The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: development

Election 2015: What in the World?


IT WAS SUPPOSED TO REMAIN CONFIDENTIAL, and was even marked “secret” on its cover page, but the contents were obtained by the Globe and Mail. It wasn’t pretty. Neither was it inconsequential.

In a presentation prepared by senior Foreign Affairs officials for a high level meeting two weeks ago, the analysis could be wrapped up in one sentence: “Despite Canada’s reputation as an active player on the world stage, by many measures, its relative influence has declined or is under threat.” It wasn’t a conclusion the government would have liked to hear, and so it sought to keep it quiet.

And yet we know it; Canadians have felt the slippage over recent years, but because these issues are at a global level they have felt there is little that they, as citizens, can do. And it appears they may have been right – until now, that is, when their vote could make the difference to whether Canada reclaims its traditional place in the world or continues in its decline.

It’s likely that those senior officials who have held the vital responsibility for diplomacy and international development have been the most aggrieved in recent years, as they have witnessed Canada’s influence erode and struggled to get the Harper government to fulfill and build on its responsibilities. The Globe and Mail states that Foreign Affairs officials put it all plainly:

  • There has been a “loss of our traditional place at some multilateral tables
  • Canada is not a “partner of first choice” for foreign countries
  • We have a “declining market share in emerging markets” with fast-developing nations
  • Canada’s “official development assistance is declining,” as other countries like China enhanced their interests through foreign aid

This has been an electoral campaign full of issues that are vital to the Canadian identity. And although such contests tend to repeatedly focus on domestic issues, sometimes the world breaks in through realities that can actually affect how we live here, within our own borders. In the last few weeks we have faced an ongoing refugee crisis, tremors in the world economy, a sluggish major trade deal with Europe, a minor role in military action, and the urgent reality of climate change. In all of these things it is only by partnering with other nations that we can hope to overcome such challenges. And yet we are failing on this key point, opting to chart our own course and veer away from our tradition as a solid trade/development/diplomatic partner.

Last night a debate between the party leaders focused on international affairs, but the reality is that global challenges are part and parcel of every day of this long campaign. It is impossible for domestic politics to rule supreme during an electoral contest when the world is facing challenges on so many fronts. In such a setting, a secret report from highly qualified people telling of our global failings in this crucial hour is hardly comforting.

Canada has historically been a true international country and it’s time we starting act like it. As we lose track of time and our place in history, other nations in the world are emerging.  Perhaps the upcoming election will provide the impetus for us to recapture our status and effectiveness in the global arena once more. As Albert Schweitzer put it: “Example is not the main thing in influencing others. It is the only thing.” It’s time that we, as citizens, helped Canada get back to a place of international influence.

A Tale of Three Rivers

IT WAS ONLY THREE DECADES AGO that Pittsburgh was deemed to be dying – an urban nightmare with polluted rivers, crumbling inner core, steadily declining employment, and a population fleeing for greener pastures. Yet the city my wife and I visited this past weekend showed rare traces of such a blighted past. Instead, we were caught up in a city life teeming with creativity, investment, and a keen new belief in itself. In just few years it has transformed from a warning to a model.

We had first been invited down by officials this past summer for the 15th anniversary of their RiverLife project. Rarely had we witnessed a waterfront so teeming with possibilities. Even though this past weekend’s visit was in the midst of ice-cold conditions, winter blues were nowhere to be found. The city got its game back. It knows it and it’s eager to tell its story.

The difference between the two visits, six months apart, couldn’t have been more distinct. The summer tour was all about Pittsburgh’s dynamic river transformation and the celebration of what that change has made to the city. Situated and the meeting point of the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio rivers, it was known for decades as the City of Bridges. Its riverfronts were essential to its image and economy. When both began to fail, the once teeming metropolis fell into decline along with them. The years weren’t good to the city’s reputation.

Fifteen years later, the city’s waterfront has been transformed from an aged relic of industrialization to waterways designed with mobility, celebration, new businesses, and a strong sense of civic pride in mind. Though hardly complete, Pittsburgh not only has a new spring in its step, it has become the essential American model of how people can reinvent themselves in a way that redefines what it means to be a community in general.

