The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

The Thaw

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WE QUIETLY WORKED OUR WAY ACROSS THE ALEXANDRA BRIDGE this week in the stillness of a beautiful summer morning at 3:45 a.m. Nothing was happening. Few cars crossed the span, but that was it – everything else was just the swirling sound of the Ottawa River.

But as we drew closer to the Museum of History on the Quebec side, across from Parliament, we heard a quiet stirring of voices on the shoreline just below the museum itself. These were the folks Jane and I had come to find. It was almost impossible to detect the identities of those quietly shuffling around on the grass – sunrise was still an hour off. Most were quiet, but all knew their purpose for their meeting. This was the sunrise celebration for National Aboriginal Day and some Canadians were gathering for a quiet event that had suddenly taken on more meaning.

Indigenous Affairs Minister, Carolyn Bennett, had asked us the day previous to join her on the riverbank. Present were PM Justin Trudeau, Justice Minister, Jody Wilson-Raybould (also a BC First Nations leader), House Speaker Geoff Regan, and numerous other politicians, staff, and interested citizens – perhaps around 200 people altogether.

But the focus was on the fires slowly burning on the shore – the origins of the smoke for the ceremonial “smudging” exercises taking place throughout that hour. The whispering in the crowd stilled. People shuffled forward to hear the speakers. And everywhere I detected nothing but reverence – not for the river, the fantastic illumination of the Parliament buildings across the way, or the slowly lightening sky – but for those from indigenous communities who prayed, beat drums, sang, and collectively transcended in an instant the world of politics into the domain of the natural order. It was stirring. The PM or other political leaders merely observed as, in the seat of ultimate Canadian power, the country’s original peoples taught those present the need to work collectively in the land we all share.

I thought back to the times working at the Calgary Stampede in my youth, as proud people of the Blackfoot (Siksika) nations rode their horses in the Stampede Parade and worked their way in ceremonial dress around the Stampede grounds, among the stands and the booths. They were mysterious figures back then, to me and to others, somehow representative of Canada’s past. But I realized on that particular morning by the Ottawa River that our Indigenous People are quietly become essential to our country’s future – not through assimilation or domination, but by a gentle enlightenment and respect that have been far too long in coming.

Something was brewing in Ottawa and across the land, some kind of recognition that what we have at present is entirely unsuitable when it comes to our understanding and partnership with our First Nations, Metis, and Inuit citizens. If our future is to be truly enlightening as a nation, then we must come to understand how we erred in the past few hundred years.

One elder spoke near the end of the ceremony, noting that a bird had swept by over our heads at the same time as a fish jumped out of the water. We all laughed with him, but the truth was that none of us had really noticed. It had taken a seasoned and practiced eye, one that has endured much through the decades, to remind us of the remarkable country in which we live and the great journey we have yet to travel to full understanding. We will know we have completed that journey not just when our indigenous communities are a recognized part of our great collective experiment, but when we as citizens come to acknowledge and internally discern where we went wrong and learn to accept forgiveness.

By the Ottawa River on a remarkable morning this week, I reflected on the observation of Thomas Wharton, recounted in John Ralston Saul’s Reflection of a Siamese Twin:

“An exposed ice surface often displays a dull, undifferentiated façade. The intricate crystalline structure can be revealed, however, by pouring a warm liquid over the ice.”

A great national thaw is emerging, introducing us to remarkable indigenous cultures that have a required place in our daily lives, and which we must respect. Judging by the way official Ottawa quietly showed that honour in the sunrise celebration this week, our journey together might finally be making a solid beginning.

Too Soon Gone

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Image by Getty Images

Read this post in Huffington Post here

LIKE MILLIONS OF OTHERS, I WATCHED in deep sadness the tragedy that befell British MP, Jo Cox – murdered brutally outside her constituency office by a lone assailant. I read the accounts in the news, followed its implications on Britain’s Brexit movement, and just overall felt a deep sadness for her family.

But one image remained with me: Cox’s shoe, lying on its side, even after her body was removed. A powerful woman once filled that shoe. She was no regular political aspirant, but a true believer in the nobility of humanity and its capacity for hope and change. She had spent a decade as a relief worker for Oxfam in both the U.S. and Britain, later transitioning over to fight slavery for Freedom Fund, and landing a position with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation just prior to her entry into politics. Her all too brief record in Parliament was one of tackling leaders, including David Cameron and Barack Obama, and a relentless desire to defend the defenseless.

