The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: history

History’s Most Troubling Chapter

It seems like every time we see a list of the greatest problems faced by our troubled world that the refugee challenge is repeatedly positioned in the top five. At no time since World War Two has the subject dominated us in such a fashion. Yet we frequently fail to understand how the narrative of people moving across the planet in fear of their lives has been developing, with each generation facing unique hurdles and implementing new solutions.


Take a look at the chart above, provided by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and via the good folks at VOX. It’s staggering and a revealing glimpse as to why so many think the world is a deeply troubled place. Conflict, persecution and political designs have driven more people – 64 million and counting – from their homes than at any other time in history. Of that number, 40 million are displaced people and almost 25 million are refugees.

The term “refugee” was already commonly used by the late-18th century. The French Constitution made it a legal classification in 1793. The issue became more pressing in the 1800s, but by the 20th century it was rapidly gaining global prominence. Hundreds of thousands fled the Soviet Union due to violence and persecution in the early part of the century. Following World War One, millions were on move as the map of Europe was being redrawn. A similar pattern emerged following the Second World War. The partition of India in 1947 resulted in some 10-12 million people displaced. The following year, after Israel achieved statehood, 700,000 Palestinians fled to other nations.

Things got so bad that in December 1950 the phenomenon of refugees became so pronounced that the United Nations established the UNHCR to coordinate a global response. Its mandate was designed to last for only three years, but global developments took varying turns when new conflicts in Africa produced ever more movements of people fleeing their homelands. The UNHCR mandate was extended. With the fall of Vietnam in the 1970s, one million more refugees began migrating elsewhere.

But this last decade has been unlike anything seen or experienced historically. Today 1 in every 113 people on earth is either a refugee, internally displaced (IDP), or seeking asylum, and more than half of these are children.

News coverage sometimes gives the impression that Europe is where everyone is trying to escape to, but that is misleading. The top five host countries for refugees aren’t in Europe, but in places like Turkey and Lebanon. Nevertheless, Europe has become the target destination of some one million refugees.

All this forms a portion of the refugee narrative. It winds its way throughout the decades, in varying emanations, and forming direct challenges. Far from isolated incidents, the emergence of the refugee phenomenon links history in unusual ways and forms something of a backdrop for the challenges of each generation.
The tendency has always been there to portray refugees or displaced people as those who leave of their own volition for greener pastures. The reality is much different, as millions are forcibly expelled from their ancestral homes, leaving them with two choices: cross borders or stay and face imminent death. This puts a different spin on the reasons why so many are migrating across the globe: they were forced.

Patrick Kingsley, in his moving book on the European refugee crisis, notes the following:

“The choice is not between the current crisis and blissful isolation. The choice is between the current crisis and an orderly, managed system of mass migration. You can have one or the other. There is no easy middle ground”

Currently, that “orderly, managed system” has yet to be refined and implemented. In the meantime, the sheer numbers of families and individuals traversing the globe is a clear sign that our world is rapidly becoming a borderless one. It is also becoming more troubling with each passing year. What we face at present is merely the most recent episode of humanity’s troubling journey towards peace and security.

2016: The End of History – As We Knew It

This post can be viewed as a National Newswatch column here.

Francis Fukayama’s book The End of History and the Last Man emerged in 1992 – a well-crafted reasoning as to why liberal democracy of the Western variety had become the greatest form of human government. Though a fascinating read, for many who had travelled extensively there was the sense that the author’s predictions weren’t matching what was occurring in the developing world. In those regions, politics and globalization were taking unusual twists and turns of a highly unpredictable nature. Ultimately, The End of History, though a well-meaning offering, just wasn’t in-sync with humanity’s complexity.

It has taken a few decades to understand that liberal democracy itself is hardly as vibrant or dominant as we once believed, and it’s likely that 2016 was the year where we began to seriously doubt our own confidence in the financial and political systems of our present era. In reality, the previously more stable countries around the globe are falling into crisis. Canada is enjoying relative stability, but one shouldn’t presume it’s guaranteed. That will depend on us.