But Pittsburgh is more than just rivers. This past weekend introduced us to new cultural dynamics that basically have the city morphing from the inside out. Key to it all were the city’s foundations sector. In drawing the key actors together, the foundations created the impetus for getting civic leaders to imagine a different city, one not so much linked to its past but its people. What began as a river project eventually mushroomed to focusing on the city’s cultural sectors. Incentivized planning and the desire to include the next generation of leaders has seen the city go from a fading industrial giant to a gregarious community of the arts, technology, and museums.

Grant Oliphant, former CEO of the Pittsburgh Community Foundation, and now the head of the larger Heinz Foundation, was key to it all. He spoke in London, Ontario’s X-Conference last year and challenged the large crowd to think big if it wanted to grow out of its malaise. In less than a month he’ll be back in the city, at the X2 conference, to check and see how we are doing in civic renewal and to talk about how Pittsburgh re-energized its cultural centre.

Jane and I were fortunate enough to listen to how Pittsburgh’s growth has been so successful that its leaders are now meeting to figure out a way to shape that growth for the future. It’s hard to imagine how a city with a declining pulse only 30 years ago could transform itself so radically in such a short period of time. It’s a reminder of what any community could do if it collaborates and doesn’t grow overly concerned about who gets the credit.

Check out this video below for the quick 1-minute ride it took us to climb up the incline overlooking Pittsburgh at night.

Picking Up Where We Left Off

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“DOING NOTHING ACCOMPLISHES NOTHING, gains nothing, changes nothing, and wins nothing. You have to make a move,” says author Richelle Goodrich, and it’s true. But opting to make moves out of the ordinary carries it owns risk of failure. And then comes New Years and the renewing of the old tradition of making resolutions to make the coming year something more than the last.

Maybe surprisingly, the most common resolutions haven’t changed much in decades. Here were the top resolutions of 1947, according to a wide-ranging Gallup Poll:

  1. Improve my disposition, be more understanding, control my temper
  2. Improve my character, live a better life
  3. Stop smoking, smoke less
  4. Save more money
  5. Stop drinking, drink less
  6. Be more religious, go to church oftener
  7. Be more efficient, do a better job
  8. Take better care of my health
  9. Take greater part in home life
  10. Lose (or gain) weight

Our population isn’t as outwardly religious as we used to be, but, still, these resolutions easily carry over to the modern era. Somehow our greatest goals at such times reflect our growing inner frustrations, those things that have a habit of undoing us each and every year. At times this reality frequently results in people abandoning the yearly practice altogether.

We shouldn’t, because they say something about us, namely that, although we may not succeed, we are still people who try to attain ideals, believe in goals, even if it takes a lifetime. Just saying that we won’t quit wrestling for our better selves or a better world perhaps says more than if we attain such things or not.

It’s time to stop being so pessimistic about so many things, simply because such an outlook defeats our very best intentions at every turn. All too often we permit those things outside of us to breed critical natures within, to be so concentrated in our voice so as to silence the voices of others necessary for our journey. It sometimes takes a lifetime to learn that we can more readily change our circumstances and our world by maintaining at attitude of optimism, being kinder, despite our difficult trials, than to gradually become jaded in our outlook. The reason for this isn’t rocket science – people work better with those who keep a positive and constructive attitude, thereby opening up the possibility for broader change. Being pessimistic results in isolation and the inability to find others to forge new paths forward.

The need to build our own moments is absolutely vital if we are to make our resolutions count. The secret to attaining them relies more on our ability to build our own story, our own plot, within ourselves than in merely waiting for circumstances to change. And how we build that narrative depends on the words we select. If they are merely critical, self-obsessed, jaundiced, or insensitive, then we will be forever trapped in Chapter One of our tale. As with any great novel, the future depends on the inner ability within the protagonist to persuade and shape her or his future.

Yet repeated failure to bring about the change we seek carries within it the danger of growing discouraged and eventually falling back into despair. New Years resolutions are there to remind us that we are still worth the effort, even if our outside world is refusing stubbornly to move in conjunction with our wishes.

One of the sad aspects about getting older is that we can eventually just give up altogether. It is then that transformation occurs that we may fail to notice. We can move from merely being critical to becoming afraid to try anything. G. K. Chesterton talked about this risk decades ago:

“The object of a New Year is not that we should have a new year. It is that we should have a new soul and a new backbone, new ears to listen. Unless we made particular New Year resolutions, we would make no resolutions. Unless we start afresh about things, we will certainly do nothing effective.”

