The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: community engagement

Community Engagement Podcast (7) – Against Our Wishes

We might very well be walking the road to greater independence of our respective communities if the more senior levels of government don’t stop treating them like distant cousins.  None of us wants this.  We would prefer a place at the table, maybe even some constitutional reform that would recognize that some 80% of Canadians now live in cities and it’s time that reality took on deeper resonance in our form of federalism.

Just click on the audio link below to hear the five-minute podcast.

An Open Letter To London’s New City Manager

My London Free Press article of today – An open letter to City Manager Art Zuidema on his first week on the job.

First of all, Mr. Zuidema, a sincere welcome to London. I’m just one of thousands of local and regional citizens who are proud of our community but understand that you’ve come at a pivotal time.

With your arrival as the new city manager, though, things are a bit different from when your predecessors took up their jobs. We were more observers then, somewhat worried over the decline of the manufacturing base in the city and turmoil at city hall. Former manager, Jeff Fielding, showed a deft hand at bringing order out of some of the chaos and earned a lot of respect. Now many of us are more engaged, attempting to work with officials to get through these difficult days.

You’ve arrived in a different community than the one to which Mr. Fielding came. The recent global economic turbulence has left its effect here and poverty now seems to be entrenched in ways it never was previously. As a result, unemployment and underemployment are like a cancer eating away at our civic life. We used to take a more complex series of actions to deal with such challenges, but of late hardened positions have given us little room for flexibility.

Of course we want growth and sustainability, but it’s not as though we haven’t been through recessions before and learned from those experiences. Those lessons helped us to develop a diverse approach across a wide range of challenges. There is a sense that many of our historic gains might be at risk, so perhaps you could help bring some assurance that the investments of past city councils and citizens will continue to stabilize our collective life now, as we face our present challenges.

This “growth at all costs” pressure has meant that much of the vision for other needed aspects of our community life – the environment, citizen engagement, planning intensification, acknowledgement of the increasing mental health challenges facing most communities, homelessness, proper investment in evidence-based policy, the need for a robust downtown core, and the desire for an active arts community – seem to have lost some of their momentum. It would be of great help to us if you could remind Council and staff that a successful future will depend on the proper correlation of all these aspects.

Like other communities, our confidence in politics has begun to erode with all levels of government – we are feeling increasingly alone. There is a growing worry that the ideological divisions of our Council have come at a most inopportune time, given our present economic struggle. Jeff Fielding pulled a rabbit out of a hat during his tenure, helping politicians to put their differences aside on the basis of evidence and the will of citizens developed through engagement measures.  It is our sincere hope that the infighting of Council can be transcended by their willingness to work with you and your staff to stabilize gains made in the past and discover an enhanced quality of life and economic stability in the future.

The next generation of young civic leaders should be one of your main resources as you seek to assess London’s future – they feel shut out. They are pragmatic, non-ideological, entrepreneur-oriented, and have a strong social media presence. I hope you spend some time with them.

Some have disparaged a few Council members for not caring for their community. This mischaracterizes the situation. Councillors believe in this city and fight for its success, but they are experiencing difficulty in harmonizing their own opinions with those of others. You could bring some much-needed professionalism to that scenario, helping them to move forward with a plan much more inspiring and cooperative than what is there at present. ReThink London could help you with that.

We need your skills right now. As staff has taken a back seat to Council’s divided vision, many of us worry that our future might be lost in our pursuit of a misguided present. You can harmonize these approaches, and I believe you will. This is a great community that’s questioning itself at the moment. Help us to find ourselves in all this confusion and you will have accomplished a terrific work.


Political Dialogue – Not

(Artwork by Tommy Ingberg:

I received an email from a University of Toronto researcher thanking me for yesterday’s blog on “Negative Discovery.” He reminded me that it could well be true that most important discoveries were happened upon when the searchers were looking for something else and developed some new findings by accident. If so, with all the technology swamping the ability of the senses to make progress of it all, perhaps it might be better to stop looking for answers and start asking questions. Maybe part of survivability in the modern era is learning that in our complex societies it’s not so much the finality of the answers that matters, but the fertility of the questions. Most of the facts pounding us each and every day often have little relevance to our daily lives, so maybe we should start our own process of negative discovery as citizens.

Let’s look at politics for instance and see that what appears to be there actually isn’t. We’ve all known for some time that political speeches and press releases aren’t really about facts but spin – a kind of propaganda designed to distract us from what’s really there. All parties do it, so we shouldn’t worry about looking too partisan about this.

Consider what happened in London in the last couple of days. Two of our local defence firms lost out on $1.25 billion in contracts. That was a huge blow to a city already enduring significant job loss. These defence jobs lost in the recent decision by the federal government will only add to our collective pain.

