The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: Politics

Food Insecure Canada

hqdefault

IT’S THANKSGIVING WEEK AND ACROSS THE COUNTRY food banks will be holding special food drives to help stock their supplies. For most, the challenges are high. At the London Food Bank, for instance, the demand has gone up 12% over the first eight months of this year over the same time last year. Many of the food banks are seeing their donations in both money and food decline in recent years, even as demand remains high.

All this just means that food security all across Canada remain a precarious thing. Canadians should have access to enough nutritious and safe food to ensure a healthy lifestyle. More than that, they should also be assured of a secure food system that gets quality and affordable food from field to table. The United Nations proclaims this access should be a universal right, but around the world governments and their people are having a tough time of it living up to such an ideal.

It’s troubling, for instance, when we hear from the Conference Board of Canada that 7.7% of Canadian households are “food insecure” – approximately 1.92 million people. That’s more than the population of Montreal. We all know instinctively that a poor diet for kids or adults leads to string of related problems, from diabetes to heart disease, and from poor attention spans to mental health disorders. Psychologically, being food insecure brings on depression, feelings of isolation, anxiety, and, tragically, entertaining thoughts about suicide.

And what of Canadian children in such situations? Currently, 228,500 kids aged 12 to 17 live in food-insecure dwellings. Aboriginal communities are especially challenged by food insecurity for younger generations.

A troubling finding is that food insecurity in households with children is 9.7%, in comparison with households without children (6.8%). The prevalence of food insecurity among households led by female lone parents is 25% – two times greater than among households led by male lone parents (11.2%), and four times that of households led by couples (6.3%).

Why are so many households food insecure? The reasons are many, beginning with incomes too low to afford the essentials of life. Stubbornly high unemployment, under-employment, or poor pay make affording quality food problematic. In addition to income are the high costs of food and non-food essentials. Geographic isolation, especially among Canada’s indigenous communities, makes access to quality foodstuffs difficult. Food illiteracy also has a lot to do with families being undernourished. Proper education around the preparation of foods remains one of the key building blocks for food security. And without access to transportation, at-risk families resort to places like convenience stores, which are woefully underequipped to provide proper nutrition.

It’s likely this is all known by those who read these words. What is less sure is what is occurring to tackle such problems. On this front is reason for some hope, especially at community levels. Food is bringing cities, town, and rural areas together in levels heretofore unseen. Urban gardens, community gardens, collective kitchens, and so many other initiatives are occurring in numbers sufficient to shift the policy preferences of governments. On a deeper scale, there has been a surge in food policy councils, farmer’s markets, food hubs, locally procured food supplies, and rural-urban cooperation mechanisms – initiatives that move food beyond simple charity models and towards a more secure food system overall. And nationally there is a growing movement to press the federal government to adopt a national food strategy.

Will these cumulatively be enough? Not likely. It’s a step to the next level, but to truly battle food insecurity in this country a confluence of initiatives must take place that will form a truly integrated, healthy, and secure food system.

Rises in food literacy, increased supplying of isolated regions, a national school nutrition program, affordable transportation access for low-income families – these and much more must be undertaken if we as a nation are to succeed. Ultimately there will have to occur a comprehensive collaboration between all three levels of government, the food industry, farmers, health departments, research, restaurants associations, and citizen action groups, for any effort to be truly successful.

Global hunger is one of our greatest challenges. To understand its scope, consider this observation from Paul Polman:

“Imagine all the food mankind has produced over the past 8,000 years. Now consider that we need to produce that same amount again — but in just the next 40 years if we are to feed our growing and hungry world.”

But we will never collectively get to such a level until we learn to solve food insecurity in our own communities and across our country. Food insecurity is best defeated by steps and not mere good intentions. We’re not winning that battle at present, which is why food banks are so busy this week. Start there by donating, and then let’s move forward.

A House Divided

Republican Presidential Candidate and Businessman Donald Trump addresses supporters at a rally in Kiawah Island, South Carolina, USA, USA, 18 February 2016. The South Carolina Republican presidential primary is 20 February 2016. ANSA/RICHARD ELLIS Democratic 2016 US presidential candidate former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton participates in a Breaking Down Barriers town hall campaign event at Morris College in Sumter, South Carolina, USA, 24 February 2016. The South Carolina Democratic presidential primary is 27 February 2016. ANSA/ERIK S. LESSER

Read this post on Huffington Post here

“You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic – you name it. And unfortunately, there are people like that. And he has lifted them up … Now some of these folks – they are irredeemable, but thankfully they are not Americans.”

