The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: forgiveness

The Thaw

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WE QUIETLY WORKED OUR WAY ACROSS THE ALEXANDRA BRIDGE this week in the stillness of a beautiful summer morning at 3:45 a.m. Nothing was happening. Few cars crossed the span, but that was it – everything else was just the swirling sound of the Ottawa River.

But as we drew closer to the Museum of History on the Quebec side, across from Parliament, we heard a quiet stirring of voices on the shoreline just below the museum itself. These were the folks Jane and I had come to find. It was almost impossible to detect the identities of those quietly shuffling around on the grass – sunrise was still an hour off. Most were quiet, but all knew their purpose for their meeting. This was the sunrise celebration for National Aboriginal Day and some Canadians were gathering for a quiet event that had suddenly taken on more meaning.

Indigenous Affairs Minister, Carolyn Bennett, had asked us the day previous to join her on the riverbank. Present were PM Justin Trudeau, Justice Minister, Jody Wilson-Raybould (also a BC First Nations leader), House Speaker Geoff Regan, and numerous other politicians, staff, and interested citizens – perhaps around 200 people altogether.

But the focus was on the fires slowly burning on the shore – the origins of the smoke for the ceremonial “smudging” exercises taking place throughout that hour. The whispering in the crowd stilled. People shuffled forward to hear the speakers. And everywhere I detected nothing but reverence – not for the river, the fantastic illumination of the Parliament buildings across the way, or the slowly lightening sky – but for those from indigenous communities who prayed, beat drums, sang, and collectively transcended in an instant the world of politics into the domain of the natural order. It was stirring. The PM or other political leaders merely observed as, in the seat of ultimate Canadian power, the country’s original peoples taught those present the need to work collectively in the land we all share.

I thought back to the times working at the Calgary Stampede in my youth, as proud people of the Blackfoot (Siksika) nations rode their horses in the Stampede Parade and worked their way in ceremonial dress around the Stampede grounds, among the stands and the booths. They were mysterious figures back then, to me and to others, somehow representative of Canada’s past. But I realized on that particular morning by the Ottawa River that our Indigenous People are quietly become essential to our country’s future – not through assimilation or domination, but by a gentle enlightenment and respect that have been far too long in coming.

Something was brewing in Ottawa and across the land, some kind of recognition that what we have at present is entirely unsuitable when it comes to our understanding and partnership with our First Nations, Metis, and Inuit citizens. If our future is to be truly enlightening as a nation, then we must come to understand how we erred in the past few hundred years.

One elder spoke near the end of the ceremony, noting that a bird had swept by over our heads at the same time as a fish jumped out of the water. We all laughed with him, but the truth was that none of us had really noticed. It had taken a seasoned and practiced eye, one that has endured much through the decades, to remind us of the remarkable country in which we live and the great journey we have yet to travel to full understanding. We will know we have completed that journey not just when our indigenous communities are a recognized part of our great collective experiment, but when we as citizens come to acknowledge and internally discern where we went wrong and learn to accept forgiveness.

By the Ottawa River on a remarkable morning this week, I reflected on the observation of Thomas Wharton, recounted in John Ralston Saul’s Reflection of a Siamese Twin:

“An exposed ice surface often displays a dull, undifferentiated façade. The intricate crystalline structure can be revealed, however, by pouring a warm liquid over the ice.”

A great national thaw is emerging, introducing us to remarkable indigenous cultures that have a required place in our daily lives, and which we must respect. Judging by the way official Ottawa quietly showed that honour in the sunrise celebration this week, our journey together might finally be making a solid beginning.

Be It Resolved

broken_promises_by_herrfousNew Years doesn’t quite retain the deeper cultural meanings it used to possess years ago, but it still carries quite a punch.  Growing up in Edinburgh, Scotland, some of my most vivid memories swirl around New Years Eve, the gathering of family and friends, community celebrations, and, of course, the singing of Auld Lang Syne.  There was a depth of humanity to its words that transcended the moment.  But there was a restrained sadness in its singing, a kind of brooding acknowledgement that the arrival of a new year meant having to deal with some of the more difficult realities of the one just expired.

The words “Auld Lang Syne” could literally be translated as “old long since” and spoke of the passing of time.  They ask a straightforward question, based on the difficult times many citizens in those days had to endure.  The words ask plainly whether old friends and times will be forgotten.  There’s a kind of collective resolution expressed that such a thing won’t happen because, “we’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet.”

But there were other verses in the song that we don’t sing in North America but which acknowledge some difficult community realities.  They speak of how friendships used to be strong and animated but how time had distanced those relationships in the words, “broad seas have roared between us.”

The years of the famous song’s origins, as with many eras since, were difficult times when communities struggled to stay together despite strong outside forces that would seek to undermine their history.  There remain some desperately tragic stories of entire communities that disappeared into the mist as time passed them by.  Always, in those early Scotland years for me, was this ongoing tension between hope and sadness whenever the song was sung that was profoundly collective in nature.

Today, New Years has become far more individualistic.  Yes, we gather, drink and dance, but the sense of coming together for the sake of entire communities has receded into memory.  In the place of community experience has come individual resolutions – the willingness to make promises to ourselves that we hope to fulfill in the ensuing months.  We desire to change and better ourselves, which is a wonderful thing.  And yet such actions often take place in isolation: losing weight, eating better, saving money, being more successful.  It is rare anymore to see citizens coming together at New Years and making joint resolutions to better their collective life, to share in resources, and to fight those broader forces seeking to diminish their community identity.

