The Parallel Parliament

Glen Pearson

Homes Without People

Posted on February 16, 2018

It’s a phenomenon few saw coming, but it’s beginning to turn our perspectives on modern cities on its head.  The point of the spear seems to have begun in New York City – Manhattan specifically.  The number of apartments in that region occupied by absentee owners and renters grew from 19,000 in 2000 to 34,000 by 2011 and has likely mushroomed since.  That’s a jump of 70% in just a decade.  One three-block stretch of the Upper East Side has a 57% vacancy rate for 10 months each year.

It’s not just developers and owners excessively purchasing properties and holding on to them as they hold out for higher sales (we have lots of them in Canadian cities).  According to Richard Florida in his newest study, the world’s wealthy now view premium properties in larger cities as many of us did with cottages or summer rental properties – premises to be occupied only a few weeks each year.

But these are cities where increasingly the world’s population is heading.  Two years ago (2016) some 55% of the world’s population lived in urban environments, and by 2030 that number will reach 60%.  By that time, one in every three people will live in cities with at least half a million people.

The problem is that these cities will be hollowed out by wealthy individuals and holding groups who will use many of our key central properties as temporary residences to be left empty except for those few weeks they are in town.  It’s possible because of vast wealth.  One-half of London, England’s, premiere residencies over £1 million now belong to elites who will reside there on average only a few weeks every year.  Add to that cities like Toronto, Vancouver, New York, Paris, Singapore, Mumbai and Hong Kong and we can see a global trend developing that will eventually work it’s way down to smaller cities.  Richard Florida, a part-time resident in Toronto, calls this development the “plutocratization” of our cities.

This should leave us with a simple question: What are we doing?  How can wealthy nations who possess enough resources to tackle some of our greatest social injustices permit this to transpire when increasing numbers of people don’t have a home at all – especially in cities where most homeless individuals are centred..  Consider another parallel trend that says something perhaps about our values.

  • America’s homeless rate is 553,742, up for first time since the Great Recession
  • Portugal’s is up 30% since 2008
  • China has 2.41 million adults and 200,000 homeless children
  • Rio de Janeiro’s homeless rate is up 150% in 3 years
  • In Britain the number stands at 300,000 people per year
  • India has 1.77 million homeless individuals
  • Russia, suffering from great political and economic dysfunction has a whopping rate of 5 million – 3.5% of population

And Canada?  Well, that’s just the thing: we might have just turned a corner following years of neglect.  Consider this infographic from the Canadian Conservatory on Homelessness.

And now go to Homeless here and read of some of the progress being made in recent years.  It’s not what it needs to be but is heading in the right direction.  But then again, if at the same time as we permit our cities to have homes without people as we try to work on people without homes, we will inevitably end up being at cross purposes.

“We have come dangerously close to accepting the homeless situation as a problem that we just can’t solve,” noted Linda Lingle.  Perhaps that’s not written in stone in Canada, as all three levels of government, corporate leaders and civil society seek to turn the tide.  But if we permit thousands of residences to lay dormant and unoccupied for most of the year, it will be inevitable that many will legitimately wonder where our priorities lay.

Is Our World Getting Any Better?

Posted on February 15, 2018

Is the world getting better or worse? It’s a ridiculous question really – not just because it depends on who you ask, but because a single answer proves impossible. The conclusion can only be that it is both. Plenty of research has been published legitimizing both arguments.

As a kid growing up in Calgary in the 1950s, both dynamics framed my larger view of the world. It seemed a dangerous planet. The threat of imminent nuclear conflict challenged many of our neighbours to consider constructing bomb shelters. Polio made families insecure. Racism hovered over us as a dark cloud, given what was erupting south of the border. Most nations were anything but democratic and were frequently volatile. The communist threat was everywhere. Sadly, three of the great challenges that were soon to confront us – climate change, our collective injustice to our aboriginal people and the need for true gender equality – had not yet entered our collective consciousness.

Now remnants of that past era seem to have crept back into our global world and everyday vocabulary. Racism has raised its ugly head once more, indigenous people around the planet still struggle for true justice and opportunity, the threat of a limited nuclear confrontation troubles us, Russia is revealing some of its more sinister traits, and the troubles of global democracy make everyday headlines.

But how about this?

Absolute poverty is defined as living on less than $1.25/day. Over the last 30 years, the share of the global population living in absolute poverty has declined from 53% to under 17%. Little of this has been by accident. Initiatives like the Millennial Development Goals and Sustainable Development Goals – a large collaborative effort among nations that is quarterbacked by the United Nations – has had significant effect, most of it in just the last 20 years. We’re talking hundreds of millions of people here. Such initiatives will become much harder as they move forward from this point, but, still, the results have been impressive.

