The Parallel Parliament

Glen Pearson

Our Shared Humanity

Posted on April 22, 2018

Born a few minutes apart, they had a scant 30 weeks together before the death of their mother in war wrenched them away from each other.  They were identical twins, sharing the mystery of human DNA, and they deserved to face the world together.  It was not to be.

Five years later, however, in a remarkable movement of destiny, they looked upon each other once again, confused at seeing their image so clearly represented on another face.  When informed they were twins, identical, they reached out, took the other’s hand, and wandered off to play soccer – hundreds of eyes on them lost in wonder.

Today, Abuk and Achan turn 18.  Jane and I have watched them grow up every day, etching their height on the door jamb to amaze ourselves at their progress.  Not alone in our guardianship, our community has watched over them as well, in everything from education, health, sports, music and dance, friendship, and above all, love and deep respect.

They have those wonderful moments we’ll never forget: how they finish each other’s sentences, practice their own unique form of language, laugh in ways that gather us into their joy, possess an unparalleled companionship and communicate without words.  Their similarities are a delight.

But perhaps not as much as their differences.  Abuk plays hockey; Achan’s a soccer girl. Achan works hard on her appearance every day; Abuk likes the athletic look.   One’s into coffee while the other sticks to water.  Abuk loves junk food; Achan not so much. They sometimes fight, though in silence and rarely in outright anger.  Whenever we witness these distinctions, we imagine both sides of their African mother’s nature emerging and we rejoice in the sense that her spirit is still alive and flourishing long after her passing.

Each of us have time distinctions in our relationships from being born at different times.  Not these two; with each other they are perfectly synced.  Mere minutes might separate their birth, but they were both conceived in that same magical instant one fertilized egg split in two, gifting them both with identical DNA.  When studies reveal that twins intuit and interact with one another while in their mother’s womb it makes perfect sense to us; we see it every day.

Like other twins, they get upset when others don’t see them as individuals and so they work hard to carve their own world out for themselves. Their rooms and clothes are totally different, as are their friends.  They chose to go to two separate high schools and seek two different careers.  They spend their days in separate lives.

But then they always, always, come back together.  It’s like the womb all over again – prodding, exploring, growing, learning, understanding.  Sometimes in those moments I weep, especially when considering what might have been if their African mother hadn’t possessed the courage to flee for safety with them or if their Canadian mom hadn’t possessed it in equal measure to struggle half a world away to bring them to safety.  This was a tale of two mothers who never met one another but whose remarkable efforts first birthed the twins and then brought them together across oceans and continents.  They would have been great friends, I believe.

It is a tale for the telling – a remarkable narrative that is as fine and moving as any you’ll encounter.  But it’s not fiction; it is instead a marvellous ode to the human spirit and the belief that God still works wonders in this world.  We are a home with three women and two men and we delight that we are more black than white.  And we have harmony and respect for each other.  It is human ignorance that separates the genders and races from one another in ways that are harmful.  If race or gender are human inventions designed to assert control, for us they are a gift to help us appreciate our equality and distinctions.

Today is their 18thbirthday and I’m sitting here, awake for hours, waiting to hear them come down the stairs and complete our worlds.  Abuk and Achan, at this moment I believe it’s impossible that my heart could contain any more love for you.  Happy Birthday … and thank you. You’re 18 and your world awaits.

Bringing It Home

Posted on April 20, 2018

Last week I attended an annual outdoor lunch that raises awareness over the state of homelessness in our city.  It’s a powerful mix of housing advocates, policy makers, media and most important of all, homeless individuals seeking a better world.

On the same day The Guardian published what turned out to be a timely piece titled, “Finland has found the answer to homelessness.  It couldn’t be simpler.”  It was the kind of headline meant to quickly draw the reader into its rationale that defeating homelessness isn’t perhaps as complex as we thought.

But first the bad news.  The article reminded its British readers that, whether they liked it or not, they were tolerating a homelessness situation that was becoming a national embarrassment:

The number of homeless people dying on the streets or in temporary accommodation in the UK has more than doubled over the past five years to more than one per week. The average age of a rough sleeper when they die is 43, about half the UK life expectancy.  The tragedy is that it’s entirely within our power to do something about it: homelessness is not a choice made by the individual, it is a reality forced by government policy.

“A reality forced by government policy” – sounds harsh and cruel, which accurately describes the situation.  To emphasize the seriousness of this declining situation, the article affirmed that homelessness had climbed 134% since 2010.  And then it makes a welcome jump to Finland, where homelessness has declined 35% in the same period.

What is the secret to Finland’s success?  Surely the solution must be as complex as the problem itself?  Well, maybe not.  As The Guardian put it: “Give homes to homeless people.”

Sounds great, but it actually involves a switch in thinking, law and public policy. It functions on a valid premise: housing is a basic right, nothing more, nothing less.  It’s also highly practical: how can we expect individuals beset by an array of personal and systemic difficulties to concentrate on such conditions when they don’t have a roof over their heads?  Their number one concern is survival and everything else is secondary to that reality.

