The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Category: Personal

Someone We Were Meant To Be

screen-shot-2016-11-11-at-7-04-06-am

IN WHAT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE AN INTERVIEW yesterday about public service over a number of decades, I was asked, “What was the main driving force when you were young that made you want to be a humanitarian?” I have thought of this many times over the years, but when I replied, “World War Two,” the interviewer looked back in mild surprise. I went on to explain that I had grown up in Scotland following that great conflict, that my Mom had been a Scottish war bride, and that my Dad had been twice wounded in battle before being sent back to Canada to convalesce.

Later, growing up in Calgary, I came to regard the Second World War as a kind of constant companion. It took years for my father to recover and my early thoughts are filled with memories of that struggle. During those post-war years there were ceremonies almost every month – special battle anniversaries, building of new monuments, Spitfire and Lancaster bombers flying overhead, the opening of museums, and reunions of old battle buddies and gatherings of women who had participated in the effort in numerous capacities. Dad played for years as a drummer in a military band, and with his attendance usually required, he always brought me along.

But always there was the unnamed Guest everywhere in those formative years. Despite a revitalized economy, a growing middle class, creature comforts, and family holidays, Death was never far away. So many had died that the many who had survived were most often ensconced in a tomb of silence. Dad virtually never talked about his experiences during those war years, but I could sense, throughout his entire life, that the silence represented pain, horror, guilt, grief, and a sense of mortality. But more than that it represented the loss of youth and innocence for an entire generation of men and women. They had gone from idealistic and trusting boys and girls to a burdened group of adults in only six years (1939-1945). The bloom was forever off the rose – not because they had plucked it but because the evil of humanity had stripped it too soon from their collective life.

One would think that growing up in such an atmosphere would be morbid, but it was nothing like that. It wasn’t joyous either, but what it ultimately entailed were respect and the sense of shared sacrifice. Death had taken away millions during those years and yet it had returned to the living time and again as an effective guide to what is the most noble in life.

During those years I came to discover that death didn’t signify the end of something, but the rebirth of something else – something transcendent. Those years taught me, as they had instructed my parents in far more devastating circumstances, that the glory of nobility and sacrifice goes on forever. Those things one assumed had ended were still enduring, inspiring the hearts and minds of average people and their leaders to build a better peace. The war wasn’t over but had simply morphed into another field of battle that involved neighbourliness, a rigorous sense of civic responsibility, a profound sense of social justice, and the belief that peace never came for free. Only this time the soldiers were being replaced by citizens of every kind who had come to see that the new tools of this civic battle involved decency, tolerance, a growing protection for minorities, and the profound belief that our blessings belonged to the world and not merely to ourselves. We had matured enough to know that we couldn’t save our world without changing it, and we couldn’t change it without changing ourselves.

Because this is a universal truth, frequently accentuated by a sense of trial and loss, the dead never leave us, the buried become a part of our consciousness. They are everywhere all at once and we are elevated by their memory. A death that follows great sacrifice makes you see everything in a different way – our eyes are wider and contain depth. We become changed people because, by honouring those that have passed before us in such a remarkable fashion, we ourselves can face death and refuse it our collective soul. Our time, our end, will come, but not now. And in the meantime we will embrace those it has taken from us in a way that leads to a better life. Those slain buried in military fields around the world are not decaying bodies, but seeds in the earth that will bring forth a new and noble life in each of us. Their death is not only our rebirth, but their own. And they will remain our constant companions.

Remembrance Day isn’t merely about remembering but actualizing what the dead have shown and given us. We wear poppies as a sign of our respect, but it is the millions of memories that we carry in us, unseen yet profound, that make us want to live as better people, more active citizens, more adept at love than hatred. Every Remembrance Day is our opportunity to say to that Guest that always shadows us, “Not dead. Not yet.” We have a world to build – a better environment than what we have at present, and we will construct it with peace.

Remembrance Day is not a memoriam alone, but a continuation of all that is truly the best and most respectful in life. It makes death bearable and makes our own lives liveable. We are the inheritors of a great trust and we will live for what they died for. David Kessler notes that, “Deep inside of us, each knows there is someone that we were meant to be.” Remembrance Day, filled with the love of those that went before, reminds us that that “someone” is still there, waiting and wanting to better the world with acts of great humanity and sacrifice.

