The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: communities

Turning Left on Main Street

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THIS TITLE ISN’T ORIGINAL TO ME, BUT IT’S COMPELLING.  Things are shifting.  The media senses it. Political parties recognize it. But above all, we feel it. In the parlance of the old rag-tag political world, the last two decades of a detached corporatism, the strangling effects of the ongoing austerity agenda, and the ineffectiveness of the present political order, means the right-wing agenda is running out of gas, or more likely ethical legitimacy. Our collective problems aren’t going away. Take your pick – a deteriorating climate, escalating poverty, high unemployment, a diminished public space, mushrooming healthcare difficulties, especially in the mental health field – and it’s clear that for all the wealth, the access, the trade, the flooding of the world with cheap goods, we have lost our way.

And so average citizens have begun shifting from their own individual interests to a more galvanizing form of collective pursuits for the good of the broader community. It’s been a long time coming, but it is now here, subtle and still gathering, but its presence is unmistakable. The so-called political right can’t stand this kind of talk, yet it’s had more than enough time so set us on the overcome these hurdles. For all its talk about wealth, globalization, expanding markets, the Right hasn’t been able to deliver on the greatest challenges we face – plenty of money but no solutions.

Five years ago everyone was talking about Wall Street, or Bay Street, versus Main Street. And it’s been a battle. But as more and more average citizens get engaged, the conflict that had been largely group versus group, is summoning and increasing number of individuals, who sense that democracy has to fight for its own future.

The real fight now isn’t about Left versus Right, but communities versus senior levels of government that no longer hear them, and the debilitating partisanship that often substitutes itself for effective politics. At the street level people are coming out and making their presence felt. But we shouldn’t mistake this development as being a Left wing resurgence. The true story is now Canada’s story – what we had, what we want, and where we want to journey together. It is not the boardroom that matters so much, or the political party conference table, but the living room, the kitchen, even the bedroom. Extend this movement even further and you find citizens fighting back in schools, council chambers, neighbourhoods, universities, community colleges, and, yes, even Main Street.

Polling over the last two years reveals that over half of Canada feels enough isn’t being done about climate change, that poverty is too expansive, that the cost of university is too expensive, that the gap between rich and poor must be reversed, and that politics has become a mug’s game.

There you have it; Canadians are emerging from decades of individualism, growing restless, and are ready to pull together to alter their fate. Are there enough of them engaged? Can’t tell, but their number is growing by the month, just in time for a federal election. Naturally, the government is hoping for a vote split between the other parties, but the real story behind that approach is that the progressives are now outpacing the Right and only by dividing the opposition can that Right hope to win. But that’s politics, not democracy. If the government were truly interested in average citizens and communities, it would alter its policies to capture that mood, but instead it would rather use political weapons to divide instead of democratic ploughshares to plant.

South of the border this story is seen in the popularity of progressives like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, perhaps even Hillary Clinton. Up here in Canada it’s not so much about the federal, but the provincial scene, where progressives are rapidly taking over the provincial seats of power. Something is changing and we’re starting to catch the drift: austerity has led us into a cul de sac and we want back out onto Main Street.

Really, other than for political pundits, none of this is about Left against Right, but people against partisanship, citizens opposed free wheeling corporatism, and progressive communities fighting the political class. Citizens are trying to find their back to home to meaning, and opting for Main Street as their avenue of choice, and where their neighbours live. They aren’t looking so much to run away from right-wing dead ends, but towards their communities and one another. If they succeed, democracy for the modern era will be reborn.

“Making Food Waste Illegal?”

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AT YESTERDAY’S PRESS CONFERENCE FOR THE Curb Hunger Food Drive for the London Food Bank a fellow named Steven approached me and asked if I had heard of all the things Europe is doing to divert food from the trash. We talked about the situation for a few minutes and he closed by saying, “Why can’t we do something about it in Canada. I mean, we have all this food, and with hunger growing it seems a crime to just let stores and restaurants throw good food away.”

It appears that a town councillor in France felt it was criminal too, and he recently succeeded in getting a national law passed that would ban supermarkets in France from tossing out or destroying unsold food. And it goes farther. The same law mandates that all unsold but edible food should be donated to charities for immediate distribution to low-income families. And further yet, it prohibits food stores from pouring bleach over food (a practice used sparingly in France) in their dumpster bins lest some hungry person eats it and gets sick, leaving the door open to all kinds of liability issues.

It was inevitable that something like this would eventually come out and that France, with its social progressive kind of politics, would lead the way. The fact that it emerged through the efforts of one individual is even more impressive.

The timing of something like this couldn’t be more important. The United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization (UNFAO) came out with a staggering reminder last week that almost half the food produced in the world is never eaten. In Canada, the food thrown in the dump is in the billions of dollars – all at the time that food banks are staggering under the pressure of high demand.

We have to start somewhere on this problem, but targeting grocery stores is perhaps too simple a way to go about it. Such establishments have been important community partners, provided generously to food banks, and are slowly, and with much citizen pressure, placing an increased emphasis on locally grown and fresh food. We can target them, but the problem is really a societal one, not merely a capitalist oversight.