Naturally, skeptics will decry such a proposal. “Won’t such people bleed the system dry?  It would surely provide a private setting for their addictions, correct?”   Then there’s the criticism: providing housing on such a premise would hurt the economy.

Such complaints can be shrouded in prejudice, but when no other rationale, research or possibility is provided to them even a sincere public gets flustered.

So, let’s talk about alternatives and see if all of us can keep an open mind.

Yes, Finland’s homeless number went down the moment homes were provided, but the real story is what transpires with those suddenly finding secure housing.  Research reveals that they availed themselves of services to improve their overall condition (addiction, mental health challenges, hunger, poverty, counselling). Provided with a roof over their heads, they had the time, the feeling of support, and the will to get on with their lives.  Intriguingly, recovery rates from addictions showed solid improvement.

For those fretting over the costs of a “housing first” strategy, Finland has been at it long enough to offer a compelling narrative.  The economic savings from homeless individuals no longer having to access health services and the criminal justice system easily covered the costs of providing the homes.  In other words, the provision of housing saved the mushrooming economic costs inherent in the old model.

The writer of The Guardian column noted that he didn’t spot one homeless person in Finland during his time there on research.  Only a few hours after he returned to England, “I walked past more than 100 rough sleepers queuing for food in the rain, just a few minutes from parliament.

So here we have it: a tale of two countries – one maintaining a costly position of the status quo, and the other moving ahead confidently on the basis of human rights, dignity and economic sense.  The research is there from other countries as well.  It all reminds us that homelessness is more about apathy than conscious citizenship or sound government.  It certainly isn’t about economic sense.  Good policy is good economics; bad policy results in human suffering and the loss of dignity.  Given the high costs of homelessness to our health and social support system, little can be lost in taking a bold step, as Finland has done, not just for the sake of economics but for humanity itself.

We can blame the homeless all we want, but in essence what we have is a failure of will and a collective understanding that no community can be all that great when it tolerates people with nowhere to lay their heads and no way to move forward with their lives.

Shakespeare’s Still Cool

Posted on April 18, 2018

We don’t know the exact date of his birth, but England’s most famous writer was born in the month of April in 1564 – 554 years and half a millennium ago.   Asked about William Shakespeare, author Virginia Woolf noted, “The very stone one kicks with one’s boot will outlast Shakespeare.”  Maybe yes, maybe no.  In a world full of easily accessed information and endless publications, it would be easy to assume that the great English bard has been transcended by our modern penchant for data.

Virginia might have jumped the gun.  If we were to take the time to research our own words, we would discover that William Shakespeare adds punch to our own sayings.  British journalist Bernard Levin took on just such an exercise, eventually stunned by how much Shakespeare shaped much of what he wrote and said.  Here are some of his findings – each one from Shakespeare himself.

  • It’s Greek to me
  • Salad days
  • Act more in sorrow than in anger
  • Vanished into thin air
  • Refused to budge an inch
  • Green-eyed jealousy
  • Play fast and loose
  • Tongue-tied
  • Knitted your brows
  • Make a virtue of necessity
  • Insist on fair play
  • Didn’t sleep a wink
  • Stood on ceremony
  • Cold comfort
  • Too much of a good thing
  • A foregone conclusion
  • As luck would have it
  • It’s high time
  • The long and short of it
  • The game is up
  • The truth will out
  • Flesh and blood
  • Suspect foul play
  • Teeth set on edge
  • Without rhyme or reason
  • Give the devil his due
  • If the truth were known
  • Good riddance
  • Send him packing
  • Dead as a doornail
  • An eyesore
  • A laughing stock
  • The devil incarnate
  • Blinking idiot
  • By Jove
  • For goodness’ sake
  • What the dickens

Here we are, over 500 years later, still using terms like these in our modern idiom – an amazing feat.  These are but a small portion of terms we still use in our everyday language, likely without ever knowing we are channeling William Shakespeare.  It all reminds me of an old Mexican proverb: “They tried to bury us.  They didn’t know we were seeds.”

Words still matter, and more important than how many we know is how we use them.  Words can heal or hurt, build or belittle, draw us together  or push us apart.  We need to use them to infuse our society with hope now more than ever.


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The “Terrible Simplifiers”

Posted on April 17, 2018

Robin Sears’ article, posted in Sunday’s Toronto Star, was a cogent warning on the implications of extreme populism.  Titled “The Fatal Attraction of the Politics of Confrontation,” the column reminds us of what inevitably happens if we opt for leaders who would rather attack democracy as opposed to reforming it:

“But the problem with those who bellow their promise to confront the swamp denizens, or to clean up City Hall is this: they always fail, and they leave a large mess for their successors to struggle through their first term trying to clean up.”

As with the current Syrian conflict or the circus that is now Washington D.C., what we have isn’t war, but many wars.  By electing what Jacob Burckhardt calls the “terrible simplifiers,” we have introduced forces not of change but of chaos, and the effects on regions entertaining such political titillation have proved deeply dysfunctional.  Destructive ideas by destructive leaders are hardly the means by which we prepare for a more inclusive or prosperous future.