Women & Global Peace: Inseperable

img_3331

WE KNOW THAT THE GOVERNMENT OF CANADA IS undergoing a significant review as to where it would like to place its 600 peacekeepers in the near future. In this troubled world, the opportunities for involvement seem almost endless, although it appears likely that the deployment will occur somewhere on the African continent.

Many Canadians like the idea of returning to peacekeeping as a valid Canadian extension to the world, whether or not people choose to describe it by another term like peacebuilding or peacemaking. Yet given this country’s heightened awareness placed upon the role of women in its development programs, it would be helpful to look through a similar lens when considering anything to do with military peacekeeping. We’re not talking about female soldiers here, but the possibility of putting a gender lens over our involvement in conflict areas.

Only a week ago, the United Nations Security Council held an Open Debate on women, peace, and security to discuss the protection of women and girls in conflict areas. The timing is crucial since violence in Syria, South Sudan, Iraq, Colombia, and Nigeria has greatly increased the threat to women and girls. It’s all part of a larger picture, where international assistance has tripled in 10 years and some 80% of those targeted by such aid are affected by armed conflict.

Let’s put it another way. The cost of all this violence is $13.6 trillion (US). With all these numbers on the rise, the risk to girls and women threatens to undermine much of the global advancement made in gender security and programs in recent years.

So, this is pretty serious stuff. But it’s also essential that it be dealt with – not because protecting women and girls is just the right thing to do – it is – but because it puts things on a faster track to peace, which everyone wants. A huge study put out by the United Nations, involving peacekeeping operations, peacekeeping architecture, and the role of women, came to an important conclusion: the vital participation of women is the most vital and frequently neglected component of peaceful security. Put plainly: the more we invest in women and girls, the more effectively peace can be planted in troubled regions. This doesn’t come as a shock, but it is a reminder that building future peace through peacekeeping without empowering the role of women is a poor investment. One aspect of the UN study showed that over the course of 15 years, the chance of peace enduring is 35% higher when women are included in the follow-up.

The UN report ended up listing over 100 recommendations of how women could be better included in peace negotiations and their aftermath. A key recommendation – game-changing if it were enforced – is for the establishment of an Informal Expert Group on Women, Peace and Security as an extension of the Security Council itself. This recommendation was implemented in February and already the input from around the world has been significant. Eventually, the goal is to infuse the necessity of these findings throughout the entire UN architecture.

For all this to have real effect, UN member nations must actively support this Informal Expert Group and implement their recommendations. This is where the true test will come, for there are still nations that don’t mind giving verbal support to such ideas but have no intention whatsoever of implementing them. Canada, with its strong emphasis for the past decade on women and girls, could play a leading role in not only steering the recommendations through the UN system, but in also using its reputation and economic clout through trade and development to bring recalcitrant nations online. And should it up its support of such a role, it must be broadcast to the Canadian people in general, instead of being isolated in the lengthy corridors of the UN structures themselves, it’s successes and failures destined for obscurity.

For those of us involved in international development in regions of conflict, especially in Africa, this new UN effort is what many have sought for years. For women’s groups in advanced nations, the initiative is a workable way of showing solidarity for their struggling counterparts half a world away. And for the state of the world in general, especially as it seeks to find a peaceful future, it is one of the greatest investments that can be made.

A Policy for All

test

THIS IS THE LAST IN A SERIES OF THREE POSTS on how we as citizens should address the poverty problem in Canada and in our communities. In the first, we referred to the need of all the charitable efforts in our cities to work more collaboratively in an effort to get our fellow citizens to become more aware of the gripping effects of poverty. In the second post we talked about how charity alone can never fully deal with the problem and that, at some point, governments at all levels must take the problem more seriously.

Now is the time for citizens and governments alike to realize that times have changed and the desire to more effectively deal with the ramifications of poverty has now emerged. Maybe we have arrived at a point where we are willing to repair the moral and ethical damage we permitted to develop over decades, and which marginalized more people and families than we cared to notice. As Canadians, we share an awareness that poverty is wrong and it seems that we are gradually getting past the point where we blame its presence on the poor themselves. We are evolving in our understanding that the very systems we created over time not only left people mired in poverty, but also maintained an inequitable pay ratio between men and women, that left our aboriginal populations at the fringe of our concerns, and that tolerated a high child poverty rate for decades. We are slowly arriving at the conclusion that we must redress the imbalances we have tolerated over decades.

