The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Category: progressive centre

It’s Time for Canada 150+

This post can be read in its original Huffington Post format here.

Festivities will continue for months yet, but the focal point for this country’s 150th birthday culminated last week in birthday celebrations across the country and even with expat Canadians situated around the world. Though Shakespeare noted that, “With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come,” there is yet through the land a sense that we are vibrant enough to chart a more enhanced future for ourselves.

Call it 150+ – the opportunity to see ourselves with all our potential, challenges, and opportunities to have a larger effect in a world more chaotic than at any time in recent memory.

Can we become more? To answer that question we require a good understanding of who we are and what our world has become. If we were honest, most Canadians would profess to being thankful to live in a comparatively quiet corner of the world that is as beautiful as it is vast, that is compassionate and smart, and that is seen as a civil nation capable of housing countless agendas. On top of that, however, we would have to admit that we have been too comfortably slow at respecting our natural environment enough to fight for its future or of finding the adequate healing mechanism for moving forward with our indigenous citizens.

So, it could be true that our vast country is bigger than our ability to manage it properly. It is likely true that, despite Vimy, Stanley Cups, Nobel prizes, Olympic medals, generosity to the world’s poor, and an enduring peaceful federalism, that we are not yet what we can be. We would have to admit that underlying all that compliance and moderation we harbour those subtle prejudices and bigotries that have eventually unravelled other nations in different times. We are known for how many times we say “sorry,” but have yet to develop the urgency that make our collective apologies effective enough to move on together with those we have failed or offended in the past.

Yet for all these challenges, there is a sense in the country that we are perhaps viewing ourselves differently. There has been more of a commitment to fight for gender equality, an improved willingness globally to struggle for an international development program that focuses on the advancement of women and girls to a degree unprecedented in our history. We have recommitted ourselves to a new era of peacekeeping that, though oblique at the moment, is a good match for our willingness to take a larger role in global military responsibility.

There was a time when pop star Bono declared that the world needed more Canada. We smiled, offered ourselves kudos, and then went about our business as though it didn’t matter. Now it does and there is a growing understanding among Canadians that this country could well have an expanded role as the world moves into the challenging decades ahead.

Not all that many years ago (1978), Saturday Night editor Robert Fulford said he had learned that Canadian culture remained virtually hidden in the broader world. It now seems likely that such a statement is no longer true. Yes, Justin Trudeau has captured much of the world’s attention, as with Edinburgh University’s announcement yesterday that it will honour him with an honourary degree for his work on gender equality. But Canada’s new presence in the world is about much more than one person or one party. It’s not just because this country has changed but that the world itself has entered a troubled era – a time in which Canada’s peaceful domestic accomplishments stand out all the more and, in fact, become the envy of the world.

True, as a people we are 150 years old, but all indications seem to point a future of greater global influence – not of the superpower kind but of the humanizing variety. We contain multitudes, more diversity than ever in our history, and yet in the process of making our accommodations with one another we are forging our place in the world. We have not only endured but have matured at just the time a challenged international order is looking for models for survival. In fighting for over a century for civic peace and global moderation we have made a greater place for ourselves in the larger world. We might be 150, but the legacy of our struggles is now about to have greater effect.
 

The Process of Becoming

This post can be found in its original London Free Press format here.

“I suppose that a Canadian is someone who has a logical reason to think he is one,” wrote Mavis Gallant in 1981, to which she added a personal note: “My logical reason is that I have never been anything else, nor has it occurred to me that I might be.”

As we celebrate our country’s 150th birthday today, it’s likely that, in a world full of turmoil and identity crises, millions of Canadians will move through the day in the spirit of Gallant – peaceful, quietly thankful and usually pleasant.

It’s odd that this placid reason for being has survived the tumults of the modern era. Identity struggles are epic across the globe. China, Syria, Britain, Germany, France, Venezuela, and, of course, a deeply divided America – these and many like them are in the throes of questioning their past, fighting through the present, and seeking a different kind of future. This phenomenon has been with us for more some time, causing political scientist Samuel Huntington to ask, “Who are we? Where do we belong?”