What are we to do think of this? Is it even right? When Hillary Clinton stated this on a campaign stop, she was sick, clearly fatigued, and likely fed up with all spiteful rhetoric coming from the other side. We get that. But one wonders if it’s ever a good thing when a candidate, especially for president, to speak about voters in such toxic words – even claiming some aren’t Americans. It’s not because the customer is always right, it’s just that the voting citizen is usually holding the power to decide who wins in such a vital campaign.

But there’s a larger story and it’s a global one. As politics in the affluent West continues to flatten out and lose its lustre and support from average citizens, people become divided, sometimes to the extremes. Gender inequality, poverty, immigration, refugees, austerity economics – these and much more are pressing voters in countries around the world closer to margins of intolerance and it gets us to some things unthinkable a generation ago. Normally tolerant people are getting frustrated with the inability of their political leaders to ease the tension points of modern life.

Millions, for good or ill, might be fascinated by Donald Trump, but the fissures dividing the various populations across the European continent show the extremes all this can lead to. In places like Austria, France, Germany, Britain, the Netherlands, Norway, Belgium, Italy, and Finland, right-wing nationalism is on the rise as growing disillusion with the European Union, millions of refugees, and sluggish economies induce normally centrist nations to veer to the right.

Such movements, spread across a large number of nations, have caused many to wonder if Europe’s progressive tolerance is sliding back into a more extreme age. It certainly appears that way, and as the number of European elections is played out in these next two years that sentiment might actually be confirmed in troubling terms. Normally liberalized populations appear tired of affirming that certain liberties must be placed aside for the common good. Right now they are seeing nothing common or good in what is going on and their voting priorities are shifting, at least temporarily.

In many of these countries, the intolerance was speeded up by spokespeople from the status quo “tolerance” camp and their denunciations of many of their citizens as xenophobes, Islamophobes, homophobes – in short, the language Hillary Clinton used in her campaign speech. When civilized society feels okay about demonizing others in the name of tolerance, you have a problem that doesn’t necessarily require Donald Trump to become president to alienate much of the population. When the politics of resentment comes from the Left, the Right, and even the Centre, the road to democratic decline appears like an open freeway.

The current politics of labeling and resentment is dangerously coming from all sides of the political spectrum. Citizens themselves will hold hard to opinions across that spectrum as well and this must be respected. But what we require is a context where our differences are discussed with respect and a sense of compromise. Donald Trump has delighted in blowing that pretense out of the water. Making alienated people even angrier is his modus operandi, but it’s a foolish game to utilize similar techniques on the opposing side. Many Democrats and Independents are feeling isolated, too, but the majority are progressive in their leanings and should those they look to for leadership dumb down the conversation into heated name calling, not of the opposing candidates, but citizens themselves, then the fight for a common place of respect is finished. That will be true in coffee shops or in Congress itself, as we have seen in recent years.

Even if Hillary Clinton was right in her definition of Trump’s followers, she was wrong to exacerbate tensions already at a boiling point. America can’t be a light to the world if it continues to present itself as a divided house falling into civic darkness. Since both Clinton and Trump speak frequently of how they respect Abraham Lincoln, they should hearken to his words: “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”

 

As the World Moves

Screen Shot 2016-07-28 at 5.10.11 PM

Read this post on National Newswatch here.

IN CANADA, THERE IS FREQUENTLY THE SENSE that the refugees brought into the country in the last year posed not only a challenge but a kind of calling card to the world of why we still remain such a compassionate land. We feel good about what we’ve done. The disruption of thousands of Syrians families into our communities has been slight compared to the sense of inclusion and accomplishment the challenge created for us.

