The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Category: Personal

Light in the Tunnel

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WITH THE DEATH OF ELIE WIESEL I find myself wondering if the world is in the final stages of going silent. There was once the great pantheon of moral voices that housed individual so gigantic on the world stage that their very words could summon generations to action. We know who they were: Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Vaclav Havel, Mother Teresa, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and a few others. Most became Nobel Peace Prize winners and went on to challenge their world to stop taking things so easily.

A Holocaust survivor, Wiesel became the clarion voice against human injustice in these last few decades. Everything he said and wrote came from the backdrop of Auschwitz – memories from which he had to endure until his final breath at 87 a few days ago.

He reminded me a lot of Canadian Romeo Dallaire. They were voices of the modern generation haunted by experiences they could never escape. They fell into despair often, but always for the sake of a better humanity they pulled themselves out of their darkness to speak to a world once more that they feared was losing its ethical spine. At times they were difficult to endure because we could see on their faces the incredulity that came with watching the rest of the world walk away from the tragic lessons of history.

Increasingly, Wiesel’s inner despair came not from the past but from the present. Around the world entire groups of people, along with individuals, were undergoing great hatred and oppression and yet so few were raising their voices as a result. Yes, governments needed to act with alacrity, but individuals appeared to be losing their will to fight for others.

Ironically, Wiesel came to terms with where he could see that courage lived out – among the victims themselves. As he would say so eloquently about Auschwitz in a 2002 speech:

“People say occasionally that there must be light at the end of the tunnel, but I believe in those times there was light in the tunnel. The strange way there was courage in the ghetto, and there was hope, human hope, in the death camps. Simply an anonymous prisoner giving a piece of his bread to someone who was hungrier than he or she; a father shielding his child; a mother trying to hold back her tears so her children would not see her pain—that was courage.”

These are powerful and uplifting phrases, but Wiesel had increasing difficulty finding this kind of courage in a modern era, where people jumped daily from one cause to another, quickly losing the thread of progressive humanity. Just as Stephen Hawking has come to see hatred in the modern era as the greatest threat to humanity, Wiesel wondered why we would permit both individual and collective hatred to leak its way back into a civilization’s bloodstream without raising our voices to deal with it effectively.

In a world where everything was flattening out – money, deep romance, love of humanity, employment, politics – Wiesel fretted that the same thing was happening with hatred. We were becoming very good at tolerating it. We were finding it easy to just not get involved in fighting outright racism or even poverty. In remaining remote from it all, we were becoming less human as a civilization, assuming that we had little part in it all. And yet Wiesel understood from experience that such actions, or lack of them, merely left the field open to the haters.

He watched as wicked attacks took place on Twitter or other social media venues as people shook their heads in shock at the vitriol emerging about race or vulnerable women, about alternative lifestyles or noble causes, and wondered why we weren’t raising our voices to stop it. He understood instinctively that our refusal to speak up about such things, to mire ourselves in our isolation, meant that the bad guys would win – they always win in such situations. And so he wrote: “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

I asked someone here in Scotland this week, a seasoned observer and activist in humanity at the University of Saint Andrews, just who were the great moral voices of our day. She struggled and struggled. Yes, there was Malala or maybe someone like the Dali Lama, but the great ones are disappearing rapidly. From the great church of humanity from which the moral voice of our great quest for peace and justice emerged, has come an increasing silence. What will replace those voices? Twitter? Facebook? Celebrities? Pundits? They are not the same as a Mandela and we are losing our way in their absence. Wiesel is gone and the silence is tragic in its own way.

“I must do something with my life,” he said recently. “It is too serious to play games with anymore, because in my place, someone else could have been saved. And so I speak for that person.”

In the absence of the great voices of moral clarity must come the great collective voice of individual citizens joining to cleanse our world of hatred. We’re not there yet.

The Thaw

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WE QUIETLY WORKED OUR WAY ACROSS THE ALEXANDRA BRIDGE this week in the stillness of a beautiful summer morning at 3:45 a.m. Nothing was happening. Few cars crossed the span, but that was it – everything else was just the swirling sound of the Ottawa River.

But as we drew closer to the Museum of History on the Quebec side, across from Parliament, we heard a quiet stirring of voices on the shoreline just below the museum itself. These were the folks Jane and I had come to find. It was almost impossible to detect the identities of those quietly shuffling around on the grass – sunrise was still an hour off. Most were quiet, but all knew their purpose for their meeting. This was the sunrise celebration for National Aboriginal Day and some Canadians were gathering for a quiet event that had suddenly taken on more meaning.

