The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

The Character to Overcome


A lot has been said, written, sung, painted and even preached on the subjects of poverty, mental illness,
addictions and homelessness in London in these past few years. Over time our brains have been hijacked into placing each of these challenges into their own separate categories, when the reality is that thousands of our citizens in this city frequently move through them on a continual basis. Many remain mired in such conditions because not enough supports are there to help move them along, while others have been fortunate enough to acquire proper assistance to begin the process of building their lives.

Like Melissa Sheehan, for example. At thirty years of age, she has endured more of her share of careening disappointments and setbacks and yet has established a life where she can reach out past her daily trials.

Sheehan’s journey into self-reliance began when she left a difficult home situation at sixteen. She ran the gamut of staying with friends, to community shelters and then geared-to-income housing. She had endured events of physical and sexual abuse and lost friends to suicide and other tragedies equated with poverty and isolation.

Finally meeting with this remarkable woman at a local coffee shop, traits of strength and endurance were obvious, as were moments of vulnerability and transparency. “I have real trust issues,” she says openly, “and I deal with self-esteem and self-image issues everyday.” My daughter Abuk and I listen as she tells of enduring PTSD, depression, and periods of deep mental illness.

It’s a sad tale, at times deeply emotional. But soon enough emerges a sense of hope and humanitarianism that she says helps her get up in the morning and head out for the day. Despite a saga of deep pain and disappointment, there abides a sense of purpose, a need for community that somehow overcomes all the pain she must live with. She shares of her personal journey, “as my way of educating people about what poverty, homelessness and mental health issues exist and what the individuals living with those issues need most.” An air of conviction frames these words, filling them with a kind of urgency.

Because of her struggles, steady employment has been difficult for Sheehan to maintain. But things are improving. In November 2016, she acquired her Grade 12 equivalency through the help of Fanshawe College. She is, at present, exploring options for moving forward in her education experience.

For all she has endured in three decades, Melissa could be forgiven for speaking out against the systems of support that failed her. Yet she refrains from grousing excessively about such systems. “I want to work and support those trying to end poverty and homelessness in London and not resist the changes they propose. There is far more that can be done towards ending poverty than rejecting or resisting these ideas.” It’s clear from listening to her that she believes that it is in combining forces with institutions and individuals that those enduring life on the margins of community can work toward solutions. There remains something hopeful in that outlook and Sheehan has spent the last few years seeking to understand anti-poverty initiatives and those who seek to intervene on behalf of those struggling to escape the oppressive clutches of poverty, mental illness and homelessness.

One other aspect of Sheehan’s outlook was obvious: she is a fearless woman. She willingly tackles those who denigrate her efforts on social media and claims that the best way she can help others in similar circumstances is to build relationships instead of tearing them down.

Abuk and I left this remarkable woman as she made her way to Sanctuary London before she got back to her part-time job in a department store. We talked about how, all too often, Londoners fail to grasp that the best hope poverty has is found in those struggling to escape it – their veracity, adaptability, sense of social justice, and desire to be an active part in a community that seeks to eradicate those things in society that denigrate it.

We came away from meeting a woman we knew very little about with the sense we had been ennobled in some way. “You should write about her, Dad,” suggested Abuk. Now that I have, I am even more inspired.

 

Opting In by Opting Out

One of the consequences of missing the mark on predicting the future is not only confusion, but disillusionment. It’s happening with democracy at this moment in time, leaving many feeling more isolated from the political process than ever.

An example is what has occurred with the activities of mass media or social media. Futurists used to say that these new forms of communicating news and information would bring citizens deeper into the political process, leading to a democratic renaissance. In reality, we have discovered that what has occurred in recent years actually completed the alienation of people from politics and from one another. Throughout the process, anger levels remain troublingly high.

Washington Post columnist David Von Drehle used this troubling reality as the title of his recent column – “Americans Are Addicted to Outrage.” His opening paragraph on social media’s effect on our citizenship put it right out there:

“Addiction compels you to chase a high that only makes you feel worse; it reduces you to a lesser version of yourself. And you can’t stop because deep down you don’t really want to change.”

