The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

When the Past Can’t Escape the Present

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TODAY THE LONDON FOOD BANK LAUNCHES its 29th Spring Food Drive amid growing doubts concerning this country’s resolve to take poverty, and those mired within it, seriously. Dr. Jason Gilliland, professor from Western University will report at the press conference that poverty and hunger have now become entrenched, not only in our city, but in numerous communities across the country.

This is a difficult spot to arrive at for Canadians, for it effectively moves poverty from being a serious issue to tackle to a permanent class of individuals and families. Effectively, we appear to be coming to an end of what American author E. J. Dionne Jr. calls “the Long Consensus” –  an era where governments from all jurisdictions legally came together to join their forces to battle numerous challenges, including poverty.

In Canada, we call it federalism, which had its foundations established at the Quebec Conference in 1864. It became the basic legal and jurisdictional framework through which the federal government, provinces, territories, and communities interacted and shared resources with one another to face the challenges of such a large nation. Up until the last three decades its strengths were far greater than its weaknesses, resulting in Canada becoming a beacon to the world for the exquisite balance it achieved between social justice and the economy.

Recent years have witnessed the slow dissolution of these partnerships to where we have now reached the point where we are forced to admit that the great nation of Canada can no longer afford to end poverty.

The conditions of federalism were a promissory note to every Canadian. This note was a vow that every man, woman, and child in Canada would be guaranteed the attention of all three levels of government in regards to their welfare and potential. But instead of honoring that obligation, we have been given instead a bad cheque marked “insufficient funds.” This has transcended political ideologies and, because of that reality, every government has failed in the past 30 years to one degree or another.

Author Richard Hofstadtr observed that, “memory is the thread of personal identity, history of public identity.” If that’s the case, then Canada’s rich history is slowly disappearing through a kind of collective dementia. What we built together we are now watching being undone.

Yet all this is transpiring when the wealth generated in Canada has risen remarkably in that same period of time, thanks in part to new information technologies and global reach that now means most of the profits from that growth have gone to a small percentage at the top of income distribution. The result has been financial inequality that has reached troubling levels. It begs a fair question: Why have we – governments, bureaucrats, citizens, media – been unwilling or unable to halt the growth of inequality or to use an increasing amount of that generated wealth for the common good?

The growth of the global economy no longer means opportunity, but “downsizing,” re-engineered jobs. Yet through all this there has been little public protest about the changing power structures of the economic architecture.

The failure of the governors and the governed to protect the responsibilities of federalism, instead leaving us to the fluctuations of the markets, has mean that instead of “opportunity” we have “austerity,” and a re-engineered workplace that functions ultimately for the benefit of those already with great wealth.

Instead of watching over the precarious nature of Canadian federalism, a tendency has grown over many years that caused the power and financial elite to forego at least a measure of their civic consciousness, their sense of ethical obligation to society at large, in pursuit of their own ambitions. For many within this privileged cohort it has gone a step farther with the emergence of predatory attitude towards the rest of society.

This has had a troubling effect on the Canadian dream, especially on those of low-income who can no longer find a way ahead. Those coming to food banks express an increasing concern over what appears to be the withdrawal of institutional support, both public and private. They are experiencing something of a crisis of civic membership, a troubling belief that while the public remains generous in food donations, there is a growing sense that they are being pushed out of the mainstream – a kind of redundancy that leaves them with a sense of hopelessness. They feel that their struggles for individual survival are slowly replacing the sense of social solidarity this country once enjoyed. If the poor are losing hope, can the middle-class be far behind, especially if the current financial trend towards inequality deepens? And just to be clear, the volunteer charitable sector in no way can pick up the slack left when government retreated from the public space in the past three decades.

We had never imagined that the global economy, nor the stock market, nor the profit margin could determine our institutional choices unless we were first consulted as a people and permitted to choose. Politics essentially fooled us, parading federalism’s historic social compact, all the while acquiescing to setting the stage for the new financial order.

