The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: generosity

A Christmas Carol Revisited

Below is my Huffington Post piece published yesterday on London’s Kellogg’s employees and their remarkable ability to assist an entire city in recapturing Christmas meaning.

Glen Pearson

Director, London Food Bank, former Member of Parliament

A True Christmas Miracle in London, Ontario

Posted: 12/17/2013 5:32 pm

My hometown of London, Ontario is currently reliving its own version of A Christmas Carol. The announcement last week of the shutting down of the Kellogg’s plant in London, and the increasing pressure from modern capitalism to reduce wages and break unions, has left us as a city reeling and hoping to find better times. We are just like many other communities in this country, as we watch wealth inevitably pull away from us.

Charles Dickens made his name situating the character of the struggling individual against the powerful forces of the moneyed elite. In A Christmas Carol, we find Bob Cratchit working away in a “dismal little cell,” deficient of heat. He dons a tattered white comforter to keep him warm, since he can’t afford a coat. The wage provided him by Ebinezer Scrooge in insufficient for Cratchit to provide a proper Christmas dinner for his family.

And then Scrooge gets spooked — literally. Both the ghost of Christmas present and the ghost of Christmas yet to come reveal to the miser not only the effects of his paltry human spirit, but the true nature of the person he hired and just what a good man he is. Cratchit had always been there for his family, especially with his sick son Tiny Tim. But he had also endured a brutal boss who loved the bottom line and only saw his employee as a means of getting there.

We are left with the impression that two ghosts won the day and that Scrooge experienced a change of heart. But the apparitions were just vehicles to show him the true state of his spirit. Yet his great awakening came the moment he silently witnessed the true character of his employee, his circumstances, and how Cratchit had somehow managed to maintain his belief in the nobility of the human spirit despite the constant threat of job loss and an insufficient wage.

The world is quickly spinning towards a titanic showdown between modern capitalism and democracy and the results are not yet clear. Income inequality is on its way to becoming the true litmus test of not only our communities, but of the free market itself. It can maintain its present course and not only witness the hollowing out of our communities, and also be one of the primary causes. The drive for profits has slowly replaced the desire for place, for communities where hard work is rewarded and where employees are valued participants in the larger economy.

We are rapidly working our way towards a future of wealth for the few without work for the many. Our cities are increasingly witnessing vagabond workers, moving for job to job, often for minimum wage, toiling without benefits and with little future for advancement. Despite fabulous wealth being generated globally, it moves ever upwards, out of reach of average families, and hoarded by protections against spreading it more equitably.

A modern state cannot exist merely made up of politics and private enterprise. Any good society must offer citizens a vast array of ways to get involved in developing various levels of co-existence, solidarity, and participation. Politics and capitalism will dominate any space where a robust civil society is struggling. Worse still, political ideologies and the free market will become increasingly dysfunctional the more humanity is stripped from their workings. In a democracy, this element of civil society, and the ability to determine collective well-being, must be predominant or else we will enter the stage we are presently enduring — power without accountability, wealth without responsibility, and citizenship without community.

We believed the days of Dickens were behind us, but we now see their resurgence. We must press for change, for the great trimming down of economic inequality, and for the reform of capitalism into a place of usefulness and empowerment to our respective communities.

Bob Cratchit comes out as the true hero of Dicken’s novel — a worker, a family man, a believer in the goodness of people, and a man capable of rising above his circumstances.

London, Ontario just witnessed a similar example yesterday, as Kellogg’s employees, despite the devastating news of the impending shutdown, raised $10,000 and purchased quality foodstuffs for the local food bank. If we are ever to find a reason for believing in Christmas, this is it. Those employees have caused me personally to raise my game, to be a better citizen, and to struggle against capitalist and political forces that have lost touch.

I wish for more ghosts this Christmas, to reveal to us the inner strength resident in citizens and to persuade corporate leaders that the true spirit of humanity is not to be found in the bottom line but in the better angels of our nature. Invest in that and we will discover new hope, potential and wealth.

Why Do We Give?

This past weekend’s activities, along with speaking with some Afghanistan veterans during yesterday’s Remembrance Day activities, put me in a philosophical mood. Seeing so many citizens put their best foot forward caused me to ask, “Why do people give so generously?” Lots of theories popped into my mind, but still, the act of sacrificing something you own for someone else is perhaps the most noble trait resident within the human race.  Some give in order to get something in return (recognition or favour), while others donate through a kind of enlightened self-interest.  Still others give because there is a personal connection to some ultimate cause.

And then you volunteer for the London Food Bank in the Santa Claus parade and you witness another dimension altogether. Watching thousands lining the parade route, braving the cold and the wind, holding out non-perishable food items in their hands, I was again taken aback, as I am every year.  In the busy world of food bank activities, this is my favourite event because you meet so many people on one particular occasion and you get the chance to thank them. I didn’t know those people, nor they me.  It would be the only time they would all gather together like this in that one place, called together by a kind of civic compassion that was hardly organized or manipulated.  They sat patiently with others they didn’t know until that night – and they gave.