Yet all this can provide a rather rosy sense of the refugee problem that stands in stark contrast to the rest of the world. It has been reported that there are more displaced people and families in the world than at any time since the Second World War. Then the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) came out with new data revealing that we have already exceeded the refugee fallout from that great conflict – 65.3 million, or one out of every 113 people on the planet. As imposing as that is, it also represents a 5.8 million increase over last year. Here are some revealing statistics from the findings:

  • The population of displaced people around the world now exceeds the entire population of the United Kingdom
  • If the total number of displaced formed a country, it would be the 21st largest in the world
  • 24 people are being displaced every minute
  • over half the refugees come from Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia
  • Up until now, Turkey has played host to more refugees than any other nation
  • Among the great number of refugees, 100,000 are unaccompanied children

So, yes, outside of climate change, the refugee dilemma in the most serious of modern times, but we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that it is the affluent West that is taking on the greatest load. As the Globe and Mail’s Geoffrey York reminded us recently, it is the poorer nations, not the wealthy ones that are bearing the brunt of the phenomenon. That makes sense when we consider the political thunderclouds in France, Germany, Britain, the United States, and now Turkey, as a result of its recent coup, that has now created a strong backlash against immigrants and refugees. The relative peace in Canada aside, the age of relatively compassionate democracy seems more on its way out than expanding.

All this leaves the poorer parts of the globe to deal with the refugee fallout. As York reminds us, 86% of all refugees are being sheltered in poor and developing nations. Five of the ten largest hosts of refugees were from sub-Saharan Africa. On the basis of challenges to the national economy, those bearing the greatest burden are the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Pakistan, Uganda, and Kenya. In Lebanon, 183 of every 1,000 people are refugees.

Canada was rightfully mentioned in the UNHCR report as a world leader in generosity towards refugees – second only to the United States. In the past year, we have accepted 20,000 refugees, while the U.S. took in 66,500. The problem is that no matter how great our collective and individual generosity, the world itself is fraying at the edges and more refugees are being created every year than can possibly be managed, sheltered, and empowered.

Of all the intense risks the Western political order is facing – irrelevancy, gap between rich and poor, climate change, the inherent flaws in globalization, political dysfunction – it could well be that it is the manic creation of refugees that could succeed in destroying it when war, poverty, and racism couldn’t.

The solution to this most pressing human problem of the modern era is not more generosity alone, but a rising global movement of social equity, female empowerment, and political pluralism that together can bring about solutions in those troubled nations from which today’s refugees are forced to flee. It is a cause worthy of Canada’s leadership role in the world, but it will require a united army of compassionate nations even greater than that assembled in World War Two.

“The story of humanity is essentially the story of human movement,” writes author Patrick Kingsley in his The New Odyssey. Right now our human story is rumbling about in some dark chapters. This could well be the moment for Canada, as a softer, more tolerant nation and protected on three sides of its boundaries, to capture the world’s attention by building a global consensus to bring a troubled world back from the brink of destructive human fallout.

Outside the Lines

Screen Shot 2016-07-18 at 6.04.53 PM

Read this post on National Newswatch here

When Ben Hur was launched as a stage play in 1899 it became an immediate sensation. Stagehands were hired to shake tarps to make the background set look like waves, while others rocked the fighting ships back and forth in an effort to make it look realistic. A year of preparation went into the production, with the highlight being the chariot race in the grand arena. People had been practicing for months – the white horses leading Ben Hur and the black steeds powering his enemy Masala’s chariot. Then something went wrong behind the scenes, with the result that Masala won the contest – a conclusion that threw the plot, and the rest of the evening, into disarray.

I thought of that story repeatedly in these past few weeks as so much in politics failed to finish as planned. We weren’t supposed to end up in this place and it appears the political elites have lost considerable control of the political process in a number of countries. The politics of Europe and America now share an equal dose of uncertainty and perhaps danger.

This week’s Republican convention reminds us again that standard politics is no longer a sure thing. For an entire year the Republican Party proceeded as though Donald Trump was a novelty, an also-ran, who would surely bring lots of attention but never be a serious candidate. All that party machinery! All that preparation! All that fundraising to get support for the major candidates! And then the publicity stunt candidate triumphs.

This American campaign is one for the ages, whether people like it or not. But after all the analysis is done, with pundits ad nauseam picking apart the entrails, one key reason stands out as to why Donald Trump achieved what he did: the voter. It was supposed to be the usual kind of campaign that affirms democracy still works by selecting from the choices the political class provides. The problem is that the billionaire wasn’t the figure either the party apparatus or even the media initially preferred to be crowned. On the flip side, in the Democratic Party, Bernie Sanders was pulling off a similar kind of revolution that to this day carries momentum even following Hillary Clinton’s clinched nomination and the endorsement of Sanders.

Let’s face it: Donald Trump prevailed because he garnered too much support to deny him the prize. This isn’t the year of Trump, but the year of the voter – perhaps more so than even Obama’s remarkable run in the 2008 election.