Since our birth as a nation we were led to believe that our national character has been formed by three great influences: Britain, France and the United States. We have accommodated the most useful of these societies and tossed out the rest. But only lately have we come to discover that this country’s original indigenous populations were rarely given the opportunity to disseminate the best of their cultural values, natural spirituality, and innate knowledge of this land we call home. For all of our pride about this country, this particular aspect of our past remains our greatest blemish and challenge.

How we have changed in recent decades. We are now far more vast and diverse a people than ever in our history. The world leaves great portions of itself in us as families from every culture expand on what was once familiar and comfortable to us. We are now something “more,” a greater expression of what we once were. We have absorbed so much human character and yet, unlike the current fate of other nations, haven’t come apart – the centre yet holds. We are neither a military or economic superpower, but we are what nations of such magnitude envy – a good people capable of compromise. For all our flaws and imperfections we have refused the path of hatred.

But we are being tested. The greatest changes in our democracy are technology and diversity. We have always had our divisions – East vs. West, North vs. South, English vs. French, rural vs. urban, generation vs. generation – and we have found sufficient accommodation to live in a wary peace. Yet with rapid advances in technology has come the transformational possibility of jumping over historical social boundaries and learning of one another. Nevertheless a new meanness has also been unleashed on the land as citizens use the same technologies to spread animosity, fear, racism and hatred in a fashion that knows no sense of respect, of humility, or even basic decency. These aren’t forces running through our streets, but through our digital networks, and increasingly in our heads. This has become the greatest threat to our bonhomie and will require all of us to raise our standard of collective self-respect.

We have much to protect, attitudes to overcome, and greatness to strive for. But for the moment – this moment – we are the envy of the world for how we have balanced our wealth, our vast natural resources, sense of global responsibility, and our ability to keep it together despite the same pressures that confront other nations. We have become the venerable Swiss Army knife of global utility. Need technological leadership? We are qualified. Peacekeepers? It’s in our national DNA. A righting of wrongs against indigenous communities? We’re working on it, as we are gender equality. An ability to transcend our divisions? That’s been our whole history.

We are fully in the world and an essential part to it. We have been to Dieppe, Dunkirk and D-Day. We flow through the very sinews of the United Nations and global hope. We have invented, skated, taught, sacrificed, and cared for the marginalized of the world, and the respect shown to us is something to which every person travelling with a Canadian flag on their backpack can attest.

We are a people in process and we are not yet as socially just as we will be. But the better angels of our natures still tempt us with the possibilities of sacrifice for the greater good. In an aging and troubled world 150 years is nothing. We are still young enough to believe in our ideals and our ability to turn them into transformation change. We are in the process of “becoming” and a 150th birthday is as good a time to celebrate that as any. Happy Canada Day.

It’s Called Civil Society For a Reason

This post can be viewed in its original National Newswatch format here.

Numerous insights have been written in recent years regarding the eroding effect of partisanship on the political estate, most recently in America. That’s too bad because it’s a red herring and frequently masks what is the real underlying cause of political dysfunction. The fact that individuals hold opinions often at odds with others and support parties of various convictions has been essential to both the spirited and fluid nature of democracy itself.

Others feel differently. Writing recently in Fusion, American commentator Hamilton Nolan went so far as to say that those who profess to be non-partisan are surely part of our present problem. The title of his article speaks for itself: “Bipartisanship Means I Don’t Understand What Politics Is.” Bipartisanship is all too often an excuse from preserving the status quo, he believes, and the refusal to address America’s deepest problems – violence, poverty, racism, elitism. He believes not everything can be solved by compromise, and he has a point. Yet he maintains that many of those who seek such compromise are “moral monsters” and that those who call for more civility in politics are, in reality, “obscene.”

