The Parallel Parliament

Glen Pearson

In a Dysfunctional World, Individual Potential Matters More Than Ever

Posted on February 8, 2018

Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of us, are feeling the tug to just give up.  We shun giving in because we instinctively understand that the direction much of the world is travelling is inequitable and unsustainable.  Yet a kind of resignation is confronting so many of us as we sense that little we do seems to change anything.  For all the mention of the importance of the individual in democracy the reality is we feel alienated by the sweeping power of globalization, the impending timetable of climate change, and the sense that democracy is in trouble around the world.

And then those moments of personal meaning occur when we come to understand that our lives can alter the destiny for others, instilling within them, and us, a sense of hope.

A team of eleven Canadians for Canadian Aid for South Sudan (CASS) have just returned from the region where the chances of making a difference would normally seem remote.  Civil war, famine, dire poverty, a health crisis, the reality of the nation becoming a failed state – all these would seem to indicate that the individual would have less chance of changing the environment than almost anywhere else.  It’s a natural assumption – as natural as it is wrong.

I watched as thousands of southern Sudanese, fretting that they had been forgotten by the world and their own government, engaged their Canadian visitors to show they were still working to change the fate of their communities.  Far from acknowledging what the rest of the world might be thinking of their nation (the world’s newest), they revealed that citizens themselves were determined to fight for democracy, women’s rights, and a more prosperous future.

And the sight of Canadians visiting in the mud huts of families struggling in destitution and then distributing goats and grain as they left was powerful and those families sensed they had been noticed, heard and resourced.  When a number of very intelligent girls learned that they had received full secondary school scholarships from CASS, in large part due to a generous donation from the Sisters of St. Joseph, they at last faced an open door, held ajar by individual Canadians willing to invest in their future.  To be received at a vitally alive women’s centre that we have supported for years and which, despite famine and malaria, thrives with farming microenterprises and presses for political recognition, is something that instills hope in anyone present.

This seems counter-intuitive –  looking for individual influence in the middle of a collective mess – but it is precisely where the power of the individual can have its greatest effect.  In South Sudan, of all places, democracy is alive and, in some spots, thriving.  Where people once talked of the need for primary schools they now consistently refer to high schools and universities.  Women who once sought a sliver of independence only a decade ago now speak of running for high political office or managing their own businesses.  And average citizens, once cowed by their political and military leaders, now express their distrust openly and call for a better life and a more representative democracy.  In a word: revolutionary.

We must get our heads around the reality that, in a world of collective dysfunction, individual influence is more possible, and crucial, than ever, despite what we are told.

It’s time to stop thinking that nothing we do really matters.  Today, individuals are 30 times richer than our ancestors two centuries ago.  That wealth, when made available for great social causes, can redirect humanity’s path.  In America, 72% of charitable giving comes from individuals, with 15% from foundations, and 5% from corporations.  In Canada, individual giving is up to almost $13 billion per year, with 82% of Canadian citizens donating to important causes.

We forever hear, see and read of prominent figures starting companies, owning sports teams, and making their billions.  But it is average citizens, through giving and volunteering, that keep the wheels of human compassion and justice churning.  The power to revolutionize the world is ours to retain and use, not just through voting but through giving and acting.

In South Sudan today, at this very moment, are some remarkable women and men who have discovered new reason to hope because a group of 10 women and one man paid their own way and distributed the generous givings of average Canadians for people who are already showing the intelligence, adaptability, and courage to change their communities.  Individual Canadians made this possible and it is average Southern Sudanese who enact it.

Forget the doom. Cast off the sense of impotence.  If individual sacrifice can work in a warring country, it can function in a modern complex democracy.  But we must believe that is so.  And we must prove once again to a troubled world that individuals not only matter, but, in fact, form the vanguard for the hopes of a better democracy.

Alan Hamson (suit and tie) with the Canadian Aid for Southern Sudan team

Between Two Worlds

Posted on January 31, 2018

In a modern hurried-up world, they rank as some of the least understood or acknowledged forces for policy, diplomacy, human justice or humanitarianism.  There are less than 200 of them in a world of billions and inevitably become the face of their country.