Jo Cox wasn’t only a bright light in the political firmament, but a testament to those human rights and development workers who come to realize that it’s only through the power of effective legislation that true change can come … and stick. Her world was literally the world, and no Parliament could have been large enough to contain a spirit like hers. In so many ways she had become the antithesis of so many in politics, or as C. G. Jung would put it: “You are what you do, not what you say you’ll do.”

Yet Cox had one problem, a big one, and it was to lead to her death. She wasn’t merely fearless, but vocal about it. And in a world increasingly encroached upon by hatred, she became an inevitable target. She instinctively understood that she was entering dangerous waters and requested extra security measures when attackers online viciously herded after her. Eventually, following three months of requests, the help was granted, but, sadly, her sudden end would preempt the extra detail.

Our modern world takes a certain delight in trashing politicians – their egos, ambitions, constant compromises, even what we think are their cushy jobs. My personal experience following five years in Parliament is that most politicians are struggling to be relevant and true to their ideals in face of relentless pressures.

One of those challenges is dealing with citizens and groups through social media. It has become an essential step in the relevance of any political representative and the good ones do it well. But as assaulted figures they become the preferred target of the haters, those trolls and anonymous digital attackers what take a particular delight in fulfilling their dream by destroying the noble dreams of others. And so to serve is also to suffer the thousands of arrows heading in a politician’s direction every week. However, the longer social media venues tolerate it, and the law turns a neglectful eye, the more dangerous has the political world become. The moment hateful words remain uncensored, the quicker evil does its diabolical work, for, as author Jerry Spinelli put it, “If you learn to hate one or two persons … you’ll soon hate millions of people.” This was the world Jo Cox’s very courage caused her to enter and the result is not a national but an international tragedy.

Perhaps that why the photo of her empty shoe on the street had such a devastating effect on me – no one would ever fill her shoes again. She was a bright voice in a world of dark voices, silenced by idiocy. Her children and her husband must now navigate a future without her sun on the horizon, and politics must attempt to move on despite the loss of one of its guiding stars. No one can fill her shoes and no one can wipe away our tears.

Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, clearly put the choice before us: “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference … And the opposite of life is not death, it is indifference.” The only way Cox’s senseless death can be redeemed is when we, as citizens, purge the hatred from among us by living for same ideals of this one too early gone.

Angry Birds

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“I ENGAGED WITH TWITTER DURING THE LAST FEDERAL ELECTION, as my interest in the party positions grew, but there’s been so much vileness tolerated on that platform that I’ve decided to just delete my account,” a friend from Montreal told me recently.

It’s a sentiment one increasingly encounters, especially among Millennials. Perhaps more serious are those refraining from joining Twitter in the first place as a result of all the well publicized high-profile personal attacks on Twitter in this past year – one of the likely causes of the company’s inability to grow its market share to the degree it had hoped. As former CEO, Dick Costolo put it last year, “We suck at dealing with abuse.”

All of this forms an important lesson for Canada and its politics, still early into a new federal government phase. Justin Trudeau’s Liberals had used social media masterfully during the last election campaign, summoning a few million new voters as a result. Others political parties, even Senate members, are engaging along similar lines

Yet the “rules of engagement” with social media for a successful link between citizens and their representatives are still being developed and not all the experience has been hopeful. Twitter especially, once a favoured tool for rapid fire political engagement, has also been the preferred instrument for permitting hatred, racism, and intolerance into what was supposed to be a more positive experience of politics in the public space.

Only a decade ago, the introduction of Twitter, along with Facebook, blogging, and digital comment sections supposedly presented a new, more exciting method for engaging Canadians. There had been the growing belief that traditional institutions were reticent to take such risks and these new forms of communications sprang up in the belief that average people could share their opinions and ideas in the public space. Living with such amenities for the last few years, however, has also introduced us to the understanding that such venues which have few rules for engagement can often sink to the lowest level of participants – trolls, stalkers, haters, even the hyper-partisans. Twitter especially has been embroiled in all the controversy.

Maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised. As complaints against the company over its permissive abuse policy have mounted, Twitter executives, especially CEO Jack Dorsey, appear less than pro-active when it comes to user complaints regarding abuse. Writing in the New York Times Insider last week, John Weisman reported he just quit Twitter (he had 35,000 followers) as a result of the following note he received from the company: “We are unable to take action given that we could not determine a clear violation of the Twitter rules.” This was all he received after being attacked for months with anti-Semitic comments, Nazi iconography, photos of the gates of Aushwitz, and worse. Following many requests for action from Twitter, and the rather milquetoast response mentioned above, he pulled the plug. The relationship is over, as it increasingly is for thousands of others.