Indigenous Affairs Minister, Carolyn Bennett, had asked us the day previous to join her on the riverbank. Present were PM Justin Trudeau, Justice Minister, Jody Wilson-Raybould (also a BC First Nations leader), House Speaker Geoff Regan, and numerous other politicians, staff, and interested citizens – perhaps around 200 people altogether.

But the focus was on the fires slowly burning on the shore – the origins of the smoke for the ceremonial “smudging” exercises taking place throughout that hour. The whispering in the crowd stilled. People shuffled forward to hear the speakers. And everywhere I detected nothing but reverence – not for the river, the fantastic illumination of the Parliament buildings across the way, or the slowly lightening sky – but for those from indigenous communities who prayed, beat drums, sang, and collectively transcended in an instant the world of politics into the domain of the natural order. It was stirring. The PM or other political leaders merely observed as, in the seat of ultimate Canadian power, the country’s original peoples taught those present the need to work collectively in the land we all share.

I thought back to the times working at the Calgary Stampede in my youth, as proud people of the Blackfoot (Siksika) nations rode their horses in the Stampede Parade and worked their way in ceremonial dress around the Stampede grounds, among the stands and the booths. They were mysterious figures back then, to me and to others, somehow representative of Canada’s past. But I realized on that particular morning by the Ottawa River that our Indigenous People are quietly become essential to our country’s future – not through assimilation or domination, but by a gentle enlightenment and respect that have been far too long in coming.

Something was brewing in Ottawa and across the land, some kind of recognition that what we have at present is entirely unsuitable when it comes to our understanding and partnership with our First Nations, Metis, and Inuit citizens. If our future is to be truly enlightening as a nation, then we must come to understand how we erred in the past few hundred years.

One elder spoke near the end of the ceremony, noting that a bird had swept by over our heads at the same time as a fish jumped out of the water. We all laughed with him, but the truth was that none of us had really noticed. It had taken a seasoned and practiced eye, one that has endured much through the decades, to remind us of the remarkable country in which we live and the great journey we have yet to travel to full understanding. We will know we have completed that journey not just when our indigenous communities are a recognized part of our great collective experiment, but when we as citizens come to acknowledge and internally discern where we went wrong and learn to accept forgiveness.

By the Ottawa River on a remarkable morning this week, I reflected on the observation of Thomas Wharton, recounted in John Ralston Saul’s Reflection of a Siamese Twin:

“An exposed ice surface often displays a dull, undifferentiated façade. The intricate crystalline structure can be revealed, however, by pouring a warm liquid over the ice.”

A great national thaw is emerging, introducing us to remarkable indigenous cultures that have a required place in our daily lives, and which we must respect. Judging by the way official Ottawa quietly showed that honour in the sunrise celebration this week, our journey together might finally be making a solid beginning.

Too Soon Gone

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Image by Getty Images

Read this post in Huffington Post here

LIKE MILLIONS OF OTHERS, I WATCHED in deep sadness the tragedy that befell British MP, Jo Cox – murdered brutally outside her constituency office by a lone assailant. I read the accounts in the news, followed its implications on Britain’s Brexit movement, and just overall felt a deep sadness for her family.

But one image remained with me: Cox’s shoe, lying on its side, even after her body was removed. A powerful woman once filled that shoe. She was no regular political aspirant, but a true believer in the nobility of humanity and its capacity for hope and change. She had spent a decade as a relief worker for Oxfam in both the U.S. and Britain, later transitioning over to fight slavery for Freedom Fund, and landing a position with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation just prior to her entry into politics. Her all too brief record in Parliament was one of tackling leaders, including David Cameron and Barack Obama, and a relentless desire to defend the defenseless.

Jo Cox wasn’t only a bright light in the political firmament, but a testament to those human rights and development workers who come to realize that it’s only through the power of effective legislation that true change can come … and stick. Her world was literally the world, and no Parliament could have been large enough to contain a spirit like hers. In so many ways she had become the antithesis of so many in politics, or as C. G. Jung would put it: “You are what you do, not what you say you’ll do.”

Yet Cox had one problem, a big one, and it was to lead to her death. She wasn’t merely fearless, but vocal about it. And in a world increasingly encroached upon by hatred, she became an inevitable target. She instinctively understood that she was entering dangerous waters and requested extra security measures when attackers online viciously herded after her. Eventually, following three months of requests, the help was granted, but, sadly, her sudden end would preempt the extra detail.