I’m speaking of ambassadors.  They are everywhere and nowhere at the same time.  They aren’t the celebrity type, appointed by UNICEF or other vast organizations because of their profile.  Instead, most have gone through years of foreign service training that includes a background in foreign aid, conflict management, military functioning, and communications.

In Canada’s case, our international reputation owes much to the high quality of diplomatic acumen in key regions of the globe, especially during the formative years of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.  If it has slipped somewhat in recent decades, it is largely because of political manipulations that inevitably undercut this most valuable of Canadian assets.

A team of 11 Canadian volunteers have just returned from South Sudan, where, annually, our organization visits to provide support of our women’s programs in that troubled land.  The heroism and inspiration of the region’s women was as always – valiant, collaborative, enduring, sustainable, and, remarkably, hopeful.  All this despite the death of thousands by famine, civil war, a crisis in healthcare, and corruption at high political levels.

One of the key occasions that will remain with our team was our meeting with Canada’s ambassador to South Sudan, Alan Hamson.  The moment we arrived, grubby and fatigued, he was at the door – tall, well-attired and with a kind of familiar efficiency that lent easily to discussion.  The meeting room barely fit us all and many of us found ourselves wondering how someone so pivotal functioned in such a small space.  And yet day after day Hamson and his team somehow navigate the constraints in order to accomplish tasks both great and small.

It was clear from the moment we entered that the ambassador and his team weren’t there for the financial reward or the notoriety.  In simple terms: they endured all the hardships for the sake of their country.  Most were Canadians in a faraway and frequently hostile place so that the Canadian flag itself carried the value of understanding, compassion, a firm belief in global justice, inclusion and tolerance.  Each was skilled in their own particular discipline and had worked hard to get there, despite the hostility of the surroundings and the difficulties endured as part of their work.

The ambassador prodded us, seeking clarification on what was happening in the remote regions of the country where we worked.  He was especially keen on learning of the plight of women in the area and was delighted to hear of their advancement despite the obstacles.  And when we questioned him as to his insights, Hamson was careful to converse within the boundaries of his diplomatic responsibilities – revealing enough to intrigue us with his knowledge yet restrained enough to maintain the confidentiality required to work with all partners in the country.

It became clear to me only a few moments into the meeting that our ambassador to South Sudan was conscious of the reality that he was the key representative by which his own country of Canada would be judged by the locals.  Any thoughtless act would reflect on the Canadians he represented.  Every effort at patient understanding would inevitably hint to others what his home country represented.  Hamson was careful on this point, but not to extent that he wasn’t open.  He spoke of his frustrations and hardships, along with his belief in the average Southern Sudanese citizen, especially women, and their right to reshape their new nation status by their own values.

For Hamson, humanitarianism wasn’t so much an activity as a calling card for Canada itself – including his own reason for being there.  In a land with so high a death and conflict rate, mixed with devastating poverty, a human face and an extended hand can frequently mean more than words.  As he put it in a recent interview:

“The volume of people in a dire humanitarian situation is mind blowing.  Five and half people within the next six months will be facing severe food insecurity.  This will affect half the country’s population.  That’s a staggering number of people who really require a concerted effort from humanitarian agencies to maintain their basic food and nutrients.”

This formed a great part of the reason he wanted to meet with us.  Regardless of our being only a small organization, the fact was the we had been working in the country for two decades and Hamson was thirsty for anything that would enlighten him on the state of the Southern Sudanese themselves and their fight for survival.  He dutifully reminds anyone who will listen that Canada has pledged millions to the humanitarian effort, but it was clear to all of us that more was required if the nation was to endure.

We left the office with increased knowledge of how vital Canada’s foreign service is and how individual servants like Alan Hamson are as vital to our country’s image and effectiveness in the world as any prime minister or corporation.  He willingly accepted us because, for all his professional accomplishments, he is a humanitarian at heart – a man suspended between two worlds.  That was more than enough for us and a badge of honour for our country.


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

Public Places Shape Civil Society

Posted on January 31, 2018

He called it “the Third Place,” and though most haven’t heard of it, the name has remained an intriguing part of the vision many community activists have for our quality of life.

Urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg, in his book Celebrating the Third Place (2000), tried to imagine what our communities would look like without all the coffee shops, bars, stores, parks, streets, celebrations, gardens and neighbourhood stores that serve as casual intersections where citizens cross paths. His conclusion? They simply wouldn’t function as effective living spaces.

Oldenburg identified “third places” as those locations where the public meets between the “first place” (home) and the “second place” (work). They have existed in every community for centuries, though some observers worry that, with ever-expanding suburbia, third places are becoming increasingly rare.

That doesn’t really seem to be the case. As life becomes increasingly fast-paced and, for many, alienating, people are searching for new opportunities to connect with others in settings that are secure and welcoming and offer quality amenities.

While community associations and engaged citizens search out such opportunities, families, friends, and individuals are frequenting third places more regularly.

To the surprise of many, businesses and corporations are coming to understand the need for their own employees to socialize in the workplace and are creating third places within the work environment. Employees are encouraged to come together for coffee or tea and share concepts and ideas in more informal environments.

The more this change makes its way deeper into the business culture, the more the old-fashioned belief that the key to more productivity is to keep the workers at their desks is being left behind in favour of collaborative outcomes. A by-product of this adjustment has been a rise in innovation.

But it’s within civil society that the Third Place carries its greatest meaning and deepest potential. It’s been obvious from the beginning of democracy itself, as noted by American philosopher John Dewey: “The heart and final guarantee of democracy is in the free gatherings of neighbours on the street corners to discuss back and forth and converse freely with one another.”

Now that energy flows beyond the streets and into the coffee shops, restaurants, libraries, houses of faith, art galleries, music clubs — just as it always did, only now with a sense of urgency to redefine community for a new era.

In third places are people of differing backgrounds and diverse occupations, a flurry of opinions on politics and social policies, and a variety of levels of income and opportunity. The sheer scope of ideas and opinions helps citizens to understand one another better as opposed to remaining isolated in their experience.

Both important and mundane matters get discussed on an ongoing basis in third places. Discussion, though informal, is respectful instead of vengeful because participants are learning to think on their feet in a group setting and quickly discover, to their own chagrin, what happens when they belittle others as those in the room express their disapproval.

The Third Place is the true training ground for democracy, not a parliament or policy school, or even online interaction. It is through such settings that citizens develop the skills for engaging the political sector as well as interacting with media, both social and traditional. But more than anything they learn to function in the knowledge that others are watching, interacting and hopefully seeking consensus instead of merely imposing their own will and opinions.

As the American activist, feminist and poet Audre Lorde put it: “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” Anyone who has sought to truly live in community understands this to be so.

That famed author on civic life, Jane Jacobs, would add, “People must take a modicum of public responsibility for each other even if they have no ties to each other.”

If we are to transform our communities and neighbourhoods for a more collaborative future, it will ultimately be accomplished by a more enlightened and engaged citizenry that keeps itself open and transformative, and the political order along with it.

As we move into heightened political battles in both the local and provincial arenas this year, it is imperative that these third places we all frequent become alive with ideas, understanding and, above all, collective action.


The post can be viewed in its original London Free Press format here.

No Time For Easy Tears

Posted on January 9, 2018

My wife and I leave in a few days to lead a humanitarian team into South Sudan (  A trek we make every year at this time, this coming visit is occurring during a time of dramatic challenge in South Sudan specifically, and Africa in general.

In various African nations, youth are increasingly coming onside for democracy.  Foreign Policy magazine cites examples from numerous nations where younger generations are making their desire for a better life a premise for change.

“Their optimism has been buoyed in part by the rise of an aggressively independent media, the maturing of institutions such as the judiciary, and by the explosion of nongovernmental organizations fighting to hold governments accountable despite increasingly restrictive conditions … Never in Africa’s independent history has such a broad alliance stood for democracy against elites with deep financial and security ties to powerful countries in the wider world.”