Child labour numbers have declined by 50% in the last two decades. This has been a global problem for millennia and has only recently begun to show signs of marked improvement. It’s a complex issue, but heading in the right direction. And in the last 20 years, infant mortality has seen a similar 50% decline – a remarkable advancement.

Violent crime rates in the Western world continue to steeply decline. It’s another complex issue, largely made possible through earlier rehabilitative and education legislation, yet it counters the frequent narrative we hear that violent crime is on the rise. It simply isn’t true yet has become a political tool to instill fear in populations.

The chances of people receiving a good education have increased ten-fold in the last 100 years, and with the availability of online training those numbers are about to skyrocket.

Numbers such as those from the United Nations Development Index reveal a world beginning to overcome some of its deepest challenges. Add to all this the powerful influence of the global women’s movement, the explosive educational and wealth potential of the Internet, and the success of the global city movement. Collectively it’s a remarkable testament to the collective power of humanity and led New York Times writer Nicholas Kristof to wonder if, “2017 was the best year in human history.”

And then, of course, there’s the bad stuff. Various media research groups remind us that we are destined to receive ten times more negative news stories than positive ones – a reality playing out on every screen we watch. It’s not just because fear drives much of what we choose to watch. The truth is that there’s a lot of deeply troubling trends happening. The list seems almost endless: global democratic health in decline, the negative effects of populism in the West, terrorism, economic threats, loss of faith in our politics, the stagnation of the human rights movement, growing wage gaps, cyber terrorism, a growing child soldier problem, the gap between rich and poor – to name but a few.

We have become a global citizenry transfixed by our problems and frequently ignorant of our advances. As Kristof reminded his readers: “F. Scott Fitzgerald said that the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two contradictory thoughts at the same time.” It appears that we haven’t mastered that skill yet. We’re better at stridently voicing one perspective and dividing ourselves in the process. Our politics continues to excel at this kind of collective division, leaving much work to be done.

As with the successes listed above, the way forward for both politics and civil society is the ability to collaborate to overcome our greatest challenges. Should we remain divided, the combined strength and ingenuity required to mend what is unravelling at present can’t possibly prevail – our problems are just too great for splintered solutions.

Millennials Seek New Way to Effect Change

Posted on February 10, 2018

Like many other mid-sized cities, London is dealing with a difference in generational attitudes — value distinctions that affect everything from public transportation to employment, locally grown food, neighbourhoods and politics.

To date, the friction generated among demographic groups is largely unresolved and that reality partly explains why so many citizens feel frustrated at our collective dysfunction. Neither our politics nor our civil society has succeeded in creating a shared vision.

Research increasingly shows how millennials (those born between 1980 and 1995) approach community life differently than the generations that preceded them.

A recent Deloitte survey found millennials believe businesses should focus more on people than profits, are politically independent and distrustful of partisanship, and are far more inclined to use public transit than automobiles.

We are also learning the millennial generation is setting its own course when it comes to giving back to their communities.

They prefer to commit themselves to the community in individual ways rather than through institutions such as service clubs, houses of faith, political parties and even the food bank, where volunteerism has traditionally been nurtured.

The millennials’ approach affects their buying choices and is forcing businesses and organizations to shape their services more toward this generation’s personal values.

London’s Pillar Nonprofit Network is sensing this shift in city life and is exploring methods of integrating these values into the larger community.

It’s a challenge suitable to Pillar’s mandate — that of strengthening non-profits, social enterprises and social innovation, and creating meaningful connections among non-profits, businesses and governments. The mandate forms a broad umbrella under which millennials can find a level of comfort and direction.

As Pillar executive director Michelle Baldwin puts it:

“Mid-sized cities have a unique opportunity for interconnectedness. Pillar believes in the value of mobilizing our millennials, and all generations, to a shared vision and building bridges among the three pillars — nonprofit, business and government — to collectively solve our most wicked problems.

“Being inclusive of all ages, cultures, abilities and backgrounds will be paramount to maximize the talents of all to build an engaged, inclusive and vibrant London”

Social good runs deep in how the millennial generation views citizenship and that is beginning to affect our traditional understanding of how volunteerism can be done.

Subtly, yet inevitably, a paradigm shift is moving from volunteerism through larger institutions to individual social responsibility — and it’s in the process of transforming London.

