The Parallel Parliament

Glen Pearson

It All Comes Down To Us

Posted on June 3, 2018

And, so, it has come down to us – citizens – just as it always has. An election isn’t just about winners and losers; it’s also a kind of scheduled checkup on the health of our democracy.  So far, the vital signs aren’t good.

To be sure, there are indications that people remain committed to the political process and its importance to how we carve out our future together.  But not as many of them, and not nearly with the sense of confidence required to restore the optimism that was once part and parcel of our daily lives.

Something about this particular provincial election is deeply unsettling.  It’s hardly a secret, as people all over the province express a deep sense of disquiet over the manner in which political parties, their representatives and citizens in general have behaved.  Only the kind of people who thrive on politics feel pumped about electoral politics at the moment.  The rest turn their heads away in either disgust or shame at what is becoming of our political class.

Many wonder when sanity will prevail again.  Promises are made that can’t possibly be fulfilled but which are nevertheless trotted out in the hopes that voters are too dumb or too distracted to even notice.

And what of the attacks against female candidates that have become particularly acute in our city?  They are malicious, demeaning, and frequently border on the edge of hatred. For any particular party or candidate that uses such malevolent voices for their own twisted ends, there can only be one conclusion: that the political “win” warrants such practices, even if they bring down community in the process.

We are perhaps the last generation that will remember what life was like before the Internet.  For those who have lived through that transition, there is this troubling understanding that its potential to undercut and destroy the societal trust that once held our populace together is real and powerful.  Used in the right hands it can restore democracy, bring communities together, and help us believe in one and another and our collective potential again.  But elections are the optimal time for seeing what the online world can become when people will do anything, say anything, and believe anything as long as it cuts a path to power.  We have forgotten that, for all that the digital world has done for us, it demanded something from us in return – to be open-minded, fair, humble, always learning, and ready to speak out against intolerance and bigotry where they are found. We overlooked that part of the bargain, leaving our politics in a state of dysfunction just as we most require it to tackle our great challenges.

There are credible candidates running in this election, and there are sound policies from which to choose.  But makes no mistake, our politics is changing.  It’s not some kind of add-on to what has gone before.  It, instead, seeks to blow up what preceded it if that’s what it takes to win.  It will never rest until it can divide us sufficiently enough to gain power.  This will go on and on, election after election, until our democratic estate, like Humpty Dumpty, can’t be put back together again in some kind of manageable way.

What will we carry forward into the future should we, as citizens, continue to tolerate this kind of shame in our public life?  Are we honestly willing to put behind us what once made our democracy respectful, human, and malleable, despite its shortcomings?  We are proffered simplistic solutions instead of reasoned questions about how we should all live together.  And that’s because some who seek our vote think that’s all we as citizens care about.  Are they right?

The highest political office in the land isn’t in Parliament or Queen’s Park.  It is that of the citizen.  Only citizens can remove from power or deny power to those who would seek to weave a demeaning discord among us.  We are at our best when, despite our differences or party affiliation, there is a sense of respect and compromise for journeying into our future.  To tolerate the politics of bigotry, racism or outright hatred is to demean ourselves beyond the point where democracy can help us.

When we make a choice in a few days, let’s not just vote by our opinion alone, but with the sense that, whatever the electoral outcome, we are still left with the task of building our communities and our province together.  Let’s not burn the bridges we all need to cross in order to come together once the election is over.  Surely we can do better than what we have tolerated in this election.  It all comes down to us – citizens.

Read this post in its original London Free Press format here.

 

Follow the Food

Posted on May 31, 2018

There are many key components that keep a city functioning, but if you would want to check up on its overall health, it’s helpful to follow how it moves its food around.  Seriously, it’s one of the main ways you can judge just how integrated things are.

If healthy local food from the region is largely bypassing a city on its journey to other markets, then you know there’s a problem.  Should there be numerous food deserts that leave significant holes for food resources in neighbourhoods, it has a serious impact on citizens, especially for those in low-income situations or who aren’t mobile. If there are successful urban gardens that experience difficulty in the distribution of their harvests to locations that require them because of a lack of institutional support, then clearly something needs to be unblocked.  Or if food trucks aren’t permitted to transport their quality foodstuffs into areas of town that desire them, then that’s a whole other problem.

There are many such dysfunctions in communities today, but perhaps the most telling is just how much good food is directed to landfill sites that otherwise could have been put to better economic or charitable use.  It’s one thing for a city to attempt to remove the blockages that keep food from moving freely through its streets, but it’s especially serious – some say immoral – when good food ends up in landfills it was never destined for and which creates the kind of serious methane gas that contributes significantly to global warming.

