It’s in the nature of living that we grow accustomed to thinking of our daily activities in cyclical fashion. Given the length of history, it is amazing how this circular existence only gave way to concepts of progress in recent centuries. For millennia – since the beginning of written history – human communities thought of themselves, not as moving forward in progressive steps into the unknown, but actually as functioning within familiar cycles.
The most basic way our ancient ancestors discerned the passage of time was through the movement of the seasons – spring, summer, fall, and winter. Our communities structured themselves around those changes of the climate. Religious festivals followed the seasons. Then the movements of the moon began figuring in prominently in their concepts of time. The years were renewed by lunar and solar cycles. Only with the emergence of the Renaissance did people in Europe begin to comprehend that human actions could actually alter the course of history.
This opened new worlds and possibilities for average people and their institutions. When it became clear that this year could be different from last through human invention and intuition, cycles gave way to progress as a possibility. It took time, but even the average person came to understand that they could improve themselves, and, by extension, their community. Eventually the word revolution entered the citizen lexicon. The fact that people could opt to change their circumstances through joint effort took time to take root, but once it did the world would never be the same.
All this is important when we consider the state of the modern Canadian community. As our towns became larger, progress seemed our faithful and permanent friend. Money was more readily available. More than one hospital was built. Commercial stores flourished. Homes became affordable. Credit seemed almost free to obtain. We watched revolutions and rebellions around the world germinate, explode, and result in new political orders, even new nations. But that was them, not us.
We were beginning to settle into our cycles – elections, budgets, hockey season, first stay of school, Christmas shopping, Canada Day celebrations, etc. It was comfortable, even heady, and it lasted for decades. We seemed to have the best of history – cycles and familiarity, coupled with progress and change. We were slow to awaken to the reality that our communities were no longer progressing, that job loss and poverty were now prevalent realities that refused to go away following a recession. Businesses were closing up, moving away, or both. Our children were staying at home longer, even if they possessed university or college degrees. Civic deficits were growing and senior levels of government began moving off from our accumulated troubles.
Almost every community is now waking up to the consciousness that the days of easy progress are now behind us. Like our ancestors, we are enduring a troubling phase falling between the end of familiarity and before we arise to press for change. But as the seasons pass and progress seems farther away than ever, citizens begin fighting for certain issues that they wish addressed – more jobs, an endless to homelessness, environment reform. Historically, it’s a familiar refrain, but for us it’s still relatively new and we haven’t yet developed the instinct for revolutionary change.
But it is coming. Inevitably the desire to have certain issues addressed will be transcended, almost overpowered, by a desire for wholesale change across the civic spectrum.
At some point we will realize that we cannot bring about effective community metamorphosis until we fight to transform the political arrangements between communities, the provinces, and the federal government. We live in cities; policy formation exists separately in parliaments, and it is inevitable that we will desire to bring these together.
And there will be another revelation, as when we realize the desire for a better community isn’t coming from without, but within. Our love for our children, our care for our neighbour, our desire for progress recaptured – these will spring from our own values, for our own desires for a world of our own making. We awake to the discovery that our decades-long penchant for materialism somehow left us distracted and incapable of securing advancement for those places where we live.
All this might seem a long way from citizen engagement and effective politics, but in fact it is essential if either is to emerge. Still locked in the cyclical stage of community life, our eyes are opening to the reality that we are at the lowest rung of the ladder in the political establishment. Only by demanding our right to direct our own communities will the dynamic change. Changing cities is one thing; altering their status within political arrangements with other levels is quite another. For us to be free, our cities must be free to pursue their course – not through striking their own path, but through acquiring empowerment in the present political construct.