Within the administration ranks of Twitter there has been a cost as well. The resignation last week of its head of consumer product division, Jeff Seibert, has merely been the latest of such departures. Its four co-founders each pushed one another out, according to Nick Bilton in Vanity Fair. He goes on to list other recent resignations at senior management levels.

Much of the turbulence has been around the company’s underwhelming abuse policies and the growing effect that approach is having on Twitter’s brand. Perhaps the outer rancor is a direct byproduct of the inner management turmoil – Twitter’s own DNA. As Bilton effectively chronicled CEO Dorsey’s stubbornness and sadness over the loss of close friends and co-workers and their refusal to now speak to one another: “It was such a good team. It just became screwy, and confusing. I don’t know what happened. I don’t regret it. I feel sad about it.” Perhaps the inability to feel regret is part of the problem.

The importance of social media to the national political conversation and to politics itself is irrefutable. Yet should the venues of that online dialogue produce more rancor than refinement, more umbrage than understanding, then the opportunity for citizens to have effect on the issues that matter to them will be diminished. Fortunately some online venues are placing more rigor within their comment practices, leaving citizens to engender meaningful exchanges. But as long as huge firms like Twitter remain lax in their accountability policies, the danger to our political estate remains worrisome.

For years we witnessed Ottawa’s Question Period become a source of national embarrassment. If citizens, then, in their efforts at political engagement on social media, participate in disturbing practices far worse than even the House of Commons would condone, then both sides of the democratic equation – citizens and their elected representatives – will equally share blame for the decline of our public estate.

 

Our Public Lexicon Is Changing

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IN HIS FOUR QUARTETS, T. S. ELIOT reminds us that, “Last year’s words belong to last year’s language. And next year’s words await another voice.”

For some time now, Google, through what they term “Ngram Viewer,” has been running an interesting research experiment on the words we all use, and examining that vocabulary to draw some interesting conclusions on how we are changing.

By measuring word usage across all forms of media, including books and pamphlets going back years, Google has learned that we are becoming a much more highly individualized people. There has been a sharp increase in the words “self” and “personalized,” and a corresponding decrease in words like “share,” “united,” and “common good.” Words dealing with the field of business and economics have mushroomed, while terms dealing with morality and personal character have declined over the course of the last few decades. Use of the word “bravery” has declined by 66% in that time. “Gratitude” is down 49%. “Humility is down 52%, while “kindness” has declined 56%.  These figures are telling us something.

What does all this mean? We aren’t sure, but for certain there is a kind of seismic shift underway in our public language. While we regard ourselves as more empathetic than previous generations, we are, at the same time, much more into ourselves – the larger world still exists and influences us, but we are increasingly interested in those things immediately around us. This has an effect on everything from community life to international understanding.

Increasingly we are forming a kind of counter-culture that rejects institutions in favour of those influences that affect our near surroundings. In a very real sense we are in the process of streamlining our lives so as to shape them to aerodynamically deflect those things that no longer seem relevant to us, or our personal journeys. In the parlance of social media, self has become more about status as opposed to the older pursuit of character.

What else should we expect in a world in which Uber has become the largest taxi company on the planet, though it owns no cars, and Airbnb is now the biggest hotel company, even without any properties? In essence, these are apps connecting us to resources as opposed to resources themselves, and in the process they have made their developers billions of dollars.

Previous generations – indeed history itself – maintained that our main possession was our personal character. As such it was easily transportable and you could refine it whether you were rich or poor, man or woman, from the developed or developing world. Institutions were important in such an outlook because, as within the education system itself, that inner “us” took years to grow and become established. And for that to work, we required others – not just friends or associates, but mentors, moral and ethical guides, older family members – if we were to make a good job of it.

If Google is correct in its analysis, we are largely casting off such historic resources in favour of experimentation and going it alone. There is some merit in that evolution. We target racism, gender bias, and economic inequality as harmful to progress, at times with a diligence unseen in previous generations. Yet at the same time we experience more difficulty in spotting the flaws in ourselves. While more astute at zeroing in on mistakes in systems and in other individuals, we are nevertheless reticent to realize how our mistakes or blind individuality have affected others.