A few years ago, some of us at the London Food Bank began looking into how food was flowing through our good city in an effort to reflow, replenish or rescue good food that wasn’t getting to its needed destination.  What we discovered prompted us to be one of the founding members of the Middlesex-London Food Policy Council – a group tasked with developing sound action items and policies in a collaborative and coordinated way across the region and not just London itself.

While the London Food Bank is now in its 32ndyear, the majority of that time saw us working effectively with grocery stores in the city at numerous levels, including through national and provincial networking opportunities.  Over the years, grocery stores began offering their surplus products to us in what eventually became a steady and sustainable stream of corporate goodwill.  It was successful enough that 43% of all donated items are of the fresh food variety.  But it had all come together organically over the years with no real systemic architecture that was city-wide.

Until yesterday.  When the food bank sat down with officials from the City of London and the Middlesex-London Food Policy Council, we quickly learned that there was a keen desire to “rescue” healthy food from grocery stores at a wide level.  And since the London Food Bank was already working on an ad hoc basis with the city’s stores and had the infrastructure to support it, it was agreed that a new comprehensive effort be established that not only freed the area landfills from such products, but also redirected them to families suffering in food insecurity. Western University is also assisting with the research and design of the effort. The enterprise was formalized and yesterday was the press conference announcing the effort, recognizing that it was a plan launched by the City, managed by the London Food Bank, and guided by the Food Policy Council and university research.

The food bank has also been working with farmers in the region for a number of years through the Community Harvest program, and with assistance from London’s Western Fair Association, to pretty much accomplish the same thing in rural areas.  But this move to establish a city-wide effort with numerous partners is a significant development in our city’s move forward.

And for the London Food Bank it represents perhaps the biggest challenge we have faced in the last three decades.  We are working with others to secure a large enough warehouse, with walk-in cooler and freezer space, to house the food, that will then be distributed to other agencies.  Additional vehicles with similar capacities will have to be procured.  There’s a lot to do, but we as a food bank board have been encouraged by the leadership already being demonstrated by the grocery stores and their corporate headquarters.  They are releasing their produce earlier in the process, which permits us extra time to get it to its next destination.

The challenge is intense, but the London Food Bank remains committed to assisting with such efforts to keep food flowing more easily throughout our city and region as a means for making our community healthier and more functional.  We have also been taking a lead in bringing partners to together in an effort to establish a regional southwestern Ontario food hub within London, which will prove to be a significant step forward in food sustainability and locally grown production capacities.

So, yes, follow how food moves about in London in the next few years as an indication of how our community is coming together, eating together and collaborating together in a manner that’s not only good for the environment and struggling families, but for a community that’s taking its food responsibility seriously enough to chart a new course for the future.  For the food bank the challenge is there, but we couldn’t be more committed to it, for the sake of all Londoners.

The Time For Tinkering Is Over

Posted on May 25, 2018

Writing posts like this is never easy.  Partisans of one stripe or the other relentlessly claim that their party’s policies will do the trick, introduce a new era of prosperity, or restore voter confidence in politics and democracy.  We’ve heard all this before, numerous times, and in diverse fashions, but the net result always seems the same – loss of voter confidence that leaves many wondering if anybody can really turn things around.

Yesterday I did an interview with our local paper on a Toronto Star story that concerned how government interventions at various levels have helped the city’s food bank – the country’s largest – see their numbers decline somewhat.  It true – all of it.  Remedial efforts through things like tax credits, transport passes, housing funding and the removal of claw-backs that inevitably robbed Peter to pay Paul have had clear effects and for the families in need of such actions there is some relief.

But do we honestly believe that rolling out a diverse array of social programs is going to end poverty?  They are welcome and we credit those governments for implementing such initiatives, but by themselves such actions will never deal effectively with mental health problems that are systemic, an affordable housing crisis that will take years, decades even, to finally meet the demand, or Indigenous poverty that remains at alarming rates.  And how will poverty be overcome when jobs continue to disappear and those that are appearing are primarily minimum wage in the service sector?  A Basic Income Guarantee could be promising but it’s still too early to tell.  Regardless, people would still prefer a good job.  Can poverty be overcome in my own city of London when almost half the workforce (48%) is presently employed in precarious or vulnerable employment?  Fix that problem and then we can sit down and seriously discuss the eradication of poverty.

What of our collective response to the emerging catastrophe of climate change when we can’t even agree of a price for carbon emissions?  When will Canadian women attain equal pay for equal work?  These are serious challenges in an age of relentless hurdles.  No government has the funds to seriously attack the problems.  Citizens don’t want to be increasingly taxed to pay for such improvement.  Corporations remain focused on their bottom line.  And let’s not get started on discussing political renewal.

