The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Category: Politics

Democracy Reset

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In his book At Home, bestselling author Bill Bryson tells of walking through Norfolk, England, with an archeologist friend. Every church they looked at was depressed three feet into the ground – like “a weight sitting on a cushion,” he writes. Bryson assumed it was because of the weight of the structures over the centuries. His friend answered instead that it was because the graveyards around the churches had built up the earth around the structures over many years.

I thought of that observation in considering the fate of democracy in recent years. It was once a vaunted and vaulted political institution that for 400 years had enlightened and empowered the world in most places where it was practiced. Two world wars had convinced most Western nations that more violence was on the way unless power and wealth were spread about more equitably. Global institutions were quickly established as the architecture for international progress.

For a time it worked, until money grew more concentrated in fewer hands and the environment took a pounding. Citizens morphed into consumers and their political representatives transitioned from astute managers to pandering salespersons.

With a global financial system bent on the bottom line and a rapid rise in the number of millionaires and billionaires, it was inevitable that, despite all the affluence, American family wealth was in short supply. Even though more money was being generated than at any other time in history, large swaths of it didn’t make it to those billions of people who had bought into the democratic dream. Soon enough, infrastructure began to deteriorate, meaningful employment flattened out or disappeared altogether, the natural environment was increasingly on life support, and citizens embraced the troubling response of doubting their leaders for not delivering on their promises.

Now, like those old Norfolk buildings, the great structure of democracy seems to be sinking, not through its weight, but due to the build up of corpses of all those who had once believed in its possibilities. It still looks quaint, grand even, but many of its adherents now stand in doubt.

Regardless of the outcome of the American election, both Republican and Democratic parties had maintained an international system that benefited elite individuals and financial institutions. The parties had become so vengeful towards each other that any real assistance to the average family became a casualty of war. Hillary Clinton would no doubt have maintained that declining political system, and Donald Trump, enriched by avoiding his accountability to his fellow taxpayers, could hardly be expected to adopt the role of a modern-day Robin Hood. Democracy is eroding.

It’s hardly an American phenomenon. What we are witnessing around the world isn’t so much a rise of the Right, but the resurgence of the Wrong. Extremists, racists, ideologues, bigots, anarchists, neo-Nazis – all these and more have surged through the abiding cracks and broken windows of our democracies, and rather than being repelled by voters, are in the process of being embraced in increasing numbers.

Our advance as democracies has been in doubt for some time. Too many people have been left behind. Too many families feel their wealth has flatlined. Too many men and women can’t locate good jobs. Too many people haven’t so much fallen into poverty as remain mired in it. Social justice is a term easily thrown into election campaigns and just as quickly dropped in the years following. Too many feel they are losing control of their country, and that is a serious sentiment, destined to affect any election.

As Canadians, many of us supported Hillary Clinton in the belief that it was time that an obstinate glass barrier was shattered, but we were under no illusion that besides breaking through the ceiling she wouldn’t raise the floor for all Americans. For that to occur, the entire political and financial structures throughout the West will have to be hauled into dry dock and refitted for a more equitable world. It is beyond foolish to believe that Donald Trump will undertake that overhaul.

It is easy for those concerned over the Trump victory to assume that his followers are extremists and racist bigots. They are among his supporters to be sure, but tens of millions of Americans who voted for him were decent, hard working citizens who just felt it was time for a change. Many confessed to holding their collective nose while voting for the billionaire, but they were united in believing that decades of Republican-Democratic leadership had left America out of touch with average people. They have a point, as did the millions of Bernie Sanders supporters who innately understood that Clinton would more than likely support the status quo. A month ago pundits were saying the Republican Party leadership had to change; now they say it’s the Democratic leadership that must transform. The reality is that they both must be reconstructed from the giant fundraising machines they have become.america-decline-22618321

There are lessons from the American election that have nothing to do with bigots or billionaire gropers. Millions who once worshipped at the altar of democracy no longer believe in its efficacy. The only way to restore its effectiveness is for average citizens to defend historic progress at the same time as they speak out against the inequalities that have resulted from a democratic institution that for too long tolerated a growing world of winners and losers.