We once had a rich Canadian history of a federalism that helped Canada become one of the most humane nations on earth, but that national history now can’t be separated from a financial present run amok. Our national agreements have themselves become unequal and ineffective in the process. Our history is trapped in our present injustice, and the poor are the first to sense it.

Get the Picture?

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LOOK AT THIS PHOTO AND JUST TAKE IN its uniqueness. It’s from the Parliamentary holiday party in 1971 – a throwback to a previous era when respect in government was still seen as one of the prerequisites for effective public service. At the right is Tommy Douglas (NDP leader), dressed as King Arthur, but you can also spot Conservative leader Robert Stanfield, Stanley Knowles (NDP), and Audrey Schreyer as Queen Guinevere. It would be a gathering as difficult to pull off today as the original Christmas story.

The occasion had been the annual Christmas party for the New Democratic Party and it was common for  figures from other parties to share in the spirit. Yet for a whole new generation of Canadians the thought that such a thing once occurred in this country would likely never enter their minds.

The photo is, in its own way, a sign of so much that is wrong in politics today. This is the time of the permanent election campaign, where constantly bashing the other parties (especially their leaders) has become a sport and an occupation – and, sadly, a distraction.

How we respect one another in our differences as citizens now becomes more vital than at any other time in our history. The situation has reversed itself, where politics itself now looks to the citizenry for role models.

It used to be that the term “golden rule” carried sway in the political chambers of our nation. It found its origin in the numerous scriptures from different faiths, but it essentially urged people to treat others as they themselves would wish to be treated. It’s a simple rule, one which, in one form or another, we have sought to teach our children from the beginning. Now, no one expects politics to easily apply such a challenge, but it nevertheless should still stand as a goal for political behaviour.

We could utilize the golden rule in the ways we communicate and debate one another as citizens. In a world where political parties maneuver themselves into ideological corners from which they can’t escape, Canadians can discover avenues of engagement unrestrained by such archaic confines.

All this leads each of us to an important question: “How would we like others to behave towards us when engaged in political discussion?” We already know the answer: take me seriously, show respect for my opinion, listen sincerely as I attempt to explain my position, and be open to some aspects of what I’m saying that you might agree with, and perhaps we can start from there. This is how the politicians of the past did it, but it appears more and more likely that only citizens can accomplish it for the future.

In such a context, why would I brandish a party label and be crude with someone when I would dislike being treated that way myself? We wouldn’t want our opinions distorted or maligned, so why, then, would I do that to others?

There were times when official political rhetoric wasn’t as poisoned as now, where representatives found the common ground together and worked out their compromises from there. In a modern world of negative ads and spin-doctors it is admittedly a difficult thing to recreate. But as we increasingly accomplish that feat ourselves as citizens, we remind all those seeking political life that such things as the golden rule are more than abstract principles or some kind of symbolism for an ideal world, but a practical guide as to how we can get ourselves, and our democracy, out of this mess.

“I believe in the Golden Rule,” noted famed country singer, Loretta Lynn, “but more than that, I believe in practicing it.” In that distinction might very well lie the future of our political estate.

 

 

 

Tell Me Their Names

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MOVING INTO OUR 29th YEAR AS A FOOD BANK, WE ARE learning again that the poor just aren’t who we think they are – at times not even close. There have been those traditional ways of gauging poverty where governments establish income levels and project things from there in more or less absolute terms. All this is necessary for public policy reasons, but are blunt instruments when it comes to telling us what poverty is all about today.

What’s important for us to get our heads around is that, regardless of how you define the poverty line, by most measures poverty has been getting worse in Canada over the last two decades. In such a case, there’s little point in belabouring the definitions of poverty when its dynamic has become extremely troubling.

It’s time to accept that poverty itself isn’t some statistic but a state of being. The moment we attempt to define poverty we have already narrowed it too much; the key is to understand it, and for that we have to broaden our view. When poverty becomes a stat, it immediately becomes something outside of us, but the moment it is seen as a neighbour or family member, or perhaps potentially ourselves, it draws us in and confronts us with its complex challenges.