It doesn’t matter which part of the political spectrum one occupies, none has solutions that are fulsome  and truly revolutionary. The sad fact is that whichever party gains power there is little progress to show for it – things remain stubbornly stagnant or in a state of gradual decline.

Why has there been such little forward movement?  The answer should be obvious: such things cost substantially and all parties are reticent to draft election platforms proposing that we must all share in the burden of progress by investing more.  There is no vision, agenda or long-term plan for this. Instead we have tinkering – take a little bit here, give a bit there, and limp along as before, hoping to win government in the process.

The sad truth is out there: no one has the plan or temerity to challenge us as citizens and companies to step forward once more, as we did following the Second World War, and indulge in the kind of civic activism and sacrifice that can build communities, hospitals, local businesses, hospitals, universities, a vibrant arts culture and a media climate that puts citizenship before click revenue.  Parties and their respective leaders would love to adopt such a vision, but they are firm in their belief that we want more, not give more, and so they promise, promise, promise.

So little is changing for all those promises and all those governments of all stripes.  Governments around the world are as equally flummoxed as to what to do.  The reality is that neither the Left, the Right, nor the Centre presently has the solutions that can tackle our deepest challenges and we’d best come to terms with it.  It’s tough to have vision when you believe citizens and companies who say they actually want it have no intention of paying for it.  And, so, the electoral promises always come up short.

How can we build a better future world if we can’t even repair this one?  Seriously. The scriptures say that without a vision the people perish.  That is equally true today since no vision can work that doesn’t include the people themselves.  All those promises of progress have become cursed by stagnation.  Jobs without people.  Wealth without work.  Politics without principle.  Citizenship without sacrifice.  All these add up to what we have and will never change until each of us steps up and demands to be part of the solution.

A Woman For All Time

Posted on May 21, 2018

She has this particular day named after her, but so few us know much about Queen Victoria.  Given that this a holiday named after her remarkable identity and reign, that’s just a bit embarrassing.

Though she had much to say about the prospects for, and station of, women that would likely infuriate the average feminist of today, her life and accomplishments are virtually unmatched in history.  A woman exercising remarkable power in an age where men primarily dominated every important aspect of life and influence, it’s worthwhile for us to spend a bit of time getting to know her better, this woman whose prominence got most of us the day off.

Prior to becoming queen, Victoria faced a difficult upbringing. After losing her father to pneumonia when she was only 8 months old, she was virtually locked away in Kensington Palace under rigorous adult supervision.  Her schooling was private and hard, emphasizing both moral and intellectual pursuits.  There was virtually no time to spend with other children and she spent every waking moment being accompanied by one or more adults.  The pleasures and delights of childhood were never to be hers and later in life she reminisced: “I led a very unhappy life as a child and did not know what a happy domestic life was.”  Those difficult years affected her character and, though surely difficult, provided her with outstanding toughness and intuition.

When she became queen at 18 years of age, Victoria was already remarkably intelligent, spoke several languages and held a firm grasp of history, especially that of Europe.  Though people were required to show her deference, few expected much of this younger, shy woman.  Her advisers anticipated that she would prove to be a weak ruler who would simply hold place until someone stronger came along.  That she would live to be England’s longest serving monarch until just recently might have shocked them.  She refused to defer to her advisors, surprised all the skeptics, and developed a remarkably strong will that some saw as stubbornness but others viewed as essential to be a great monarch.  She rose to the occasion, quickly learning the intricacies of statecraft and diplomacy, and even at that young age began building a legacy that could never quite be matched.

Victoria looked to her own private pursuits for inspiration. She always painted and sketched and her writing was prolific.  She wrote daily journals that eventually took up 120 volumes and authored two books about travelling in the Scottish Highlands.  She took to self-education naturally, perhaps making up for those childhood moments she was denied in her earlier life.  Her early reign was characterized by bouts of laughter and entertainment.  She especially loved Scottish music and dancing.

Her personal life took a warm turn when she married Prince Albert. They enjoyed 20 romantic and adventurous years together, during which they had nine children.  Sadly, Albert suddenly took sick and died from typhoid when he was 42, leaving Victoria disconsolate.  She was never the same.  While a middle-aged woman of remarkable powers and insights, grief was her constant companion since her husband’s loss.  She was a fully human woman in deep pain, withdrawing from public life and taking on elaborate mourning rituals that would go on for years.  She was so consumed by her sense of loss and personal pain that she fell into a state of depression that lasted years.  She neglected her royal duties, was rarely seen in public, and slowly lost her popularity.  Her subjects, never seeing their Queen anymore, grew in their disgruntlement of her royal income.  When Victoria finally re-emerged in the 1870s, she remained a deeply pained woman who nevertheless understood her responsibility to her people and the empire.

