The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Being Real

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THE WHOLE THING DIDN’T GO AS PLANNED. The de facto Republican leader, Donald Trump, was supposed to be an also-ran, largely purged from the primaries by early 2016. For Hilary Clinton and the Democrats, it was supposed to resemble something of a coronation. Yes, there was Bernie Sanders, the elderly statesman from Vermont, but, like Trump, was supposed to be out of the race months ago. As we near the conventions of both parties, each is experiencing an identity crisis of major proportions.

There’s a reason why millions of young people have signed up for the Sander’s campaign. Spotting in him someone who has maintained the ideals of his youth, they see in him as a mentor, a guide into the complex future that surely lies ahead.

The trouble is that the American political establishment, in seeing Sander’s policies as hopelessly naïve, have painted that younger generation with a brush that has turned them against the “politics as usual” camp in droves.

At the root of it all is Sander’s pursuit of a more equitable and just nation. Given the economic and social fallout following the Great Recession, it’s hardly any wonder that citizens are looking for something different, something … fair. To such individuals Sanders appears like the real deal, someone whose entire life was acted out in accordance with the social justice principles he maintains today. Yes, he was thrown into a police paddywagon for demonstrating against racial bigotry decades ago. Yes, when he ran for mayor of Vermont’s largest city, Burlington, he was regarded as naïve and simplistic. Yet he won the contest (by a mere 10 votes), going on to win three more elections. But what’s important here wasn’t his popularity but his social victories in a time of almost universal economic restraint elsewhere. The city advanced in affordable housing, progressive taxation, women’s rights, and environmental reforms.

Does that sound like some unrealistic leader? In many ways he has more political experience that most of the people mocking him. While everyone keeps talking about jobs, jobs, jobs, Sander’s record in Burlington left the city with an unemployment rate of 2.6% – lower than any other place in the United States. His record while in office on women’s rights and advancement has been recognized, as was his ability to bring economic renewal to Burlington.

These kinds of accomplishments, as listed in Wikipedia and his website, say something specific about the man: he speaks with experience and accomplishment. And it’s that authenticity, and not just his words, that cause millions to see in him, his grey hair waving around in all directions at his outdoor rallies, as someone who’s actually done what he’s calling on America to do.

Author May Sarton once wrote that, “We have to dare to be ourselves, however frightening or strange that self may prove to be.” The reality is, of course, that it’s the political establishment, the power brokers, and the financial barons, who label him frightening and strange, not the millions of others who find in Sanders someone with a rugged and transparent authenticity and who respond to him with in commitment, not fear.

Mississippi Senator, Roger Wicker, a Republican, not a Democrat, said of Sanders:

“I learned early on not to be automatically dismissive of a Bernie Sanders initiative or amendment. He’s tenacious and dogged and he has determination, and he not to be underestimated.”

What makes this elder but dynamic statesman so powerful at the moment, however, is not just his experience or courage, but the effect he creates within his listeners. Since when is seeking change a “naïve” quality? Justin Trudeau proved it to be a powerful political dynamic north of the border and Sanders has been battling for the same thing long before our present prime minister was born.

This isn’t a blog post about supporting Bernie Sanders, but about getting “real” people into office and then helping them stay that way. Whether people agree or not, he has kept his character intact and people see through it to a greater world. There probably isn’t a person in Congress right now who wouldn’t give anything to have that level of credibility. Naïve, my foot.

A National Tragedy

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WE ALL COME FROM SOMEPLACE – NOT JUST PHYSICALLY, but emotionally and psychologically. For many, such origins involve pain, sadness, even trauma. Some of them take the inner turmoil and turn it outward, inflicting pain on others as a way of dealing with their own. But others pull that pain inward and become prisoners in their own world.

