The Parallel Parliament

Glen Pearson

Wounded Warrior

Posted on June 24, 2018

I caught his stare as I was brought into the House of Commons for the first time and just couldn’t read it.  It was late-2006, shortly after I had won a by-election as a Liberal in London, Ontario.  Paul Dewar had entered the House as a newcomer for the NDP only a few months before.  I had known of him prior to my political tenure, but seeing his face that day left me with no doubt that he was a fighter of some kind.

A couple of hours later we passed one another in the Opposition Lobby and he introduced himself.  Taller than me, he looked vigorous, contained, and somewhat intense.  We sat on the same side of the House and frequently voted the same way on various bills before us.

Dewar was on a mission – one that didn’t begin with his election but had fueled him for years prior to political tenure.  His mother, Marion, had been well-known as both the Mayor of Ottawa and MP for the NDP.  Paul’s fighting spirit emerged early, when in Grade Three he had troubled reading and writing due to dyslexia.  He worked his way through those challenges, eventually earning a Bachelor of Arts degree from Carleton University and Bachelor of Education degree from Queens, becoming a teacher.

He discovered a deep sense of purpose when volunteering as an aid worker in Nicaragua.  Returning to teaching, he was eventually awarded by Queens for his dedication to working with special needs students.  His list of activities following that point is long and impressive, but what they all had in common was a spirit of advocacy.  He was a battler and it was only a matter of time until he ended up in Parliament.

To our delight, Paul and I worked well together on the Foreign Affairs and International Trade Committee.  We shared a keen interest in Africa and supported one another in various initiatives to assist that troubled continent.  At one point the committee had reached a stalemate and we both exited into the hallway and attempted to hammer out a compromise between our positions.  It worked and the motion was passed.  I came to trust in that instinct of Paul’s, that he could find compromise if it was fair and also came from a place of honest endeavour.

At one point I had a light lunch with NDP leader Jack Layton in the fifth-floor restaurant in Centre Block and he shared with me that his party was always full of fighters, but that Paul Dewar brought in a kind of international expertise and commitment that the party occasionally lacked.  “Help him when you can, Glen,” he offered.  “He’s totally committed to his work.”

And that’s just how it turned out.  When he ran for the NDP leadership after we both had left the House, I send word to him that I would be glad to see him in London and supported what he was trying to accomplish, especially in overseas matters.  Though he said we’d grab a coffee, we didn’t get to hook up because of his heavy schedule, but did communicate by email.

It was with a real and deep sadness that I learned of Paul’s diagnosis of terminal grade 4 glioblastoma cancer – the same cancer that took Gord Downey not long ago.  In typical fashion, he announced the prognosis to the world and affirmed that he would spend his remaining time supporting grassroots youth movements.

All of this has been deeply moving for me, as I continue to reflect on his activism and his fitting role as critic for Foreign Affairs in the House while he was there.  He was always struggling, always railing against injustice, always attempting to bring voices into the political system that otherwise might have remained isolated without such a champion.  He will forever remain in my memory as a wounded warrior – bearing the scars of those who history had frequently marginalized and who politics refused to engage.

And now he bears the final wounds of his own.  He faces his own departure by focusing on newly arrived young minds and spirits who need to know that public service is worth the effort and that a better world must be created by better policies.  He is like many other politicians in that he cares for his country and the place of the marginalized within it.  But he is more than that.  His years in the House were preceded by a lifetime of struggle for social justice and he brought that experience to the centre of the nation’s political interest.  He was never my foe, but always my friend.  I was 13 years his senior, but he was the better, more mature person and I learned from him.

In those seasons when we’re increasingly tempted to tear down politicians and their actions, we should remember people like Paul Dewar – public servants who brought a deep humanity to politics and who seamlessly carried on with that essence long after politics has ended.  Fight on, Paul.  More is yet to be done and we still require champions for a more equitable world.

War Under the Peace Tower

Posted on June 24, 2018

In the parliamentary calendar, it is inevitable that the subject of Question Period’s dysfunction will emerge, often with a twinge of anger. It’s happening again in these last few days, led by the Toronto Star researching into the veracity and truthfulness of that one time in the House where the government must account for its actions, or lack of them. To that must be added the insights of Star reporter Tonda MacCharles, who notes that Question Period’s 45-minute duration is really just a regurgitation of talking points, ad nauseum. Bruce Campion-Smith and Sabrina Nanji of the same newspaper put a fitting point on it by asking just how is it that an important political event designed to hold the government accountable has become an exhausting piece of political theatre?