Poverty isn’t merely a financial reality but a community problem simply because it now involves so many people from all walks of life. To say someone is “poor” these days could actually mean almost poor, could be poor, really poor, temporarily poor, or sadly, the permanently poor. Poverty has filtered out into mainstream society in ways that redefine what being a community really means.

They aren’t people hiding in some kind of chart or economic projection, but are living in homes or apartments, perhaps even on the streets. They are from every ethnic background and from all quadrants of the city. The vast majority are hardly idle, but spend their days busier than the rest of us, searching for ways in which to help them survive in an increasingly oblivious world.

It’s helpful for us if we can to understand that those living in such situations are rapidly on their way to becoming a “class” – the ability to escape their constrained predicament is quickly becoming more limited. Many work but in minimum-waged jobs, a large portion of their monthly income going towards paying the rent. Their presence in Canada and in our communities is becoming fixed – they know it and we know it. The question is, will we accept it or seek to work together to do something about it? Should we do little, their individual self-esteem sinks ever lower, while our collective self-esteem as a nation begins to carry with it a troubling tinge of shame. The longer we wait, the more sure the prospect that we become an entrenched two-tier nation. We will then become the country that used to lead the world, the nation that somewhere along the line lost its imagination and drive for social justice.

Following decades of economic management where we have gone from a market economy to a market society, as Mark Carney put it, it turns out that capitalism not only made people rich and content, but also poor, hungry, powerless and miserable. It’s a rude awakening and a sobering challenge for a dysfunctional capitalism and a troubled society.  And, sadly, it has separated us from one another.  Or as TV commentator Stephen Colbert recently put it: “You say you care about the poor?  Tell me their names.”

Politics Without Inspiration = Fear

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“PEOPLE GO TO FAR GREATER LENGTHS to avoid what they fear than to obtain what they desire,” noted one of the characters in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, and our current brand of politics is proving this – over and over again. Manipulative politics understands that, while humans are naturally moved by hope, they are far more motivated by what they are afraid of; it’s been in our DNA from the beginning. They play to it, believing that it’s easier to get people into the voting booth through what they’re afraid of than by what inspires them. And so, in an increasingly dangerous world, political success is deemed to be located in that sweet spot where terror intersects with citizenship.

This dynamic is increasingly playing out in the run-up to the next federal election later this year. The government has a responsibility to protect citizens, but not by driving them to fits of insecurity. And the opposition parties are right to talk about the threats to our privacy through wide-ranging anti-terror legislation, but must do a better job at detailing a more rigorous foreign policy that involves smart investment, international development, and diplomacy.

It used to be, especially in times of deep international insecurity, that politicians sought to enlist us to create a more hopeful world. They achieved this in different ways, but their authority and power to inspire us came from the belief that their citizens could yet move towards what Martin Luther King Jr. called the long arc “that bends towards justice.”

But politicians rarely speak like that anymore, in part because they have found it easier to drive the politics of fear than a democracy of hope. They have become managers of public life rather than visionaries for it. They have preferred contention over collaboration and division of people over dedication to principle. When people are fearful, even if only some of the time, they are easier to bait than when they are full of confidence concerning their future. And so we get played, and, like sheep fearful of a wolf on the perimeter, never realize that our greatest danger always comes from promoters of fear in our midst dressed as our defenders. It is a fantasy through which politicians trade leadership for a kind of invisible enforcement. In any discipline in a turbulent world, those with the darkest fears and highest ambitions often get to practice both in leadership.

Yet author, Marilyn Ferguson, reminds us all that we know that on the other side of every fear is freedom, if we would but work for it. Plato put it differently: “We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when adults are afraid of the light.”

Bruce Anderson, a pollster and panel member of CBC television’s popular “At Issue” panel, knows a thing or two about politics and is a gifted diviner of the national mood. In a recent Globe and Mail piece, he hearkened back to recent history, where politicians enjoyed success because they ran campaigns “about aspiration, about the future.” He goes on to add, “There’s a vacuum to be filled. It’s rare to hear leaders talk about dreams, except maybe how to avoid a nightmare.”

