I was flabbergasted at the words of the British woman who was showing me around the lifeboat station.
We were in the English town of West Mersea, and there was an open house at the local station of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. Never having been in such a place before (Ottawa is a long way from the nearest ocean) it seemed like a great opportunity to learn something new. What I wasn’t expecting was to learn something about the cultural differences between Canada and the U.K.
Someone mentioned that the station was getting a new boat, that they had been raising funds for a while and finally had enough. I asked why they needed to raise funds; didn’t the government just provide new equipment when required?
I was told that the life boats in the United Kingdom are pretty much exclusively the domain of volunteers; the British apparently wouldn’t have it any other way. Hundreds of people give up their time each month to rescue those in distress, launching their craft from a network of stations along the coast. Those at the station seemed bemused that I would think it should be a government function – they didn’t want government interfering in something so important.
In theory I agree with them. The older I get the less sympathy I have for big government. I guess that is because the passage of years has given me so many examples of things that government has botched.
But, as interesting as the concept is, I don’t think such a volunteer force would work in Canada. It might be that we are less self-reliant; it seems more likely that the difference is because we have considerably fewer people and considerably more coastline to cover. Seems to me there wouldn’t be enough volunteers, which would inevitably lead to people dying.
I have to wonder though how much I have been influenced by a culture of big government. Canadians used to be a completely self-reliant people. The role of government was limited to things such as defence, communications and tariffs. In everything else you were on your own.
There was no government welfare, or health care or even education. It was up to the local community to determine needs and meet them. It is still that way in some areas – many Canadian communities still have volunteer fire departments. I guess the lifeboat service works the same way in Britain. Most of the time though, when something needs to be done, people expect government to do it for them.
I understand that government definitely has a role to play in providing services for the people. In our post-Christian society, where community ties are considerably weaker than they once were, it makes sense that government pick up the slack in areas where the churches no longer have the resources to meet the needs. Our health care system, paid for by our taxes is a whole lot better than the recent botched attempts in the USA. Having a government-funded educational system can be a good thing (and yes I know there are considerable flaws with the present system). But those two items alone are more than half the provincial program expenditures in Ontario. Is that the best use of taxpayer dollars? Are there aspects of health care or education that would be better handled by neighbours working together?
When someone gets in trouble off the coast of England their neighbours come to their rescue. Here it seems we are more likely to look to the government for help, both on and off the water. In England they seem to have determined that something like a lifeboat service can be safely left to volunteers, who raise the money for a new boat when needed by having a bake sale. (Actually I’m making an assumption here – I didn’t ask how they found the money.) In Canada we don’t even have that discussion – and maybe we should!