You don’t really want to change. That is one compelling statement, considering we live in a era of vast change and we often want to help lead it. And it ultimately leads to our sense of isolation and ineffectiveness.

This all brings us back to the “image versus substance” argument so prevalent 30 years ago. George Orwell’s 1984 pictured Big Brother’s total monopoly of the media machine and it all ultimately led to systemic slavery. Like it or not, and often without realizing it, the modern citizen is molded and activated by the subtle ramifications portrayed through todays media – social and, increasingly, traditional.

New venues for communication ought to have enriched democracy, and to a certain degree they have. This was the great hope of the early pioneers of radio and television, and for a number of decades it appeared as though the potential for the technology was being realized. The media served the democratic experience well enough as an important and controversial mediating voice for citizens, a corrective mechanism that analyzed power and at times checked its abuses. In a real way, the media empowered its readers and viewers, primarily by providing them with the much-needed information they required to make enlightened decisions.

Yet, over time, the media lost its way by gravitating towards a subtle form of elitism, often converging its own views with those of the political and financial establishment. In the process it increasingly failed in its purpose to democracy and citizens began to scatter. In response, traditional media began pursuing heat as opposed to light. In its place came social media, fervent in its belief that it could reconnect people to the important issues of the day. All of us hoped it would speak adequately on our behalf because it would be us doing the communicating and creating a place for ourselves in the political debate and change politics as a result.

Now, over a decade later, we are flummoxed. Increasingly we discover that friends and associates are attempting to reconnect with themselves and one another by signing off of Facebook, Twitter and the other digital options. Connecting by disconnecting – that’s not how it was supposed to work. In a frenetic world of loud opinions, people are increasingly craving the quiet voice. Instead of ranting they seek reflection. And in the place of endless new information they look for timeless values that have endured for millennia. Yates, the poet, predicted such a state when he wrote of people who discover, “the visible world is no longer a reality and the unseen world is no longer a dream.” Sadly, citizens have all too frequently been reduced to the role of sullen spectators, perplexed and frequently lost in a vast array of opinions instead of truth.

None of this bodes well for democracy, which calls on citizens to struggle for collective progress as opposed to individual causes that remain isolated from broader realities.

Where does all this leave us? To return to David Von Drehle’s column, which might be democracy’s best hope for the moment:

“So we’re left to get ourselves sober. Switch away from the televised outrage orgies that masquerade as news. Resist the urge to get worked up about stupid stuff that knuckleheads say. Spend more time among reasonable people doing healthy things.”

The World’s Food Supply is at Risk

It happens on the same day every year and on each occasion the world falls farther behind. Today, October 16th, is World Food Day, whose purpose is to mobilize global awareness and citizen action for those suffering from hunger around the world. We occasionally hear that the battle against hunger is getting better in developing nations, but that is only partially true. And in developed countries like Canada? Well, that’s another story.

Food Secure Canada estimates that almost 2.5 million Canadians live without secure access to food. Of the 850,000 Canadians that visit food banks each month, one-third are kids. Between 20-25% of American lives are mired in the same situation. Countries with lower rates of child hunger than the United States include Vietnam (18%), Myanmar (17%) and Ukraine (15%). The number of people suffering from hunger last year rose at the fastest pace since the beginning of this century, with the number increasing since 2000 by about 38 million to a total of 815 million at present – roughly 11% of the global population.

While sincere efforts are being mounted to deal with global hunger, two outliers are increasingly threatening any advancement and they are significant.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization recently noted that, “Deteriorations have been observed most notably in situations of conflict, often compounded by droughts or floods linked to the El Niño phenomenon.” So, there we have the two great outliers – conflict and climate change. Both can be dire, but climate change alone has the capacity to upset the world’s food system in ways that make hunger itself an ever-greater possibility.

The United Nations says that over half the hungry remain impacted by violence, both domestically and across borders. Many of that same number are facing food scarcity through lack of rains and, ironically, flooding. Indeed, climate change is in the process of altering the world’s demographic map, as millions begin the journey of leaving their historic homes in search of food, water, security, and more predictable climate patterns.

