The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: internationalism

Dignitas, Gravitas, Veritas

General Romeo Dallaire was in town last week to deliver the Claude and Elaine Pensa Lecture on Human Rights at Western University’s Faculty of Law – an annual event. We hadn’t seen one another for 18 months and we both missed the days of working together on international issues in both the House of Commons and the Senate.

He spoke to a packed lecture room filled with students, faculty, lawyers and just interested citizens.  Looking around the venue, I spotted Conservatives, Liberals, NDP, and one former Green Party candidate – an eclectic mix. It was all sponsored by Harrison Pensa – a well-known legal firm that crosses the political spectrum in practical ways that cooperate in order to better the local community – kind of like how Parliament is supposed to function.

Anyone attending who hoped for a rosy international picture from the famed General would have been disappointed. He spoke of how climate change reframes the developing world, creating refugees, conflicts over resources, and a kind of determinism that seems to say that if we don’t get our head around the need for action on the file that the problems we face in the future will be more human than scientific.

He spoke poignantly of his child soldier initiative and how a girl child soldier is far more valuable that her male counterpart. Former male combatants can be rehabilitated back into a community once demobilized, but a girl soldier will inevitably be rejected by her community because she had likely been raped and no one would want her. In the General’s view, extraordinary efforts at rehabilitation for such individuals are essential if communities are to recover.

Then followed numerous examples of the futility of war, the ongoing threat of nuclear attack, the clear lack of international capacity to deal with emerging issues, and, as one would expect, the ongoing reality of genocide. To drive that point home, Dallaire spoke personally of how he was left with only a few hundred peacekeepers to stave off Rwandan genocide, while in the Bosnian war thousands of troops and stocks of equipment were slated to assist the UN in that effort. “Why the difference?” he asked. “Is one more human than another?” He had the audience on the edge of their seats.

Why would a large number of people sit through a talk on the present bleakness of the human condition? The answer to that is somewhat complex. First of all, it was Romeo Dallaire – a Canadian icon, an international hero, and a person instilled with the ability to touch the human heart in a jaded age. He was introduced at the lecture as someone with dignitas – deserving of a deep and abiding human respect earned from years of service to humanity. That he possessed gravitas was also mentioned – a seriousness regarding life that is acquired through concrete action in a troubled world. Finally, he spoke eloquently with veritas – truth uttered through experience laced with humanity and occasional defeat.

The genocide in Rwanda is now so well-known that it accentuates every sentence he utters. One of the great humanitarian and defence failures of the modern era was bound to attract an audience and people still strive to know how such a tragedy occurred and could we keep it from happening again.

Then there is the sight of watching a remarkable man hounded by the burden of his past. He spoke eloquently of his own suicidal frame of mind following Rwanda – he called them “mental injuries” as part of his military language. I worked with him for over four years in Parliament and always that sense of a past yet pressing in on him never abated. To watch someone in such a state work out his own hopes and ideas in public is a remarkable thing. Voltaire used to say that, “Every man is guilty of all the good he did not do.” Given that some 800,000 people died in a fraction of time in Rwanda, one can somewhat understand the General’s internal turmoil for what he could not do. Yet it’s more than that surely. We witness a man in perpetual pain. Grief isn’t as heavy as guilt, but it has the capacity to take more out of you. Romeo Dallaire is a walking and living example of someone who handles his demons not just through the benefit of medication, but through a dedicated service to the human condition – it’s what keeps him going, yet there’s a deep and abiding pathos to it.

He is a man whose utterances and observations are laced with humour and anecdotes. He isn’t merely hardwired to the negative connotations of humanity. He looked out over the array of students before him just like a General surveying his troops. “You are the hope of tomorrow and its greatest resource,” he told them. He spoke of how the great directions of the future will be driven by technology and that in such terms the youth of the world must take on leadership roles as a result.

When it was over, the applause was deep, respectful and sustained. Claude Pensa, an effective legal mind and sage in the London community, thanked the General for being a timely voice when time was of the essence. We had witnessed and heard not just the voice of history but someone who had shaped it and succumbed to it. The future is ours and we must seize it, regardless of the scars it leaves.

Note: My new book – A Place For Us – is now available as a free audio book download on iTunes. Just link to 

And Now For Some Good News

Everything seems to be about domestic issues at present, and it’s clear that there are plenty of them to occupy our attention. But things are happening elsewhere, and many of them are positive and uplifting.

Most of you likely know that my wife Jane and I run a non-governmental organization that takes on relief and development projects in the Republic of South Sudan. Each year we travel to a region there that is situated near the border between north and south Sudan, as well as being located at the border with Darfur. It’s not easy work. Building schools, assisting a medical clinic, running music and art camps, funding women’s programs, providing goats to returning families, and working on a project that provides clean water takes a lot of effort and organization.

