The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Category: Personal

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.

The Character to Overcome

A lot has been said, written, sung, painted and even preached on the subjects of poverty, mental illness,
addictions and homelessness in London in these past few years. Over time our brains have been hijacked into placing each of these challenges into their own separate categories, when the reality is that thousands of our citizens in this city frequently move through them on a continual basis. Many remain mired in such conditions because not enough supports are there to help move them along, while others have been fortunate enough to acquire proper assistance to begin the process of building their lives.

Like Melissa Sheehan, for example. At thirty years of age, she has endured more of her share of careening disappointments and setbacks and yet has established a life where she can reach out past her daily trials.

Sheehan’s journey into self-reliance began when she left a difficult home situation at sixteen. She ran the gamut of staying with friends, to community shelters and then geared-to-income housing. She had endured events of physical and sexual abuse and lost friends to suicide and other tragedies equated with poverty and isolation.

Finally meeting with this remarkable woman at a local coffee shop, traits of strength and endurance were obvious, as were moments of vulnerability and transparency. “I have real trust issues,” she says openly, “and I deal with self-esteem and self-image issues everyday.” My daughter Abuk and I listen as she tells of enduring PTSD, depression, and periods of deep mental illness.

It’s a sad tale, at times deeply emotional. But soon enough emerges a sense of hope and humanitarianism that she says helps her get up in the morning and head out for the day. Despite a saga of deep pain and disappointment, there abides a sense of purpose, a need for community that somehow overcomes all the pain she must live with. She shares of her personal journey, “as my way of educating people about what poverty, homelessness and mental health issues exist and what the individuals living with those issues need most.” An air of conviction frames these words, filling them with a kind of urgency.

Because of her struggles, steady employment has been difficult for Sheehan to maintain. But things are improving. In November 2016, she acquired her Grade 12 equivalency through the help of Fanshawe College. She is, at present, exploring options for moving forward in her education experience.

For all she has endured in three decades, Melissa could be forgiven for speaking out against the systems of support that failed her. Yet she refrains from grousing excessively about such systems. “I want to work and support those trying to end poverty and homelessness in London and not resist the changes they propose. There is far more that can be done towards ending poverty than rejecting or resisting these ideas.” It’s clear from listening to her that she believes that it is in combining forces with institutions and individuals that those enduring life on the margins of community can work toward solutions. There remains something hopeful in that outlook and Sheehan has spent the last few years seeking to understand anti-poverty initiatives and those who seek to intervene on behalf of those struggling to escape the oppressive clutches of poverty, mental illness and homelessness.

One other aspect of Sheehan’s outlook was obvious: she is a fearless woman. She willingly tackles those who denigrate her efforts on social media and claims that the best way she can help others in similar circumstances is to build relationships instead of tearing them down.

Abuk and I left this remarkable woman as she made her way to Sanctuary London before she got back to her part-time job in a department store. We talked about how, all too often, Londoners fail to grasp that the best hope poverty has is found in those struggling to escape it – their veracity, adaptability, sense of social justice, and desire to be an active part in a community that seeks to eradicate those things in society that denigrate it.

We came away from meeting a woman we knew very little about with the sense we had been ennobled in some way. “You should write about her, Dad,” suggested Abuk. Now that I have, I am even more inspired.


Humility or Hubris? It’s a Choice

Talking with some folks in the audience during Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s speech to the UN General Assembly last week evoked some interesting observations. Ironically, the most common response was the least charged: “It was different.” Indeed it was. Trudeau’s clearly pointing out some of this country’s failures was surely unlike anything Canadians had heard in years, if ever. It has left many wondering as to the purpose of the PM’s approach. We’ll never fully know, but some advantages come to mind.

Some maintain that’s it likely to help Canada’s next bid for a seat at the UN Security Council, scheduled for 2021. Given our failed bid for that same seat in 2010 following something of a bungled campaign, there are some lingering perceptions to overcome, along with a renewed campaign firing on all cylinders. Could Trudeau’s mea culpa concerning Canada’s failing record in indigenous affairs hurt the prospect of the UN seat? Not likely. Following years of UN urging of Canada to work on more proactive solutions with our indigenous citizens that were largely ignored by both Liberal and Conservative governments, Trudeau’s appearing to finally be hearkening to the warnings will likely get UN decision-makers to sit up and take notice.

It’s rare for a leader from one of the world’s industrialized nations to turn so introspective, yet it was something leaders from the developing world would understand. I’ve been in attendance during such UN sessions where leaders from poorer nations, while inevitably brandishing their accomplishments, nevertheless had to spend time acknowledging their failures on issues like gender equality, debt repayment or climate change reforms. They had to prove to both the UN and the advanced nations present that they remained worthy of the West’s investment in their own domestic economies. At times humiliating, it remained a necessary step towards securing ongoing assistance.