As with anything the pops up repeatedly, we grow tired with the sense of hopelessness of it all. Governments come and go, yet Question Period seems in perpetual decline. Arthur Rimbaud noted that, “Life is a farce when everyone has to perform.” Perhaps that’s just it: QP isn’t about inquiry and accountability but optics and image. Actually, there’s no “perhaps” about it; that’s what it has become – theatre, but the kind no one wants to watch anymore. Maybe by permitting cameras into the great Chamber of Parliament years earlier what we eventually got instead of open politics was operatic parody.

Conservative David Tilson and I served on the Privacy and Access to Information Committee for a time in Parliament. Even back then, in 2007, he was one of the longest-serving MPs in the House. I liked and respected him, in part because he rarely participating in any of the faux tirades that often materialize when the camera goes on. He was a straight shooter and our working relationship was amicable.

So, a smile inevitably crossed my lips when I read this week in the Star that he simply refused to utter a single word in QP. His reason? “I listen to the answers that are given by the minister in the Liberal government and it’s just garbage. If I stood up and asked a question, I guarantee you 100 per-cent that it will not be answered.”

He’s right, of course, but when he reflects on just how much better things were in the Harper government his observation goes from honesty to hilarity. Does he not recall just how bad things were back then – the yelling, name calling, contempt of Parliament, slurs and outright mendacity? Of course, he does. In my five years in the House, career civil servants, and not a few journalists, would note that things hadn’t been so bad in recent memory.

Anyone from the opposition parties daring to ask a Conservative minister a question in those years got one of two responses: name-calling or refusal to answer. Folow-up queries only got the same result. We all witnessed the shock in the vistor galleries as people stared on in fascination or disgust. The site of teachers covering the ears of their young students in those same galleries only added to the sense that Parliament wasn’t only declining into mayhem but, ultimately, a lack of relevance.

The Harper government was highly effective at obfuscation, just as the Trudeau government is today, but it’s difficult to read Tilson refuse to acknowledge that equivalency. One recalls the sincere and noble efforts of various MPs, most especially Conservative Michael Chong, to bring some sense of respect and accountability to QP and how such attempts were lauded, but eventually shelved.

The truth is that Question Period has been hacked – not by Russian techies or Facebook algorithms, but through the concerted efforts of unelected political handlers who view that 45-minute period during the day as a zero-sum game. For the government side the secret is to evade at all costs, to avoid liabilities, to appear in control. Opposition handlers use every attempt to denigrate those governments the people themselves have elected. Either way it’s war under the Peace Tower and it’s demeaning as long as it is tolerated by those meant to engender respect within the governing system.

Year after year sees ongoing decline in QP behavior, not just in Canada but in democratic institutions around the world. Sometimes farce can be a good thing, illuminating inconsistencies and failures. Then again, it can drain the very life out of democracy with its emptiness and pettiness. Writer V. S. Pritchett understood the distinction: “The difference between farce and humour in literature is that farce strums louder and louder on one string, while humour varies its notes, changes its key, grows and spreads and deepens until it may indeed reach tragic depths.”

It would be correct to suppose that we have sunk to those tragic depths, not through nuance, respect or intelligence, but through brutality, utter silence, or and continual one string responses.

Progressivism hangs on inquiry and transparency. At the moment, Question Period isn’t the place to discover such things. It is what it is and will remain so until everyone stops pretending.

London’s Ivory Tower Breaks Its Bubble

Posted on June 21, 2018

Secure in the lush surroundings of north-central London, Western University, despite its size and strategic importance to the city, can appear an island unto itself — bustling and creative, to be sure, but nevertheless isolated. Londoners have come to take it for granted without realizing how much the university has transformed in just the past decade.

In essence, the world has come to Western and its host city in numbers likely unknown in the broader community.

Ten years ago (2007-2008), the university had 24,071 students, with only 1,303 from other countries. Today, the international component numbers more than 4,500 full-time students coming from 121 countries. This quiet revolution has brought a global dynamic and diversity to Western’s classrooms in ways that introduce Canadian students to a broader world filled with opportunity, challenge and awareness, inspiring them to enrol in programs to study abroad.

In that same decade, as the country sought new interactions with Indigenous communities, Western University developed an Indigenous strategic plan that informs both Canadian and international students of the importance of the file to Western’s outlook.

The plan is centred around inclusion, understanding and a series of benchmarks designed to infuse university life with Indigenous culture — things like the Indigenous Mentorship Network Program of Ontario, a Western-based hub dedicated to Indigenous health training and led by geography professor Chantelle Richmond. A decade ago this was only a dream; today, Western is on a course of healing, restoration and learning.

A key to understanding the university’s change is to consider the transformation in leadership.

