In his Inertia Variations, John Tottenham, includes a section called “A View From a Hill,” in which he concludes:
I am not yet quite over it.
I am lying down on top of it.
Surveying behind me a wasteland
Of dried-up promise.
While the lights below twinkle
With dull mocking uncertainty.
There isn’t much left to look forward to,
And the looking forward of the past has been belied.
My family and I had one of those very experiences last week as we visited Ottawa and skated along the Rideau Canal – a family ritual. It had been two years since I had been to my old stomping grounds and I found myself wondering how I’d feel about seeing Parliament Hill once more.
As one might expect, spending five years in such a majestic setting that also doubles as the centre of federal political power could be the stuff dreams are made of. Except for me they weren’t. And from speaking with many of those I spent time with during those years, memories were more nightmarish than anything else.
At one point I looked up at the sheer grandeur of that place, exalted on a prominent hill, and realized again that it didn’t have to be that way. We could have done so much better, and our characters could have been ennobled by public service instead of miniaturized by partisan sniping. It’s no different in the present day. I am presently working on a Huffington Post article about the various government MPs who are retiring who are suddenly calling for respectfulness in Parliament. Where were they when we really needed them on Afghanistan, the financial crisis, missing aboriginal women, poverty, climate change, veteran’s benefits, or even our duty to a better world? We could have used their voice then, but that would have involved a kind of courage that only comes when respect and decency have vanished, and that is in rare supply these days.
There is a great new kid’s movie out called Mr. Peabody and Sherman. It’s a heartfelt story about adoption, family, faithfulness and, ironically, humanity, and one of its chief characters is the WABAC – a time machine that Mr. Peabody has hidden away and which he used to teach Sherman some important personal lessons while going back in history. There were rules required if the WABAC was to keep from being wasted and Sherman ended up breaking one of those principles, wildly altering history in the process.
I thought of the WABAC analogy as I looked up at Parliament, its towers gleaming in the sun and snow. Somehow, in these last decades, we have taken a structure, a centre of political pilgrimage, and abused its place in our collective history. Somehow, recent MPs, including may of the present cohort, have invaded that structure and utilized it in a way that has effectively altered how Canadians view their federalism, their national heritage, even their neighbours. Canada has never been easy to govern, but the judicious use of legislation and the ability to round off the rough corners of our vast nation within Parliament itself kept the wheels on the bus.
We are waking up now to discover that the exacerbated divisions in our nation – rich vs. poor, east vs. west, community vs. community, interest vs. interest, the 99% vs. the 1%, corporations vs. small and medium businesses, provinces vs. feds, every political party vs. every other political party, and people vs. their political representatives – are the result of a Commons so divided that it used its own divisions and desire for power as a means for dividing the nation itself.
I looked at the Parliament Buildings from the vantage point of the Rideau Canal and realized I had likely played my own part in its decline. We all must share the responsibility for failure if we are to share together in any future success. We could have stood up better, and with some steel in our spines. We could have reached across the aisle in search of common goals. We could have shown the kids in the gallery what an effective and functioning democracy really looked like. But we didn’t and in failing to do so we unleashed the dogs of war.
Now a lot of MPs mull about, quietly questioning their lack of decorum or inability to say “no” even to their own party. Thoughts ruminate in their collective mind like those Damon Galgut talks about in his book In a Strange Room: “If I had done this; if I had said that. In the end you are always more tormented by what you didn’t do than what you did – actions already performed can always been rationalized in time. The neglected deed might have change the world.”
Yes, elected representatives living up to their calling might indeed have changed the world – at least our world, and perhaps their own in the House. I observe now as MPs rush to every event they can instead of the one place that is their ultimate responsibility – alone, singular representatives of their constituencies, in the House of Commons, pushing aside partisanship and mean spirit, and standing in the place of principle for the sake of their communities. That would have changed everything.