The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Outside the Lines

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Read this post on National Newswatch here

When Ben Hur was launched as a stage play in 1899 it became an immediate sensation. Stagehands were hired to shake tarps to make the background set look like waves, while others rocked the fighting ships back and forth in an effort to make it look realistic. A year of preparation went into the production, with the highlight being the chariot race in the grand arena. People had been practicing for months – the white horses leading Ben Hur and the black steeds powering his enemy Masala’s chariot. Then something went wrong behind the scenes, with the result that Masala won the contest – a conclusion that threw the plot, and the rest of the evening, into disarray.

I thought of that story repeatedly in these past few weeks as so much in politics failed to finish as planned. We weren’t supposed to end up in this place and it appears the political elites have lost considerable control of the political process in a number of countries. The politics of Europe and America now share an equal dose of uncertainty and perhaps danger.

This week’s Republican convention reminds us again that standard politics is no longer a sure thing. For an entire year the Republican Party proceeded as though Donald Trump was a novelty, an also-ran, who would surely bring lots of attention but never be a serious candidate. All that party machinery! All that preparation! All that fundraising to get support for the major candidates! And then the publicity stunt candidate triumphs.

This American campaign is one for the ages, whether people like it or not. But after all the analysis is done, with pundits ad nauseam picking apart the entrails, one key reason stands out as to why Donald Trump achieved what he did: the voter. It was supposed to be the usual kind of campaign that affirms democracy still works by selecting from the choices the political class provides. The problem is that the billionaire wasn’t the figure either the party apparatus or even the media initially preferred to be crowned. On the flip side, in the Democratic Party, Bernie Sanders was pulling off a similar kind of revolution that to this day carries momentum even following Hillary Clinton’s clinched nomination and the endorsement of Sanders.

Let’s face it: Donald Trump prevailed because he garnered too much support to deny him the prize. This isn’t the year of Trump, but the year of the voter – perhaps more so than even Obama’s remarkable run in the 2008 election.

And now we have Brexit and all the chaos that will go on for months, likely years. With both France and Germany going to the polls next year, the jury is out as to the overall result. In order to achieve his last election victory, British PM David Cameron rolled the dice and promised a referendum on Britain’s continued membership in the European Union, likely sure he could control the political process. Except he couldn’t, and now a political Pandora’s Box has been completely kicked over.

It remains tempting to talk about the major personalities in all this bedlam as the collective reason for the unpredictability, but in a very real sense this has been about troubled citizens, not their ultimate leadership choices. Something seismic is clearly going on and its impact is changing so many preset ideas regarding our politics.

The era of political pandering by parties to voters while at the same time ignoring the global challenges citizens face and the values they hold dear is seemingly coming to an end – citizens don’t believe the hype anymore. Readily assuming that political elites no longer understand the profound challenges faced by the electorate, voters are colouring outside the lines and opting for choices that are no longer the safe ones – something Abraham Lincoln deciphered over 150 years ago, as noted by strategist Ariel Moutsatsos:

“Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed. Consequently, he who molds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions.”

None of this means, of course, that voters have voted objectively, but they have shown the political classes in their respective countries that they’re tired of being duped and want in. The great danger is that their stretch for a collective voice might unleash dominoes of great uncertainty. If in their arrogance the political managers created winds of change, voters themselves must be somber and diligent lest they reap the whirlwind.

Shaken, But Not Stirred

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I SPENT THIS LAST WEEK IN SCOTLAND, and it was clear from the places I visited that people feel swept up in an array of key events that left them at a loss at their own individual place in it all. The Chilcot Report was released on my first day there and everywhere people were glued to their screens, mostly angered that they had been duped into supporting a war that Sir John Chilcot himself concluded was driven more by ideology than information.

People were discussing the implications of Brexit wherever I journeyed, including a fish and chips spot where two people in the booth next to us bemoaned the reality that they had no idea what would happen next.

This is the world as we know it, and, in developed nations around the world supposedly constructed on the primacy of the individual, people seem more lost than ever, feeling little hope that they can change the arc of events. It all reminds us of the movie Roger and Me, where Michael Moore is denied the right to meet with officials from General Motors because he “didn’t represent anyone.”

Politics increasingly views the public as divided into various groups representing a myriad of issues and leading to great divisions within society itself. Every cause imaginable now has spokespeople active anywhere where an audience can be captured. Such groups have always been present and are essential to any healthy nation, but of late their numbers are so numerous that one key group is repeatedly overlooked: the public itself.

