The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Category: Non-partisanship

Payette Speech Should Spark Serious Reflection

Read this post in its original London Free Press format here.

Her speech was bound to raise the ire of many, but when Governor General Julie Payette spoke to the respected Canadian Science Policy Centre convention two weeks ago it’s likely she was unaware of the response it would generate. Yet, she’s been dealing with it ever since.

Before proceeding further, I should declare that I had penned a National Newswatch article following her appointment that praised Payette’s selection, revelled in her life of remarkable accomplishments, and concluded that she was, indeed, a woman of her times. I should also state that I’m a person of religious faith who rejoices in her scientific advancements. Yet, after viewing her speech a number of times, I grew to understand how she got into some hot water.

It was likely the seemingly mocking tone in her words that set some off, as when she noted, “We are still debating and still questioning whether life was a divine intervention or whether it was coming out of a natural process, let alone, oh my goodness, a random process.” I don’t suppose her eye roll helped matters.

Almost immediately the Internet and traditional media sources were fired up with opinions, pro and con, that soon enough descended to personal attacks regarding this remarkable woman. Regardless of which side of this issue people land on, there are some things that should prompt serious reflection. Let’s consider some of the context of the Canada Payette represents.

According to a 2015 Angus Reid poll, two-thirds of Canadians believe in God, with some 53% maintaining that, “God is active in the world.” To describe these millions as deluded and ignorant is perhaps one of the most un-Canadian things we can do. And what of the refugees and immigrants who have come to this land in recent times, the majority of whom cherish a deep and abiding faith that saw them through some of the most horrendous events we can imagine? First Nations spirituality remains one of the most powerful and respected forces in Canada – a set of beliefs that has assisted them in enduring the isolation they have known for centuries. Are we implying that they just don’t get it? Because if we are, I’m not sure our current variety of secular liberalism has turned us into those “kind” and “tolerant” Canadians the world respects. All this isn’t taking into account the many scientists, health professionals and researchers who see their personal religious faith as one of the “drivers” for their desire to better humanity.

Yes, various religions have committed immoral acts, but then again, some of the most brutal experiments on humans, in war and peace, have been committed in the name of science. Humanity is a complex reality and oversimplifications benefit neither religion, science or democracy.

A few days after Payette’s speech, I spoke at a multi-cultural event in London where a number of questions were raised concerning her words. Some present had been in this country for less than two years and were left to wonder if denying religion was an official Canadian policy since it came from an esteemed Canadian figure. The concerns were real enough since many had escaped their countries of origin, in part because of persecution for their kind of religious faith. They perceived Canada as a nation with open arms and hearts capable of accepting their sentiments and appreciating the richness newcomers brought to this nation. One woman from Pakistan asked if Payette’s words meant that things have changed.

Of course they haven’t. And we can be certain that our Governor General never meant anything of the kind and is likely devastated that her words carried weight she didn’t comprehend. This is her first month in office and she will become an effective voice for all Canadians and not just for those she agrees with. We see what happens when someone is elected to political office and then spends their tenure only rewarding those who supported them as opposed to, perhaps, the majority who didn’t. It’s cheap politics and a deep slight to inclusive democracy. Payette understands this and just happened to have a rocky beginning.

The real spotlight should be on all of us. Do we truly accept those who recently arrived in Canada or those who inhabited the land before we even got here? If so, then we have to come to see that their religious and spiritual persuasions are every bit as vital as our foundation of science. Canada is big enough for both, and it’s time we started living that truth as well.

No Labels

It was bound to occur at some point, but the emergence of the group called No Label became inevitable even years ago as the hper-partisanship of Washington D.C. began to systematically tear down many of the accomplishments and hopes established in America following World War Two.

No Label is a group of Republican, Democrat and Independent lawmakers and supporters committed to the simple premise that it’s time for politics to get off its devolving cycle and start functioning effectively again. As the group put it in one of their press released:

“We understand that there are real philosophical differences between Democrats and Republicans, and we don’t expect anyone to check their principles at the door. But we do expect our elected officials to replace the politics of partisan point-scoring with the politics of productive problem-solving.”

The rationale behind the movement is a simple but clear one: citizens have had enough and no longer trust their government to solve their greatest challenges and problems. The group launched back in 2010, recognizing even back then that the madness had already gone on far too long. Now, years later, its need has become even more pronounced. They have asked citizens to join the movement, while at the same recognizing that the current president and Congress might have to be swept away before the real reform can begin.

At present, the group includes over 70 what they term as “bipartisan” members – evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. Understanding that Donald Trump has no interest in supporting their efforts, the group produced a hopeful paper titled The Policy Playbook for America’s Next President. Inside of five years, No Labels has signed up over half a million supporters from all states and established student chapters on 100 college campuses.

The problems with initiatives like this is that what sounds great on paper is often impossible to deliver on, and people become cynical as a result. Yet perhaps the process is the important aspect here – dozens of lawmakers seeking to work out their differences, even enduring opposition from their own parties, is itself a remarkable thing in a Trump and divided Congress era. Perhaps it’s about preparing the field for future harvest instead of being overrun by weeds. If so, then No Labels spells hope in a darkening era, even for Canada’s growing grumpy Parliament and provincial assemblies.