To who?  Well, they really didn’t know.  To the homeless, the hungry, fellow citizens in times of trouble?  All of the above, I’m sure.  But the point is that they gave to other people they didn’t even know, and in that precious moment civic virtue was born anew and validated.  They understood that their gift wasn’t a job, or a place to live, but they wanted to play their own small part, and when the thousands of them were added together the yield from that instinct would feed hungry families for some time to come.

Most of us can say what we care about, but experience a harder time attesting to what we want to achieve with our giving.  Some say that is kind of foolish; I say it is human.  Sometimes the greatest compassion is reserved for those moments when we are moved by an urge we can neither define nor prove.  It just “is” and we know that if we don’t act in that moment, then we will be poorer as individuals for our lack of spontaneity. To come together anonymously as these citizens did, and to provide for needy families in their midst without any organization, is beyond explanation, other than it is human to give even when we don’t comprehend the ultimate purpose of such acts.

In such moments, the observation of Antonio Porchia bears itself out:  “I know what I have given you … I do not know what you have received.”

Well, I can tell you what I received that evening: hope.  There remains this abiding belief that if people can give from their heart on a moment of impulse, there is yet hope for our communities – not because giving to a food bank is any ultimate answer to hunger, but because if the impulse is there to sacrifice, then at some point we might yet learn to fight poverty in ways that will lead to justice and an enhanced sense of social equality.  In such moments, how we give collectively might be worth more than what we actually give because it represents one clear conclusion: we see the good in the world because we choose to and don’t just imagine it.  We understand that the good is there to be noticed and pursued, not made up, and in such a reckoning lies a future worth following and communities worth building.

In the thousands of sets of eyes, on a windy November evening, I saw the possibilities of betterment for our future, that a collective life of austerity need not be our only path forward.  The very lack of definition or organization left the very progressive instincts of our humanity open for all to see – people just naturally gave.  There is a future in such stuff.

One More Time, With Meaning

Today it is.  The London Food Bank launches its 25th annual Thanksgiving Food Drive, running from today, October 4th right through to Thanksgiving Monday, October 14th.  Every year, some in the media ask us to do something new and different to draw attention to the challenge we face as a food bank.  We always take a pass on that challenge because in our view 3600 families a month coming to us directly for assistance is not only a significant news story but a deep challenge to our community as well.

And we’re not alone in that challenge.  Consider this:

  • 412,998 individuals accessed Ontario food banks in March 2012
  • 38.7% of food bank users, or 159,918 individuals, were children (11,737 more children than in March 2011)
  • 44.6 % of all food bank users were women over 18 years of age
  • 174,618 households were served by food banks (9.8% of which were first time users)
  • 42.8% of food bank users were on social assistance
  • 27.3% of food bank users were on disability support 
  • 64.5% of food bank users were low-income, rental market tenants
  • 19.2% of food banks ran out of nutritious food during the month

Across Ontario there are some 120 food banks that work together – sharing resources, compiling statistics, putting forward research and programs for lessening the demand on food banks themselves.

We are rapidly approaching that time when we as communities must begin some serious discussions as to how we will end hunger.  It won’t just be about governments living up to their commitments, but how we handle employment, those on mental health, create more affordable housing (the #1 cause of food bank use), and how we engage citizens to tackle this ever-growing problem in our midst.  And there will be risks involved.  I am reminded of Helder Camara’s observation, that, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint.  When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”

Political labels aside, it is time we took up the challenge of asking why so many of our fellow citizens are hungry.  The old days of stereotyping people on welfare are long gone; in their place stands the reality that significant numbers of people coming to food banks were working just a year ago.

Please help out your local food bank if you can.  And let’s begin preparing ourselves for the significant conversations we as citizens we need to begin if we desire our communities to come back to health again.

Watch the two-minute video above if you want to learn details of this year’s food drive.

More Than Turkey

Most of us have lots to be thankful for, but for those families facing a shortage of food supplies it remains a little tougher. That’s what the Gobbler Gallop is all about.

Started 8 years ago by Barry Smith of the Running Room in London, Ontario, the special run has benefitted the food bank each year at this time. It’s a family event, geared towards getting kids interested in helping those struggling to make ends meet. And it works. Each year families run together and when they’re done they get some special prizes and get to hear what the food bank is about.

Events like this are likely going on all across the country because Thanksgiving brings it out of us. We’re still a compassionate country and we continue to find ways, in spite of difficult economic times, of reaching out beyond ourselves. To Barry Smith and all the others, thank you for all you’ve done each and every year. And thanks for making it accessible to kids, helping them to learn generosity towards others at a young age. You can get a visual of just what it was like by looking at the video below.

To all of you, from my family, HAPPY THANKSGIVING. And thanks for your part in making our lives so special.

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