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YESTERDAY WAS MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. DAY, so we spent some time watching his “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, only three months before John F. Kennedy was slain. The rhythm and passion of his phrases still struck deep chords. He wasn’t trying merely to reconcile various groups of people, but was striving for a world that had a more equitable future.

It’s only proper that we appoint special days to remind us of our ideals and what we believe to be our greatest aspirations, but there’s a difference between honouring someone and participating in changing the world by following in their footsteps. Some people like King and his wife, Coretta, naturally accomplished that, but for the rest of us it is a constant effort to get outside of our own worlds and into the broader one that requires our participation more than anything else.

In his speech King reminded all of us that acts of charity must be angled towards justice and real systemic change if they are to be truly effective. He talked about taking political actions in order to change public policy. As his wife reminded millions not that many years ago, an important part of her husband’s “dream” was ending poverty through societal reformation. When he spoke of his children living in a world at peace with those who don’t judge others by the colour of their skin, it wasn’t some mere sentiment but a plan of action that ultimately cost him his life.  Yet he chose to insert himself into the political debate of his day at a cost of great personal insecurity.

The difficulties in these present days must remind us again and again that it is never enough to have leaders; there must also be co-dreamers. And it is never enough to only dream of a personal world, but of a collective one that strives for justice for all people, in every nation.

One of my great friends in Parliament during my tenure there was Carolyn Bennett, now Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs. In a recent interview she was asked how she would know that she had been successful after taking on such an important file. She could have talked about full health on reserves, open education for all indigenous people, or a successful conclusion to the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women file. Instead she noted that she would feel truly successful when the average Canadian finally understood the great collective injustice against our indigenous brothers and sisters and had sought to alter their own inactions in order to bring about a better day.  You can listen to that remarkable interview here.

She was right, and so was Dr. King. Our ultimate goal must be to change ourselves, to arc our actions towards justice, self-reflection, and personal transformation.

The picture at the top of this post talks about “witnessing” the dream, but that is never enough. We must be active participants in making it happen, of being witnesses “to” that ideal but taking our own personal risks at shaping a better future.

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter,” King said. Well, right now, there are things that really matter before us and no leader, no Prime Minister or President, will change our future unless we participate and shape it ourselves – policy without people is just a platform. Or, as King better put it: “The ultimate measure of a man or woman is not where they stand in moments of comfort and convenience, but in times of challenge and controversy.” It is never enough to just witness the change; we must be energized witnesses within it.