Andersen is right, as he is when he says our political conversations can feel more like “what do we need to do” than, “who do we want to be?” But we aren’t there at the moment, are we?

Vincent Van Gogh once boasted, “I dream my painting and I paint my dream.” Will our leaders put aside their broadswords in favour of aspirations that unite a nation instead of dividing it? In the midst of a dangerous world, does the future not belong to those who wish to build it instead of merely protect it?

This imposing and complex planet now confronts us with the greatest challenges in a generation: terrorism, climate change, poverty, financial dysfunction.  It’s full of big lurking things and we require big inspirational leaders who once again remind us that fear itself is, in fact, our greatest enemy.  Fear doesn’t just come from the presence of danger, but the absence of inspiration and a sense of optimism.  Ultimately the task of any politician is to call us out from the collective of fear to that place where whatever we dream and believe we can actually achieve.

 

Forgetting Our History

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My new Huffington Post piece talks about how we forget history in many fashions, not just through the kind of destruction we are seeing in Iraq and Syria.  The direct link to the column is here.
“History will be kind to me for I intend to write it,” said Winston Churchill — a great quote and just like him.

But what of those who seek to destroy history altogether, who endeavor to wipe the words from a page already written? The sight of historic relics preserved from humankind’s earliest era being purposefully destroyed forever by determined ISIS forces is jarring to our sensibilities and a sacrilege on almost every level

It’s happened many times in other centuries. The destruction of the Epang Palace great library in China in 206 B. C., or the massive Alexandria library torched five centuries later, left sizeable holes in the narrative of history that can never be recovered, even through modern technology.

But this is the modern era, where our understanding of the importance of history is virtually absolute. The pictures coming across our screens of statues being pushed over, stone carvings being hammered to oblivion, or symbols being spirited away to who knows where run the danger of imposing a form of cultural Alzheimer’s on the arc of recorded history. Some of these artifacts, and their significance to the human story, are likely gone forever and we’ll forget about them soon enough.

“The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history,” wrote George Orwell. That applies not only to the troubled people of Iraq and Syria, but to us as well as these vital “connectors” to our beginnings lie in ruins. As one Iraqi archaeologist put it: “No history, no culture, no past.”

Nothing else quite compares to this in the modern era. Groups that can sever heads would give little thought to severing our connection to the past. They are like cancer cells — disconnected, dangerous and clearly deadly. Something sinister awaits those who become better known for what they destroy than what they create.

History doesn’t exclusively disappear through a sword, a bomb, or a mallet. It can as easily be brought about through a lack of attention to detail as it can through explosives. The affluent countries of the West are showing disturbing signs of neglect for values that once were sacred to how they worked. We were once on a path for pay equity for women until we lost our way and the fight went out of us. Twenty-five years ago, every member of the House of Commons in the Canadian parliament voted to end child poverty by the year 2000 — a promise that has not only been forgotten but exacerbated as well. Social programs that were once so essential to the equilibrium and productivity of Canada are slowly being dismantled as citizens pay little heed. The great problem of climate change is a world of ecological decline where entire species disappear. Lakes have vanished, wells have run dry, the rains don’t come anymore in some areas, and our love of oil has overtaken our reverence for Nature.

Politically we have lost the art of respect and compromise, as rank partisanship severs every society it touches. Citizens are leaving the voting booth at the same time as politicians forego their commitment to authenticity. Even entire portions of government itself are disappearing through political gamesmanship and a destructive willingness to prefer the present over the future.

One only wishes we could be as horrified over such incremental obliteration as we are over the travesty of the actions of ISIS. Around the world, history is under assault, through brutality, greed, or neglect. It will be tougher to correct our present course if we can’t remember the road we took in the first place.

Shakespeare once noted: “We know what we are, but know not what we may be.” What happens when we can no longer remember who we were?

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