It’s a tough time to be a politician. Voters are looking to their elected leaders to deal effectively with growing inequality, stagnating living standards, unemployment and underemployment, surging immigration, vigilante terrorism, climate change, and the lack of effective social policies. That’s a lot, and we are quickly reaching the stage where we wonder if our leaders can actually deliver on what we expect. It’s a crisis of governance to be sure, but it is impacting democracy itself in unpredictable ways.

Wasn’t globalization and the reformatting of the world economy supposed to benefit those liberal democracies best suited to take advantage of investments and innovation? Instead we are witnessing the shift of power and influence from the developed to the developing world. In Western democracies, the safe path of progress no longer instills a sense of trust. We still have countless economic and political advantages in the West, but the competition from across the globe is now fierce. Nothing is sure any longer, and if any time in recent history taught us that truth it was 2016.

Whether we think of it or not, the inroads of modern technology and the emergence of billions of new low-wage workers into the global economy have placed us in the predicament of having far more capacity than we do demand, and in the process the average Western worker is being squeezed or made redundant altogether. To a significant degree, the pain felt in this grip helped to propel Donald Trump to victory.

The feeling of disconnectedness among citizens is tearing apart our historic sense of order and institutional progress. The advent of social media has meant that nothing is for sure anymore. It has proved largely successful at driving voters into verbally armed camps of ideology as opposed to better equipping them for integrated debate and consensus. What could have been an effective revolution of ideas and innovation has descended instead into a maelstrom of barbs, attacks, and hate speech. No one partaking of social media in these past 12 months could remain ignorant of this trend.

The last year has also felt the rumbles of nation states no longer willing to play ball with the traditional global patterns of getting along. Russia, Syria, Iran, numerous European nations, China, and even Israel in its recent war of words with the U.S., are in the process of expanding their reach in ways that break standard global protocols. It’s not just terrorist organizations that flaunt international norms; now entire nation states are flirting with the practice. 2016 was the Year of the Rogue.

It seems tragic that in the face of such imposing challenges the divisions in Western societies are exacerbated by dysfunction in both the partisanship of politics and the separations within the citizenry. These are times when our attentions must be focused on overcoming our differences by identifying our commonalities.

One thing is for certain: leaders can no longer proceed in their various agendas without the support of citizens. It is no longer enough to engage only during election seasons. Populism has risen so quickly, and with such turbulence, that established political orders around the globe have been served notice – power is no longer the playground of the privileged. If by the end of 2017 elected officials fail to mobilize power and finance for the betterment of average citizens instead of the wealthy or the political parties, then history itself will transform into something no one can fully predict. So far, it is difficult to feel assured.

Years ago political scientist, Samuel Huntington, wrote of a “third wave” of democracy that would spring up around the world, driven in large part by grassroots populism. Since the 1970s, the number of electoral democracies, according to Freedom House, went from 45 to over 123 of the 192 countries today. Democracy is everywhere, but it’s more like turbulent cauldron than any kind of organized movement among the citizens of the world. Neither political nor financial leaders have yet shown the capacity to collectively shape these movements. 2017 might well be their final chance before the dam breaks, ushering in a different world.

Christmas Prep – Hope

SO MUCH OF THE CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY SEASON is predicated on things from other eras. Gifts, trees, carols, decorations, sentimentalizing snow, turkey, Santa, Bethlehem, trying to fill the kids with a sense of wonder, religious services, and community celebrations with lights – none of these were created by us but by our ancestors and we personalize them each December to fit our own holiday circumstances. In all of this the past can give meaning to the present.

Yet occasionally it becomes instead a mindless following of cultural expectations, or as Todd Stocker would write of it, “Sometimes we get so enamoured with the tradition of something that we forget the intent of it.” We can modernize the Christmas season all we want, but with each passing year it loses something of the past, of the meanings that such an important occasion brought to mind for our parents and grandparents. To those folks, surviving a Depression and a couple of world wars, provided them with an acute insight into why Christmas itself was vital for reasons far greater than mere tradition. In our consumer rush and modern penchant for casting off what we sometimes regard as illusions of the past, we throw the baby out with the bathwater, ending up with cultural habits often devoid of meaning. This is what author Lars Svendsen meant in his book, A Philosophy of Boredom, when he noted that, “Traditions have been replaced by lifestyles.”