Many millennials no longer wish to just sign up to an organization to help out; they want to be part of the change they are striving for.

The Change the World youth program hosted by Pillar has adapted its six-week volunteer campaign to a full-year program designed to encourage youth to engage with non-profits and social enterprises on a long-term basis and be change agents. It assists young citizens to view volunteerism as more than just a stepping stone, but a meaningful way to explore their social values and the effect on community engagement.

Such traits among millennials are hardly universal, but they do form a significant trend, driven by the penchant for change that is so much a part of modern life.

There’s a fluid distinction between volunteering as part of a collective aiming to make a difference and making a personal social investment to be the difference yourself and better the community in the process. London can only benefit if those practising each approach respect one another’s contribution.

Accomplished properly, it could help bring about the generational collaboration that London needs for the next decades — the collaboration that has escaped us for too long.


Read this post in its original London Free Press format here


In a Dysfunctional World, Individual Potential Matters More Than Ever

Posted on February 8, 2018

Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of us, are feeling the tug to just give up.  We shun giving in because we instinctively understand that the direction much of the world is travelling is inequitable and unsustainable.  Yet a kind of resignation is confronting so many of us as we sense that little we do seems to change anything.  For all the mention of the importance of the individual in democracy the reality is we feel alienated by the sweeping power of globalization, the impending timetable of climate change, and the sense that democracy is in trouble around the world.

And then those moments of personal meaning occur when we come to understand that our lives can alter the destiny for others, instilling within them, and us, a sense of hope.

A team of eleven Canadians for Canadian Aid for South Sudan (CASS) have just returned from the region where the chances of making a difference would normally seem remote.  Civil war, famine, dire poverty, a health crisis, the reality of the nation becoming a failed state – all these would seem to indicate that the individual would have less chance of changing the environment than almost anywhere else.  It’s a natural assumption – as natural as it is wrong.

I watched as thousands of southern Sudanese, fretting that they had been forgotten by the world and their own government, engaged their Canadian visitors to show they were still working to change the fate of their communities.  Far from acknowledging what the rest of the world might be thinking of their nation (the world’s newest), they revealed that citizens themselves were determined to fight for democracy, women’s rights, and a more prosperous future.

And the sight of Canadians visiting in the mud huts of families struggling in destitution and then distributing goats and grain as they left was powerful and those families sensed they had been noticed, heard and resourced.  When a number of very intelligent girls learned that they had received full secondary school scholarships from CASS, in large part due to a generous donation from the Sisters of St. Joseph, they at last faced an open door, held ajar by individual Canadians willing to invest in their future.  To be received at a vitally alive women’s centre that we have supported for years and which, despite famine and malaria, thrives with farming microenterprises and presses for political recognition, is something that instills hope in anyone present.

This seems counter-intuitive –  looking for individual influence in the middle of a collective mess – but it is precisely where the power of the individual can have its greatest effect.  In South Sudan, of all places, democracy is alive and, in some spots, thriving.  Where people once talked of the need for primary schools they now consistently refer to high schools and universities.  Women who once sought a sliver of independence only a decade ago now speak of running for high political office or managing their own businesses.  And average citizens, once cowed by their political and military leaders, now express their distrust openly and call for a better life and a more representative democracy.  In a word: revolutionary.

We must get our heads around the reality that, in a world of collective dysfunction, individual influence is more possible, and crucial, than ever, despite what we are told.

It’s time to stop thinking that nothing we do really matters.  Today, individuals are 30 times richer than our ancestors two centuries ago.  That wealth, when made available for great social causes, can redirect humanity’s path.  In America, 72% of charitable giving comes from individuals, with 15% from foundations, and 5% from corporations.  In Canada, individual giving is up to almost $13 billion per year, with 82% of Canadian citizens donating to important causes.

We forever hear, see and read of prominent figures starting companies, owning sports teams, and making their billions.  But it is average citizens, through giving and volunteering, that keep the wheels of human compassion and justice churning.  The power to revolutionize the world is ours to retain and use, not just through voting but through giving and acting.

In South Sudan today, at this very moment, are some remarkable women and men who have discovered new reason to hope because a group of 10 women and one man paid their own way and distributed the generous givings of average Canadians for people who are already showing the intelligence, adaptability, and courage to change their communities.  Individual Canadians made this possible and it is average Southern Sudanese who enact it.