Our modern world takes a certain delight in trashing politicians – their egos, ambitions, constant compromises, even what we think are their cushy jobs. My personal experience following five years in Parliament is that most politicians are struggling to be relevant and true to their ideals in face of relentless pressures.

One of those challenges is dealing with citizens and groups through social media. It has become an essential step in the relevance of any political representative and the good ones do it well. But as assaulted figures they become the preferred target of the haters, those trolls and anonymous digital attackers what take a particular delight in fulfilling their dream by destroying the noble dreams of others. And so to serve is also to suffer the thousands of arrows heading in a politician’s direction every week. However, the longer social media venues tolerate it, and the law turns a neglectful eye, the more dangerous has the political world become. The moment hateful words remain uncensored, the quicker evil does its diabolical work, for, as author Jerry Spinelli put it, “If you learn to hate one or two persons … you’ll soon hate millions of people.” This was the world Jo Cox’s very courage caused her to enter and the result is not a national but an international tragedy.

Perhaps that why the photo of her empty shoe on the street had such a devastating effect on me – no one would ever fill her shoes again. She was a bright voice in a world of dark voices, silenced by idiocy. Her children and her husband must now navigate a future without her sun on the horizon, and politics must attempt to move on despite the loss of one of its guiding stars. No one can fill her shoes and no one can wipe away our tears.

Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, clearly put the choice before us: “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference … And the opposite of life is not death, it is indifference.” The only way Cox’s senseless death can be redeemed is when we, as citizens, purge the hatred from among us by living for same ideals of this one too early gone.

Mothers: The Gift of Endurance

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With Mom in Calgary (1960)

MY MOTHER WOULD HAVE BEEN 98 THIS YEAR.  Losing her some 35 years ago was difficult; today she is my constant companion.

Meeting my father when he was on leave in Edinburgh, Scotland, during World War Two introduced her to a future she could never have predicted. She became a Scottish war bride in 1944 by marrying her Canadian soldier. There was lots of that in those days, and the hotels were so full that they had to spend their summer wedding night in a cow pasture. It was likely to be her last moment of real peace before the madness of war and personal tumult invaded her world.

Six months later she received a telegram from the War Department, saying that Dad had been missing and presumed killed in the Italian campaign. I kept that telegram for years. Devastated, like so many other remarkable young women of that time, she maintained her work schedule at the local munitions factory and attempted to bury the pain.

D-Day was occupying everyone’s mind and correspondence was heavily censored so that no secrets would be revealed. Only when the invasion was accomplished did she receive a telegram from Canada. It was from my father in Calgary, in convalescence from being shot twice – he had, in fact, survived. He wondered why she hadn’t contacted him after he sent all those letters saying he was struggling after being sent back to Canada from hospital in North Africa. Letters had been held up because of the military campaign and he had never known she had received the telegram saying he had perished.

Proceeding by ship to Canada, she met my Dad in Calgary as they tried to build a life together. My brother and I were born during that time (1945 and 1950 respectively), but my father’s wounds meant he was incapable of solid work. It was then determined that she should take the kids back to Scotland while he attempted to find employment. So here was this struggling woman, with a five-year old and a nine-month old, taking the train back to Montreal for the return journey to her homeland. Five years later Dad found a job with Imperial Oil and asked her to return, which she did within the year.

The following years were anything but easy for Mom, including bouts of alcoholism and depression – the reason I haven’t written of this until now. It was never easy, but through it all she walked me to school, taught me to put others first, to never forget Scotland, to throw myself into life rather than backing into it, and in the process I loved her with a full heart.

How did she do it? How did she manage to keep it all together when the entire world, including her own, was literally falling apart? In my mind, it was a miracle of tenacity in a world of unsurely – one of the legacies mothers leave to the human race. Some moms believe they have to train their kids to carry themselves in a cruel world. Fair enough, but Mom continued to remind me to play a role in actually making the world a bit more kind and just – remarkable. The training of her children was her direct answer to a supposedly hopeless world. I was her downpayment to a better future – God, what a thought. And what a responsibility!

Dorothy Fisher once wrote: “A mother is not a person to lean on, but a person to make leaning unnecessary.” But if that is so, why do I tilt so much towards her now? Because I need her? No, because I love her, just as I did following my first breath and her last. Catherine Wiseman Pearson – a woman of her time who transcends all time, of her generation and every generation. I am her son. I love you, Mom.

Stephane Dion’s Opportunity for Renewal

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This post is also available on National Newswatch here.

IT PROVED TO BE A SEMINAL MOMENT FOR CANADA-AFRICAN RELATIONS – not just for me during my tenure as a Member of Parliament, but for Canadian politics and the work of the civil service.

It was May 2009. The setting was Centre Block, where the Foreign Affairs Committee was facing 19 African ambassadors who had come together in support of 8 African nations – Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Kenya, Malawi, Niger, Rwanda, Zambia – who had recently learned through the media that their foreign development assistance was about to be severely cut by the Harper government.

It’s all recent history now, but the effects of what appeared to be a betrayal of commitment lingers to this day, and that’s why it’s still important. The champion in that moment was Burkino Faso’s ambassador, the intrepid Juliette Yameogo, and her inference couldn’t have been more pronounced:

“We only want to understand why our friend in Canada would do this. Canada was a friend who understood the challenges of Africa. For us, Canada is a country where its citizens stand solidly with the oppressed people both at home and elsewhere in the world. In international gatherings, Canada has always stood shoulder to shoulder with Africa in defense of our continent’s interest. Are we to believe that our longtime friend, Canada, is leaving?”

The answer to the ambassador’s question was “yes” – a silent confirmation from which our country’s reputation has never fully recovered. Another ambassador ruefully asked, “We would like to ask our friend, Canada, to come back to Africa.” I spotted tears from a couple of civil servants in the visitor’s seats.

That single action rippled through the Canadian foreign policy establishment and in United Nations circles. It was believed to have played a part in numerous African nations failing to vote for this country’s bid to win a temporary seat on the UN Security Council. But the greatest effect was experienced in Africa itself. In a visit to South Sudan some months later, government officials from that region, Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda all voiced their incredulity when we met in various venues. It was a sense of confusion that still lingers in that continent today whenever the subject of Canada is introduced.

In symbolic terms, this was Africa coming to our national capital to offer assistance and summon us from our prevailing preoccupation with ourselves. Yes, there was Harper’s clear-sighted commitment to the Child and Maternal Health initiative in the run-up the 2010 G8 summit in Canada. It was a shining light in the midst of a darkening sky, often lost in our participation in war and in moving development assistance from Africa to Central America in favour of Canadian companies working the region.

This is merely one revealing example of what Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion is facing as he attempts to build a new mandate, a clearer pathway, for this country’s new foray into the world. In short, while Justin Trudeau maintains that Canada is back, our present and perhaps future allies are waiting to see what that actually means. It’s up to Dion to lay out that road map and one of his first imposing tasks is to make things right with the African continent.

Along with a seasoned foreign affairs department, the quiet, efficient academic has some powerful allies from which to draw, including a slate of former prime ministers. For all of the bragging rights Liberals maintain concerning international development, it was under Brian Mulroney that international aid reached historic highs – not to mention the important role played by the former Progressive Conservative leader in fighting apartheid – for which he later received South Africa’s highest award given to a foreign national. He added to that accomplishment by assigning his cabinet to coordinate their efforts in adding pressure to free Nelson Mandela from prison.

When former Progressive Conservative PM Joe Clark in 2013 accused the Harper regime of abandoning the global arena, Africa was uppermost in his mind. It was Clark who convinced Mulroney to appoint Stephen Lewis as UN ambassador, in part to tackle the problem of AIDS on the African continent, and Clark who led the national and global effort to provide coordinated relief to the Ethiopian famine.

Jean Chretien made African development the focus of his 2002 Kananaskis G8 summit. Paul Martin spends half of his retirement days working on implementing an African economic market to assist the continent in becoming a global economic powerhouse. His work in protecting rainforests on the continent has been duly recognized by the UN.

Add to this Ed Broadbent’s tireless efforts on African inclusion, Lloyd Axworthy’s struggles for peace in various regions of Africa, Romeo Dallaire’s fight to curb the use of child soldiers, Stephen Lewis’s and former Justice Minister Irwin Cotler’s relentless efforts and you have a veritable Justice League of experience. Dion would do well to draw them together for a special summit, seeking their input on what Canada’s re-engagement with Africa would look like and what should be the priorities.

Canada might not have as much of a present on the African continent but it has a committed past. The trick for the new Foreign Affairs minister is to now draw on that knowledge to knit together an engaged future.

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