So this is where we believe politics comes in, right? I mean we elect people to fight for our interests, win or lose, right? We are now learning in London that we are going through a tough period of negative discovery. We have three MPs from the governing party in our city and I believe they offered sincere responses to what was clearly a difficult situation for them. They expressed condolences, wishing things could have turned out otherwise. But that’s not what Londoners really wanted from their elected representatives. They wanted fight, verve, tenacity, a willingness to not give up. Instead what they received was this: “The whole principle of this is to keep it independent of political interference.”

Welcome to the world of political negative discovery. This was never about these government MPs fighting till the bitter end, but rather a quiet but sad acquiescence to modern political reality – such is now the way of Ottawa. Why call it politics, then, when our elected representatives become mere employees of the PMO and not advocates for their communities? Democracy is all about competition. This governing party pulled out all stops in the last election – perhaps even illegal ones – to get the decision they wanted. What’s wrong then with continuing on the fight for our communities where we live? But there you have it; this isn’t about democracy but political management – not about citizens’ desires but corporate decisions. It’s the corporate machine with its mindless minions.

This is what it really has come down to. How can the democratic process protect us against corporate manipulation in the private sector when such ideology is part and parcel of the political order? Actually, that’s it: MPs are increasingly becoming the regional managers of Canada’s governing corporation, led by the most dogmatic CEO in the land. London just went through a season of that with ElectroMotive and its heartless CEO and we’re not wild about enduring more of it with the people we elect.

I believe our Conservative MPs here in the city lobbied for these contracts behind the scenes and that they, too, were disappointed with the result. But democracy isn’t supposed to take place behind the curtain alone – it’s to be an open process where citizens can gauge the narrative.

What we thought was democracy was actually management. And there’s lot of it going around, with things like a massive and imperilling omnibus bill that the government is keeping to itself, cutting off debate, and hoping that the public doesn’t come to understand its full intentions. It’s a touted official apology to our aboriginal communities that actually had no deep contrition or teeth within it – ceremony-centered, not content driven. Or it’s like Rob Ford, who was quite fine with voter suppression in Toronto, nevertheless turning on his own citizens because not enough spoke up about plastic bags. He didn’t like his own medicine.

It’s time to stop looking for concrete answers – not because they aren’t there, but because those pronouncing the solutions have a political agenda. No, we’re better to start asking more intuitive questions. What is democracy anymore? Can a politician defend his or her community and not be punished? Are citizens content to be managed when they are actually looking to be the change agents in their own communities? Can we start a new movement in our land under the banner, “Politics is I; democracy is we?”

Democracy is supposed to be about citizenship, not MPs. And the greatest public servant of all is supposed to be the PM, charged with the responsibility of protecting democratic impulses, not killing them. But this is the age of negative discovery and we realize that such things are no longer true. So let’s press on and see what we missed and perhaps we can recover from this mess of our making.

The Language of Movement

Peter Mansbridge came to town and for a few hours it was all people were talking about. Accustomed to presenting the news, he found himself in the rather uncomfortable position of making it.

He was brought in by the City of London staff to launch the grand kick-off to ReThink London – a year-long visioning exercise that will consult widely on how local citizens want to see their city in the future. Mansbridge was direct without being too pointed, challenging but not confrontational.

Central to his message was the requirement of London’s citizens to wake up and realize an opportunity like this doesn’t come along very often. He noted its low voter turnout and the distinct sense that the city itself is underperforming despite having some clear advantages.

City staff have spent their time well, organizing a community engagement initiative that makes a sincere effort at being inclusive. No one yet knows what the politicians will do once the results are in, yet the presence of Mansbridge not only drew 1300 people for the launch but also convinced those present that staff meant business.

Yet for this exercise to truly be successful, there has to be an understanding that this isn’t just about issues or interest groups debating them. In a very real way it is about whether citizens actually have the maturity to hold the fate of their community in their hand in a responsible enough fashion to convince the politicos that they are now ready to co-lead the London of the future.

There’s an old Biblical tale about the Tower of Babel and how the population sought to bring itself together in one special project – an elevated tower that reached the heavens. They all spoke one language, so the task should have been straightforward. Yet they were a people filled with the kind of pride that was more arrogant than accomplished. Their community was going to be more about a physical edifice than the people who lived there. The old scriptures say that God was displeased with this kind of self-adoration and inflicted them with numerous languages where they had great trouble communicating with one another. The dissension that resulted led to conflict and the tower itself was left unfinished.

ReThink London isn’t about a few leaders attempting to co-opt people into supporting their personal plans; it’s about citizens pulling that vision out from within themselves. Despite scepticism about politics and politicians, citizens will now get their chance to show what they are capable of, or even if they are capable of getting beyond disagreements and forging a consensus. It’s all about a community doing together what it has envisioned and willed together. This is all about the language of movement – the ability of citizens to find a common vocabulary, a shared historical knowledge that can serve as a base from which to build.