Underlying all of this is the troubling possibility that the world could start running out of food, in both rich and poor nations. Damian Carrington of The Guardian reminded us recently that three-quarters of the world’s food supply comes from just 12 crops and 5 animal species and that each of these is growing increasingly vulnerable to disease and pests. This was his response to the release of a recent report by the Bioversity International research group, which concluded:

“Reliance on only a few strains also means the world’s fast changing climate will cuts yields just as the demand from a growing global population is rising.”

Should something destroy these strains, climate change will have already insured that our ability to adapt and grow other food varieties will be limited. Half of the wild animals on earth have been lost in the past 40 years and 1,000 cultivated species of food are presently endangered.

While there have been some signs of improvement in recent years, the overall threat to the world’s food supply, and our access to it, is growing more dire. In countries like Canada, the effects will be felt in higher food prices and less food access. For low-income families the effects of all this will have troubling impact.

On this, World Food Day, we must gain a better understanding of the irony of celebrating Nature’s greatest sustainable gift to us at the same time as it is shrinking and endangering entire populations. This isn’t just about shopping more wisely or planting smarter. It’s about fighting for global peace and a more sustainable planet to fight off the effects of violence and climate change. These are big challenges indeed, but perhaps it will take a lack of access to good food or clean water that will finally awake us from our collective stupor and take global action as citizens and governments.

 

The Lost Art of Disagreement

What makes for a thankful city, a grateful community? Thanksgiving weekend is a good time to ask that question.

Our divisions can overtake what are some of the great qualities of this city. Divisive opinions abound, while common purpose becomes rare. It’s tough to adopt a collective thankful culture while all this is going on.  We’re not alone though; the entire world seems in an increasingly grumpy state.

A recent lecture by U.S. journalist and political commentator Bret Stephens in Sydney, Australia, created quite a buzz online and sheds some light on why a sense of collective gratitude seems harder to come by.

A Pulitzer Prize winner, Stephens bemoaned what he termed “the dying art of disagreement.” While finding agreement is necessary for communities to move ahead, Stephens nevertheless affirmed that disagreement is just as fundamental, reminding his audience that Galileo, Nelson Mandela, Vaclav Havel, Rosa Parks and many other esteemed figures were once in the ranks of those who disagree.

It’s how we disagree that has gone through such a fundamental change, he believes, and the effects are eroding our communities. We’re not talking about the trolls or haters here, but average citizens who care about where they live.

“We seem to disagree about everything,” he said. “We judge one another morally depending on where we stand politically.”

He could be talking about London. He trots out research to show citizens everywhere are having trouble getting things together and their politics have become dysfunctional as a result.

“The distance between making an argument and causing offence terrifyingly short.”

Stephens observed that our online behaviour is hurting our lot as citizens, saying we “increasingly inhabit the filter bubbles of news and social media that correspond to their ideological affinities. We no longer have just our own opinions. We also have our own separate facts.”

Such a condition leaves a community inflexible, as the rigidity of our opinions make compromise and respect rare commodities. Everything becomes personal. People get offended and the desire to come together for the sake of community recedes into our past.

As Stephens noted, the consequence of all this has made “the distance between making an argument and causing offence terrifyingly short.”

London’s recent experiences regarding how we will transport people in the future and the state of downtown development have left chasms so deep and voices so entrenched that one wonders whether compromise is even possible. We frequently blame our politicians for the quagmire when all too frequently they are distracted by efforts to keep us from destroying one another.

If our disagreements, and the manner in which we express them, leave us in a kind of permanent enmity, then it remains hard to imagine how such a divided city can effectively lobby for greater investments, whether from the private sector or from senior levels of government.

There must be some sort of process for healing within our community — an ability to restore London’s wholeness and sense of potential. By remaining divided, we become lesser versions of ourselves and our ability to build a highly functional, inclusive and prosperous city is compromised.

And the longer we take to forgive one another or re-engage in a spirit of conciliation, the harder it will be to pull ourselves up off the mat.

We must begin again the exercise of self-government and not just leave everything to the political class. The essence of democracy is that the people themselves create those conditions in which they wish to live. We need a renewed collective commitment to achieve what we can only accomplish as a community that is rich in opinions and ideas but not destroyed by them.

