The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: civil society

Sleeves Rolled Up

IF SOCIAL MEDIA IS ANY INDICATION, 2016’s end couldn’t come quickly enough. Somehow the last 12 months have left millions with the compelling urge to turn the page and get on with something better.

It’s not difficult to understand why this angst seems so universal. It has been a year of significant challenges and disappointments. Political turbulence, economic stagnation, the frustrations of the middle class, environmental decline — this list could just go on and on with issues that are striking insecurity into the hearts of citizens and leaders alike.

A clue to what was happening occurred partway through 2016 when Carmelo Anthony of the New York Knicks claimed, “The system is broken, the problems are not new, the violence is not new and the racial divide definitely is not new. But the urgency to create change is at an all-time high.” It’s that (at times, toxic) urgency that has added fuel to numerous conflagrations around the globe and prompted people to look back at 2016 as a dark period, despite its numerous bright moments.

Perhaps no other year in recent memory has carried such foreboding undercurrents as what we have just endured. Many wonder whether civilization itself has pivoted towards its own demise in the past 12 months, while others fret that the collective belief in democracy, equality, God, fairness and progress might have been misplaced. The passing of numerous celebrity icons in past months has only added to the sense of gloom.

If there was ever a time for a universal sense of hope to make an appearance, now, on the eve of 2017, would be a good time — or as Alfred Lloyd Tennyson put it, “hope smiles from the threshold of the year to come, whispering, ‘it will be happier.’”

Yet if hope is to accomplish its difficult task it will require the hands of the many and not just the manipulations of the few.

“Hope is the better angels of our nature with their sleeves rolled up.”

Hope is not just an aspiration, but a driving force of nature that takes on the world with a sense of determination, daring to take another chance at getting things right. It’s no mere pious virtue that lures people into its aura in peace and solitude, but a compelling urge to remove those obstacles that keep us from a brighter future. It is the pitting of ourselves against the worst aspects of humanity and believing that we’ll prevail. Hope is the better angels of our nature with their sleeves rolled up.

We have come to one of those turning points in history that will define our future for the better or the worse. Yet there is one key difference — the rise of populism. Across the world, the voices of common people are railing against the power of those of have enjoyed the privileges of their wealth and excess at the expense of others.

But populism can easily become a force for destruction that permits its individual anger to overpower the need for mutual respect and collective collaboration. The rise of the common person is now a global reality, but it must demonstrate the very willingness to understand and provide for others and the planet that our global leaders have so far failed to bring

It is now up to citizens, perhaps more than it has ever been, and we are making that reality increasingly clear to those that govern us. But we must learn to cooperate with our elected representatives in a fashion that diffuses power in equitable fashion. This past year, while giving rise to such a concept, has so far pitted citizens more against each other than fighting the obstacles that threaten our very survival. This is what we must turn around in 2017.

This year ends with the sad passing of Carrie Fisher, whose role as Princess Leia Organa in the Star Wars series proved iconic to an entire generation. Though her role in the recent Star Wars: Rogue One lasts less than a minute, her utterance of the last word in the movie serves to remind us that it’s only after endless sacrifice and a sense of collective purpose that such a word could be uttered with any form of confidence.

“Hope,” she says before the credits roll — a fitting conclusion near the end of a troubling year and prior to another 12 months of opportunity to get things right.

Someone We Were Meant To Be

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IN WHAT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE AN INTERVIEW yesterday about public service over a number of decades, I was asked, “What was the main driving force when you were young that made you want to be a humanitarian?” I have thought of this many times over the years, but when I replied, “World War Two,” the interviewer looked back in mild surprise. I went on to explain that I had grown up in Scotland following that great conflict, that my Mom had been a Scottish war bride, and that my Dad had been twice wounded in battle before being sent back to Canada to convalesce.

Later, growing up in Calgary, I came to regard the Second World War as a kind of constant companion. It took years for my father to recover and my early thoughts are filled with memories of that struggle. During those post-war years there were ceremonies almost every month – special battle anniversaries, building of new monuments, Spitfire and Lancaster bombers flying overhead, the opening of museums, and reunions of old battle buddies and gatherings of women who had participated in the effort in numerous capacities. Dad played for years as a drummer in a military band, and with his attendance usually required, he always brought me along.