The UNFAO reminds us that citizens in North American, often awash in food choices, discard far more supplies than their European counterparts. Yes, supermarkets are culpable as well, but so are our restaurants, farmers, hospitals, military facilities, and even government institutions and citizens. We – all of us – have a problem with waste and our refusal to act upon the environmental damage this facet of our individual and collective lives is creating is part of the reason why we are so late in coming to terms with this overabundance problem.

Yes, it’s a good thing that France is challenging supermarkets to donate their surplus to charities, but that’s not really the solution we would want, is it? We require more efficiencies in the food system – growers, storage companies, shippers, sellers, consumers – rather than by just creating a kind of humanitarian impulse at the end of it all to layer over our mass consumption. And the answers to poverty don’t live in charities like food banks but in solid policies that invest in affordable housing, mental health and addictions, education, and the big one right now, secure employment with a livable wage. Anything less than an integrated approach will never heal the environment, eliminate poverty, or make us a people with activated consciences.

Yes, we have to start somewhere – I get it. But why don’t we start together, all of us, and move a country rich in food into a nation wealthy in ingenuity and citizen responsibility. Food is a great place to start, since the necessity of it calls for something better from each of us, and all of us. Healthy and sustainable food production and consumption is one of the ways out of our individual and collective lethargy. We can go big and go home, from refining the most sophisticated of food processing plants and supermarkets to our own kitchens. We require food to live but our handling of it might now generate our chance to evolve.

The Seven Billion Kilogram Dilemma

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WHEN THE LONDON FOOD BANK HAD ITS FIRST city-wide food drive back in 1986, we were told to expect between 40-50,000 pounds. We weren’t fully prepared for the over 200,000 pounds that came in. Those fire stations charged with receiving the donations were swamped and an extra warehouse had to be located to store all those supplies collected over 10 days.

As a city, we were new to this kind of initiative and much of the food was past its due date. We heard from many folks that they just wanted to help and that they just cleaned out their cupboards and refrigerators of items that had been in their stocks for months. It was a lesson for all of us. For those of us leading the effort, we needed to do a better job of communicating what kind of supplies were required. And for citizens themselves, there was the need to be more selective in what they would donate. We learned those lessons and the generosity of the London community has never waned.

Yet I never forgot that experience and how abundant food is in Canada. Maybe that’s part of the problem. In those early years of food banking we learned that Canadians threw out one-sixth of their food without it ever leaving the package. Landfills were full of otherwise edible foodstuffs. Sadly, it’s a practice that has changed little in three decades.

A report released last summer, with support from London’s Ivey Business School, determined that Canadians toss out 7 billion kilograms worth of edible food each year – roughly 15 billion pounds of food in 12 months. In dollar terms, that $27 billion.

The waste happens everywhere – farms, stores, markets, and processors. Yet, over half of the waste occurs in Canadian households. There’s no point in trying to lay blame – we all share it – but the real culprit lies in our eating and shopping habits. We have grown used to have numerous choices of various products and we often overstock just because it’s so attractively placed and sometimes on sale. We desire it to look good and most often select only that perfect-looking item – anything with a blemish can get tossed. We’re just so used to it and there always seems to be enough unblemished stuff. Farmers and others along the food chain often adopt similar patterns because it’s what consumers demand and that’s what drives the economy.

Except it shouldn’t, and we all know it. It’s one thing to grow and process good and healthy products and to eat well, but it’s another to accept a system that is predicated on waste. Habits die hard, and when it comes to food, Canadians have become habitual creatures.

We are also pretty good with numbers, so here’s a telling one. That 7 billion kilogram figure means that we toss out one kilogram of food for every person on this planet. For a nation and a people founded on the principles of social justice, it means it is time once again to live up to those ideals.

Next post: What Can Be Done About It?

Our City

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TODAY WE HEAD TO THE POLLS IN OUR CITY to select a new mayor, councillors, and school board trustees. Some will have no idea who to vote for until the last minute; others have been ready for months. Politics can bring out the best and worst, sometimes both, in our city, and elections can draw a community together for another four years or rip it apart for a painful period of time.

But in the end, regardless of the quality of the candidates or the strengths and weaknesses of their platforms, the person who holds the ultimate power today is the voter – all of us. For the briefest moment in time we will be secluded, pencil in hand, and in that isolation will lie the future of our city. In the end, we aren’t voting for a candidate but the kind of community we desire to have. It rests with us and we have some serious questions to ask ourselves before we mark our ballot.

  • Am I willing to change the course of my future by making the needed changes in myself to move from isolation to community?
  • Am I willing to stop seeing my city as a kind of crossword to be solved but a community to be built?
  • Am I willing to keep hoping even if the political outcome I’m voting for doesn’t prevail?
  • Am I voting for a new way of governing that includes me?
  • Does my vote represent the best in me or merely the most self-serving?
  • Does it reflect my problems or my solutions?
  • Does it reflect my reasoned understanding or my tribal opinion?
  • Is my choice for the future or for the past?
  • Do I understand that by holding the power to vote I am stronger than the person who receives that vote?