Of those responsible for the overall functioning of the university, 65 per cent are women. On the academic team, three women are on the provost’s senior leadership team and five out of Western’s 11 deans are women. Such representation has been in the works for years, providing guidance more reflective of modern realities.

There remains a tendency to believe universities are like ivory towers, with teachers and students transporting through life in a bubble of their own making. It’s a sentiment that runs the risk of keeping us unaware of Western’s larger reach into the community.

Through a range of vigorous programs, university resources spread out into London and area in fields ranging from music instruction to tutoring, from holistic health services to child literacy, from career development to coding for girls, and from business expertise to urban farming.

The list is far lengthier, but the picture becomes clear that the university’s impact at all levels of civic life is empowering. One business leader made the interesting observation last week that it’s difficult to find any significant effort of collaboration in London that doesn’t have a Western adviser or researcher attached to it.

Just this month, the university holds its fourth annual World’s Challenge Challenge, where teams of students from Canada and around the world come to Western to compete. The task is imposing: present a problem facing the world and develop a plan to solve it. Three prizes are awarded ($30,000, $15,000 and $7,500) and the entire initiative reveals just how aware today’s students are of the broader world and its challenges.

Quietly, resolutely, Western University has been transforming itself from the inside in ways few of us have heard of or care to notice. It is as vital to our community as ever.

Being as large as it is, the campus, as with any large institution, will remain an object of criticism. But it also must be seen as a centre of learning seeking to shape its future along the lines contained in the observation of Wendy Koop, the American founder of Teach for All: “The lack of diversity in higher education is a problem we as a country must tackle if we’re going to live to our promise.”

Western is seeking to confront that problem in ways that not only challenge our city but the rest of the world.

The Devastating Ironies of Our Global Food System

Posted on June 14, 2018

People have to eat, so it’s everywhere.  The massive global food industry, powered and frequently controlled by only five international conglomerates, touches virtually every nation and most markets.  It’s so big that even the late Anthony Bourdain noted that he couldn’t get his head around it.  And because food and water are the basic elements of all life, we are affected in ways we hardly understand.

And there is a price to pay for that ignorance.  We want food everywhere and demand vast varieties and quantities at the same time.  It seems to just appear in supermarkets, restaurants, and now increasingly online.  It just is– immediate, relatively cheap, and in copious amounts.  That familiarity and ease of access comes at a cost – a burden we actually can’t bear.  Here are just five ways in which the food industry threatens the same people that it feeds, with stats gleaned from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Department.

In order to have food there has to be water and with the global demand for foodstuffs growing exponentially the risk to our water supplies grows right along with it.  It’s not only climate change that threatens the world water ecosystems but the insatiable desire for things to eat, of which we have no understanding how it is produced.  Today, unlike 50 years ago, we learn that a fifth of the global population live in regions of water scarcity, with another 500 million people about to be added to that number by the end of this century.

Yet, it’s even more complicated than that, since 1.6 billion people live in areas where there is no water infrastructure – there might be water but no means to get it.  And here’s the tough part: the United Nations states that water use has been growing at a rate more than double the rate of global population growth.  A little over a decade from now, demand for water to grow food is expected to exceed supply by some 40%.  It stands to reason that as demand for food grows at a fantastic rate, such pressure will drastically deplete the world’s water supply, leaving half the world to face water shortages in the next century.

Consumption of meat is threatening the planet in ways we have yet to comprehend.  Near the turn of the new Millennium, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization informed us that 30% of the world’s land is used by the livestock industry – a figure that must be higher by now.  That was a radical shift from earlier times, when eating meat was a luxury enjoyed mostly in affluent nations.  It shouldn’t surprise us to learn that 15% of global carbon emissions originate in the agricultural industries.  The demand for meat is expanding and the effort to respond to that pressure is causing the food industry to ramp up its efforts in ways that might bring severe threats to our overall environmental welfare.

What happens when food supply can’t keep up with demand?  Food reserves haven’t been this low for decades, which leaves our world in a dangerous situation when famine and environmental crises come along.  This especially applies to grains – primarily corn, wheat, and rice.  Such harvests make up the bulk of food exports and any shortage could leave the world unprepared, unleashing a series of famines across the world that would have devastating results.  And what happens when global food supplies are low?  Food prices rise as a result, leaving millions – billions even – in poorer lands unable to afford supplies even if they were available in local markets.

This massive increase in food production is leading to alarming rises in obesity.  This is no accident.  People want more food for consumption than ever before and are ending up not only eating more than normal but downing non-nutritious products that only exacerbate the problem.  Slightly over 25% of the developed world is now obese (the global figure is 15%) and that’s leading to increases in diabetes, heart disease and other life-threatening ailments.  In America, 70% of the population is obese or overweight.  In Latin America and Europe, we’re talking 60%.  Such rates are unsustainable and represent a real danger to people, communities, healthcare systems and the future of the planet.