But always there was the unnamed Guest everywhere in those formative years. Despite a revitalized economy, a growing middle class, creature comforts, and family holidays, Death was never far away. So many had died that the many who had survived were most often ensconced in a tomb of silence. Dad virtually never talked about his experiences during those war years, but I could sense, throughout his entire life, that the silence represented pain, horror, guilt, grief, and a sense of mortality. But more than that it represented the loss of youth and innocence for an entire generation of men and women. They had gone from idealistic and trusting boys and girls to a burdened group of adults in only six years (1939-1945). The bloom was forever off the rose – not because they had plucked it but because the evil of humanity had stripped it too soon from their collective life.

One would think that growing up in such an atmosphere would be morbid, but it was nothing like that. It wasn’t joyous either, but what it ultimately entailed were respect and the sense of shared sacrifice. Death had taken away millions during those years and yet it had returned to the living time and again as an effective guide to what is the most noble in life.

During those years I came to discover that death didn’t signify the end of something, but the rebirth of something else – something transcendent. Those years taught me, as they had instructed my parents in far more devastating circumstances, that the glory of nobility and sacrifice goes on forever. Those things one assumed had ended were still enduring, inspiring the hearts and minds of average people and their leaders to build a better peace. The war wasn’t over but had simply morphed into another field of battle that involved neighbourliness, a rigorous sense of civic responsibility, a profound sense of social justice, and the belief that peace never came for free. Only this time the soldiers were being replaced by citizens of every kind who had come to see that the new tools of this civic battle involved decency, tolerance, a growing protection for minorities, and the profound belief that our blessings belonged to the world and not merely to ourselves. We had matured enough to know that we couldn’t save our world without changing it, and we couldn’t change it without changing ourselves.

Because this is a universal truth, frequently accentuated by a sense of trial and loss, the dead never leave us, the buried become a part of our consciousness. They are everywhere all at once and we are elevated by their memory. A death that follows great sacrifice makes you see everything in a different way – our eyes are wider and contain depth. We become changed people because, by honouring those that have passed before us in such a remarkable fashion, we ourselves can face death and refuse it our collective soul. Our time, our end, will come, but not now. And in the meantime we will embrace those it has taken from us in a way that leads to a better life. Those slain buried in military fields around the world are not decaying bodies, but seeds in the earth that will bring forth a new and noble life in each of us. Their death is not only our rebirth, but their own. And they will remain our constant companions.

Remembrance Day isn’t merely about remembering but actualizing what the dead have shown and given us. We wear poppies as a sign of our respect, but it is the millions of memories that we carry in us, unseen yet profound, that make us want to live as better people, more active citizens, more adept at love than hatred. Every Remembrance Day is our opportunity to say to that Guest that always shadows us, “Not dead. Not yet.” We have a world to build – a better environment than what we have at present, and we will construct it with peace.

Remembrance Day is not a memoriam alone, but a continuation of all that is truly the best and most respectful in life. It makes death bearable and makes our own lives liveable. We are the inheritors of a great trust and we will live for what they died for. David Kessler notes that, “Deep inside of us, each knows there is someone that we were meant to be.” Remembrance Day, filled with the love of those that went before, reminds us that that “someone” is still there, waiting and wanting to better the world with acts of great humanity and sacrifice.

Ready to Go

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AFTER SPEAKING AT A NUMBER OF UNIVERSITIES and colleges in these past three months I’m getting a clear sense of an uptake of interest in civic responsibility. Often the subject emerged in classes that, on the surface at least, seemed to have little to do with citizenship and engagement. When I talked to students following the sessions, I would ask them directly if they felt their respective educational institution offered enough instruction on the subject and the answer was most often in the negative.

Another thing was repeatedly affirmed: all those commentators who lamented that the Millennial Generation, and those even younger, were retreating into their own private worlds were themselves living in some other universe. Mountains of research has emerged recently showing that younger generations are in fact engaged, ready for change, and are more than willing to lead whatever it takes to bring about a fairer society.