Forget the doom. Cast off the sense of impotence.  If individual sacrifice can work in a warring country, it can function in a modern complex democracy.  But we must believe that is so.  And we must prove once again to a troubled world that individuals not only matter, but, in fact, form the vanguard for the hopes of a better democracy.

Alan Hamson (suit and tie) with the Canadian Aid for Southern Sudan team

Between Two Worlds

Posted on January 31, 2018

In a modern hurried-up world, they rank as some of the least understood or acknowledged forces for policy, diplomacy, human justice or humanitarianism.  There are less than 200 of them in a world of billions and inevitably become the face of their country.

I’m speaking of ambassadors.  They are everywhere and nowhere at the same time.  They aren’t the celebrity type, appointed by UNICEF or other vast organizations because of their profile.  Instead, most have gone through years of foreign service training that includes a background in foreign aid, conflict management, military functioning, and communications.

In Canada’s case, our international reputation owes much to the high quality of diplomatic acumen in key regions of the globe, especially during the formative years of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.  If it has slipped somewhat in recent decades, it is largely because of political manipulations that inevitably undercut this most valuable of Canadian assets.

A team of 11 Canadian volunteers have just returned from South Sudan, where, annually, our organization visits to provide support of our women’s programs in that troubled land.  The heroism and inspiration of the region’s women was as always – valiant, collaborative, enduring, sustainable, and, remarkably, hopeful.  All this despite the death of thousands by famine, civil war, a crisis in healthcare, and corruption at high political levels.

One of the key occasions that will remain with our team was our meeting with Canada’s ambassador to South Sudan, Alan Hamson.  The moment we arrived, grubby and fatigued, he was at the door – tall, well-attired and with a kind of familiar efficiency that lent easily to discussion.  The meeting room barely fit us all and many of us found ourselves wondering how someone so pivotal functioned in such a small space.  And yet day after day Hamson and his team somehow navigate the constraints in order to accomplish tasks both great and small.

It was clear from the moment we entered that the ambassador and his team weren’t there for the financial reward or the notoriety.  In simple terms: they endured all the hardships for the sake of their country.  Most were Canadians in a faraway and frequently hostile place so that the Canadian flag itself carried the value of understanding, compassion, a firm belief in global justice, inclusion and tolerance.  Each was skilled in their own particular discipline and had worked hard to get there, despite the hostility of the surroundings and the difficulties endured as part of their work.

The ambassador prodded us, seeking clarification on what was happening in the remote regions of the country where we worked.  He was especially keen on learning of the plight of women in the area and was delighted to hear of their advancement despite the obstacles.  And when we questioned him as to his insights, Hamson was careful to converse within the boundaries of his diplomatic responsibilities – revealing enough to intrigue us with his knowledge yet restrained enough to maintain the confidentiality required to work with all partners in the country.

It became clear to me only a few moments into the meeting that our ambassador to South Sudan was conscious of the reality that he was the key representative by which his own country of Canada would be judged by the locals.  Any thoughtless act would reflect on the Canadians he represented.  Every effort at patient understanding would inevitably hint to others what his home country represented.  Hamson was careful on this point, but not to extent that he wasn’t open.  He spoke of his frustrations and hardships, along with his belief in the average Southern Sudanese citizen, especially women, and their right to reshape their new nation status by their own values.

For Hamson, humanitarianism wasn’t so much an activity as a calling card for Canada itself – including his own reason for being there.  In a land with so high a death and conflict rate, mixed with devastating poverty, a human face and an extended hand can frequently mean more than words.  As he put it in a recent interview:

“The volume of people in a dire humanitarian situation is mind blowing.  Five and half people within the next six months will be facing severe food insecurity.  This will affect half the country’s population.  That’s a staggering number of people who really require a concerted effort from humanitarian agencies to maintain their basic food and nutrients.”

This formed a great part of the reason he wanted to meet with us.  Regardless of our being only a small organization, the fact was the we had been working in the country for two decades and Hamson was thirsty for anything that would enlighten him on the state of the Southern Sudanese themselves and their fight for survival.  He dutifully reminds anyone who will listen that Canada has pledged millions to the humanitarian effort, but it was clear to all of us that more was required if the nation was to endure.

We left the office with increased knowledge of how vital Canada’s foreign service is and how individual servants like Alan Hamson are as vital to our country’s image and effectiveness in the world as any prime minister or corporation.  He willingly accepted us because, for all his professional accomplishments, he is a humanitarian at heart – a man suspended between two worlds.  That was more than enough for us and a badge of honour for our country.


This post can be read in its original National Newswatch format here.

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