Whatever the results at the end of the day, our vote should mean much more than our choice to have someone else to take care of the city. It isn’t their place to rule but ours to build. Our vote shouldn’t spell the end of our participation in the political process but a clear signal of our recommitment to make politics meaningful again through the participation of thousands of others just like us.

It is time for democracy to step out from its own dark shadow into the light of shared responsibility – citizens with one another, and with their elected representatives.

But all that depends on a small mark on a piece of paper. In other words, history is moved in private, in the solitude of an individual’s preference for how her or his community will be fashioned for the future. And history could also fall into decline if enough citizens refuse to spend that moment alone. Democracy depends almost exclusively on the simple matter of showing up – to vote, and then to engage and build together.

Today will be about the human spirit and its ability to reimagine how it will work with others to building a better place for us all, despite our many differences. We must select politicians who can become people again and not just extensions of some political agenda. And it will be about us, continuing to show up again and again until we get this shared responsibility thing right.  No election is perfect, but it should nevertheless be a step in the right direction, an avowal of faith that we live in a democracy and that we will never be satisfied with poor performance – in our representatives or in ourselves.

Author Herman Melville once said; “It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.”  That’s what today is about.  Tired of the same-old, same-old, we strike out in a new direction, where voter and those successfully elected opt to share the challenge of leading and invigorating a community.  And it all starts with a pencil, a piece of paper, a private place, and, above all, a citizen.

Mayors: From Ceremony to Change

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IF THIS WERE 1918, 1935, OR EVEN 1960, the fact that we would be having a discussion about the importance of mayors would seem somewhat irrelevant. Even big city mayors in places like New York, Chicago, Toronto, or Montreal, though they acted tough, were easily overpowered by higher levels of government.

Those were the days when societal problems were huge – massive immigration, poverty, corruption, gangs, over crowding – and it was perceived that the big challenges required big governments. That wasn’t an incorrect assessment, as sweeping changes and resources were introduced from senior levels of government that gave the sense that society could overcome anything. There were railroads, an expanding network of airports, revamped harbours, social programs, corporate legislation, and even putting people into outer space. Cities benefitted from such initiatives because, well, cities were increasingly becoming the places where not only the most people lived, but which had the raw talent necessary to complete the great tasks.

Yet in all that great rush to progress, mayors merely cut the ceremonial ribbons and welcomed the political bigwigs who proceeded to make their vast announcements. The infrastructure projects were so huge (think the Hoover Dam or the St. Lawrence Seaway) that society benefitted from such an infusion of cash into public services for decades.

Until, that is, the senior levels of government lost their influence and began permitting the infrastructure to deteriorate year after year. Roads, bridges, railway lines, harbour bottoms, remote airstrips, social and education programs, post offices, government services – all these, following years of cutbacks, now stand on a precarious footing. Times had changed and the wealth generated by larger corporations was increasingly being located in other parts of the world than Canada. Now the grand visions that built nations are rarely housed in senior levels of government, and the citizenry has become more pessimistic and jaded as a result.

Things are now changing, and not so subtly. In the U.S., 75% of all Gross Domestic Product (GDP) now comes from municipalities. That provides cities with more leverage power. But there’s more. While higher political levels become increasingly paralyzed by partisanship and a commensurate loss of voter interest, local levels of politics are witnessing increasing activities of citizen engagement. The forsaking of domestic interests by senior powers in government has opened the door for opportunity at local levels that mayors can leverage into dynamic communities.

It’s not as though we aren’t witnessing this phenomena in real time. Not only are senior levels of politics fading (they could come back, but only with vision and courage), cities themselves are rapidly on their way to become the incubators of the democracy of tomorrow.

Despite the fact that federal governments still talk about things like climate change, immigrant settlement, infrastructure, trade, and social equity, it’s really cities that are combining their efforts to actually do something about such issues. And that’s because they can, even if in a more limited form. And they can do so because citizens themselves are connecting more with their local governments than any other level of politics or bureaucracy. This frequently provides mayors with cachet, provided they discover the ability to connect with the citizenry in more intimate and dynamic fashions.

In all matters of public life, cities are finding new areas of purpose and enlightenment, as citizens themselves move forward into positions of leadership and responsibility. Cities are the new breeding grounds for innovation and ideas – a resource mayors must tap into if they hope to grab second terms or succeed in pulling their municipalities out of decades of neglect. Mayors like that are shaking up the political firmament and they often build the very constituency that backs their efforts.

Politicians from senior levels still have to compete locally for votes, regardless of whether they operate in some distant parliament. For citizens and their political representatives to demand better is less of a risk now, since they are getting ever-smaller slices of the pie anyway.

As President Obama’s chief strategy advisor put it recently, “I think people desperately want leaders who will make cities work, and they will take them in whatever shapes, sizes and colours they come in.” And again we note the same truth in these words that we have been alluding to for months: it is most often citizens that want the leaders and not leaders so much valuing citizens that is the key democratic story of our times. And it just so happens that most citizens live in our cities.

 

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