The challenges were immense, but I took it on as a task of goodwill. We had been asked to assist in the peace negotiations between north and south Sudan, held in Kenya, and mediated by a very able and respected Kenyan ex-general. Taking part in peace exercises in Bangladesh, Ireland and Guatemala provided some training, but this was huge. It had been Africa’s longest-running civil war and everything was on the table – religion, tribalism, race relations, oil, the rights of women, etc. There were to be three rounds of negotiations held over a couple of years – extensive, frustrating, and not a little bit exhausting.
But what else was Canada going to do? We believed in democracy and supported United Nations efforts for decades in countries around the world. It’s what we did best, and everyone knew it.
The initial round was all about labeling, yelling, disrespect, age-old angst, and the absolute inability to find common ground. In the second round, through the thankful intervention of seasoned diplomats, knowledgeable not only about the region but human nature, belligerents were seen to be having coffee in various places inside and outside the host hotel near Nairobi. By the third round the pens were out, the dialogue less heated, compromise more possible. At last the deal was signed, against all odds and expectations – brokered by some very skilled public servants.
This is what we do, right? We assist countries unused to democratic debate, finding the commonalities, or striking a compromise, and remind them that peace and citizenship matter. We have been world experts at it. This is democracy in action – messy, guided, open, but eventually respectful and more dignified than competing sides had experienced.
How is it then that in Canada we are actually moving in the opposite direction? I was in a meeting recently in which people who should have known better accused the government and Stephen Harper of being “evil” and the “enemy.” I have heard the Prime Minister use that language himself on more than one occasion. The hurling of insults across the aisle of Parliament has now become epidemic – no respect, no dignity, no results. And this week in our own City Council chambers one respectful group of citizen protestors watched in dismay as another group took to catcalls, jeering and threatening because the politicians didn’t vote their way. It was shameful conduct for any public space. As was a certain councillor’s delivering a flyer showing Adolph Hitler and likening the Third Reich to people who supported fluoride in the water.
What is going on in Canada? Some will call it rebellion, others change, still others some kind of necessary adjustment. I agree with all three, but when we stop treating fellow citizens or politicians as ends in themselves and only as means to our ends, then we have lost our way as a people. In one of his more memorable speeches, John Kennedy stated, “What is objectionable, what is dangerous about highly opinionated people, is not that they are extreme but that they are intolerant. The evil is not what they say about their cause, but what they say about their opponents.”
I’ve been in public life a long time and I have never seen the public space so tainted by intolerance and the loss of personal dignity. Yes, politics has refused to lead by example; but then again, citizens are doing the same. There is now the feeling afoot in this once more peaceable nation that we have to yell louder, act more stridently, cast dignity and respect out the window if we are to get a hearing or make change. Many of the people holding to this view have turned their back on Martin Luther King Jr.’s counsel to keep away from the cycle of violence and anger, because it will be inevitable that one terrible deed or word will only bring on more of it. This was also one of the main tenets of Gandhi’s life or Mandela’s creed. Are we now at the place where such examples no longer have the power to refine our national character? Are we really so empty as to present them with titles and honourary citizenship and yet refuse their advice.
By honouring Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Winner, for her personal resolve to maintain dignity even during years of house arrest in Burma, the world endorsed a new generation of peace activists and reformers. To hear her utter the phrase, “I do not hold to non-violence for moral reasons, but for political and practical reasons,” is to comprehend that a new age of effective politics will require practical respect for one another.
Canada is quickly becoming a chamber that echoes the voice of the strident over the quiet more modulated tones of Canadians still respectful of the public space and its importance. The best road to revolution is still through the ballot box. Unless those citizens arise and engage in the national dialogue it is only a matter of time until everyone will think everything is hopeless. We will become a stalemate nation rather than a progressive one. We will reach the point where our ears will become eclipsed by our voices.
In my global and domestic experience, only those willing to speak and act respectfully, despite years of war and disappointment, were able to eventually find peace for their people. The irony of Canada passing from a peaceable nation to one consumed by wars of words and disrespect is to turn democracy on its head and slam it into reverse.