It’s easy to understand where Nolan is coming from, even as we consider the Canadian context. Why is it, for example, that no matter who holds the reins of power in Ottawa child poverty remains stubbornly high, that efforts to battle climate change are hardly sufficient, that gender equality is slow to achieve, or that Canadians remain disillusioned between political promise and effective performance? These are valid queries and deserve deeper consideration.

But to say that they endure because of bipartisanship or civility is something of a stretch. Civility lies at the very essence of effective politics, and as long as it is practiced with a willingness to listen respectfully to other points of view democracy has a chance of moving forward. We call it “civil” society for a reason. Far from being tepid, civility lies at the heart of effective politics. It permits those of whatever persuasion to remain in the room long enough to seek solutions together. For hyper-partisans such a pursuit is useless; with minds rigidly made up long in advance, the very thought of finding common ground is anathema. Political wars are their bread and butter.

One of the problems in Nolan’s perspective is that in poll after poll, on both sides of the border, the large majority of citizens want their politicians to “dial down” the endless bickering and get on with running their country in a collaborative fashion. There’s a reason why there are increasing calls for more respect in politics, and since it comes from citizens themselves there is clearly relevance to it. They don’t mind the partisanship but reject its rabid extremes and, for all its talk, the lack of effectiveness.

In less than a week Canadians will be celebrating the country’s 150th birthday, but it’s about more than just partying. It’s about collectively acknowledging a century and a half of living together, despite every division imaginable – geography, regional distinctions, language, distance, ethnicity, race, and, yes, partisan persuasion. While other nations struggle to hold themselves together at these weak points, Canada somehow finds strength in them, despite the friction.

In a real way, we have proved that it is our civility, our respect for our differences, that has allowed us to not only endure but to prevail. Our problems are numerous, yet we aren’t frozen in place by them. In effect, it has been our respectful civility that has been the precondition for our survival as a nation. It hasn’t been about our divisions, but the process of how we deal with them has been the secret to whatever success we have achieved.

Canada has proved to be an enduring triumph among global nations and deep down we all know it. Around the world, Canada is known for the congeniality of its people. Our problems are massive in scale, but it is how we have gone about handling them together that attests to the genius of our collective co-habitation. We have placed the ability to be civil at the centre of our innovation and curiosity as a people. By standing up and demanding that our politicians and other leaders put aside meanness for fairness, we attest to our ability to endure instead of self-destructing.

The majority of us comprehend that we cannot solve our abiding problems with hateful rhetoric, opinionated destruction, or namby-pamby citizenship. Partisanship is essential to our future; blind partisanship will kill it. Civility is what allows us to talk about our differences. Political will is what helps us to overcome them. For all our problems, it is time to celebrate that we are still together.

Three Decades Away

My last blog post referred to a model undertaken by a research organization concluding that if nothing is done to alter the present situation that the world will be in a full-blown food crisis within 30 years. Considering that by mid-century global population will be close to 10 billion, it’s not too difficult to envision what a food crisis will do to the poorest around the world.

Almost two years ago a powerful gathering of politicians, NGOs, business leaders, university professors, and scientists got together and developed some long-term plans for dealing with the issue. Most notable were the efforts of Cargill, a multinational agriculture business, and the World Wildlife Fund partnered together to move the issue forward. Key to it all, they concluded, will be the closing if three significant gaps:

  • The Knowledge Gap: The public- and private-sector should develop a real-time global food security dashboard that allows decision-makers to detect and address disruptions to the global food system before they occur.
  • The Productivity Gap: Public, private and multilateral actors must invest to increase agricultural productivity in low-income countries, while minimizing its impact on the environment.
  • The Collaboration Gap: Global leaders must create specialized forums to improve decision-making in times of crisis, introduce coordinated long-term measures, and engage decision-makers from all sectors on global food security issues.