Canada was under no such pressure as Trudeau made his address and the sight of a highly regarded and prosperous nation acknowledging its failures opened a new door for how we are seen internationally. Though Canadians often prove reticent to admit to the reality, we are keen to know how we are being perceived across the globe and take occasional pride in plaudits thrown our way. How we will we react to having our collective shortcomings aired before a global audience remains to be seen.

But there was one key aspect of Trudeau’s speech that had inevitable effect: his demeanour. The subject of humility among political leaders is almost non-existent anymore. Confidence, more often over-confidence, comes part and parcel with political leadership in the modern era. Admitting mistakes, the ability to reconcile with others, the willingness to change positions in light of new evidence – these were traits we looked for in those running for office.

Not anymore. Can anyone imagine Donald Trump uttering the words of his nation’s first president upon stepping down as leader, “In reviewing the incidents of my administration, I am unconscious of intentional error. I am nevertheless too sensible of my defects not to think it probable that I may have committed many errors”?

We expect such humility from George Washington, but hardly from most other presidents and prime ministers. Yet this was the tone Trudeau took in front of the gathered nations of the world and it wasn’t without effect. In acknowledging both he and the country had farther to go on some of its promises, the PM was affirming that no nation had to be perfect as long as they were progressing along the path of social justice.

These days it’s often perceived as a weakness when a leader confesses to doubts or mistakes and we as citizens must take some responsibility for such a state of affairs. We want decisive leaders – until we don’t. Nations like the United States, in voting for the impervious leader often discover themselves questioning their own voting decisions. Whatever Trudeau’s motives for his speech, it was something different altogether from what the prosperous nations have practiced, and in doing so, even for only the duration of his delivery, he placed humanity at the apex of global affairs and the need for diplomacy over diatribe, of humility over hubris, and served notice that, collectively, Canadians understood such distinctions.

View this post in its original National Newswatch format here.

A Unique Commitment With a Powerful Champion

Yesterday’s story by Toronto Star’s Tonda McCharles on the possibility of Canada’s peacekeeping future being tied with the demilitarization of child soldiers could represent a clear departure for this country’s foreign agenda.

Two key influencers have come together to move Canada in that direction. The first is the UN Peacekeeping Defense Ministerial forum to be held in Vancouver in November, and the second is the redoubtable General Roméo Dallaire.   The global forum, designed to gain pledges from the participating nations towards peacekeeping, will be interested in Canadian input since this country’s participation on that file has been under review for an extended time. Still, the idea of having a rapid deployment military unit that can move quickly and be trained on preventing the recruitment and mobilization of child soldiers would prove a unique and intriguing contribution to the global commitment to peace.

The international event comes at a pivotal time for Dallaire, the former military general, and senator, who launched the Child Soldier Initiative in 2007 and which is housed at Dalhousie University. In venues around the world, he has struggled to help decision makers come to grips with the growing immoral problem of using youth in combat and especially the increase in the use of girls for such a purpose. His 2010 book, They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children, revealed his extensive understanding of the problem and his commitment to working on a solution.

While an MP, I worked with the General as he launched his initiative and watched in real time his increasing sense of urgency over the fate of youth in combat – he became a man possessed and a formidable global voice on the matter. At one point he wrote: “The ultimate focus of the rest of my life is to eradicate the use of child soldiers and to eliminate even the thought of the use of children as instruments of war.” That’s a pretty strong commitment, and coming from Dallaire it is a binding promise.

There was a time when the use of kids under the age of sixteen as warriors was frowned upon and rare, but that all changed with the increase of regional conflicts across the globe, especially in Africa. Dallaire told me in my office one day that creating a child to kill was much like moving a product through an assembly line. The molding of the young mind towards hatred and violence is a complex arrangement and breaking down that process is no simple matter.

Should the Canadian government commit to the demobilizing of child soldiers it must understand the recruitment process in troubled regions. To assume that armies sweep through a village and forcibly mobilize kids to kill is something of a misnomer.   In South Sudan, as an example, idle boys with nothing to do gravitate to a military unit encamped in the area, often intrigued with the camaraderie of soldiers, fascinated with weaponry and hopeful of some kind of wage. Without urging, they follow along with the units, offering to cart supplies or undertake physical labour. In most cases, they are denied participation yet they continue to “track” the unit in hopes of joining forces.

“The ultimate focus of the rest of my life is to eradicate the use of child soldiers and to eliminate even the thought of the use of children as instruments of war.”

