The Five-Year Lesson
Interesting day yesterday. My wife Jane read me a Toronto Star story about two 73 year-old men who got into an embarrassing tussle on the eve of this year’s Grey Cup battle in Vancouver. Watching this CBC video later in the morning, I was surprised to discover one of the belligerents was Joe Kapp, former BC Lions quarterback who helped the team to win the Grey Cup in 1963.
Few remember it now but Kapp used to be the quarterback for the Calgary Stampeders just prior to his Vancouver sojourn. I was 10 years old at the time and the mascot for the team. Back then football players didn’t make much and Joe Kapp lived at our house beside the stadium during the season. He was my hero. This picture is of Joe, my mother, and me in 1960 (notice the #11). I traveled with the team, picking up a lot of football skills in the process. When he left for Vancouver a couple of years later, I was disconsolate.
Kapp went on to greatness. He was the key quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings in the NFL, even taking the team to the Super Bowl. For many he is remembered for his stint in Hollywood and his role in the Burt Reynold’s film The Longest Yard. So to read of his behaviour and to see it was a bit disillusioning. It’s not at all as I remember him over the years we were together – he was a real gentleman and a great professional.
And then it was five years ago yesterday I had won the by-election for the federal Parliament. I hadn’t wanted to run but my wife thought it was the right thing for what we believed in and the look of joy on her face that night remains with me still. For the greatest person I’ve ever met to feel proud of me … well, let’s just say it meant a lot to me.
And then the thoughts of those difficult years in the House of Commons introduced a shadow to my recollections. For almost five years we couldn’t seem to provide a place where the public could feel confidence or even respect for those administering their affairs. Citizens could neither find a place for their civic activity in Ottawa, nor a voice for that civility in their representatives. Under our oversight (and I was a part of it), politics became almost exclusively the field of the professionals and citizenship became even more a private pursuit. As a result, Canadians withdrew into themselves, their anger, and their frustration, and, sadly, into their prejudices.
For almost five years I watched the “commons” almost vanish from the House of Commons and in its place was mere partisan staging. Democracy quickly descended into tribalism, the common cause descended into mutual contempt. While experts debated consequences, Canadians watched answers to our greatest challenges dissipate to mere bromides. The government played favourites among competing private groups rather than upholding basic citizens’ rights to be involved in those decisions that directly affected them. In my time I observed as our communities became ever more distant from their national capital.
Yet five years also revealed one clear and unmistakable reality to me: despite massive public cynicism, there existed a burgeoning hunger for civic engagement and the responsibility for self-direction. I quickly learned that the vacuum left by the retreat of senior government forces was steadily being filled by average people anxious for their own participation and the promise of a better future for their children. For all of our problems as a nation, and the fears that ensued, a new and dynamic civic energy stirred.
It was a delightful discovery, blemished by only one great flaw – there was no place for citizens nationally to find their place together. Many Canadians continued to fight old partisan fights that merely carried the sins of the past into our difficulties of the present. We need to put that aside and find a place of our own. It could be in our communities or in our dealings with one another, but it must be expansively created before the pure democratic spirit is diminished to the point of hopelessness. We require literal and philosophical places where we can engage in openness and a willingness to learn as opposed to entrenchment and this endless compulsion to lecture.
So here I am, back in my community five years later, where it began and where I first cut my teeth on local life and respect for my fellow citizens. When I read Tom Clark’s piece yesterday about how terrible Question Period had become, I didn’t despair as I had when I held a ringside seat. There are many good politicians in Ottawa who can do precious little in the way of public betterment because of hyper partisanship but who witness every weekend in their home constituencies democracy struggling to re-establishment itself. The trick is to open Ottawa up to their influence and to permit our communities to lead our country once more.
For this there must be respect, always respect. Given the unfortunate display of my old friend Joe Kapp and the declining scale of civility in Ottawa, it is only through the recapturing of the public place through decency, respect and civility that we find our way forward. After five remarkable and confounding years, it is my greatest lesson.