Recent research in the U.S. revealed that 50% of Americans make New Years resolutions, but that, sadly, 88% never carry them out to conclusion.  That’s over 150,000,000 resolutions that failed.  The research went deeper and revealed why it was the people couldn’t maintain that drive.  Put simply, those making such resolutions failed to understand the distinction between a resolution and a habit.  It remains almost impossible to retain a certain practice all year and then suddenly end it just because you feel like it.  The goal shouldn’t be to make a sudden change but to build “instinctual” habits that will eventually assist us to achieve our target.  Resolutions are always vital, but without the discipline to back them up the brain experiences great difficulty in creating changes in our lives that are sustainable.

This New Years, there will be many like me seeking to place a broader focus on our resolutions.  Things won’t be about “us” but “we” and there will be some hope of winning meaning back into the places where we live.  We will resolve to work more with others, to not be as opinionated or unforgiving, to be generous in spirit as opposed to restrained.  But by February or March the old ways stand a great chance of creeping back in and robbing us of our collective promises to one another.

We stand the chance of forgetting once more that for people like Mandela, forgiveness became a daily discipline and generosity of spirit had become a daily habit.  Our communities could use such a message once more.  As years pass, people who were once friends have divided sharply over a particular issue and never resolve to heal the relationship.  Sometimes such divisions occurred over mere opinions and not any particular actions.  Surely such troubles could be healed, friendships restored, and collective action for the sake of community be put back on track.

If citizens become so political every day that they refuse to congregate and work together because of hyped-up partisan instincts, then our cities will be at a loss.  If everything depends on one political tribe beating another into submission, where is the space left for magnanimous communities or shared purpose?  Instead of uniting us in difficult times, politics has taken on the nature of dividing over partisan feuds.

So let us this New Years make one collective resolution.  Be it resolved that we will create empowering citizen habits that will see us spend the next 365 days healing old wounds, salving areas of historic pain, using social media as an aggregator of commonality as opposed to a mere bulletin board of random opinions and postings that often divide us, and supporting those institutions that would seek to bring us together.  Given the challenges we now face, let’s build those habits of healthy citizenship that can see us resolve actions together that we can actually complete.  Happy New Year to all.

Dousing the Flame – A Sunday Read

It was 35 years ago and I had just started as a junior firefighter. Our engine pulled up in front of a raging housefire – the first of my 30-year career. Rushing up with my gear towards the inferno, I tried to remember everything I’d been taught in training. Sensing my mild confusion, an old veteran put his hand on my shoulder and said: “Son, don’t worry about it. Just put the wet stuff on the hot stuff.” I never forgot it.

This week, Heather Pham offered the same advice in a more human sense to a community in full grief following the slaying of an OPP police officer. What she said and the way she said it will never be forgotten by all who gathered to commemorate the remarkable life of a dedicated public servant. “You’re the best Dad in the world,” his 7-year-old son Josh said directly to the coffin, with not a dry eye in the arena. But when Heather Pham rose to speak, a moment of profound humanity began to descend on all who held their breath.

Onlookers expected the tears, but if they thought they were about to catch a tone of anger, which would be only natural, they didn’t get it. Instead emerged words of conciliation and understanding that served to frame her ultimate statement:

As hard as it is, I believe forgiveness is the only way to release ourselves from this pain and anger. To the best of my human ability and with God’s help, I will offer it and my hope and prayer is that all of you can do the same.”

In all her efforts to bring solace to an entire community she actually performed one of the most sacred accomplishments that accompanies the act of forgiveness: she freed herself. We don’t use this kind of language anymore, but that doesn’t mean the reality and substance of it has lost its value to us as a nation and as a people. Her husband was slain senselessly. Left to deal with young children and an ache that will likely never leave, she chose to lead an entire community into a realm that they must apply if they seek to move on. And in leading by example she freed herself to move on with her life.

Speaking to a congregation shattered by the cruelties of racial discrimination, Martin Luther King Jr. offered consolation by challenging those gathered to listen: “He who is devoid of the power to forgive, is devoid of the power to love.” If that is the case, and I fully believe it is, then the love this woman had for her husband and her God is truly exceptional. The family were church-goers and for them faith was essential to their daily life. And so, on this very traumatic day, she used it – she utilized what she had been taught and learned from her partner and extended that franchise to an entire community. In all of that small town’s history, there will rarely be a moment of such complete transformation. But it won’t last, can’t endure, unless all those present do as she asked: put out the fire – forgive.

I was asked to stand in the House on Tuesday and make a statement on Officer Pham’s tragic end (http://glenpearson.wordpress.com/2010/03/09/the-gap/). No sooner had I started than the place broke out into an ominous silence. When I concluded, the entire Chamber rose to its feet and applauded. Colleagues from all parties crossed over to shake my hand and offer consolation, including a couple of cabinet ministers. But I was no fool. Their heightened respect was not for me but for the man I was attempted to honour through my feeble words.

As helpful as those words might have been, Heather Pham easily transcended them in a plea of remarkable eloquence and reality: forgive, or we’ll never be healed. Words we need in this troubled nation more than we might realize.

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