The re-kindling of her people’s affection brought a sense of consolation back into her life.  She was so comforted by their support that she told one friend, “The important thing is not what they think of me, but what I think of them.”  Despite a grief that would last to the end, Victoria saw in her people a remarkable ability to overcome trial, to forge themselves in a resolute nation, and to turn their industry and hard work into a global economic force.  She believed in them in the way that few politicians do today.

We know of her days of empire and the remarkable enlightenment that ran through the British people during her lengthy reign.  In a modern era where critics abound, she hasn’t escaped becoming the target of an activist scourge.  Yet she was a woman far ahead of her time, possessed of gifts that made her a true feminine champion in a masculine era.  And she was tough, having survived a difficult childhood, at least 6 assassination attempts, the loss of the love of her love, and the passing of some of her children.  She could always see the bigger picture, commenting once that, “Great events make me quiet and calm; it is only trifles that irritate my nerves.”

Victoria stands as one of the great and towering figures of history – a woman of her time but also of all time.  Today is called “Victoria Day” for a reason.  Canada has understood her importance even to our own history and development.  If we are going to enjoy a holiday today, we might as well understand something of the remarkable woman who is its cause.

National Geographic photo of the Japanese Anu people (1880)

Lost for Words

Posted on May 17, 2018

Grief can be a fickle thing.  The loss of someone close to us can throw us into periods of personal darkness and pain for months, even years.  Human beings have remarkable capacity of bearing such things.

Thanks to modern technology, we are aware that literally dozens of species are going extinct every day and a rate at 1,000 to 10,000 times the natural rate.  Yet other than a little flutter of concern, we carry on as though such a reality doesn’t exist.  That’s one of those ironic things about living in affluence: we are more aware but less concerned of such things than ever.  And unlike those mass extinction events that occur occasionally in history, these current extinction rates are caused by only one species on those planet – us.

Less known is the permanent loss of languages that occur regularly.  For humans, language is everything.  It’s how we communicate, think, suffer, celebrate and carry on our daily routines. Without a capacity to put things in words, life has little else for us.

In 2007, linguists informed the world that of the 7,000 languages spoken today, nearly half are in danger of extinction and will disappear in the next few decades.  That rate is now increasing, with a language falling out of use at a rate of one every two weeks. Some fade away at the death of the last surviving speaker of a language, but the majority inevitably vanish from living in bilingual cultures in which one language becomes dominant because of its use in school, in business and in the entertainment industry.

Recent research has helped us determine what regions are most at risk.  There are five of them and their location might surprise you – Central South America, Northern Australia, North America’s upper Pacific coast (including British Columbia), Eastern Siberia and the Southwest United States.  What they all have in common is the occupation by aboriginal people speaking diverse languages but in decreasing numbers.

A joint study between National Geographic and the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages revealed that more than half of these endangered languages have “no written form and are vulnerable to loss and being forgotten.” The study notes that these languages leave no dictionaries when they pass into oblivion, no text, no records of accumulated knowledge or history of the culture as it vanishes.

As profound as this is, it contains a deeper meaning for us when we realize just how little we really care about the loss of languages that have been with us for millennia.  According to UNESCO research, between 1950 and 2010, 230 languages went extinct and one-third of the world’s remaining languages have fewer than 1,000 speakers left. They conclude with a real kicker: 50 to 90% of our remaining languages will disappear by next century.

Trying to keep an indigenous language from being lost in BC

It should trouble us to learn that languages face an extinction rate that exceeds that of birds, animals, fish or plants and that the cause of such a loss is again rooted in the practices of the human species. Globalization has shaped us into a planet where dominance becomes oppressive – wealth, military might, culture and, yes, language.  For much of these last two centuries, dominant cultures have imposed language on indigenous people, frequently through coercion, and in places like coast British Columbia with devastating results.  And factors like climate change and urbanization force linguistically diverse and rural communities to migrate and assimilate to new communities with new languages.

Some reading this data will merely shrug, saying that, though it’s sad in its own way, it is the price of progress and adaptation.  Maybe, but it’s the fact that we tolerate such extinctions with little thought that is the most troubling portent for humanity.  It’s not the reality and scale of such loss that should haunt us, but our apparent indifference to it all.  Lose a language and you also lose an identity, a history, a personality and an ability to face the future with the learned lessons of the past.

“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world,” penned Ludwig Wittgenstein.  But what happens when language disappears altogether?  Our world is gone, replaced by some globalized and artificial culture that carries little of our past and virtually nothing of our shared history. It forms one of our greatest crimes against our indigenous people, but perhaps greater still is that we tolerate this development with little true thought of what it means.

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