There will be numerous groups in the community that have been at this for years, attempting to lobby, to persuade, to educate political representatives on proper policy. They have been active on files from fluoride in the water to making London a more integrated community as opposed to an endless sprawling one. But ReThink London isn’t actually about dedicated groups – the “usual suspects,” as they are often referred to. This is about drawing in a wider audience of people who don’t normally engage. If it becomes a turf war of one interest group attempting to seize the agenda over others, it will not only crowd out needed voices, but will also permit the political agenda to proceed as if it’s business as usual.

Personally, I wish the City had gone just a bit farther by having Mansbridge return at both the halfway and concluding point of the exercise. He is someone the public has obviously taken to. Part way in, he could assess whether average citizens are actually able to break through the regular citizen clutter and have their ideas heard. At the end of it all he could pull everyone together again and remind the politicians that they now have the responsibility to implement what they heard.

It might very well be that a new language can give the disenchanted back their voices. If viewed as valid, it can also challenge present paradigms and break through into a new future. It will be the language of practical vision, of engagement, of the kind of community we want, instead of having it dreamed up for us by somebody else. It will be the re-creation of the public interest and will, for a time, take primacy over the jaded art of politics. It will be about genuine public thinking and the advancement of prudent public politics.

Or it will be about the competition for space, the desire to have one voice ascend above all others, to dominate through techniques already practiced in the field of advocacy. Should that occur, it will be more about pride of possessiveness than participation in partnership. And the tower will remain unfinished, in the full view of later generations who will realize we had our moment but wasted it through pride of position instead of passion for community.

There will be many kinds of languages and concepts brought to this exercise, but the secret will be to forge a new democratic vocabulary, a citizen lexicon that speaks of shared purpose as opposed to elite agendas. A true test of ReThink London will be if we can develop the new community language of tomorrow.

Worth It

The Federation of Canadian Municipalities met in Halifax a short while ago and some of the federal political party leaders addressed the gathering. Bob Rae was at his candid and disarming best. He began by observing: “For some time I have wanted to be the Liberal leader in the worst way. Be careful what you wish for.” His wry smile induced all kinds of laughter.

Rae phoned me a few days ago to talk about the parliamentary debate on the Libyan intervention. He was on his game – to the point, eloquent, searching for solutions, and heartily friendly. I put down the phone and realized that he knows his role.  We worked well together in the Foreign Affairs Committee of Parliament for over two years and I can tell when he finds purpose in what he says.

He has other reasons to be upbeat. The “Extraordinary Convention” held this past weekend by the Liberal faithful witnessed over 2,000 members spending three hours on the phone, deciding their future and coalescing around their shared belief in liberal principles. Sure, they’ve fallen a long way and the climb back up will be arduous, but those doomsayers who believe the party is in its death throes weren’t involved in the convention, nor have they been in the ridings.

The riding to which I belong – the London North Centre Liberal Riding Association – pulled itself together following the election loss and opted for an entirely new direction. Sure, politics is still important, but they are filling up their days cleaning parks, picking strawberries for local social agencies, and volunteering at the food bank. In other words, they’re moving down into the community to levels that Liberals have hardly mined in years. And it’s altering their outlook. The distance from power, with four years to build, has provided them with the opportunity to think outside of the box. They’ll need to go farther to get a good grasp of the community, but they’ve made a good beginning. They want to find ways to support small business, to promote environmental reform in numerous venues, and to participate in citizen action committees that the City of London has established.

This is the new liberalism and we’d better get used to it if we are to discover relevancy again. I’m convinced that what Liberals are looking for is a potent mix between leadership and citizen engagement, but it won’t come through the old channels of political power or alignment – at least I don’t believe so.

Citizen’s organizations create a unique kind of political environment by creating “spaces” within a community – places for dialogue and action. Formal politics is highly organized, with organizations sitting on top of organizations (I know this sounds repetitive, but it’s just the way it is). Everything moves up in a hierarchy – relentlessly. And the more it does so the farther it moves away from average citizens. All these levels come complete with their own mandates, sets of procedures, and accountability. The entire structure funnels to the top. Citizens interested in politics feed the machine but don’t actually manage it.

Citizen politics appears disorganized in comparison but it actually isn’t. It’s just closer to the ground and doesn’t require all that high fallutin’ machinery. This is the star Liberals must now follow.

And there’s lots to work with. On May 2nd, the day of the election, the Liberal Party had 51,000 members; three weeks later is was over 57,000. Following the 2008 election membership in the party remained stagnant, but now, after its worst defeat, the party is growing somewhat dramatically. This is no guarantee of success, nor does it mean it will get the rebuilding phase right, but it does imply there is something to build upon.

Maybe Bob Rae has it wrong. I know what he meant, but being a Liberal right now is hardly the “worst way.” We have been so removed from power and its nearness now that we are free to innovate, to imagine, to plan, to capture, but above all to grow the courage to achieve. Let the others gather around the campfires of Ottawa. Let’s stake our ground in the very communities that give this country so much potential. It will be hard; it will be humbling; and it could well be painful. But in the end it will be worth it.

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