Average citizens continue to represent the great unknown. They are the deciding factor in elections but remain difficult to read. They hold to their convictions yet refuse to broadcast their intentions. They hold to their opinions but don’t feel the urge to broadcast them to everyone. Most don’t belong to activist groups and the majority barely interacts with social media, where most of the animated groups seek to make their connection.

For those in government, individuals can seem only to matter if they are connected somehow to this or that activist group. That remains a misnomer, as the majority of Canadians, Americans, or Brits keep their convictions largely to themselves or to select friends in a coffee shop. Treating such citizens as part of a group only drives them more into their isolation. But when given a chance to emerge, as with Brexit, the results can be earth-shaking.

“I was not designed to be forced. I will breathe after my own fashion. Let us see who is the strongest.”

While social media grows increasingly inflamed over this cause or that, the majority of individuals are merely getting along with their lives, providing for their families, volunteering at charities, or helping their neighbours. They are nobody’s fool and refuse to be counted in the great battle of “us versus them.” They neither like to be labeled nor appreciate attempts to recruit them by phone canvasses. Private interests will never secure the change they seek until they find some way of mobilizing these average citizens through a sense of fairness and understanding – characteristics often rare in groups attempting to change their world in a moment’s time.

Governments can spend their days repeatedly responding to the activists (which is one of their responsibilities), but should they not find effective venues for energizing the majority of Canadians just getting about their personal business, then no sense of political change can endure. Most Canadians are not political, but they are cultural and work together through their institutions. They form the living embodiment of Henry David Thoreau’s observation: “I was not designed to be forced. I will breathe after my own fashion. Let us see who is the strongest.”

In Britain at present, perhaps even in the U.S. and Canada, it is the average citizen who has emerged to reveal a strength unequaled by all the various groups with a cause. The world may be in chaos around them, but they have their act together.

Light in the Tunnel

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WITH THE DEATH OF ELIE WIESEL I find myself wondering if the world is in the final stages of going silent. There was once the great pantheon of moral voices that housed individual so gigantic on the world stage that their very words could summon generations to action. We know who they were: Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Vaclav Havel, Mother Teresa, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and a few others. Most became Nobel Peace Prize winners and went on to challenge their world to stop taking things so easily.

A Holocaust survivor, Wiesel became the clarion voice against human injustice in these last few decades. Everything he said and wrote came from the backdrop of Auschwitz – memories from which he had to endure until his final breath at 87 a few days ago.

He reminded me a lot of Canadian Romeo Dallaire. They were voices of the modern generation haunted by experiences they could never escape. They fell into despair often, but always for the sake of a better humanity they pulled themselves out of their darkness to speak to a world once more that they feared was losing its ethical spine. At times they were difficult to endure because we could see on their faces the incredulity that came with watching the rest of the world walk away from the tragic lessons of history.

Increasingly, Wiesel’s inner despair came not from the past but from the present. Around the world entire groups of people, along with individuals, were undergoing great hatred and oppression and yet so few were raising their voices as a result. Yes, governments needed to act with alacrity, but individuals appeared to be losing their will to fight for others.

Ironically, Wiesel came to terms with where he could see that courage lived out – among the victims themselves. As he would say so eloquently about Auschwitz in a 2002 speech:

“People say occasionally that there must be light at the end of the tunnel, but I believe in those times there was light in the tunnel. The strange way there was courage in the ghetto, and there was hope, human hope, in the death camps. Simply an anonymous prisoner giving a piece of his bread to someone who was hungrier than he or she; a father shielding his child; a mother trying to hold back her tears so her children would not see her pain—that was courage.”

These are powerful and uplifting phrases, but Wiesel had increasing difficulty finding this kind of courage in a modern era, where people jumped daily from one cause to another, quickly losing the thread of progressive humanity. Just as Stephen Hawking has come to see hatred in the modern era as the greatest threat to humanity, Wiesel wondered why we would permit both individual and collective hatred to leak its way back into a civilization’s bloodstream without raising our voices to deal with it effectively.

In a world where everything was flattening out – money, deep romance, love of humanity, employment, politics – Wiesel fretted that the same thing was happening with hatred. We were becoming very good at tolerating it. We were finding it easy to just not get involved in fighting outright racism or even poverty. In remaining remote from it all, we were becoming less human as a civilization, assuming that we had little part in it all. And yet Wiesel understood from experience that such actions, or lack of them, merely left the field open to the haters.