These are important concepts and ideas, but the problem, as ever, swirls around two key problems: who will pay for it all and will all these solutions actually be implemented after two decades of talking about them. Make no mistake: progress has been made. But we can’t inch our way forward on this – 2050 is roughly three decades away. Climate change will alter everything we know but its effect on food production could well be the most catastrophic. Everything from the spread of global disease through bad food to massive deaths through starvation, to nutritional adequacy will have to be faced.

The real issue for us now is not really how we can find solutions but will we? Not all of it is up to the big players. Greg McClinchey, and old friend from Ottawa days, responded to the previous post by noting:

“While population growth is something we all need to prepare for, we also need to remember that we already waste at least 27% of all the food we produce. Put another way, for every 100-acre field we grow, we waste 27 acres of production. My point is that we can help solve many of these problems with some action around our own table.”

That’s a good place for average citizens to start. Another friend, Leeanna Dawne Newton, put change easily within our reach: “If we all tried to take some initiative of sustaining our own selves in some capacity this could provide a solution in part to the impeding food shortage issue.”

These aren’t mere theories postulated by world leaders after meeting for a few days (important as that is), but practical ways of living and returning to the land as our own contribution to this massive global problem. As Phil Harding put it: “Everybody talks about population growth and its disastrous effect on climate change, food security and resource depletion, but nobody does anything about it.”

The time to move on this at all levels of humanity is now – 2050 is just around the corner.

When Our Global Food System Becomes Broken

As a scientific model it was intriguing, but the results were more troubling than anyone expected. Designed and developed by a team from the Anglia Ruskin University’s Global Sustainability Institute, the model assessed how the world’s food system would look if a business-as-usual approach was taken up until the year 2040. The findings, as presented by institute director Dr. Aled Jones, were almost apocalyptic in scope:

“The results show that based on plausible climate trends, and a total failure to change course, the global food supply system would face catastrophic losses, and an unprecedented epidemic of food riots. In this scenario, global society essentially collapses as food production falls permanently short of consumption.”

The chief culprit in all this is climate change, and it should be noted that the model’s findings would apply only if policies don’t change and we bury our collective heads in the sand. Nevertheless the possibility of food collapse in less than three decades is sobering and should serve as a call to action. It should also be added that this is but the latest of a series of scientific warnings about the sustainability of our global food systems should the status quo prevail.

When asked what this might look like, social scientists point to the 2011 Arab Spring uprising – a series of revolts that initially began as riots to complain about the high prices of food across the region. There were local causes for the escalating prices to be sure, but climate research revealed that weather events in Russia, Ukraine, Australia, Argentina, the United States, and even Canada had instigated the rise in food prices that were ultimately finding their way into the Arab world. Those demonstrating in the streets for governments to lower food prices likely didn’t fully understand that their problem was global in scope.

There is a multitude of supporting evidence adding weight to Ruskin University’s discovery, including Lloyds of London, which concluded that the global food system is “under chronic pressure.” Concurring was the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which project that global agricultural production has to more than double by 2050 to have supply meet demand. Others say that the world will have to grow 70% more food within 30 years to meet demand. Is that even possible in a time of increasing climate change challenges? Ideally, yes, but practically, given the human penchant for putting things off, probably not.

As we enter an era of skyrocketing food prices, environmental catastrophes, famines, floods, and ruined harvests, how exactly we begin collectively organizing ourselves, as citizens and governments, to realign our policy priorities, food production, and consumer habit to fit with a more restrained future? Predicting food prices can be a precarious practice, but these are products requiring sun, rain, fertilizing, fallowing fields, hardier seeds, sustainable water collection and efficient harvesting – all of which depend on the cooperation and consistently of our natural environment to succeed. Now that the climate is in a state of flux, it is inevitable that food resources and their pricing will face decades of serious challenges.

In our next post we’ll consider some of the measures that must be taken by all parties if we are to not only create sustainable food supplies but a renewal of our natural world that sustains all that we do and consume.

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