And now we have Brexit and all the chaos that will go on for months, likely years. With both France and Germany going to the polls next year, the jury is out as to the overall result. In order to achieve his last election victory, British PM David Cameron rolled the dice and promised a referendum on Britain’s continued membership in the European Union, likely sure he could control the political process. Except he couldn’t, and now a political Pandora’s Box has been completely kicked over.

It remains tempting to talk about the major personalities in all this bedlam as the collective reason for the unpredictability, but in a very real sense this has been about troubled citizens, not their ultimate leadership choices. Something seismic is clearly going on and its impact is changing so many preset ideas regarding our politics.

The era of political pandering by parties to voters while at the same time ignoring the global challenges citizens face and the values they hold dear is seemingly coming to an end – citizens don’t believe the hype anymore. Readily assuming that political elites no longer understand the profound challenges faced by the electorate, voters are colouring outside the lines and opting for choices that are no longer the safe ones – something Abraham Lincoln deciphered over 150 years ago, as noted by strategist Ariel Moutsatsos:

“Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed. Consequently, he who molds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions.”

None of this means, of course, that voters have voted objectively, but they have shown the political classes in their respective countries that they’re tired of being duped and want in. The great danger is that their stretch for a collective voice might unleash dominoes of great uncertainty. If in their arrogance the political managers created winds of change, voters themselves must be somber and diligent lest they reap the whirlwind.

Shaken, But Not Stirred

chess1

I SPENT THIS LAST WEEK IN SCOTLAND, and it was clear from the places I visited that people feel swept up in an array of key events that left them at a loss at their own individual place in it all. The Chilcot Report was released on my first day there and everywhere people were glued to their screens, mostly angered that they had been duped into supporting a war that Sir John Chilcot himself concluded was driven more by ideology than information.

People were discussing the implications of Brexit wherever I journeyed, including a fish and chips spot where two people in the booth next to us bemoaned the reality that they had no idea what would happen next.

This is the world as we know it, and, in developed nations around the world supposedly constructed on the primacy of the individual, people seem more lost than ever, feeling little hope that they can change the arc of events. It all reminds us of the movie Roger and Me, where Michael Moore is denied the right to meet with officials from General Motors because he “didn’t represent anyone.”

Politics increasingly views the public as divided into various groups representing a myriad of issues and leading to great divisions within society itself. Every cause imaginable now has spokespeople active anywhere where an audience can be captured. Such groups have always been present and are essential to any healthy nation, but of late their numbers are so numerous that one key group is repeatedly overlooked: the public itself.

Average citizens continue to represent the great unknown. They are the deciding factor in elections but remain difficult to read. They hold to their convictions yet refuse to broadcast their intentions. They hold to their opinions but don’t feel the urge to broadcast them to everyone. Most don’t belong to activist groups and the majority barely interacts with social media, where most of the animated groups seek to make their connection.

For those in government, individuals can seem only to matter if they are connected somehow to this or that activist group. That remains a misnomer, as the majority of Canadians, Americans, or Brits keep their convictions largely to themselves or to select friends in a coffee shop. Treating such citizens as part of a group only drives them more into their isolation. But when given a chance to emerge, as with Brexit, the results can be earth-shaking.

“I was not designed to be forced. I will breathe after my own fashion. Let us see who is the strongest.”

While social media grows increasingly inflamed over this cause or that, the majority of individuals are merely getting along with their lives, providing for their families, volunteering at charities, or helping their neighbours. They are nobody’s fool and refuse to be counted in the great battle of “us versus them.” They neither like to be labeled nor appreciate attempts to recruit them by phone canvasses. Private interests will never secure the change they seek until they find some way of mobilizing these average citizens through a sense of fairness and understanding – characteristics often rare in groups attempting to change their world in a moment’s time.

Governments can spend their days repeatedly responding to the activists (which is one of their responsibilities), but should they not find effective venues for energizing the majority of Canadians just getting about their personal business, then no sense of political change can endure. Most Canadians are not political, but they are cultural and work together through their institutions. They form the living embodiment of Henry David Thoreau’s observation: “I was not designed to be forced. I will breathe after my own fashion. Let us see who is the strongest.”

In Britain at present, perhaps even in the U.S. and Canada, it is the average citizen who has emerged to reveal a strength unequaled by all the various groups with a cause. The world may be in chaos around them, but they have their act together.

%d bloggers like this: