The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Category: Photo

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.

Gandhi’s Seven Sins

seven-deadly-sins-cover

Part one of a new series on Gandhi’s Seven Sins.  Link to it here – goo.gl/6WOp8v

The Thaw

Screen Shot 2016-06-22 at 3.59.29 PM

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

gettyimages-540669766_master

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.

The Final Hello

Jane and mom

IT SEEMS LIKE MOTHERS HAVE TO SAY “GOODBYE” more than anyone else on earth. The list seems almost endless and runs the gamut of emotions, from sadness to delight, from loss to fulfillment.

Through all the ups and downs, the years bring on an endless string of goodbyes. There is that first day of school when that young life begins the process of spreading his or her wings. Many are the parents who can attest to the tears they shed that day. Then come those occasions when the son or daughter are older and no longer wish to just cuddle and accept a kiss in front of others – another painful goodbye.

The years continue and to the previous list of farewells come those marvelous occasions where the children marry, but the mother realizes that one of her chief tasks in life has been achieved and all she can hope for is that all her years of nurture will be remembered and rewarded.

In between it all often come the farewells, perhaps, to a career, that very first home, deaths in the family, even good health. A mother is always there, being present as required, watching over the grandkids, helping with a move. But ultimately she must say goodbye to a world and people she can no longer gather around her, keeping them supported and secure. It all represents one of the more subtle tragedies of motherhood.

And yet there’s more than one side. Someone who puts so much love and care into people might not realize it at the time, but all that attention to others will come back in the end. I have witnessed this in the past two months to a degree that is remarkable and awe-inspiring.

Jane’s 92-year old mother, Margaret, is in her final days at St. Joseph’s Hospice in London. She would have every right to complain of pain, a sense of saying goodbye to her home for the last time, and of her loss of independence. She had graduated from university in 1950, at a time when a woman pursuing such a path wasn’t all that common. She was married and for her entire life with her husband there was this mysterious and stirring sense that deep and romantic love was still in the air when they were together. And she had four daughters, as distinct from one another as you might expect but who have, together, offered loving support in these final times.

I sometimes spend the night with Jane and her Mom and it’s so much like going to church or being caught off-guard by something mysterious in Nature. The entire atmosphere of the hospice is like some grand orchestral piece that is meant to harmonize support as the time approaches. Staff and volunteers touchingly understand that they are the hands that carry someone like Margaret through the final transition. Family is always there, catering to Margaret in every detail.

And so there she is: a loving mother surrounded by people ready to say goodbye and understanding that her time is short. One would think such a farewell would characterize the remaining hours or days, but Margaret has made sure to transcend that outlook as only a mother can.

Following one of her bad nights, Jane and I got up in the morning, wondering if she was still with us. Jane kissed her forehead, silent. And as if the clouds broke on the horizon, Margaret opened her eyes, smiled as beautiful a smile as I have ever seen in my life, and said, “Hello, Jane.” I flooded with tears then, as I do now. Jane fell into her arms – two mothers celebrating life.

Everything this remarkable woman worked on and believed in all her life was coming to her just as she needed them. Her daughters never left her alone. A caring staff was always there for what needed to be done. God was in her thoughts as she had hoped. And increasingly she was thinking about her husband, who she believed would embrace her the moment her eyes shut for the last time, taking her for a waltz.

Even in her advanced years, and in the face of life’s last visitor, she had done what she always did – gathered her family, loved, showed grace, thanked everyone for their ministrations. Like every mother she had her life of goodbye’s, but in this, her most challenging and final time, she was saying “hello,” just as mothers always do and why we eventually always rush back to their embrace.

I possess none of those remarkable qualities Margaret is showing, but for me, right now, it is enough to embrace the miracle of motherhood and how all good things return to a caring woman just as she needs them. When I see her saying “hello” to her daughters, I realize that even in death, love will prevail. Such is the genius of motherhood.

%d bloggers like this: