The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: canada

A Unique Commitment With a Powerful Champion

Yesterday’s story by Toronto Star’s Tonda McCharles on the possibility of Canada’s peacekeeping future being tied with the demilitarization of child soldiers could represent a clear departure for this country’s foreign agenda.

Two key influencers have come together to move Canada in that direction. The first is the UN Peacekeeping Defense Ministerial forum to be held in Vancouver in November, and the second is the redoubtable General Roméo Dallaire.   The global forum, designed to gain pledges from the participating nations towards peacekeeping, will be interested in Canadian input since this country’s participation on that file has been under review for an extended time. Still, the idea of having a rapid deployment military unit that can move quickly and be trained on preventing the recruitment and mobilization of child soldiers would prove a unique and intriguing contribution to the global commitment to peace.

The international event comes at a pivotal time for Dallaire, the former military general, and senator, who launched the Child Soldier Initiative in 2007 and which is housed at Dalhousie University. In venues around the world, he has struggled to help decision makers come to grips with the growing immoral problem of using youth in combat and especially the increase in the use of girls for such a purpose. His 2010 book, They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children, revealed his extensive understanding of the problem and his commitment to working on a solution.

While an MP, I worked with the General as he launched his initiative and watched in real time his increasing sense of urgency over the fate of youth in combat – he became a man possessed and a formidable global voice on the matter. At one point he wrote: “The ultimate focus of the rest of my life is to eradicate the use of child soldiers and to eliminate even the thought of the use of children as instruments of war.” That’s a pretty strong commitment, and coming from Dallaire it is a binding promise.

There was a time when the use of kids under the age of sixteen as warriors was frowned upon and rare, but that all changed with the increase of regional conflicts across the globe, especially in Africa. Dallaire told me in my office one day that creating a child to kill was much like moving a product through an assembly line. The molding of the young mind towards hatred and violence is a complex arrangement and breaking down that process is no simple matter.

Should the Canadian government commit to the demobilizing of child soldiers it must understand the recruitment process in troubled regions. To assume that armies sweep through a village and forcibly mobilize kids to kill is something of a misnomer.   In South Sudan, as an example, idle boys with nothing to do gravitate to a military unit encamped in the area, often intrigued with the camaraderie of soldiers, fascinated with weaponry and hopeful of some kind of wage. Without urging, they follow along with the units, offering to cart supplies or undertake physical labour. In most cases, they are denied participation yet they continue to “track” the unit in hopes of joining forces.

“The ultimate focus of the rest of my life is to eradicate the use of child soldiers and to eliminate even the thought of the use of children as instruments of war.”

For girls it’s different. Many have lost parents in the fighting or face famine and sickness. The military forces have their own food supplies, doctors, medical provisions and security, so they begin to shadow the soldiers in hopes of survival or protection. After a time they are set to work cleaning and cooking and, almost inevitably, take on something of a concubine status. Some are trained as killing units, while most remain in support roles.

This kind of recruitment wouldn’t transpire if medical and educational services were readily available in the regions. In addition, host governments, even rebel commanders, are conscious of the breaking of international legal protocols through the use of child soldiers. For these reasons, any effort on Canada’s part to launch anything to do with demobilizing child soldiers must be partnered with effective development. To incorporate one without the other can only result in ongoing enlisting. Canada’s development assistance must take this into account, especially for women and girls.

The possibility of Canada providing a peacekeeping component to effectively deal with child soldiers is a project worthy of both our past and future. As Dallaire said about the possibility: “To lead must be your aim … Bring your new-found depth of argument to the political elite of our nations and remind them of their enormous responsibility to protect, to assist, to intervene.” Sounds like an intriguing Canadian venture, one that we must enact with understanding and commitment.

Payette’s Appointment Breaks New Ground – Again

As appointments go, the choice of Julie Payette as Canada’s new Governor General was figuratively out of this world. The former astronaut had completed two missions to the space station and spent seven years as the Canadian Space Agency’s chief astronaut. But her qualifications were far more wide ranging: speaking six languages, commercial pilot, a computer engineer, and active participant in numerous social causes.

Yet there was one key component to add to the appeal of the 53-year old from Montreal and it was pivotal: Payette perfectly fit Canada’s present view of itself. The almost universal testimonials to her appointment were proof enough of that reality and the celebrations prompted by the announcement spoke to our own collective view of present-day Canada in the midst of a troubled world.

This country has a history of doing the unexpected when it comes to the Governor General selection. Two of the last three Governors General were women and each played a dynamic role in presenting a Canadian face that was acceptable not only for domestic consumption but for international appeal. Payette appears more than ready to break new ground in the pattern of Adrienne Clarkson and Michelle Jean, not to mention David Johnson, who preceded her. Their appointments were a tribute, not only the remarkable individuality of these leaders, but to a nation that discerned in them a reflection of itself.

In recent months I’ve been authoring a thematic study of John Buchan, one of John F, Kennedy’s favourite authors, and Canada’s 15th Governor General (1935-1940). Even in those pivotal years as we entered World War Two Canada was willing to break the mould. His appointment created a sensation when it was reported that he was the first commoner ever selected for the position (he was actually the second). Rather than some kind of convenient placeholder from the British House of Lords, as was the tradition, Buchan was an internationally acclaimed author – his most famous work being Thirty-Nine Steps, a spy thriller later made into two major movies.

But Buchan was more than a wordsmith. He worked for the British government in South Africa, oversaw Britain’s spies in World War One, was a Member of Parliament for Scottish universities, an avid adventurer, and a successful businessman and publisher. What Canada was getting in those formative years was an appointee that transcended politics. This was Canada’s first great challenge to the British parliament in saying that it wanted to choose its own Governor General – breaking the historical pattern of selection only by the monarch of England.

Buchan travelled Canada extensively, especially First Nations communities, and fought for the right of individual groups to have their own identities recognized by both government and citizens. After spending years writing on the uniqueness of Canada’s character prior to his appointment, Buchan then began to build on what he had written and helped to transform Canada in the process.

As the appointment of Buchan revealed, and as Payette’s selection affirms, this country loves those individual leaders who are larger than life. When author Brian Moore wrote of the Canada he knew in the 1960s, he spoke honestly: “Walls, both physical and political, have always partitioned this enormous land, turning its citizens’ gaze inward.” Yet our selection of Governors General, especially in recent years, has blown the lid off that assessment. Jean was a refugee who came to Canada from Haiti. Clarkson became a dynamic journalist after arriving from Hong Kong. David Johnson was a brilliant academic and university leader. These last three Governors General alone defy our collective parochialism and domestic preoccupations.

And now we have an astronaut/humanitarian/engineer/francophone/musician/pilot and athlete about to take up residence in Rideau Hall and reflecting the dynamism of a modern nation that is in the process of discovering its role in a changing world. Having orbited the planet some 400 times, Payette’s view of Canada has been of its position within a larger context. For the next few years this remarkably able woman will have the privilege of showing us our own uniqueness and potential in that world. The timing couldn’t have been more fitting.

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.

The Real Strength of Canada’s Global Influence

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

So, Canada is bulking up, and with Foreign Affairs Minister Christia Freeland’s unfolding of a new global agenda in the House of Commons last week, there appears to be a serious amount of political capital, not to mention funding, going into the effort. It was substantial enough that columnist Susan Delacourt termed it a “manifesto” – a finger in Donald Trump’s eye.

There’s a lot of chatter these days about America losing its place of global leadership in the world. Commenting on Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Change accord, CNN analyst and author, Fareed Zakaria, boldly claimed, “This will be the day that the United States resigned as leader of the free world.”

That’s a hasty judgment. For all of the American president’s actions and rhetoric lately, the United States is too enmeshed in global networking and resourcing to simply step off the leadership escalator and leave the task to other nations. Donald Trump might be making nationalistic noises about making America great again, but too many American citizens and institutions remain engaged in global activity for Trump to simply pull the plug on decades of international responsibility. And there are no signs yet that his brand of isolationism will last more than a few years.

Yet his current nationalism is creating opportunities for other nations to up their game in the arena of global responsibility. Freeland’s speech in the House was a delicate thing, balancing deep respect for America’s historical leadership while, nevertheless, expressing disappointment at our neighbour’s penchant for turning inward.

Around the globe, international leaders are debating how to fill in the gap created by Trump’s retreat. Canada is now to be no different. Freeland’s review was underway prior to Trump’s election but was no doubt hijacked by the American president’s predilection for fraying many of its global alliances and agreements. It gave the review a challenging urgency and sense of focus, and ultimately provided Canada with a new way of looking at its own international influence.

The Trudeau government’s decision to commit $62 billion dollars in defence spending over the next two decades emerged from this new appraisal of Canada’s opportunities in the world, as did the commitment to focus at least 95% of the government’s international assistance allocations towards the empowerment of women and girls, in what is called the government’s “feminist policy.”

And then there is the Prime Minister’s recently announced intention to commit $2.65 billion to assist with international climate change efforts. Trump doesn’t like it, and political opponents are attempting to shred it, but it remains part of a larger cooperative effort to put Canada back on the international stage just at the time the U.S. leader is taking a step back.

All of this goes some distance to expressing the competing outlooks of Trudeau and Trump. Whereas the American president views the world as a moving state of competing nations, each vying for supremacy and advantage, Canada’s PM is betting that the only way to achieve a sense of justice and sustainability is through the kind of global collaboration that sees nations working together for common pursuits. Such approaches are polar opposites of each other, but the days of Pax Americana are slowly giving way as new options take its place.

“Our greatest export isn’t military prowess or even our wealth. It is our people.”

Yet for all the military, environmental and gender expansion that Trudeau’s government wants to project, its greatest calling card to the world is the one thing other partners have difficulty achieving: a peaceful domestic environment. Those of us who travel extensively continue to encounter foreign leaders who express sincere interest in our form of federalism. For all our foibles, regional disparities, languages, and political partisanship, the fact that we have held ourselves together while other advanced nations have sailed into troubled waters that threaten the historic world order says something about our own practicality and survivability. If Canada were currently roiling in animosity, the government’s recent global announcements would prove ineffectual.

Our greatest export isn’t military prowess or even our wealth. It is our people. Recent efforts to expand our influence in the world aside, comedian Jon Stewart’s observation remains relevant: ““I’ve been to Canada, and I’ve always gotten the impression that I could take the country over in about two days.” We will fight if we have to – against injustice, for gender equality, or for a more sustainable planet – but the reality that we remain a peaceful people is still the key attribute that empowers our global influence.

Good Politics

This post can be found in its original on National Newswatch here.

John Buchan was a Scottish novelist, historian and politician who embarked on these three careers at roughly the same time. His novel The Thirty-Nine Steps remains a classic. He also just happened to be Canada’s 15th Governor-General (1935-1940). A key to his long and diverse career is found in his autobiography:

“Public life is regarded as the crown of a career, and to young men it is the worthiest of ambition. Politics is still the greatest and most honourable adventure.”

I quoted this passage during a speech recently, only to be met with a baffled response. It wasn’t hard to see why: few look at politics in such lofty terms. In reality, much of populism’s response in recent times can be attributed to the resentments voters and citizens feel towards politics and those who dabble in it. Polls document it. Elections reveal it. And coffee shop banter is enlivened with it.

And yet much of this assessment is hardly fair or even warranted. True, many who run for elected office are more interested in power than public service. Yet there are many good politicians out there whose goal is to better their community, their country, their world, and their efforts should be honoured. The problem, really, is one of results. Dedicated people can do little when the political climate is one of battling, animosity, undermining, and the refusal to cooperate to achieve the public good. Because of the prevalence of these darker political practices, our deepest challenges frequently remain unaddressed, despite the party professions otherwise.

And since politics is a two-way street between citizens and their elected representatives, voters must be willing to accept some of the blame for the current state of political decline in our world. Some of our voting choices haven’t reflected well on us. We can blame politicians all we want, but many of those voted into office were just as scurrilous prior to their election as they were following. It was the voter that put them there, however, and if democracy is to be refined and enhanced it will require better choices from average people just as much as from our elected representatives.

From humanity’s very beginning, politics has been essential to our welfare, security and progress. Our modern problem is really about what kind of politics we are talking about. Julian Barnes was correct when he wrote in his Flaubert’s Parrot: “The greatest patriotism is to tell your country when it is behaving dishonourably, foolishly, viciously.” The problem is not only that we elect individuals who behave this way but that we tolerate it year after year, even in ourselves as voters. Politicians and citizens will never achieve the outcomes they are looking for as long as the democratic state grows increasingly dysfunctional.

We require a better a way of governing ourselves because politics is the only constituted way in which we can forge our disagreements into enough of a consensus to move us forward into our many challenges. For all the recent debate about designing better political systems, the greatest step we could take towards the renewal of democracy is that of reforming ourselves. “We assume we are better people than we seem to be,” says University of Oklahoma historian Wilfred McClay. The presumption affects our politics, he continues. “We assume that our politics should therefore be an endlessly uplifting pursuit full of joy and inspiration rather than endless wrangling, head-butting, and petty self-interest.

The problem, of course, is that there are many politicians and citizens who love this stuff – the blood letting, the sabre rattling, and the love and pursuit of power over others. Yet this isn’t where the average British, French, American, Chinese, Russian, or Canadian citizen lives. They merely seek a better and more secure world for themselves and their families. Politics to them should facilitate such noble and practical outcomes; when it doesn’t, anger and constant turnover results. For political viability to return, it must re-engage with the ambitious agenda of bettering the average citizen, including the marginalized, and honouring the politician who pursues that goal above all else.

Our politics is distracted because we, as a people, are distracted. We should be getting on with the business of enhancing productivity, ending poverty, achieving true gender equality, aligning ourselves with the sustainability of the planet, building meaningful communities, and creating a patriotic fervor that is as true in fact as it is in hopes. “The point of modernity is to live a life without illusions while not becoming disillusioned,” wrote Antonio Gramsci. We have become too accomplished at both and only a rebirth of a meaningful politics can begin to rebuild the “honourable adventure” that John Buchan believed was possible and is now proving essential.

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