Is this true for South Sudan?  Not yet, but it doesn’t mean that moment isn’t coming.  Political dysfunction at so many different levels is slowly creating a willingness among citizens of that deeply divided land to press for political changes in how the world’s newest nation is managed.  It remains a difficult thing to create reforms when the institutions charged with protecting and enhancing the country are themselves broken.

In the region of Aweil, South Sudan, where we develop women’s programs, women have been more stridently speaking out against the lack of opportunity for them and their children.  Two years ago, we opened up a secondary school in the region, open to all but specifically geared to helping girls receive their high school education.  Despite the many obstacles faced in the area the school continues to flourish, as Southern Sudanese again demonstrate their innate knowledge that it will be education that will build a better future.

And despite an extensive famine and an 800% inflation rate, the women’s programs we fund each year through fundraising efforts in Canada – clean water, micro-enterprise, education, and political empowerment – have continued to function, in some cases flourish, in the midst of a crippling and bloody civil war.  As in other parts of the globe, women are taking on increased leadership roles despite the challenges and frequent threats.  All this is being done with little domestic support but with resources being offered through nongovernmental organizations and international media.

It would be a mistake to consider this some kind of hashtag trend, for it has been a slowly building movement for half-a-century, and the cost in lives has been tragic.  Yet it continues, not merely because of some kind of ideology, but the drive of every person for a better life for their children, themselves, their country and the future.  The people of South Sudan remain the embodiment of Reinhold Neibuhr’s observation: “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.”  It is that belief that makes international efforts to assist the Southern Sudanese on their path still worth doing – the people themselves still believe they will succeed.

For decades, the dedicated work undertaken by aid and development organizations, large and small, hasn’t been to merely keep that struggling nation on life support, but to side with a great and struggling people in their belief that change is yet worth it and still within their grasp – despite all the evidence to the contrary.

The Canadian government continues to contribute millions of dollars to relief and development operations in South Sudan, but there remains a greater need for Canadian officials to tell of the remarkable work being done by NGOs of all varieties in what seems like an impossible situation.  With the devastating news in recent years of the Southern Sudanese turmoil and democratic setback, it remains an easy thing for Canadian citizens to read the negative stories and simply assume that the situation is impossible.  The very presence of government and NGO support, and especially the redoubtable courage of the Southern Sudanese themselves, remind us that this just isn’t so.  The Trudeau government must tell that story over and over again.  Progress sometimes takes years, decades, centuries even, but it will emerge as long as the people themselves believe in their future and in their own right to sacrifice and shape it.  Inevitably the people themselves are the only ones capable of altering their course.

Canada is a global nation – a meaningful reality relentlessly proved each time we reach out beyond ourselves to help other nations still on their journey to liberation, social justice and prosperity.  It’s what Canadians do and it brings hope and humanizes our own nation.  Our team leaves this week in that hope and in the belief that the Southern Sudanese themselves wish it even more than we do.  To our generosity as Canadians and their government must now be added a tenaciousness of purpose beautifully written by Paul Monette: “Take your easy tears somewhere else.  Tell yourself none of this ever had to happen.  And then go make it stop.  With whatever breath you have left.  Grief is a sword or it is nothing.”



A December Like No Other

Posted on January 6, 2018

Signs that Christmas 2017 were going to be different began in September when we had three remarkable exploratory meetings.

  • CBC Radio London confirmed for us that they wished to organize a “Sounds of the Season” for December as a way of generating community support for the London Food Bank as well as exploring the issue of poverty in the city.
  • Business Cares – a city-wide initiative that has been running for over years and brings London businesses together in a coordinated effort to raise funds and food for the London Food Bank – held preparation meetings, appointed a working committee, and began working out how the hectic holiday season would look when it came to donation time.
  • The London Food Bank was invited to an exploratory session with executives from the Grand Theatre to discuss the possibility of gaining support for the London Food Bank during its exciting “A Christmas Carol” presentation that was planning to run for the entire month of December

By the end of September it was clear that the Christmas holiday season would be unlike anything we had experienced before at the food bank. Along with these three exciting initiatives we knew that the London community – its organizations, houses of faith, schools, service clubs and individual citizens would soon be in the process of holding food and fundraising drives that would complement the work done in these larger initiatives. And that’s just how it all played out.