Women & Global Peace: Inseperable

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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

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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.

Want to Defeat Poverty? Take Time.

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ASKED BACK IN 2012 WHY POVERTY WAS SO ENTRENCHED in affluent societies around the world, President Barack Obama provided an answer that, while infuriating some social activists, actually gave hope to others. He simply said that it was time to apply “two-generation solutions.” He meant developing initiatives that affected both parents and their children as opposed to isolated programs that helped one but not the other. And such policies would take time to develop to be effective, he believed.

We don’t really want to hear this because those enduring grinding poverty require quick alleviation of their distressing circumstances. We want to believe that through good-hearted actions that we create paths to escape from poverty’s hold. I wrote a blog post last week concerning how communities must bring their various anti-poverty initiatives together in order to begin this process, but we must come to terms with the reality that they will never be enough. They are vital efforts at galvanizing a community around the challenges of low-income, mental illness, the gender bias of poverty, hunger, and early development. Without them, every community would lose focus on those struggling to make ends meet.

But surely we can’t settle for the belief that donated food supplies are the ultimate answer for eradicating hunger, or that temporary shelters are the solution for the housing crisis, can we? Food banks, hostels, school breakfast programs, donated furniture or articles of clothing – examples like these are what keep citizens engaged, but they can never replace having a good job, a safe place to live, the income to purchase food for the family, or dedicated services to help someone through the difficult journey of mental illness. All the charity in the world will never be truly effective unless it leads to systems change. And for that, we require governments at all levels to up their game for poverty reduction – something that we’ll cover in the next post.

It remains vital to reform systems because those suffering in poverty or homelessness struggle far more against prevailing customs and system indifference than they do hunger, unemployment, or stigmatization. Virtually every person in poverty has had to learn to navigate economic, political, judicial, educational, and democratic system obstruction in order to survive and hopefully prevail. Hunger is real. The lack of shelter is real. Gender bias is real. But they became prevalent because systems couldn’t summon the courage to tackle them.

And if you want to reform systems, then be prepared to fight for a few decades – for perhaps two generations, as Obama notes. It will require healthy investments in early learning and childcare, post-secondary education, healthy communities, productive paths to employment, plenty of social capital, a democracy that includes all, roads to defeating endemic racism, secure housing, and all those facets of community life that lead to a productive future for all. There is just no way a single community, populated by remarkably generous citizens, can accomplish all this without proper policies, decisive decision-making, and resources that can only come from government levels.

Poverty didn’t suddenly arise because some people had money and others didn’t. Prevailing systems exacerbated the gap between the rich and the poor. They refused to close the gap between women and men for equal pay for equal work. They legislated decisions that saw those suffering a mental illness being taken care of in hospital emergency rooms instead of in dedicated facilities that provided the kind of wrap-around supports that guided patients through a journey that leads to independence and success.

It is time that we added democratic conviction to community compassion, and if we refuse to bring that about, then poverty will prevail over our neighbourhoods and cities for decades to come. We have to stop maintaining that we are “affluent” societies when we tolerate child poverty at such high rates. There’s nothing affluent about living on a street where citizens can’t afford their own food, or where able-bodied women and men can’t find a career path. There’s nothing affluent about living in a neighbourhood where the colour of a person’s skin determines their prospects for opportunity.

We are either all in this together, or we will slowly come apart – as we have been doing for the last few decades. Canadians are a good people and can be counted on to share of their bounty. But goodwill can never eradicate poverty. Only equal opportunity for all can do that. And for that, we require legislation, more inclusive policies, dedicated politicians, and a democratic system that will fight just as vigilantly for every person to gain prosperity as it does for every citizen to secure the right to vote.

Gandhi once said that poverty is the worst form of violence, and he was right. Supporting systems that keep people in poverty is equally as dispiriting as relegating them to chains. This is not the Canada we want, and if we want to change we must begin by listening to those who have survived the systems of diminishment and yet still strive for a better life. Let’s take the time to do it right by listening to them and build an equitable society that refuses to compromise the most vulnerable among us.

Poverty’s Problem is Division, Not Addition

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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.

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