For girls it’s different. Many have lost parents in the fighting or face famine and sickness. The military forces have their own food supplies, doctors, medical provisions and security, so they begin to shadow the soldiers in hopes of survival or protection. After a time they are set to work cleaning and cooking and, almost inevitably, take on something of a concubine status. Some are trained as killing units, while most remain in support roles.

This kind of recruitment wouldn’t transpire if medical and educational services were readily available in the regions. In addition, host governments, even rebel commanders, are conscious of the breaking of international legal protocols through the use of child soldiers. For these reasons, any effort on Canada’s part to launch anything to do with demobilizing child soldiers must be partnered with effective development. To incorporate one without the other can only result in ongoing enlisting. Canada’s development assistance must take this into account, especially for women and girls.

The possibility of Canada providing a peacekeeping component to effectively deal with child soldiers is a project worthy of both our past and future. As Dallaire said about the possibility: “To lead must be your aim … Bring your new-found depth of argument to the political elite of our nations and remind them of their enormous responsibility to protect, to assist, to intervene.” Sounds like an intriguing Canadian venture, one that we must enact with understanding and commitment.

Anatomy of Hatred

Hatred. Neo-Nazis. White Supremacists. Racism. KKK. These terms, and many like them, we had hoped were slowly disappearing from our public life and lexicon, yet they are everywhere in these troubled days. For those individuals and groups who have felt the sheer injustice of such things, however, they have been an ever-present reality.

With the events of Charlottesville, we are struggling to grasp the implications of what happens when those most troubling facets of hatred emerge again to prove we never did deal with them effectively. Rallies are being held across the United States and Canada, including London, this weekend that pit the best and worst of human nature against one another.

The troubles of recent days have caused me to reflect on the seminal speech given by former dissident and playwright Vaclav Havel, who went on to become president of the Czech Republic. In a 1990 address titled, “The Anatomy of Hate,” Havel unpacked the lessons he had learned during his country’s Soviet oppression and its eventual liberation. Whether in conflict or in peace, he discovered, hatred never rests.

What makes Havel’s insights so compelling is his focus on how individual hatred most often leads to group animosity, as when he said near the beginning of his speech: “Anyone who hates an individual is almost always capable of succumbing to group hatred or even spreading it. I would even say that group hatred … is a kind of funnel that ultimately draws into itself everyone disposed toward hatred.”

We have seen too much of this of late. Rather than drawing people through policy, human values or a sense of social justice, hatred, by itself, is sufficient enough a recruitment tool – just rile people up and they will destroy anything that stands in the way of their anger, whether it’s the public space or personal dignity. Where they can’t acquire recognition through the respect of all people, they seek to achieve it by destroying anything of human merit in their path.

Havel had lived long enough to see that many who allied themselves in his call for change were simply cruising on his notoriety in order to obliterate everything they hated. When he became president of his country he realized that his ascension to power had also ushered in many who simply wanted to destroy, never to build.

Yet modern society has progressed enough that it knows hatred in such settings and often organizes against it. This is what the alt-right, racist, bigoted, white supremacy, neo-Nazi coalition discovered in Charlottesville when those brutal two days were over – the country rejected them. And this is the stage that decimates the haters the most, Havel affirmed. “People who hate wish to attain the unattainable and are consumed by the impossibility of attaining it.” The result? “They grow tormented by the evidence of others rejecting their methods.”

How should we react to acts of hatred? That’s easy: reject and speak out against them. Yet it is necessary that in so doing we examine our own motives and our rush to anger, lest we become victims of the same harsh level of intolerance. Hatred always starts as animosity, moves on to wishing harm on others, and frequently results in actions that induce harm. Such a path requires only two things: an object for our animosity and the wish to damage it. The great teachers of humanity and ethics have repeatedly reminded us that hatred is easy to spot in our adversaries, more difficult in our allies and friends, and ultimately the hardest to see in ourselves. Such smallness of soul we must ever be on guard against, individually and as a community.

And there is another big lesson we must learn if we are to keep hatred from gaining ground: many in our midst are affected by it everyday, and remaining quiet about such occurrences, or pretending they don’t exist, is both beneath us as citizens and hurtful to our city. Online harassment, racism, verbal and physical attacks against those of differing sexual persuasions, political targeting and religious bigotry – these are ongoing occurrences and it’s time we acknowledged them and came together to defeat them.

As Labour Day approaches, we have work ahead of us as citizens. It involves building a better city where acts of hatred result in a community mobilizing against such travesties and for those victimized by them. But, as Havel would likely remind us, hatred is the enemy, not the haters, and as we gather this weekend to speak out against such vile practices it is vital that we know the difference, lest we become like those we oppose.

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