It should be stressed that they have a specific kind of civics in mind and it doesn’t centre on the traditional ideas of voting or legal status, but primarily action, responsibility, even accountability of the individual to the greater good. They desire to volunteer, protest, become politically active, and promote advocacy. In other words, they’re set to go.

Increasingly these younger Canadians move easily through various dimensions that relate to climate change, work, relationships, charitable and social justice work, socializing, connecting through social media, and taking citizenship into new dimensions.

These are different times, occasions where the world is calling out for a new breed of citizens who seek to capture more than compartmentalize their lives. And just in time. Democracy was growing weary of the stale and divisive offerings of the political class. Under assault from an elite capitalist class endeavouring to find a way around the globe’s greatest problems, democracy was growing poorer by the year and less able to respond to the dangers of climate change or growing financial inequity. It required a new generation of citizens ready to engage across the board in order to alter the financial, social, environmental, political, and global direction of a troubled world and it found that answer in the Millennials.

In reaching the stage where politics had become a zero-sum game of diminishing returns, a new generation of Canadians has been opting to move the goal posts of expectations by an engaged activism. And in a time when the private sector continued to accrue billions while tolerating unemployment, environmental desecration, inequality, and expanding poverty, these same Canadians began operating in a shared economy that pulled all things together in a quest for a fairer humanity.

For too long we have been presented with two collective conditions: an impotent political state and a profiteering free market. But now a new generation of citizen activists is reminding us that citizenship matters and to make it effective it must enhance a new state to balance the other two: civil society. In such a world civic activism matters more than power or money.

Civil society is breaking out of the vice that had historically impinged it between politics and the free market. Leading that revolution are younger citizens who demand closer attention to civics and to the role of the citizen in the remaking of society. Or as John Dewey more effectively stated:

“Democracy is not an alternative to other principles of associated life. It is the idea of community life itself … It is a name for a life of free and enriching communion.”

A Tale of Two City Mayors

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IN ALL THE RUSH AND EXCITEMENT ABOUT THE recent federal election and the ambitious agenda put forward by Prime Minister-designate Justin Trudeau, we tend to forget that there are already numerous examples of sweeping, at times breathtaking, agendas being put forward by some of this country’s mayors.

Naheed Nenshi (Calgary) and Don Iveson (Edmonton), have not only had enough of being neglected by the more senior political jurisdictions, they are actually setting out strong policy options whether or not Alberta or Ottawa are ready for them. Having already insisted that they would like to open discussions with their senior partners on the prospect of becoming charter cities, they are now experimenting with the idea of their respective cities becoming testing grounds for the concept of a basic income.

We’ll explore this concept in greater detail in our next post, but in its simplest form a basic income means giving every citizen a certain amount of funds to cover the various challenges they encounter in life. For years it had been broached and introduced as an innovative means whereby people of low-income can be elevated to a more secure economic level within Canadian society.

This is an idea that has been around for decades and has supporters from all sides of the political spectrum. And though it has slowly progressed in awareness, the point of this post is that two key mayors are taking on the political establishment in support of this idea, not for ideological reasons, but because they are attempting to bring relief to their marginalized citizens when the prevailing system doesn’t work – just what mayors are supposed to do.

Nenshi is just doing his job, but he is accomplishing it with daring. Speaking at the National Poverty Reduction Summit in Ottawa in May, he called for a “brave step” in fighting poverty by supporting the basic income. It is for this kind of leadership that Nenshi was awarded the World Mayor prize in 2014 – not just because he is smart and innovative, but because he displays courage in tackling the status quo.

He has found an equally audacious counterpart in the province’s capital a few miles north. Edmonton’s Don Iveson hit the ground running on the poverty file from the moment he became mayor in 2013, not just ceding responsibility for new solutions to others, but by leading the charge himself. Saying he wanted to greatly reduce the city’s poverty in one generation, he immediately began bridge building with the city’s business community and with other interested partners. “We have to think inter-generationally,” he says, “to get it right for the future, not just for the politically expedient short-term.” Then his boldness came to the fore in a few words: “I’d rather do the right thing and lose the next election than do the wrong thing and win.”