Underlying all of this is the decay of power itself.  For any complex society to overcome its challenges, especially in the modern era, it must implement a diversified power arrangement that brings civil society, the corporate and political sectors together to tackle our greatest challenges – many global in scope.  Canada has done better than most in creating such conditions, yet there is a growing sense that our shared politics is being “weaponized” by the forces of the narrow, the intolerant and the simplifiers.  Anger can be a helpful and even bracing force for timely change, but not when it seeks to burn down the essence and institutions of democracy in the process.  And no aspiring leader is of any service when he or she seeks to break down modern society into a clash of tribes.

Yes, we are growing fatigued with hyper-partisan politics, ineffective politicians, the lack of problem solving,  an economy, whether hot or not, that leaves increasing portions of our workforce out of the mix.  But we have faced such problems before, often in crisis proportions, and somehow emerged intact, even when other nations were splintering under the weight of their own umbrage or history.  Such a rugged balance was achieved by the willingness of citizens and their representatives to take the next precarious step into the future together rather than remaining in a perpetual state of anger.

This isn’t some kind of fanciful naïveté , but a workable arrangement assisting us in learning from our past collective faults, overcoming our present divisions, and forging a more equitable future.  We will never get there, however, by being enchanted with those seeking power merely for power’s sake.  Democracy can only survive when we collectively refuse the “terrible simplifiers” the power they seek to turn one group against the other.

The greatest loss in what has become a more turbulent and divided world has been that of trust – not just between voters and their representatives, but between citizens themselves.  As power continues to decay at the same time as wealth becomes focused in the few, our global problems will continue to multiply.  While it’s a comforting fact that no democratic country has gone to war with another democratic nation in decades, all other kinds of conflicts – racial, trade, regional, religious, and cultural – are increasingly tearing us apart from the inside.  Only a renewed sense of trust can keep it all together.  For that to happen, there must be a prioritizing among our citizens, politicians, civil society and business leaders that can heal past injustices and oversights.  Fail to accomplish it, and no one will believe our institutions learned anything from their past failures.

Also, it’s becoming clearer that what was once perceived as the power of social media to make policy alive with civic energy is now exposed for its lack of responsible oversight, respect for individual privacy, and the ability to move across ideological lines to frame a way ahead.  “Liking” or “following” isn’t the dedicated kind of public engagement required to reform our systems.  More likely than not we are followed by, or choose to follow, those most like us, leaving us as isolated as ever.

Robin Sears has done us all a favour by reminding us that, while the fires of change have always been what democracy has been about, electing those who prefer to carpet bomb rather than forge consensus will only take us down the road of destructive anger.


Read this post in its original National Newswatch format here.

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Progress Despite All That Negativity

Posted on April 14, 2018

This week I posted a quiz compiled by Hans Rosling regarding our knowledge of the broader world, specifically the strides made in global health and poverty.  You can find that post here.  I heard from a number of folks taking the quiz that they failed – miserably.  We laughed when I told them I only got half of the questions right.  Inwardly I chastised myself for my own lack of knowledge.

Rosling, in his book Factfulness,takes that quiz a little further and talks about the results.  The findings are fascinating and troubling – especially in a series of questions that are neither trick queries or realities that can’t be found thousands of times on the internet.  In some research of 12000 respondents, here’s what he found.

In question #3 on extreme poverty only 7% of respondents got the answer – less than 1 in 10.  The strides made in global poverty are actually staggering (“revolutionary”says Rosling) and yet so few answered correctly.  It didn’t matter what political preference the respondents had, or what part of the world they were from (although only 5% U.S. respondents got it right).

Question #9 was about vaccination.  The answer is that virtually all children in the world are now getting vaccinated.  How many got such a staggering development correct? 13%.  This aspect of humanity is growing exponentially and yet few know anything about it.

The last question on climate change was different, with 86% answering correctly.  Why? Because it’s in the media all the time, is the subject of significant debate, and is a reality many face every day.   People exposed to such issues obviously do better on the results.

What difference did education make?  The answer will surprise you.  Teachers, accountants, researchers, business executives, journalists, medical students – these, and others, did very poorly, with some getting poorer marks than those in less-educated fields.  Those with failing marks included a team of Nobel laureates selected by Rosling.

As Rosling notes in Factfulness,the vast majority were not only devastatingly wrong, but systematically wrong – meaning that the ignorance was prevalent regardless of which aspect of life respondents came from.  He concludes his findings with this observation:

“Every group of people I asked thinks the world is more frightening, more violent, and more hopeless – in short, more dramatic – than it really is.”

In a world where everyone is confronted by the pros and cons of Donald Trump, Justin Trudeau or other world leaders, by too much politics and too little humanity, we can grow deeply disillusioned as to our own collective potential.  The truth of our progress is “out there” but, sadly, we must look for it in a world distracted by glitter and negativity. Yet, in some areas of global health at least, we are making a historic difference and it’s good to be reminded of our possibilities.

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