Perhaps there’s only one thing that can keep us from losing the essence of the Christmas meaning – the future. For perhaps billions of people the world has become a more dangerous place, at least in their thoughts. So many things seem to be happening across the globe at the same time that it often seems unlikely that our leaders are really in control of the change. The list can, at times, seem endless: poverty, climate change, violence, terrorism, democratic decline, human migration, the loss of long-term meaning, gender inequality. Those who worry about such things can merely turn maudlin and look longingly at the past. Nor can they turn a blind eye to it all and seek to enjoy the present. What they need is to believe in the hope that only the future can bring, or as philosopher Søren Kierkegaard poignantly put it to his generation: “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

In other words, both the past and the future matter to our present way of life; without either we turn into a humanity with no lights of wisdom in our heads and no path for which to follow.

It’s likely that herein lies the reason we make kids so much the centre of our Christmas observances – they are the future, and by focusing on them we reinvigorate our own faith in a better tomorrow. Without them there is no one to pass the torch to. Which makes it all the more important that we gift them with things of value on not just commerce. Somehow they have to take the world that we presently have, with all its strengths and weaknesses, and make it better. For that they will require tools that are priceless and can’t be bought in a store (as the Grinch learned) – love, faith in each other, respect, decency, adaptability, forgiveness, healing, and, yes, the belief in those transcendent things that outlast us all. If we can provide our children such essentials, then it won’t matter what’s under the tree.

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

The first Christmas story was infused by the sense that something different had to take place, something seismic enough that it could set humanity on a different course. The old path was no longer sufficient for a more enlightened future. Yet the answer wasn’t to throw out tradition, but to uncover the essence of it – the values that had survived for millennia and were still required to give humanity a fighting chance.

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”
And that’s what we require now: a spot on the ticket, the knowledge that we can turn our world towards better instincts and our hearts towards the better angels of our natures. To give such treasures to our children and grandchildren is to pay our own downpayment on our hope for the future. Such things can’t be bought because they are priceless. But they can be lived and in that truth is the essence of the Christmas message.

A National Tragedy

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WE ALL COME FROM SOMEPLACE – NOT JUST PHYSICALLY, but emotionally and psychologically. For many, such origins involve pain, sadness, even trauma. Some of them take the inner turmoil and turn it outward, inflicting pain on others as a way of dealing with their own. But others pull that pain inward and become prisoners in their own world.

The latter point is important if we wish to begin to comprehend the recent slate of youth suicides in our aboriginal, metis, and First Nations communities. We watch in horror upon hearing of the suicide pact reach recently in the Attawapiskat First Nation community and confess our utter inability to either comprehend or provide solace in such a situation. Recently in an interview with the Huffington Post, Dr. Rod McCormick, an indigenous mental health expert, spoke directly to this issue of inner trauma:

“There’s a lot of unresolved trauma and unresolved grief and loss. A lot of people in the community are containing their pain and emotions through drugs and alcohol, through disassociating, and sometimes all it takes is one trigger when people are vulnerable.  It could relate to childhood trauma; there’s abuse that occurs, be it physical or sexual.”

For young people especially, that sense of a lack of belonging, of alienation, of being misunderstood can be an awful thing to overcome. And so, in their pain, they attempt to take their own lives – a national tragedy.

