. At the time the Israelites were getting the upper hand in the gang warfare that plagued the region. At the time another gang, the inhabitants of Gibeon, cozied up to the Israelites, wanting to back what looked like the winning side.
They claimed to have travelled from afar and endured numerous hardships such big fans were they, and so keen to be friends with Israel. The Israelites, not particularly sure who these people were, since there were so many different gangs involved in the smiting business at the time, nonetheless agreed to make an alliance with them, seeing as how they had come such a long way under hazardous conditions and looked to be in such a bad way as a result.
However, no sooner was the alliance agreed than it turned out the gang from Gibeon had not come from afar at all but lived just beyond the third sand dune on the left, and by hooking up with the Israelites were simply seeking protection from other smiters in the neighbourhood.
When the Israelites realized they had been conned, they were poisoned. They couldn’t back out of the alliance without damaging their reputation, but their annoyance was obvious when they outlined the terms of the deal the gangsters of Gibeon could expect.
From the Bible, Joshua 9 verse 23: “Now therefore, you are cursed, and you shall never cease being slaves, both hewers of wood and drawers of water for the house of my God.”
So this hewing of wood and drawing of water has had a very long history of not being the most desirable line of work.
But despite that, we are hard at it today in this country. We are trying against strong opposition to run pipelines west and south to deliver oily mud to the world’s hugest industrial powers, where their workers will get the jobs doing the refining.
In this province we aren’t doing the hewing we once did, but there is still one paper mill. Given the time between writing this column and its appearance in the newspaper, I am taking a bit of a risk by describ- ing that mill as open. It turns out newsprint is just about the lowest valueadded product you can make out of a tree.
The decision of whether the last remaining mill lives or dies will be taken in a boardroom far away and will depend on how successful the management is in blackmailing frightened workers. The company is asking that they be allowed to double from five to 10 years the time allowed for them to return the money they have been taking from worker’s pension plans.
Ocean Choice International was indignant when the Dunderdale government, in a rare example of standing up for fish workers in rural areas, refused them permission to ship to China fish that had been drawn from the water but not hewed even one little bit.
Hewers of wood and drawers of water we most assuredly still are in this country. But that can change. However, it may call for some smiting. Peter Pickersgill can be reached by
e-mail at email@example.com