We’ve now been at it for a lot of years but the progress made in that time continues to inspire us. Each January we takes teams of average Canadians, who help us oversee the projects. Some of them come back year after year and take on the leadership of some of these efforts. It’s remarkable to watch Canadians make such a concrete difference in one of the world’s most troubled regions and also to witness how the southern Sudanese respond to these efforts. This year we’ll be taking a team of 20 with us in January.

Each year, on the first Sunday in November, we host a music concert that is energized by a number of school choirs and music groups that infuse energy whenever they perform. We have had the likes of Ken Dryden, Romeo Dallaire, and Justin Trudeau speak at the event for us.

This year’s concert is this coming Sunday night. Denise Pelley, a remarkable singer and performer, will be the chief music act once again. I’ll be privileged enough to sing a duet with her, accompanied by the youth choirs. There is no cost for the concert, although an offering is taken part way through, with 100% of the funds going directly to programs in south Sudan. If any of you are in the area, please come out and support these initiatives that for 15 years have been helping the people of the south reconstruct their lives and their villages. We all need a bit of good news and the remarkable journey of Canadians working with the southern Sudanese gives people hope for the future. You can learn more at

The Life of Brian

For so many citizens, Brian Mulroney represents the past in this country.  This is what Stephen Harper is counting on.  Yet Mulroney’s personal difficulties aside, his nine years in office represented a kind of era that was one of this country’s crowning achievements in internationalism.  In a phrase: he was everything this present government isn’t.  While some surmise that the former PM is chagrined at the distant treatment he has received from the government, it could just as easily be true that he has rejected the present emanation of Conservatism specifically because of how it has sullied the Canadian image in the world.  We need to consider why that is so.

Liberals dislike recognizing this fact, but it’s true: Brian Mulroney had an international influence that conceivably matched Lester Pearson’s.  Just think of his international engagements and what he accomplished.

Like it or not, he helped to lead Canada into a more engaged process with the United States.  Widely criticized for being too friendly with three different presidents, especially in matters relating to free trade, Mulroney nevertheless kept up the kind of relationship with American leaders of various stripes (not just presidents) that permitted him to confront our neighbours in ways most today would be too timid to attempt.  His refined gift for friendship and personal diplomacy permitted him to use a kind of “tough love” the American’s weren’t used to, as when he prodded them into signing an Arctic agreement on the Northwest Passage against their own urges.  That was nothing compared to his confrontations with successive presidents on ballistic missiles, Cuba, Star Wars technology, and their initial opposition to the reunification of Germany.

Mulroney’s affability was matched by determination and insight.  He was personal friends with most global leaders – Gorbachev (Soviet Union), Helmut Kohl (Germany), Francois Mitterrand (France), Boris Yeltsin (Russia), to name a few.  He pushed them towards considering the environment as a vital global issue.  He sought and achieved an agreement on acid rain with the Americans.  His disagreed strongly with Ronald Reagan’s simplistic view on the fragility of the planet.  In 1987, he supported the Montreal Protocol on the ozone layer.  A year later, in Toronto, he held the first ever summit on climate change with world leaders.  He worked with his diplomats and environmentalists, taking a leading role in establishing the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.  He led Canada to be the first nation to sign the Biodiversity Convention.  It’s no accident he has been labeled Canada’s “greenest” PM.

Mulroney believed there was a pivotal role for Canada to play in the world and he used the United Nations as the chief vehicle for maximizing that influence.  In this he was the polar opposite of Stephen Harper.  He didn’t avoid the UN, but used it at every opportunity to push for improvement in the world.  During his tenure, Canada participated in every UN peacekeeping mission.  When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, Mulroney used his considerable leverage with George Bush Sr. to develop a response with the international community through the UN and not to attack unilaterally.  At the United Nations itself, Canada’s reputation was significantly on the rise and the Canadian prime minister’s tact and persuasiveness was appreciated.  His handling of the Ethiopian famine crisis was masterful.  Given how Mulroney worked the system to gain the eventual freeing of Nelson Mandela, who many claimed was a criminal at the time, we quickly understand that if he were in power today, Omar Khadr would now be in Canada.

In recognition of his persuasive internationalism, Britain, Russia, France and the US approached Mulroney in 1991, asking him to take on the role of Secretary General.  He was sorely tempted, but the domestic pressure of Meech Lake and Charlottetown made it impossible.  In what must have been an exquisitely painful moment, Mulroney declined.