Payette’s Appointment Breaks New Ground – Again

As appointments go, the choice of Julie Payette as Canada’s new Governor General was figuratively out of this world. The former astronaut had completed two missions to the space station and spent seven years as the Canadian Space Agency’s chief astronaut. But her qualifications were far more wide ranging: speaking six languages, commercial pilot, a computer engineer, and active participant in numerous social causes.

Yet there was one key component to add to the appeal of the 53-year old from Montreal and it was pivotal: Payette perfectly fit Canada’s present view of itself. The almost universal testimonials to her appointment were proof enough of that reality and the celebrations prompted by the announcement spoke to our own collective view of present-day Canada in the midst of a troubled world.

This country has a history of doing the unexpected when it comes to the Governor General selection. Two of the last three Governors General were women and each played a dynamic role in presenting a Canadian face that was acceptable not only for domestic consumption but for international appeal. Payette appears more than ready to break new ground in the pattern of Adrienne Clarkson and Michelle Jean, not to mention David Johnson, who preceded her. Their appointments were a tribute, not only the remarkable individuality of these leaders, but to a nation that discerned in them a reflection of itself.

In recent months I’ve been authoring a thematic study of John Buchan, one of John F, Kennedy’s favourite authors, and Canada’s 15th Governor General (1935-1940). Even in those pivotal years as we entered World War Two Canada was willing to break the mould. His appointment created a sensation when it was reported that he was the first commoner ever selected for the position (he was actually the second). Rather than some kind of convenient placeholder from the British House of Lords, as was the tradition, Buchan was an internationally acclaimed author – his most famous work being Thirty-Nine Steps, a spy thriller later made into two major movies.

But Buchan was more than a wordsmith. He worked for the British government in South Africa, oversaw Britain’s spies in World War One, was a Member of Parliament for Scottish universities, an avid adventurer, and a successful businessman and publisher. What Canada was getting in those formative years was an appointee that transcended politics. This was Canada’s first great challenge to the British parliament in saying that it wanted to choose its own Governor General – breaking the historical pattern of selection only by the monarch of England.

Buchan travelled Canada extensively, especially First Nations communities, and fought for the right of individual groups to have their own identities recognized by both government and citizens. After spending years writing on the uniqueness of Canada’s character prior to his appointment, Buchan then began to build on what he had written and helped to transform Canada in the process.

As the appointment of Buchan revealed, and as Payette’s selection affirms, this country loves those individual leaders who are larger than life. When author Brian Moore wrote of the Canada he knew in the 1960s, he spoke honestly: “Walls, both physical and political, have always partitioned this enormous land, turning its citizens’ gaze inward.” Yet our selection of Governors General, especially in recent years, has blown the lid off that assessment. Jean was a refugee who came to Canada from Haiti. Clarkson became a dynamic journalist after arriving from Hong Kong. David Johnson was a brilliant academic and university leader. These last three Governors General alone defy our collective parochialism and domestic preoccupations.

And now we have an astronaut/humanitarian/engineer/francophone/musician/pilot and athlete about to take up residence in Rideau Hall and reflecting the dynamism of a modern nation that is in the process of discovering its role in a changing world. Having orbited the planet some 400 times, Payette’s view of Canada has been of its position within a larger context. For the next few years this remarkably able woman will have the privilege of showing us our own uniqueness and potential in that world. The timing couldn’t have been more fitting.

It’s Called Civil Society For a Reason

This post can be viewed in its original National Newswatch format here.

Numerous insights have been written in recent years regarding the eroding effect of partisanship on the political estate, most recently in America. That’s too bad because it’s a red herring and frequently masks what is the real underlying cause of political dysfunction. The fact that individuals hold opinions often at odds with others and support parties of various convictions has been essential to both the spirited and fluid nature of democracy itself.

Others feel differently. Writing recently in Fusion, American commentator Hamilton Nolan went so far as to say that those who profess to be non-partisan are surely part of our present problem. The title of his article speaks for itself: “Bipartisanship Means I Don’t Understand What Politics Is.” Bipartisanship is all too often an excuse from preserving the status quo, he believes, and the refusal to address America’s deepest problems – violence, poverty, racism, elitism. He believes not everything can be solved by compromise, and he has a point. Yet he maintains that many of those who seek such compromise are “moral monsters” and that those who call for more civility in politics are, in reality, “obscene.”

It’s easy to understand where Nolan is coming from, even as we consider the Canadian context. Why is it, for example, that no matter who holds the reins of power in Ottawa child poverty remains stubbornly high, that efforts to battle climate change are hardly sufficient, that gender equality is slow to achieve, or that Canadians remain disillusioned between political promise and effective performance? These are valid queries and deserve deeper consideration.

But to say that they endure because of bipartisanship or civility is something of a stretch. Civility lies at the very essence of effective politics, and as long as it is practiced with a willingness to listen respectfully to other points of view democracy has a chance of moving forward. We call it “civil” society for a reason. Far from being tepid, civility lies at the heart of effective politics. It permits those of whatever persuasion to remain in the room long enough to seek solutions together. For hyper-partisans such a pursuit is useless; with minds rigidly made up long in advance, the very thought of finding common ground is anathema. Political wars are their bread and butter.