These are interested days in the fabric of Canadian life, a time where poverty is becoming increasingly worrisome for Canadians. Yet the file is so complex that it’s difficult to know how to begin reducing it. Just having the will to change is not enough in this case; there must be leadership of the kind that forays out into all political, corporate, and civil society jurisdictions and calls everyone to begin walking into the future together rather than as mere disparate parts. Good will is a terrific beginning, but fair-minded determination inspired by bold leaders of spirit is what it will take if we are to succeed. Two mayors have opted to lead instead of delegate or bemoan the lack of attentiveness from senior political jurisdictions. In seeing their respective cities worthy of their very best, they are in the process of becoming exemplary leaders themselves.

Taking Civil Society Global

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SO, THE WORLD DOESN’T SEEM TO BE DOING SO GREAT. As Henry Kissinger reminds us in his latest book, World Order, the dominant governance system developed during the Cold War is giving way to outright confusion around the globe. No one knows quite how to pick up the pieces and fashion something more equitable and prosperous.

Brazil, China, Russia, even Iran, are challenging the status quo in everything from nuclear power to climate change. The traditional players, like Canada itself, seem to be in some kind of holding pattern, preferring to hold their cards close than actually get out there and assist in developing a better global order.

The European Union has 28 members, dismal economic growth, a troubling economic decline, and a badly fraying network that at times seems doomed. There is Spain, with its 27% adult unemployment and a deeply disturbing 52% youth unemployment. No one yet knows what kind of bankrupt Greece might have on the world economy.

And that hotbed of global complexities that has been with us for decades – the Middle East – appears more unstable than ever.

The governing elites appear constantly flummoxed with a world in change, just as the markets and their investors remain jittery over what lies over the horizon for the global economy.

All this means an opportunity for civil society groups around the world to develop a different kind of architecture, where human values, mixed with economic and political reform, might shine a light on a better way forward. “Pie in the sky,” some will surely say, but they’re wrong. The United Nations has never witnessed more activities around citizens engagement and is reformatting many of its funding formulas to resource the efforts. This isn’t just about grand protests or rebellion, but about a teeming amount of examples where people are organizing to reshape policy, to recapture those places where people actually live, and to develop ideas where “wealth” isn’t merely the paradise of the few.

All this is happening when the civic space is actually in decline. One organization, CIVICUS, monitors global threats to the public space and has concluded that 193 countries are, in fact, undergoing civic decline through. This civic renewal isn’t happening as a matter of course, but as a distinct response to what millions of citizens are regarding as the threat to the way of life they want. And that danger is coming from powerful forces that can never be defeated without global cooperation among civil society groups themselves.

The shutting down of open media, the refusal to allow civic gatherings, dubious imprisonments, the pulling of charitable status of charity and non-profit organizations who speak out against what is going on in many Western nations – these and so many more injustices are now producing an opposite and, at times, and equal reaction.

These organizations aren’t stupid; neither are they naïve. Refusing to merely blame spineless governments for these lack of protections, they are also going hard at the financial sector for attempting to make billions out of all this confusion and mess.

All this isn’t about just specific issues like climate change, poverty, conflict, war, and unemployment. Ultimately it’s about whether civil society groups can join hands around the globe and count on one another to guard each other’s backs and to work together at serious ideas of reform. Europe is far ahead in such matter, with Americans now increasingly showing signs of stirring.

Which leaves us with Canada. All these things bring angst to us as well, but Canadians remain docile in the face of media monopoly, government obtuseness, environmental decline, and a new poverty class that threatens to undermine much of what is prosperous unless we take the problem seriously. Canadians are not an apathetic people, but they are distracted and increasingly check out of those things that might bring about the needed reforms.

The technological tools are our disposal would instigate the envy of every generation that preceded us, and yet we can’t seem to marshall them to capture the public space back and guarantee individual liberties in the process. Yet all the technology means little if there is no political will, and right now Canadians are less inclined to engage in official political exercise than they have been since Confederation. They are engaged, but just not in those areas what change must happen the most – the hubs of power.

“Security is not a license for people in authority to hide tactics they would never openly admit using,” says John Hemry, and yet we are seeing everywhere and globally. One lantern won’t shed enough light, but millions just might.

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