On Being Seen
“Will we be seen, by others I mean?” I looked by at the man who had just asked the question, detecting the veiled fear in his gaze.
He is one of the workers locked out of the ElectroMotive plant in London and worry over his family’s future grows with each passing day. It was actually his wife who had phoned me, asking if I would meet the two of them at a small restaurant near the plant itself. She had been pressing her husband to make that call for days, but when he just couldn’t do it she took the initiative for the sake of their two kids. They wanted to talk about how they would access the food bank because that time was drawing near. Their emergency pay during the lockout was slightly over $200 a week and they had no idea how to pay the mortgage or maintain the payments on their van. Worse still, they were running out of ideas of how to feed their young children.
What would you say to them? How would you handle it, or try to provide hope in what is clearly at deeply painful situation? He was rightfully worried about being seen by others when they came to our building. The two of them were going through the process of middle-class decline and degradation. The husband and father wouldn’t look at me, and why should he? Decisions about his life were being made by some CEO living in another country. It was his wife’s courage, brought on by concern for her family, that prompted the meeting.
I went through the prospect of how things would proceed at the food bank, reminding them that they weren’t the first of the workers to approach me in this regard as the food bank’s director. I hugged her in the parking lot and she wouldn’t let go, apologizing for putting me in this situation. When I shook the man’s hand, he finally raised his eyes to me with a look I still can’t determine. “Thanks man, for being there for my kids,” was all he said.
Like it or not, that look caused a mild fear in me. It wasn’t alarm about whether we would have enough resources at the London Food Bank to help folks like this – the London public is notoriously generous. No, I felt the fear, and even a bit of nostalgia, at witnessing the decline of a way of life, of the passing of the progressive middle-class.
One of the things that really irked the wife was that government MPs had purposefully kept away from the workers. She couldn’t comprehend it. Perhaps it’s time to concur that she has a point. Three of the four MPs in my community are Conservative – a critical mass of political representation that should clearly carry some clout. There have been criticisms by many this past week concerning the detached nature of the government MP’s comments on the situation.
I know two of the three government MPs and they are good folks. But they’re facing their own lockout – the inability to reach out to those who elected them. What keeps them from at least visiting the workers? Is it fear of reprisal? Fear of the PMO? Or just fear of their inability to actually find a solution? To watch them continue to portray the situation as merely as a provincial problem is something painful to witness. This isn’t about jurisdiction but a community in pain and confusion. It’s not like the recent election, where they refused to attend debates and face the voters. That was about citizens who just didn’t care enough about politics anymore to vote. The MPs secured their victory through the demise of democracy. This is different. It’s about humanity, about recognizing pain in the community and being there for those going through it, regardless of whether you can do anything about it or not. It’s about caring for your neighbour, not protecting your position.
It remains a remarkable thing to behold, when hundreds or perhaps thousands are visiting the workers with various forms of encouragement, but federal representatives refuse to follow their lead. No wonder federal politics seems so irrelevant at present. They could have accomplished more by spending $50 for coffee and taking it to the line than by blaming the province.
Aristotle put it succinctly: “When the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty.” Right now in our community there is fear enough to go around, including the fear of MPs to just be there for their people in a difficult situation. So here’s a promise to those government representatives trapped in their own reticence. Visit these workers and many of us from all parties will be there with you and thank you for at least showing your concern in tangible fashion. This is your town too and we’ll back you up for at least being there. We know solutions in such things are expensive, but compassion is free and liberates us from our fears. That mother in the restaurant at least deserves that much from democracy. She needs to be seen, as does her entire family.