This isn’t some mere exercise in reallocating funds, but in realigning our moral sensitivities. We have perhaps chased material wealth to such an excessive degree that we left many behind and we believe the time has come to repair the damage. We have slowly dismantled the codes of collective consciousness that once had us believing in the “fair society.” And, like the Tragically Hip’s Gord Downie, we are ready to “go public” with our desire not only to help the marginalized but to realign ourselves with the better angels of our natures – to walk our own Secret Path to personal and collective recovery.

And it’s also time we conceded that solutions do exist – have for years – but we collectively chose not to support them politically, socially, or economically. The effects of our distractions are now apparent to us and we appear increasingly inclined to deal with our unintended oversights.

At local, provincial, and federal levels of government new initiatives have arisen that are partially fuelled by this new awareness among citizens. Following years of little policy shift on the poverty file, a plethora of new ideas and initiatives are spreading across the country. Whether or not a Basic Income Guarantee, as an example, is the best way ahead for poverty alleviation, it is, at last, getting a fair hearing.

Numerous provinces have discussed the possibility of effective poverty reduction efforts, including pilot initiatives in certain areas. And following decades of stagnation, governing forces at the federal level have begun seriously considering floating a national anti-poverty plan following years of civil society pressure from key groups and individuals. The federal minister in charge of families, children, and social development has expressed a willingness to launch poverty reduction initiatives in six areas across the country. In numerous conversations taking place in Ottawa these days, the subject of a national anti-poverty plan is consistently raised, supported, and seeks multi-party support.

Many of us have supported the efforts of NDP Member of Parliament, Brigitte Sansoucy, who has introduced a Private Member’s Bill – Bill C-245 – to provide for the development of a National Poverty Reduction Strategy. Considering that every day some three million people live in poverty, the timing of Ms. Sansoucy’s effort is revealing and deserving of all our support.

American President Woodrow Wilson gave a speech in which he challenged average citizens to get into the policy-building process. He wrapped up his thoughts by saying:

“The whole purpose of democracy is that we may hold counsel with one another. For only then can the general interests of a great people be compounded in a policy suitable for all.”

 That’s us – the people. It’s time we got back into the process in significant enough numbers that the most marginalized among us become truly one with us. In an age where the public dialogue is being taken more seriously by the political class, reducing, or even ending, poverty becomes not merely a noble action but a signal of a public renaissance whose time has come and a people willing to be accountable.

Poverty’s Problem is Division, Not Addition

jane-among-groceries

IN ITS OWN WAY, THE LONDON FOOD BANK’S fall food drive turned out to be a remarkable initiative. With donations up significantly over last year’s effort, it was tempting to think that citizens were in a more generous mood than last year. It’s true, they were, but the real story was what it was that put them in such a mood.

While totals donated to food drives tend to decline over the years, yearly givings go up as citizens increasingly take advantage of dropping off their donations at grocery stores across the city. Food drives often have to compete with other interests when it comes to capturing media attention, but this Thanksgiving it was these other avenues that created the context for a terrific food drive.

Over the summer and into the fall, the Poverty Over London social media campaign has relentlessly reminded the community of poverty’s grip in our midst by putting out posts full of data and the personal stories of those fighting to make ends meet. It has been a remarkable campaign that has subtly entered into the community conversation because of its consistent presence online.

The opposite held true for the string of London Free Press stories by local reporter Jennifer O’Brien – articles that ran over the course of a couple of weeks and directly confronted Londoners. They didn’t settle comfortably into the background but brought the tragedy of poverty directly to the attention of readers. Written in a way that spoke directly to the situation, they were nevertheless drew the community into the personal stories that filled the columns.

And then there was the launch of the London Community Foundation’s Vital Signs report. These come out every two years and help to define the stark challenges confronting the city when it comes to helping those on the margins. For the next two years the foundation’s focus will be on the gaps that persistently plague mental health services in the community. A big part of the report talks about the link between mental illness and poverty. Statistics were released showing that in cities across the country, a range between 23% and 67% of those who were homeless report struggling with mental illness. And on any given week, at least 500,000 employed Canadians are unable to work due to mental health problems. For such struggling individuals, poverty is a constant companion.

All this was transpiring as the London Food Bank worked through its ten-day drive. In effect, these efforts provided a context, a broader awareness, of poverty’s hold on our city. It was the confluence of all these efforts, informing Londoners all at the same time, which made the London Food Bank’s effort so successful. In previous years, the food drive often happened in isolation, fighting, as it often did, against bad weather, poor coverage, or the occasional election. But this year it all came together. Despite the fact that all these efforts occurred at the same time, each enforced the other, providing depth and context, presenting the face of poverty in different hues, and layers, and shades. The sum total became far greater than all the parts and the community responded by upping its game.