Our culture is changing – for better and for worse. As essayist Joseph Epstein relayed to some students, when he was young and went to the drugstore, cigarettes were out in the open and condoms were hidden behind the counter. Now it’s the other way around. Values are shifting and people are shifting along with them. As citizens, this should be a transformation of vital interest to us.

In his famous, perhaps infamous, 1984, George Orwell observed, “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” We must ensure that our public language – that of the public space – retains a strong element of “others” and support of those institutions which keep us in contact with greater society and thus with ourselves. In an age when citizens have more opportunity to shape their respective societies than at any other time in history, it would be a tragedy if we harboured a vocabulary too small for our greatest collective aspirations.

Serious Elegance

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You can read this post on National Newswatch here

EVERYONE IN THE ROOM SENSED THAT PAUL MARTIN would be prime minister soon enough. There was an excitement in the air as my wife and I attended a London, Ontario event where Martin, as finance minister, was scheduled to speak on healthcare.

His arrival was met with enthusiasm and he quickly warmed to his audience. Partway into his address a door closed at the rear of the hall and someone quietly entered. People whispered to one another, “It’s Jeffrey Simpson.” While the audience might have appreciated that one of the country’s best-known journalists would attend their event, the effect on Paul Martin was immediate. The finance minister is known as an engaging speaker, but his connection with his audience that evening dissipated as his eye continued to follow Simpson’s progress up the side of the hall. He was more careful, not as bellicose or partisan. While the journalist jotted down a few items in his notebook, it was clear to everyone that his presence had changed the dynamics.

The ultimate moral of this recounting is how experienced journalism can affect our politics. This wasn’t some frantic or wannabe reporter using social media to raise his profile. He was instead an objective witness to events and his insights served to remind the political establishment that accountability still mattered and that a reckoning would surely result the moment political figures ignored that responsibility.

When the Globe and Mail announced this week that Jeffrey Simpson was signing off following a stellar career as a columnist there were the expected plaudits. Starting at the Globe in 1974, he soon became a national affairs columnist. He was no wide-eyed idealist, having earned degrees from the London School of Economics and Queen’s University.

There was a kind of serious elegance about him that easily translated to his writing style. The gravitas he exuded served effective notice to the political elites that he saw through their trappings and partisan rhetoric. And he was recognized by his peers as someone who could spend hours researching a topic and just as long in crafting his words that ultimately became his columns. He was awarded all three of Canada’s noted literary prizes, awarded numerous honourary doctorates, and became recognized as one of the country’s leading thinkers on public policy.

So, yes, Simpson has enjoyed an accomplished career, having authored six books in the process. But it was his effect on the Canadian policy establishment, including the politics that so often diffused it, that might prove his ultimate legacy.

Simpson’s 42-year career coincided with massive changes in the news and publishing industries – a transformation that has redefined journalism in the process. Yet his columns remained remarkably sanguine when it seemed as though everyone else was heading off in all directions attempting to catch the latest trend. Knowing effective policy and good politics to be the essence of a healthy democracy, he couldn’t bring himself to pander to the flightiness of the age.

In his The Way of the Modern World, author Craig Gay recounted the effects of modern journalism’s infatuation with the immediate:

“By focusing exclusively on the events of the day, journalism all but severs the connection between time and eternity. It makes the world appear to be nothing but an endless jumble of events through which it is difficult, if not impossible, to discern anything beyond the relatively base motivations of lust, calculated self-interest, and the will to power. In short, journalism is not able to communicate wisdom.”

To his credit, and that of the newspaper that understood his value, Simpson refused to walk down that path. Instead he did as he always did – engaged his readers with serious insight. In so doing he became the embodiment of esteemed journalist Bob Woodward’s observation: “I think journalism gets measured by the quality of information it presents, not the drama or the pyrotechnics associated with us.”

This year has seen the retirement of a number of dedicated columnists who believed that their craft deserved proper and serious context. But as a nation says farewell to Jeffrey Simpson, it is aware that it is losing a refined writer who dealt with them as citizens of the mind as well as passion. Ultimately, it will be his sage observations of accountability and watchfulness that will be missed the most in a political and bureaucratic world all too willing to spin on a dime if it would curry more public favour and influence. We wish him a well-deserved and contented retirement, but our journey from this point forward will be all the more difficult without his elegant writings of public responsibility.

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