We can eventually reach the condition where we grow fearful to trying anything because we don’t know what it will entail. Change is hard for anyone, especially the kind of change that takes years. But if we don’t attempt it, then change hurries past us at an ever-increasing pace and we are left in our own jaded outlook and sense of isolation.

This is our year to try again, to begin change from the inside-out rather than the other way around. This is our story, and it commences with a main character who learns to take on all circumstances in an effort to eventually taken on enough strength and wisdom to change the world. To accomplish it we are always called upon to begin again, only with a broader understanding and a more compassionate heart. This is the privilege of New Years – another chance at empowering our story until new life breaks through and we can create a new future – not to go back to the start, but to continue the journey of nobility. Happy New Year.

The People’s Army


EVERY MORNING ENTIRE FAMILIES WOULD WAKE UP,  emerge from their houses and face the devastation from the night before.  They were called “The People’s Army” – a suitable phrase, given all that they had to endure.  Every night forces from a distant part of Europe filled the sky with airplanes and bombs, leaving nothing but devastation in their wake.  Adolf Hitler, their leader, felt it was only a matter of time until he broke the will of the so-called People’s Army.

We now know how badly he underestimated the will of a people once they had set about the business of protecting their communities.  The people of England, Wales and Scotland arose every day to “reset” their cities and villages, restoring their way of life.  They weren’t soldiers, pilots or navy personnel; they were seniors, parents, boys and girls, and people from every walk of life.  In the end, Hitler not only failed to break the spirit of British military, he came up against the will of mobilized communities in such a fashion that even his great “Blitz” strategy failed.

Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi was in London, Ontario, last weekend and showed slides from the great floods that his city had faced months previous – “the greatest natural disaster in Alberta history,” he called it.  The devastation being so great, city leaders had no idea how to mobilize the citizenry to begin rebuilding again.  They needn’t have worried.  Of their own accord, and through great natural instincts like the migration of birds, tens of thousands of Calgarians moved through the city, helping strangers and neighbours alike, to dig out, repair, and bring a great city back to normalcy.

Nenshi then confessed to the large crowd that he has been ruminating ever since about how to take that kind of mobilization and bring it into the everyday life of the city.

The truth is, it can’t be done.  Granted, any time our communities come under major calamities, the resourceful efforts of citizens are always a wonder to behold.  But what do we do when everything returns to normal and all appears fine?  Can citizens still be counted upon to assemble in such numbers to build the city in good times?

It’s too much to ask.  People need to get on with their lives and sustaining such an effort indefinitely is only as possible as the scope of threat confronting them.  The Calgary mayor gave out a couple of ideas he has been working on to continue engaging his citizenry, but it remains an uphill battle.

Another speaker at the conference, Grant Oliphant, CEO of the Pittsburgh Foundation, looked out over the same sea of faces and put a bit of a different spin on it: “You – the people in this room – are the game changers.  You are the ones that show up every day.  You are here on a Saturday morning because you are the ones that journey that second mile for the sake of your neighbours and your children.  It will be specifically you that will set the wheels in motion to bring your city into a more productive future.”

Two great speakers, with a bit of a different take on what people like us are capable of.  Both were right, but the circumstances that would call out Nenshi’s army are distinct from those that Oliphant was recruiting.  In effect, the greater challenge was Oliphant’s.  How do you take thousands of good citizens who follow their own pursuits and convince them to join together to combat those kinds of threats to their shared community that aren’t as obvious as bombs or floods – poverty, joblessness, loss of productivity, incivility, political dysfunction, citizen disinterest?

The reality is that, barring some kind of disaster, unless Oliphant’s key influencers discover ways of coming together and cooperating for the sake of community, Nenshi’s army will remain largely out of touch, perhaps even unaware, of the great challenges before our communities.  Or as Aldous Huxley aptly put it in his Art of Seeing:

“Consciousness is only possible through change; change is only possible through movement.”

There it is: for our communal awareness to be improved we must change our circumstances, which, in turn, must be prompted by citizens moving in a similar direction.  Such is the way that all historic change has occurred.  And for that to work, we require those citizen leaders committed in extra measure to the fate of those places where we live to at last come together, lay aside our own selected interests, at least for a time, and work together to introduce change into our cities.

Naheed Nenshi was successful in reminding our city that Canadians are good people who respond with alacrity and compassion in times of remarkable challenge.  None of us doubt it.  But when things are stuck and our citizenship remain dull and inert, there requires a new army of networkers, investors and implementers, to lay out a new vision for a citizenry to believe in.  Oliphant showed how it was done in Pittsburgh over a period of two decades, but it’s a story that’s also being lived out in San Diego, Vancouver, Mumbai, and, thanks to Nenshi’s influence, Calgary.