Food waste has become a huge issue. Worldwide, enough calories are produced that can overfeed the planet’s seven billion people, and yet significant portion of the world remain underfed.  One-third of food produced goes to feed animals and another one-third is tossed into the garbage or landfill.  Most of us know about this or have heard of it and yet these patterns continue unabated.  The global food production system is hugely inefficient but is rarely confronted or revolutionized.

 

Unless something is done about issues such as these (and there are many more related to food), our planet will be put increasingly on edge. Conflicts over food resources will climb.  The environment will continue to take a direct hit until it can no longer cope. Millions more will become obese every year.  Methane from rotting food in landfills will grow significantly.  These are just some of the tragedies we risk unless we consume less, plan better, grow food more efficiently, and vote for better policies for the sake of ourselves, the hungry around the world, and our planet. Presently, few lawmakers appear to be listening.

 

 

Photo credit: Reuters

The G7’s Troubles Started Long Before Trump

Posted on June 12, 2018

It was hardly much ado about nothing.  In fact, there’s been nothing like it in decades.  Donald Trump’s erratic utterances before, during and following the recent G7 meetings effectively kept the world attentive and coming unglued at the same time.  The irony of the American president wanting a chair at the table for the Soviet Union while one of his key advisors called for a special seat in hell for Justin Trudeau wasn’t missed by anyone.

The attempt by the other G7 leaders to keep everything from unravelling was commendable, but there remained this abiding sense that the global order which has prevailed over much of the world since World War Two was in the process of unravelling.

Something is wrong and, in many ways, it has nothing to do with the bombastic American president.  In reality, the arrangement between the key powers in the G7 hasn’t been all it pretended to be.  Long before Trump, quiet deals were being assented to that saw to the growing disillusionment of Western citizens that would eventually turn into an angry populism and which would defy traditionalists and pundits alike.  Donald Trump isn’t its source, only it’s progeny.

The list of failings is long and casting an extended shadow each successive year.  The American Congress hasn’t passed any kind of comprehensive budget since 1994.  The average American feels relentlessly squeezed out by a Washington that entertains 20 registered lobbyists for every member of Congress.  And most of those lobbyists are there for one particular reason: to keep government from providing relief and prosperity that could threaten the elite financial consensus of the well to do.  The global wealthy had enough resources, enough smarts, and enough threatening power to override the normal politics and the politicians elected to protect the middle and working classes.

In the developed West, it’s becoming increasing apparent that governments themselves have in fact protected a global financial order that rewards wealth over work and is content to see profits soar for the financial class while stagnating for the rest.  And now the average person is catching on to the ruse and taking his or her anger out on not only one party or another, but on governments themselves.  If the political elites will no longer protect them, then they will no longer protect the political and economic order that prevailed for decades.  And they will elect those who naively promise to protect jobs and incomes.  But, hey, what else can they do, when the prevailing system no longer works for them?

This is what is creating the chaos that turns a belligerent Trump into a hero for millions.  The president intuits this dissatisfaction to a remarkable degree, even though he has no idea how the middle class or the poor live.  That’s not the point – he champions them when governments no longer seem to care.  Whether true or not (it is), this is now the rocket fuel that is driving modern democracy.

The link should be clear to all the G7 leaders: unless they fix the global economy in ways that bring prosperity once more, then the international order that has survived for decades will itself require radical repair.  Climate change is important, as are millions of refugees and terrorism.  But these take a back seat when jobs disappear, wages are stagnant, when the rich are protected and the rest left largely defenseless.  Agree or not, this is the perspective that matters and the G7 leaders can feel its searing heat.  A global order largely held together by an American economy that is failing its people and the rest of the world is feeling the pain.

The same governments that helped to bail out the financial industry by the billions following the 2007 fallout could have taken a good portion of those funds to create jobs and infrastructure and poverty relief and educational assistance, but they didn’t and now the gig is up.  Politics might have moved on but the people remember and in that collective memory is power enough to overthrow any government that remains aloof.  Canada, which often seems an oasis in this global turbulence, is hardly immune, as the election of Doug Ford attests.

Before all this descends into a kind of democratic madness, governments have the option of going after much of that wealth and the elites who once benefitted from democracy and the global order but have since abandoned it.  This is the choice that awaits them:  get wealth and prosperity to the people or get ready for a quick removal from office.  Politics works best when citizens are economically protected.  When they aren’t, no one is safe.

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