The latter point is important if we wish to begin to comprehend the recent slate of youth suicides in our aboriginal, metis, and First Nations communities. We watch in horror upon hearing of the suicide pact reach recently in the Attawapiskat First Nation community and confess our utter inability to either comprehend or provide solace in such a situation. Recently in an interview with the Huffington Post, Dr. Rod McCormick, an indigenous mental health expert, spoke directly to this issue of inner trauma:

“There’s a lot of unresolved trauma and unresolved grief and loss. A lot of people in the community are containing their pain and emotions through drugs and alcohol, through disassociating, and sometimes all it takes is one trigger when people are vulnerable.  It could relate to childhood trauma; there’s abuse that occurs, be it physical or sexual.”

For young people especially, that sense of a lack of belonging, of alienation, of being misunderstood can be an awful thing to overcome. And so, in their pain, they attempt to take their own lives – a national tragedy.

This is all just another way of saying that where these troubled individuals and communities come from very much determines how they might see the world. For example, they all, to greater degree or less, have lived under the shadow of Canada’s Indian Act. Enacted in 1876, this Act was to determine how the rest of the country interacted with the indigenous communities, if at all. Here are just a few examples of what it contained according to the Working Effectively With Indigenous Peoples blog:

  • Reserves were instituted and residential schools introduced
  • Given new European names to replace their historic ones
  • Any part of indigenous reserves could be used for anything the government saw fit, such as roads, railroads, waterway diversion, etc.
  • Informed indigenous peoples that they couldn’t form political bodies
  • Forbade communities from speaking their own language
  • Denied women status and forbade any indigenous person from voting

Some of these clauses were amended in the ensuing years, but this is where our original people came from and it has defined them for generations. Any of us brought up under such limitations and outright prejudicial racism would likely have turned inward as well and felt cut off from all that we might value. In such a world, suicide can become a cultural phenomenon, and that just what has transpired in places like Attawapiskat.

When asked his thoughts on systemic racism, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said tersely: “No human race is superior; no religious faith is inferior. All collective judgments are wrong. Only racists make them”

Tough words, but historically accurate. It’s one thing to hold racist tendencies but be unaware of it. It’s another thing altogether, especially in an era of supposed intellectual awareness, to allow such blindness in our own time. We all share the guilt. We must all share in making it right.

What’s a City For?

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THE IMPOSSIBLE OFTEN HAS A KIND OF INTEGRITY which the merely improbable lacks,” wrote Douglas Adams. Sounds great, but what does it mean exactly? For cities and communities, understanding this distinction is pivotal to assessing themselves. It is why the impossible will always hold greater appeal in our lives.

We all know that the things we value most also cost the most – it’s what makes them treasures. Raising children, making marriage work, building a successful business, excelling at the arts, saving the environment, or overcoming mental illness – all of these take effort and loads of it. Why, then, should building a valuable city be any different? If we’re going to go cheap, then we might as well pack it up.

Just ask Rick Cole, city manager in Santa Monica, California, and he’ll tell you that if where you live can’t produce a collective sense of wellbeing or hope in the future then the battle is already lost. There’s a reason why cities are increasingly emerging at the forefront of anything to do with change, like the fields of business, democracy, lifestyle, social justice, equity and equality. It could be because they know they are going to die if they don’t start showing leadership, and quickly.

Cole was educated on all the usual disciplines associated with city management and understands the propensity for bureaucrats to concentrate on limiting crime, zoning, building codes, and property taxes. But, really, are those the reasons we live where we do? Cole is the new breed of city manager who believes that a city must function on the values its citizens possess as opposed to merely managing creature comforts. And so he makes a simple suggestion: start from scratch. Don’t just go along with the decisions constructed by earlier generations, but decipher what it is your collective citizenry values in the moment.

Cole’s enthusiasm on this is infectious, especially to citizens, as when he exudes, “We should be in the business of community wellbeing. What we’re talking about it breathtaking.” You don’t hear city managers talk like that a lot, if ever, because something that’s “breathtaking” usually costs, and bureaucrats and civic politicians alike prefer to dwell in the realm of the “doable” and the “manageable.”