Thinking of how we might live together, Aristotle said “the city comes into existence, originating in the bare needs of life, and continuing in existence for the sake of a good life.”

This is what most Londoners seek: a good life.

The potential lying at the heart of our community will never be realized by our politics alone — that should be clear enough to us by now — but also by our innate sense of fair play, of respect for opinions, and for the common desire to build the kind of city in which our families wish to remain.

There is no better time than Thanksgiving weekend to acknowledge our need of one another and our wish to build a better city through all the various ideas brought together in respect and action.

Let’s be thankful that we are still capable of it.

Humility or Hubris? It’s a Choice

Talking with some folks in the audience during Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s speech to the UN General Assembly last week evoked some interesting observations. Ironically, the most common response was the least charged: “It was different.” Indeed it was. Trudeau’s clearly pointing out some of this country’s failures was surely unlike anything Canadians had heard in years, if ever. It has left many wondering as to the purpose of the PM’s approach. We’ll never fully know, but some advantages come to mind.

Some maintain that’s it likely to help Canada’s next bid for a seat at the UN Security Council, scheduled for 2021. Given our failed bid for that same seat in 2010 following something of a bungled campaign, there are some lingering perceptions to overcome, along with a renewed campaign firing on all cylinders. Could Trudeau’s mea culpa concerning Canada’s failing record in indigenous affairs hurt the prospect of the UN seat? Not likely. Following years of UN urging of Canada to work on more proactive solutions with our indigenous citizens that were largely ignored by both Liberal and Conservative governments, Trudeau’s appearing to finally be hearkening to the warnings will likely get UN decision-makers to sit up and take notice.

It’s rare for a leader from one of the world’s industrialized nations to turn so introspective, yet it was something leaders from the developing world would understand. I’ve been in attendance during such UN sessions where leaders from poorer nations, while inevitably brandishing their accomplishments, nevertheless had to spend time acknowledging their failures on issues like gender equality, debt repayment or climate change reforms. They had to prove to both the UN and the advanced nations present that they remained worthy of the West’s investment in their own domestic economies. At times humiliating, it remained a necessary step towards securing ongoing assistance.

Canada was under no such pressure as Trudeau made his address and the sight of a highly regarded and prosperous nation acknowledging its failures opened a new door for how we are seen internationally. Though Canadians often prove reticent to admit to the reality, we are keen to know how we are being perceived across the globe and take occasional pride in plaudits thrown our way. How we will we react to having our collective shortcomings aired before a global audience remains to be seen.

But there was one key aspect of Trudeau’s speech that had inevitable effect: his demeanour. The subject of humility among political leaders is almost non-existent anymore. Confidence, more often over-confidence, comes part and parcel with political leadership in the modern era. Admitting mistakes, the ability to reconcile with others, the willingness to change positions in light of new evidence – these were traits we looked for in those running for office.

Not anymore. Can anyone imagine Donald Trump uttering the words of his nation’s first president upon stepping down as leader, “In reviewing the incidents of my administration, I am unconscious of intentional error. I am nevertheless too sensible of my defects not to think it probable that I may have committed many errors”?

We expect such humility from George Washington, but hardly from most other presidents and prime ministers. Yet this was the tone Trudeau took in front of the gathered nations of the world and it wasn’t without effect. In acknowledging both he and the country had farther to go on some of its promises, the PM was affirming that no nation had to be perfect as long as they were progressing along the path of social justice.

These days it’s often perceived as a weakness when a leader confesses to doubts or mistakes and we as citizens must take some responsibility for such a state of affairs. We want decisive leaders – until we don’t. Nations like the United States, in voting for the impervious leader often discover themselves questioning their own voting decisions. Whatever Trudeau’s motives for his speech, it was something different altogether from what the prosperous nations have practiced, and in doing so, even for only the duration of his delivery, he placed humanity at the apex of global affairs and the need for diplomacy over diatribe, of humility over hubris, and served notice that, collectively, Canadians understood such distinctions.

View this post in its original National Newswatch format here.

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