One of the problems in Nolan’s perspective is that in poll after poll, on both sides of the border, the large majority of citizens want their politicians to “dial down” the endless bickering and get on with running their country in a collaborative fashion. There’s a reason why there are increasing calls for more respect in politics, and since it comes from citizens themselves there is clearly relevance to it. They don’t mind the partisanship but reject its rabid extremes and, for all its talk, the lack of effectiveness.

In less than a week Canadians will be celebrating the country’s 150th birthday, but it’s about more than just partying. It’s about collectively acknowledging a century and a half of living together, despite every division imaginable – geography, regional distinctions, language, distance, ethnicity, race, and, yes, partisan persuasion. While other nations struggle to hold themselves together at these weak points, Canada somehow finds strength in them, despite the friction.

In a real way, we have proved that it is our civility, our respect for our differences, that has allowed us to not only endure but to prevail. Our problems are numerous, yet we aren’t frozen in place by them. In effect, it has been our respectful civility that has been the precondition for our survival as a nation. It hasn’t been about our divisions, but the process of how we deal with them has been the secret to whatever success we have achieved.

Canada has proved to be an enduring triumph among global nations and deep down we all know it. Around the world, Canada is known for the congeniality of its people. Our problems are massive in scale, but it is how we have gone about handling them together that attests to the genius of our collective co-habitation. We have placed the ability to be civil at the centre of our innovation and curiosity as a people. By standing up and demanding that our politicians and other leaders put aside meanness for fairness, we attest to our ability to endure instead of self-destructing.

The majority of us comprehend that we cannot solve our abiding problems with hateful rhetoric, opinionated destruction, or namby-pamby citizenship. Partisanship is essential to our future; blind partisanship will kill it. Civility is what allows us to talk about our differences. Political will is what helps us to overcome them. For all our problems, it is time to celebrate that we are still together.

Winning Is Never Enough

We were still. We were mournful. We were respectful. We were undone.

Last evening we joined a community gathering to honour those who paid the ultimate price at Vimy Ridge 100 years ago. The pipes played, the respectful speeches given, and our hearts were moved. We can only glimpse this important Canadian event through a glass darkly. It was before our time and beyond our ability to really understand. Yet we stood in awe last night, although the tragedy and loss was beyond us, because we comprehended that we likely wouldn’t have been where we were at, individually and collectively, at that moment without those remarkable soldiers being where they were at during their exact moment when duty meant total sacrifice.

I was reminded of one of Robertson Davies characters in his Fifth Business. As he watched King George V pin the Victoria Cross on his uniform he experienced a great moment of remarkable clarity:

“Here am I … being decorated as a hero, and in the eyes of everybody here I am a hero. But I know that my heroic act was rather a dirty job I did when I was dreadfully frightened. I could just as easily have muddled it and been ingloriously killed. But it doesn’t seem to matter because people seem to need heroes; so long as I don’t lose sight of that truth, it might as well be me as anyone else.”

And yet we as Canadians understand the sheer fate of it all – a few feet to the left, a dysfunctional gun, an artillery shell landing farther afield, a medic nearer at hand, and death wouldn’t have visited these particular soldiers. Canada has never been great at the “hero” thing, but we have proved excellent and deeply respectful of lionizing those who never made it. We know in our heart of hearts that we owe them – everything. We know that some 100,000 Canadians fought at Vimy Ridge in April 1917. We also know that 3600 soldiers died and more than 7000 were wounded in the successful attempt.

But we are moved by what we don’t know. The fear, the crying for family, the unbelievable heroism, the prayers, the patriotism, the insanity – these must have been monumental on a human scale. It is not just their death that moves us so; it’s all these things they endured just prior to their ultimate sacrifice. Life’s end should have been better for them.

They are the heroes we seek and we honour them year after year – the resurgence of interest in Remembrance Day is proof of it. But because we are Canadians we venerate them as pioneers of peace instead of merely soldiers of war. War is not glorious to us, but peace remains a preoccupation for the Canadian imagination and those that fought and died a Vimy paid the downpayment for us to stretch that imagination, that dream of a better world with Canada’s noble efforts in it.

Aristotle was right when he wrote that it is never enough to win a war; we must organize ourselves to win the peace. How profound! Perhaps Governor General David Johnston had this in mind when, profoundly moved at the Vimy Memorial in France a few years ago, he implored:

“It’s important for us to remember the lives lost here, and the reasons for which the lives were lost, and that is so our rule of law, our thin veneer of civilization can be strengthened and polished and, we hope, extended around the world.”

I was honoured to be asked to give the speech in Parliament in 2010, when John Babcock, the last Canadian World War One veteran passed away. They are now a generation gone. But we are not. We hate war, but will fight if required. Far better the truly Canadian dream of peace in a better world. We honour the Vimy dead because we still dream that what they were fighting for is now our task. Though dead, they live in us. Though gone, they empower us. Their end is our beginning.

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