Cole compares cities to institutions that fall into a state of decline simply because they attempted to prolong the same old, same old. All of the efforts and practices that use to work in a functioning city are no longer sufficient, and the quicker cities understand that, the quicker they can begin their renaissance and recovery.

Following Cole’s guidance, Santa Monica took on a huge survey of its inhabitants and quickly discovered that fewer than half got any kind of exercise. Nearly one-third felt they were always in stress. Less than 50% talked to their neighbours. And 40% felt that they didn’t have any voice in their community and that the powers-that-be wouldn’t listen to them anyway. City leaders were stunned. It was an admission that just doing the same things the same way their elders had was now leading to the breakdown of community. It wasn’t about taxes, houses, roads, or material goods; it was about the mental health of the city’s inhabitants, and that would require a city plan unlike anything they had ever attempted before.

Part of the problem was that people were looking for more than what the old management structures could provide and were feeling the strain of underachievement. Citizens were dreaming at the same time their leaders were incrementally managing and it was killing them. They were now looking at Santa Monica the way that a new couple looks at their first home – a place full of life, possibility, a future, and things of value. It had become Cole’s job to lay out a plan to get them there.

The city manager’s plans received a boost when Santa Monica mayor, Tony Vazquez, made the theme of this year’s State of the City speech, “Get Things Done.” And so this California city has embarked on a new direction, one driven by reaching for the things that are of a costlier nature but filled with the stuff dreams are made of.

John Helliwell, of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, puts it plainly: “Just to focus on economic growth is to miss critical aspects of human life.” There is the old saying that dreams should be bigger than our fears, and that’s still holds true. But it’s a new era, with a whole new set of challenges and opportunities, and perhaps we could also add that the dreams of city dwellers should always be bigger than mere budgets or business plans.

Politics Without the Politics

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Read this post on National Newswatch here.

IN IRONIC FASHION, POLITICS IS SEEING a resurgence in Canada – not the kind that swirls around professional political parties but the kind which inevitably finds its way in discussions in coffee shops, among neighbours and employees, even between parents and their high school or university-aged kids. It’s not the rants between partisans that we have grown so used to and rejected, but open conversations about all those aspects of citizenship that we must live out together.

There was a time not all that long ago when people pined for this true essence of democracy. It’s been some time coming. Politics had become what citizens saw on television, and in social media, or encountered with indifferent bureaucracies, negative campaigning, and partisans raising their fists across the aisle at their opponents.

Nevertheless, while we look for the end of blind hostilities, the same can’t be said for the things the political class continues to scrap over. Climate change matters to us, as does education, healthcare, poverty, joblessness, and the need to better provide for our children. And, surprisingly perhaps, we yet look to politics to assist in solving those problems – just not the dysfunctional sort we encounter in Question Period. We are intelligent enough to know that it is politics itself that is meant to draw us together in times of national and international challenge. And so we refuse to give up on the political options as citizens that were meant to appeal to the better angels of our collective nature.

We have been through decades of hearing that government itself has been the cause of our discontent. It’s a narrative that has resonated with Canadians because we see the results in our national distemper, our decaying infrastructure, our growing inequities, and our almost absolute lack of dealing with a natural environment that is itself in crisis.

Yet now, with the devastating fires in Fort McMurray, we understand once again why politics is important. Even those who traditionally rail against government intervention are now requesting assistance from every political level and are demanding that parties refuse to be partisan about it.

Flint, Michigan, has recently endured its own catastrophe with the defilement of its water. While the Republican candidates for president were campaigning for smaller government, the people of Flint called on them to visit the area and see exactly what leaner and incompetent government had created. And then President Obama came to the city, providing an able defense on why citizens require a politics that is bigger than mere individual pursuits. As reported in Politicususa, Obama mused:

“It doesn’t matter how hard you work, how responsible you are, how you raise your kids. You can’t set up a whole water system for a city. That’s not something you do by yourself. You do it with other people. There are things we have to do together, basic things that we all benefit from. Volunteers don’t build water systems and keep lead from leaching into our drinking glasses. We can’t rely on faith groups to reinforce bridges and repave runways at the airport. We can’t ask second graders to raise enough money to keep our kids healthy. These are the most basic services. There’s no more basic element sustaining human life than water. It’s not too much to expect for all Americans that their water is going to be safe.”