Despite what many think of Mulroney today, Canada rarely stood higher internationally than during his years as PM.  Some in the Conservative caucus today recall those times, quietly aching for their return, and frustrated that their leader has overseen the decline of the Canadian influence.  They would acknowledge, if they could, that Mulroney would have assured that this country secured the seat on the Security Council that we so sadly lost recently.  Mulroney himself is fully correct in rejecting a kind of Conservatism that seeks to divide a country domestically and isolate it internationally.  His was the kind of Conservatism that mattered in the world and we are the poorer for the absence of this kind of expansive global reach in the present regime.

Liberalism – Larger Than Life

When it comes to a profound influence in the world, liberalism has nothing to apologize for.  The majority of people we know don’t question freedom, rights, peace, equality, the power of the individual, or progressive societies.  These are the gifts of liberalism to Canada and the world, and even conservatives can’t contradict such triumphs of civilization.

The problem for modern liberals is that these successes are now in the past.  To be sure, they are in need of constant refinement, but the basic premise is no longer in doubt.  There aren’t many liberals around these days writing groundbreaking books because the essential paths to progress have already been trod.  The present great task for liberals is not to develop a new vision but to better apply their historic accomplishments to new conditions.

Conservatives, suffering a kind of bankruptcy of thought and vision themselves, have resorted to attempting to roll back liberal advances of the last decades, castigating and deriding liberals in the process.  They have done so in particularly brutal fashion south of the border, with some of that extremism creeping across the 49th parallel.  This is why the mandate of conservatives today is against climate change reform, immigration, gun control, taxes, expanded foreign aid, complex diplomacy or national programming.  Sometimes it’s difficult to understand, as when last week the Conservative government opted to cancel the contract of the ombudsman for veterans because he dared accuse the government and its bureaucracy of caring more about saving money than veterans themselves – an irony, given the conservative penchant for military matters.

With conservatives fighting against historic liberal advances, and liberals themselves relying on those very progressive accomplishments as their key reason for being, precious little seems left for the present and the future.  Thus, we fight old wars already won by liberals, splitting the country in the process.  It will be a futile effort in the end because when Canadian citizens are pushed to the wall they will defend their rights, individuality, and equality of opportunity, whether or not they realize these a liberal inheritances.

Canada’s image in the world has largely been advanced by liberal initiatives in everything from peacekeeping to human rights.  The advancement in liberal democracies across the continents has led to an era of globalization, the likes of which the world has never witnessed.  The progress has been so rapid that oversights or unforeseen damage have been inevitable, and to these present-day liberalism must apply itself.  Yet for all the criticisms deployed against globalization itself, there is nevertheless the great outpouring of new generations into the world marketplace.  Those desirous that the forces of globalization restrain themselves in favour of homegrown solutions have all but ignored the pressing reality of what might be called “outmigration” – the massive movement of young people from rural to urban centres, in search of greater economic opportunity and a more lucrative lifestyle.  Whether one agrees with this development or not, it is inevitable and conservatism’s outlook of restraint has nothing to say to this new generation.  Only liberalism can provide the tools necessary to shape the future direction of these millions.

For this reason, Michael Ignatieff’s view of a “networked” world only makes sense because of its sheer inevitability.  The same advancements we have enjoyed can’t be denied others around the world.  There is much to learn from that kind of world, from languages to cultures, from better nutrition to more productive ways of conserving.  The globalization so many fear has been accompanied by the Internet, cell phones, and all the other wonders that have effectively empowered poorer people around the globe to self-organize themselves to forge better lives for their families.  This is the future; it can’t be undone, only opposed and temporarily sidetracked.

Liberalism has arisen at pivotal times to defeat communism, fascism and other forms of totalitarianism.  Now it must apply itself to terrorism – a subject that liberals often leave to conservatives to triumph.  It is now beyond doubt that the angst of terrorism finds rich fodder in poverty and lack of opportunity.  The rise of conservative governments in the West has seen a rise in military engagements to counter this new blight on civilization.  This was necessary and prudent but can only protect against evil forces rather than delivering a death blow in the lands from which they originate.  For that to occur, it will require free markets, key development funds, the empowerment and education of women, political reform and proper heath standards – all liberal legacies.

In a world characterized by acts of evil, the answer is not to merely exhibit “shock and awe” while also creating insecurity among the Canadian people themselves.  It will require a kind of international sophistication that will bring the poor of the world into the ever-increasing numbers of individuals and families slowly emerging from their own poverty.  This will require liberalism – bold and unashamed.

Far from being hopeless or relegated to the past, liberalism is, in fact, on the verge of providing solutions for those problems for which conservatism can only worry about.  Enhanced diplomacy, investments in international development, a global climate change solution, reliance on science and evidence-based advancements – these are the liberal guidelines for which the troubled nations of the world will seek in their desire for advancement.  The liberal future is now.

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