This is all just another way of saying that where these troubled individuals and communities come from very much determines how they might see the world. For example, they all, to greater degree or less, have lived under the shadow of Canada’s Indian Act. Enacted in 1876, this Act was to determine how the rest of the country interacted with the indigenous communities, if at all. Here are just a few examples of what it contained according to the Working Effectively With Indigenous Peoples blog:

  • Reserves were instituted and residential schools introduced
  • Given new European names to replace their historic ones
  • Any part of indigenous reserves could be used for anything the government saw fit, such as roads, railroads, waterway diversion, etc.
  • Informed indigenous peoples that they couldn’t form political bodies
  • Forbade communities from speaking their own language
  • Denied women status and forbade any indigenous person from voting

Some of these clauses were amended in the ensuing years, but this is where our original people came from and it has defined them for generations. Any of us brought up under such limitations and outright prejudicial racism would likely have turned inward as well and felt cut off from all that we might value. In such a world, suicide can become a cultural phenomenon, and that just what has transpired in places like Attawapiskat.

When asked his thoughts on systemic racism, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said tersely: “No human race is superior; no religious faith is inferior. All collective judgments are wrong. Only racists make them”

Tough words, but historically accurate. It’s one thing to hold racist tendencies but be unaware of it. It’s another thing altogether, especially in an era of supposed intellectual awareness, to allow such blindness in our own time. We all share the guilt. We must all share in making it right.

When Cities Define Us

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“EVERY PERSON IS DEFINED BY THE COMMUNITIES she belongs to,” says author Orson Card. Depending on where you live, that could be encouraging or disillusioning. In the realm of city building, many don’t wish to be defined by municipalities that seem to be falling behind, but would rather be seen as part and parcel of smart cities doing intelligent things as they move into the future.

London, Ontario, is living through such a moment, and some see it as a crucible. The current subject under debate is Light Rail Transit (LRT) versus Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). Some view LRT as a sign that we are committed to the future, whereas others prefer BRT as a more affordable decision to manage the present. In unexpected fashion it has become a difficult debate over the soul of the city.

Cities can enable us or disable us. They represent the environment in which we must deal with one another, either as a place to merely live or a community in which to grow. In a modern and complex world where everything seems to proceed at the speed of light, the collective decision to take a pass can prove a death knell to cities that are increasingly in competition with one another. It is what happens when communities, like a book, have lots of characters and events but little plot or narrative. Cities can become places where we merely organize collective human life or transcend the daily expectations to create a more dynamic future.

We must build into those places where we live the values that are the most precious to us, not merely those helping us to survive. In effect, a city becomes the ardent symbol of how we see our future or it lingers on as symbol of endless compromise. In a world where politics becomes the prime example of managing expectations, the main goal becomes keeping the peace instead of building a dynamic, fluid place.

I have always had a deep respect for the observation made by Jane Jacobs: “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” But what happens if a good portion of the population has no interest in creating but merely taking from the benefits a city offers? Should this number reach a critical mass, then community begins to die and most times isn’t aware of it.

Perhaps we should ask the simplest of questions: What are cities for? It was a lot clearer in the past. Cities were required for protection against marauding forces. They were the large place where the faithful congregated and created a sense of the spiritual and where clans gathered together. They were the primary source of market economies owing to their larger agricultural setting.

The complexities of the modern world have easily caused cities to rise above these historic limitations in order to become intersections of a more global humanity. If a modern city is to have any chance it must answer this more international call of its citizens. It is a cosmopolitanism taken to new levels by more liberalized immigration and refugee policies, by markets that trade goods in a millisecond, and through technologies that put people in touch with one another wherever there is a connection.

All this creates a new kind of citizen – connected, smart, and collaborative. Cities that refuse to absorb this emerging reality into their fabric, culture, infrastructure, and communications aren’t merely suffering from lethargic leadership but unimaginative citizens – we create our own world. Because of the sheer quantities of creativity in modern cities, leaders must make room for citizens to take part in the designing of their own future – individual and collective.

Cities are like dreams, driven by either desire or fear. Those municipalities that struggle are more often guided by hesitation and insecurity, and that is often a reflection of the citizens themselves. Far better to be incentivized by a sense of the audacious than to be dulled in our senses by the desire to undertake only what’s manageable.

“You take delight not in a city’s seven or seventy wonders, but in the answer it gives to a question of yours,” wrote Italo Calvino. Cities begin to fade when their citizens no longer ask questions of how to better live together.

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