Wrapping up, Obama exhorted, “We’ve got to fix the culture of neglect.” Who can deny it? The issue isn’t about big or small government, but effective and capable leadership and management. That takes resources, a focus on the essentials, and the kind of partisanship that clarifies the issue, as opposed to burying it under enmity.

Canadians aren’t fools, blindly believing that their democracy is enhanced by hamstringing government. But neither do they accept party promises that if people would only vote for them and turn over to them the keys of power that their lot will naturally be improved. They expect a politics that actually works. Should that transpire, then they are willing to accept that government has a vital and activating place in their collective life.

This country has progressed for 150 years, not through ideological belief but practical co-existence. What the political parties see as “politics” Canadians choose to view as people working together in collaborative fashion to keep a remarkably decentralized country together. Enact those principles and citizens will be prepared to let effective government back into their collective life as a catalyst for progress and management.

Cities are Rebuilding Faith in Government

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IT HAS BECOME A PERSISTENT NARRATIVE, especially during the American primary season south of the border – politics is broken. There will be those who argue the opposite, but in the minds of most citizens north or south of the 49th parallel something has gone wrong in our politics and we feel it for a certainty. Yes, a cruel partisanship has gripped the political class for years. Yes, our deeper problems remain insufficiently addressed as an uncertain future moves into our collective life. But perhaps the greatest cause of the present disillusionment has been the growing distance citizens have experienced from the kind of society they would seek for themselves and their children.

Maybe that’s changing. While America fights through its own political wars for change, the feeling for many in Canada is that change has begun with the last election and we now have to see if it’s all just rhetoric or if it will stick.

Yet for cities in both countries, change and innovation have been part of the political dynamic for a number of years. In the process, people are regaining a certain level of trust in government again, but primarily at the local level, where they live and where they can more easily spot the progress. Citizens and politicians are discovering together that renewal is more easily generated the closer it comes to cities themselves.

The desire for progress following twenty years of austerity didn’t emerge out of some mere whim but from municipal streets and houses, businesses and non-profits, the arts and the poorer districts – anywhere where years of failure to invest have left obvious effects in the economies and hopes of people.

It was previously believed that cities were more or less outside of those larger economic and structural arenas where the feds and the provinces played. Often content to get the scraps from the table following any budget season, cities had to cobble together what they could while waiting for the larger players to pay attention.

Times have changed, and communities are fed up with waiting or merely being carriers of water. They wish to lead and to get the senior jurisdictions to pay more attention. “The most pathetic person in the world is someone who has sight but no vision,” said Helen Keller. The same can be said for cities. Yet there is a stirring in communities around the world that links hope with vision, and not with mere pragmatic decisions of management or budgets. People want to actually live politics in its true democratic sense instead of just talking about it or fighting over it. They choose not to play at it or get partisan over it; they just want to practice it.

This goes even deeper. Citizens are coming to the realization that the modern pressures they face actually come from a lack of community, not just from the shortcomings of Ottawa or a provincial capital. And so they look for solutions locally – an extremely practical response. They see planning as an extension of vision and not the other way around. Citizens are putting everything on table: taxes, expensive infrastructure investments, joining the Smart City movement, and demanding collaboration from their politicians.

This is about government and our belief in its potential, not merely its pragmatism. Mere rhetoric just won’t cut it. Citizens are now seeking the tools that can assist them to build their collective dreams instead of leaving it to others to maybe get around to it at some future time. Cities are their “dream places” not someone else’s, and they are just at the beginning of a renewed citizen dynamic. They desire to be engaged in the spirit of John Lennon: “A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality.” Politics is now in the process of getting real.

 

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