We used to tout the adage, “I think, therefore I am.”  The new cities of tomorrow must make a slight adjustment: “I move, therefore I am.”  It will take an army of citizen leaders more committed to the future than the present to make that happen.

A Woman’s Place Is In The …



IN A COUPLE OF DAYS, JANE HEADS TO SOUTH SUDAN with two other formidable women to oversee our projects in that troubled region of Africa.  It happens every year, regardless of circumstances either here at home or over there.  Commitment like Jane’s knows no irregularities.

I was asked for coffee by someone last week who wanted me to know that I wasn’t fulfilling my role as a husband because I was letting my wife head into a conflict region.  “She needs you there to take care of her, Glen, in case something happens,” he observed.

For the next 30 minutes I took him through Jane’s remarkable exploits around the world, in places like Rwanda, Bosnia and Somalia.  I told him of when she travelled for days through the mountains of Turkey in order to drop into Iraq during the First Gulf War.  She came down out of those cold elevations only to land at a military camp that was struggling to assist thousands of refugees.  When Jane offered to assist, the ranking officer asked, “Do you anything about distributing food?”  She smiled and nodded (she didn’t inform him she directed a food bank) and he put her in charge of the entire operation.  The thought of it still inspires me: a camp of very strong, dedicated and capable men turning to a woman they didn’t know to take the lead – truly remarkable.

I finally put my hand on the man’s shoulder in that coffee shop and said: “If you were ever in Sudan with us (as so many have been), you would quickly understand that it’s Jane that hits the ground running and that it’s me who looks to her for guidance and not the other way around.”

Jane and I have literally been through the wars in numerous regions around the globe and I’ve come to understand one of the secrets to her effectiveness.  Rather than talk endlessly about a woman’s place in the world, she just lives it.  She always finds it deeply troubling that so many people aspiring to full equality fail to show any interest in those regions of the world where women have no advantages or access whatsoever.  And so she journeys to those regions and fights for women’s rights in places where it’s remarkably difficult to achieve any such victory.  There is action to her words and the women in places like Sudan know that they have found someone from the West who can reach out past her own confines to help in those regions where the darkness around women’s lives is the most pervasive.

But it’s not just about Africa, Asia, South America or Eastern Europe.  She dedicates herself to working at the food bank because she is fully aware that it is primarily women who suffer through the encroaching clutches of systemic poverty.  She always wonders why people who claim equality as a lofty goal don’t undertake greater efforts to assist women struggling on low-income or in aboriginal communities.

True equality between men and women will never come until we all apply our efforts to those very regions where women face the greatest struggles.  To seek equality in Canada while ignoring the developing world is to miss the point and, sadly, to miss the opportunity to assist two billion women who suffer for our lack of being able to extend our values to where they are truly needed.  For women in general, their community is far more vast that mere geography, and journeys wherever their solidarity is required.

We must always struggle for the right of any woman to lead, follow, run for politics or manage a company – wherever her dreams take her.  But surely her horizon can’t overlook women who can’t find water, suffer from HIV, can’t breastfeed their children, or protect their villages from violence.  One woman’s fight for equality is necessarily every woman’s fight, and this is something Jane just lives out in her life with no need to preach it.  Her life is her sermon.  Her actions are her policy.  Her faithfulness is her politics.  And her husband and children are her debtors.

I was to travel with Jane in a couple of days, but when a Sudanese woman expressed her deep desire to be with her people in their struggle, Jane and I both agreed that I should let her have my seat.  But we needn’t worry that in that male-dominated part of the world that Jane will be all the poorer for the lack of her husband’s presence.  She will debate, woo, charm, and fight with those leaders to get the schools built, our water projects functioning, and in keeping the woman’s micro-enterprises in the solid ownership of the women themselves.

It will be me who will the poorer for her absence.  I will feel slightly lost and somewhat incapable of overseeing our remarkable amount of responsibilities.  But I will know that this one remarkably capable citizen will be reminding everyone that a woman’s ultimate place of effectiveness is in the world – shaping it, loving it, confronting it, elevating and refining it. Jane is a constant reminder that a woman’s world must include all women, especially those on the margins.  A man married to such a person captures his own hope through such an example.

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