He watched as wicked attacks took place on Twitter or other social media venues as people shook their heads in shock at the vitriol emerging about race or vulnerable women, about alternative lifestyles or noble causes, and wondered why we weren’t raising our voices to stop it. He understood instinctively that our refusal to speak up about such things, to mire ourselves in our isolation, meant that the bad guys would win – they always win in such situations. And so he wrote: “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

I asked someone here in Scotland this week, a seasoned observer and activist in humanity at the University of Saint Andrews, just who were the great moral voices of our day. She struggled and struggled. Yes, there was Malala or maybe someone like the Dali Lama, but the great ones are disappearing rapidly. From the great church of humanity from which the moral voice of our great quest for peace and justice emerged, has come an increasing silence. What will replace those voices? Twitter? Facebook? Celebrities? Pundits? They are not the same as a Mandela and we are losing our way in their absence. Wiesel is gone and the silence is tragic in its own way.

“I must do something with my life,” he said recently. “It is too serious to play games with anymore, because in my place, someone else could have been saved. And so I speak for that person.”

In the absence of the great voices of moral clarity must come the great collective voice of individual citizens joining to cleanse our world of hatred. We’re not there yet.

Canada Through Obama’s Eyes

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WHAT IS CANADA’S PURPOSE?  ONE YEAR AGO today that answer might have been a little more muddled than today. As the world around us tumbled about, challenging our traditional set of norms and understandings, our country had seemed, for a number of years at least, to be more minimalist than meaningful, more reductionist than radical.

Today, however, there seems to be some stirrings among us as to our potentials and usefulness to the human condition. Listening to Barack Obama speak in Parliament this week about how the important human values aren’t American or Canadian, but universal principles sounded more like something from the 1950s or 1960s than the modern era. What was truly wonderful about his speech was watching the emotional collective countenance of all the political parties present; it wasn’t just Liberals cheering an eloquent president, but everyone in the Chamber. It was almost as if, for a brief moment at least, we were united as to our unique place in the world and our purpose within it. People of all political persuasions stood as one at the altar of a progressive humanity.

At the core of every country’s ideals is a deep yearning for identity, for who we are, what we mean, and why we exist. That’s not true for a great many Canadians, of course, who neither have the inclination or the freedom to spend much time in considering such things. Some are too busy fighting off the rigors of life such as poverty, mental illness, and other pressures to consider the value of a nation.

And yet President’s Obama’s address in Parliament this week nevertheless reminded us that whether we care about it or not, Canada perhaps now carries a pivotal role in world affairs that it didn’t even seek or understand only a few months ago. With the threat of rampant ideology south of the border emerging in a presidential run by Donald Trump, the threat of continual divisiveness in the European Union, Britain’s own threat to destiny due to Brexit, and the imperious reach of Putin’s Russia, Canada appears more and more like a peaceful isle in a troubled sea.

But we are more than mere bystanders, as Obama reminded us. We are an experimental people, in the middle of testing again the ability of the collective spirit to become more inclusive and our politics to maybe become more respectful again. Recent elections in our indigenous communities, provinces and the federal domain were demonstrations that a large portion of this country seeks to be more open than closed, more sustainable that wasteful, and likely more global in reach than local.

This is the Canada that Obama looked out upon this week. Surrounded by numerous forms of political leanings in the House, he was clearly buoyed by a collective multipartisan spirit unlike anything he had experienced in Washington or can be seen in Europe at present. Always with an eye on the global community, for a few moments he looked at the world through the lens of a nation that is interested in creating a more fair and inclusive human community, and he liked what he saw.

This isn’t about Justin Trudeau and a Liberal government alone, but a collection of political impulses that nevertheless has proved unwilling to tear their country apart in ways that are seen elsewhere. And it is about a citizenry that is more interested in playing its part in the drama. The House wasn’t merely respectful to a visiting dignitary, but to a call of national identity that isn’t so much nationalistic in flavor as it is progressive in outlook.

Whatever the fate of the world in an era of ISIS and strident nationalism, of economic dominance and Internet hatred, Canada displayed again this week its propensity for being a better friend to the nations, a firmer supporter of gender equity and aboriginal justice, a noble force for the better angels of our human nature. We appear to be willingly open to the concept that one nation can contain the diversity of many cultures, but that all of these forces join together to form a collective identity of how to live at peace with one another – surely something the world requires now more than ever.

An American president looked out on a vast land this week and saw it as capable of transcending traditional boundaries of culture and community, and organizing itself so as to be a source of hope to a world that too frequently seeks to divide itself along such lines, sometimes violently.

It appears as though the Canada that Obama witnessed this week is increasingly the Canada that we see ourselves. It remains a noble vision and perhaps more than at any other time in recent memory we are prepared to struggle for it. Happy Canada Day.

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.

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