Sounds of the Season

When CBC Radio One London opened in the Central Library location last year it was clear that they were searching for ways of bringing the city together through its programming, planning and its annual “Sounds of the Season” initiative in December’s holiday season.

Everything kicked off on December 1st, where the morning show was set up in the Old East Village Grocers location (Adelaide & Dundas) and asked the public to come down and bring donations with them for the food bank. There were music, gifts, interviews (including with those who have faced the grinding pressures of poverty), coffee and treats.

CBC has done this through its local stations across the country and the food banks in those communities have been the recipients of all that diligent organizing. The December 1st event was only the kick-off in London, however. On December 13th, at the Central Library’s Wolf Hall, CBC again did a live show with a variety of musical acts, games, art, prizes, interviews and the inevitable holiday spirit.

These two initiatives helped to raise over 5,000 pounds of food and close to $1500. Better than anything, however, was how the community combined to promote their life together and what they have accomplished. Special thanks to CBC for making that possible.

Business Cares

Every December a growing group of local businesses put their heads together to gather food and money for the London Food Bank throughout the month. The very first effort some 20 years ago raised 35,000 pounds over the month, but this December was astounding – 435,000 pounds of food were donated. That was a 34% increase over the last year and some 500 businesses cooperated in the venture. It’s difficult to overestimate how crucial this drive has become for the food bank – our largest of the year.

Grand Theatre

When the good folks from the Grand Theatre first approached the London Food Bank with the possibility of partnering together for the month of December, food bank officials immediately sensed how important this connection could be.

The Grand’s new Director, Dennis Garnhum, wondered if it would be possible the link “A Christmas Carol” – the largest production ever put on by the Grand – with the plight of hungry families in the community through supporting the 3500 families helped each month through the London Food Bank. With over 35 performances slated for the month, the initiative promised to have great impact.

And it did. At the close of each performance, the play’s main character, Ebenezer Scrooge, directly addressed the audience and reminded them of the realities of hunger in London. People were then asked to donate cash on their way out of the theatre. The initiative became an instant hit and by the time of the production’s last performance on New Years Eve, a total of $134,400 had been collected. This was far and away higher than anyone involved had expected and helped the Grand itself have a remarkable impact in the community. Some of the cast, crew and staff of the Grand even visited the London Food Bank for an afternoon and helped compile hampers for families in need. The effects of this kind of interest still linger with the staff and volunteers of the food bank itself.


The three great initiatives, wonderful as they were, didn’t happen n a vacuum. Throughout the London community people and organizations were gathering in ways that would contribute to the London Food Bank. All told in December, hundreds of food drives were going on, of which the 500-600 campaigns occurring through Business Cares, were only a part. Families came through the month to the food bank to volunteer, generous donors send in an abundance of donations online through the food bank website – – and throughout London people found innovative and caring ways of showing their support.

Key to it all was the tremendous support from all sectors of London media. Gripping stories of those struggling in poverty were recounted. Media personalities were on-hand to help with various food drives. And coverage of all the events was made possible through an engaged and committed media.

And now, as December slides into January and a new year is upon us, the work begins of distributing all that generosity not only to the 3500 families they help each month (close to 9,000 individuals), but also to the over 20 other social agencies that the food bank helps on a regular basis. The funds brought in throughout this past December will greatly assist the London Food Bank in reaching its goal for this year of reaching 50% of all food supplies being of fresh and perishable varieties. Currently, 40% of all supplies given out at the food bank are perishable.

December 2017 was a month of one of the most remarkable periods in the London Food Bank’s 31-year tenure in the community. It was a season in which the community organized at remarkable levels and the larger supplies of food will now be available through those efforts. It was London’s compassion in action and we are still feeling the effects. Thanks to all who participated and we wish you a most meaningful 2018.

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