Often, community agencies focus their efforts on singular efforts to raise their totals of funds and resources. Generous citizens, businesses, and organizations respond, but the overall effort is diversified to the degree that the many complexities of poverty rarely appear in the same events. Citizens respond to homelessness, hunger, mental illness, addictions, violence against women, and many other dimensions that make up the depth of poverty, but which rarely get presented as a complete picture.

All too often we believe poverty’s solutions require more: more money, more housing, more understanding, more empathy, more food, more financing. All of this is true, but the greatest obstacle to defeating poverty is the various divisions in every community that all too often fail to come together in a universal effort to redefine a city, a province, a country. That means combining everything from the non-profit to the start-up sector, the Chamber of Commerce to the social agencies, the media to the hospital and educational institutions. For that to happen, however, it will take citizens demanding better of their institutions and themselves.

The recent food drive showed just how motivated citizens can become when they are stimulated and educated on multiple levels. As long as sectors manage poverty instead of coming together and defeating it, the story will continue to be the same. When they are combined, however, even to a certain degree, as they did last week in London, Ontario, and we discover that within our own generation, poverty can be defeated.

Yet it will take more than collaboration or charitable actions from our communities. The problem ultimately lies in one of the most divided of all sectors: government. Next time we will take a look at how all three levels of government can shift the dynamic and add policy to the compassion of communities to make it work.

Shaken, But Not Stirred

chess1

I SPENT THIS LAST WEEK IN SCOTLAND, and it was clear from the places I visited that people feel swept up in an array of key events that left them at a loss at their own individual place in it all. The Chilcot Report was released on my first day there and everywhere people were glued to their screens, mostly angered that they had been duped into supporting a war that Sir John Chilcot himself concluded was driven more by ideology than information.

People were discussing the implications of Brexit wherever I journeyed, including a fish and chips spot where two people in the booth next to us bemoaned the reality that they had no idea what would happen next.

This is the world as we know it, and, in developed nations around the world supposedly constructed on the primacy of the individual, people seem more lost than ever, feeling little hope that they can change the arc of events. It all reminds us of the movie Roger and Me, where Michael Moore is denied the right to meet with officials from General Motors because he “didn’t represent anyone.”

Politics increasingly views the public as divided into various groups representing a myriad of issues and leading to great divisions within society itself. Every cause imaginable now has spokespeople active anywhere where an audience can be captured. Such groups have always been present and are essential to any healthy nation, but of late their numbers are so numerous that one key group is repeatedly overlooked: the public itself.

Average citizens continue to represent the great unknown. They are the deciding factor in elections but remain difficult to read. They hold to their convictions yet refuse to broadcast their intentions. They hold to their opinions but don’t feel the urge to broadcast them to everyone. Most don’t belong to activist groups and the majority barely interacts with social media, where most of the animated groups seek to make their connection.

For those in government, individuals can seem only to matter if they are connected somehow to this or that activist group. That remains a misnomer, as the majority of Canadians, Americans, or Brits keep their convictions largely to themselves or to select friends in a coffee shop. Treating such citizens as part of a group only drives them more into their isolation. But when given a chance to emerge, as with Brexit, the results can be earth-shaking.

“I was not designed to be forced. I will breathe after my own fashion. Let us see who is the strongest.”

While social media grows increasingly inflamed over this cause or that, the majority of individuals are merely getting along with their lives, providing for their families, volunteering at charities, or helping their neighbours. They are nobody’s fool and refuse to be counted in the great battle of “us versus them.” They neither like to be labeled nor appreciate attempts to recruit them by phone canvasses. Private interests will never secure the change they seek until they find some way of mobilizing these average citizens through a sense of fairness and understanding – characteristics often rare in groups attempting to change their world in a moment’s time.

Governments can spend their days repeatedly responding to the activists (which is one of their responsibilities), but should they not find effective venues for energizing the majority of Canadians just getting about their personal business, then no sense of political change can endure. Most Canadians are not political, but they are cultural and work together through their institutions. They form the living embodiment of Henry David Thoreau’s observation: “I was not designed to be forced. I will breathe after my own fashion. Let us see who is the strongest.”

In Britain at present, perhaps even in the U.S. and Canada, it is the average citizen who has emerged to reveal a strength unequaled by all the various groups with a cause. The world may be in chaos around them, but they have their act together.

%d bloggers like this: