The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: security

Canada Abandons a Former Partner


Jane with an observer from the European Union during the South Sudan referendum

The following in my Huffington Post piece regarding the news that the Government of Canada has opted to significantly remove its presence in south Sudan during one of that country’s worst crises.  You can view the original article here.

In two week’s time, my wife heads to South Sudan to assist in overseeing projects Canadians have been investing in for years — water salvage, education, women’s micro-enterprise initiatives, scholarship programs, and the final phase of construction for a secondary school.

In two week’s time, my wife heads to South Sudan to assist in overseeing projects Canadians have been investing in for years — water salvage, education, women’s micro-enterprise initiatives, scholarship programs, and the final phase of construction for a secondary school.

In two week’s time, my wife heads to South Sudan to assist in overseeing projects Canadians have been investing in for years — water salvage, education, women’s micro-enterprise initiatives, scholarship programs, and the final phase of construction for a secondary school.

It won’t be easy. It’s never been simple. But for over 15 years a large number of Canadians have been investing in such initiatives, even during some of the worst years of the now-concluded civil war. During those early occasions, Canada’s reputation had been sullied by the presence of a Canadian oil firm that, in Southern Sudanese eyes, was making a fortune out of their misery. Eventually the firm pulled out and we sensed a warming to Canada as our government invested more deeply in peace initiatives and relief efforts, and as it became clear that we weren’t just interested in financial gain.

Some very capable Canadian diplomats were of key assistance in constructing and funding some of the key efforts required to end the war between north and south Sudan following so many decades. And Canadian non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which had provided such stellar service during the war years, assisted in helping the Southern Sudanese move forward as they peacefully achieved independence and became the world’s newest nation. For years, the Sudanese conflict had remained high on the radar for successive Canadian governments, who worked in conjunction with many of their international partners in that deeply troubled part of the world.

But being a new nation with limited resources doesn’t make for an easy transition into good governance. Tribes that had held together to fend off the incursions of north Sudan during the lengthy war have started to come apart over the problems of administering the peace. The recent troubles in the south that sprung up only a month ago, and the instability that has resulted, has pressed that African region to the precipice. Western nations that had so greatly assisted in early years but who had moved on to other regions are quickly returning with new initiatives to assist the south in holding itself together as it journeys towards adulthood as a nation.

Sadly, one of those countries will not be Canada. For well over a decade, Sudan had been a Canadian priority. But just this week, the Harper government, through its Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), has recommended, “that Canada consider downgrading its development program (in Sudan), or exiting entirely.”

CIDA correctly figured that it was going to prove difficult to administer aid in the south. But that’s the way it has been for decades. Some of Canada’s most effective investments occurred during the civil war’s costliest years. This country, along with the U.S., Britain, the European Union, and others, kept their eye on the ball, slowly but progressively nursing that troubled country into an era where peace became a possibility.

What’s the reason for Canada’s change of heart and focus? According to an internal reportacquired by the Globe and Mail, Sudan is no longer an area of “strategic importance” to this government. Both Foreign Affairs and CIDA have been instructed to implement a new era in international intervention, primarily focused on what’s best for Canadian business. At the moment, little such opportunity seems apparent in Sudan and downgrading this country’s historic investment has been recommended.

All this is transpiring just as Sudan requires not only Canada’s ongoing partnership, but its influential diplomatic expertise. The Globe and Mail’s release of the internal report reveals that all this couldn’t have come at a worse time. In preparation for our trip to South Sudan in a few days, we learned that numerous contacts at various levels have been taken aback by what for them is even more fulsome evidence that Canada has lost its way in recent years.

While the United Nations has put out an emergency appeal for one billion dollars from donor countries to assist the Sudanese effort, tongues have already begun to wag in capitals throughout the West about how Canada appears to have gone AWOL. As one American government official told me today, “It’s now difficult to know how to involve your country in these important security and development issues anymore.”

All this will be embarrassing and not a tad sad to speak about with the Southern Sudanese. But, as with those earlier times, we will remind them that the people of Canada will continue in their interest and investment in a troubled country even as our own government loses interest. But hanging over all of us will be the understanding that Canada is leaving the southern Sudanese to their own fate, in this, their adolescent years as a new nation. Some investment will continue, but our government’s imagination is gone. This is not our finest hour.

Homelessness Without a Home

HomelessNew data on homelessness emerged last week and immediately competed for front page attention – some 200,000 Canadians every year are affected by homelessness, with a hefty price tag of 7 billion dollars.  This was the first ever national report on homelessness and the findings spell deep trouble for our communities, especially our cities.

Perhaps it’s time that we just admit that citizens are expecting this to be an ongoing reality – a troubling shift.  Worse still is the fact that our leaders – political, economic, social – are now planning for poverty – it’s enmeshed in our economic system and there are no plans for alleviation. A proper remedial place for tackling this troubling issue within the realm of public policy goes wanting for a lack of political will – the presence of homelessness has no home in our public mindset.  Alberta (Edmonton specifically) gets good marks for its efforts, but in our national narrative homelessness has grown out of all proportion.

My friend, economist Amine Yalnizyan, recently defined these changes as “socialized losses and privatized gains.”  There we have it, spelled out in black and white.  This condition isn’t happening willy-nilly, but is the natural effluent emerging from a financial design that thinks less and less about public policy and the cost to society of not dealing with problems such as homelessness.  The costs of pursuing such a course are now becoming clearer.

Americans woke up recently to learn that their nation’s wealthy gained $5.6 trillion in the recent recovery, while the remainder had to deal with the loss of $669 billion.  This didn’t sit well, but what was troubling was that no one in the Establishment thought to question the current course of action.  Something similar is happening in this country.

There appears to be no plan in any of the Western nations to deal with a global financial system that has gone awry – everything is just tinkering.  Since this is a given, we might as well ‘fess up’ and admit that realities like homelessness and poverty have become the new weapons of mass destruction.  Entire sectors of our society are growing more lost and disconnected everyday, despite all the wealth and technological potential.

By permitting homelessness to become a kind of abstraction, a moving target of formulas, numbers and graphs, Canadians have assumed it to be something like a mathematical problem.  That’s okay for a time, but if, following two decades of inaction, homeless numbers surge and public policy refuses to deal with it, it takes on the form of lost imagination.  And for any nation the loss of the ability to dream and picture the benefits and pains of others is the sign of another kind of impoverishment altogether.

At the London Food Bank we are increasingly dealing with people who lost their homes through economic pressures.  Imagine it.  How do you now house your kids?  What about your pets, or all those precious possessions you acquired when your parents passed them on to you?  Where do you store your winter clothes, and with no car, how do you get your kids, or even yourself, to those amenities that often provide a few moment’s relief in a hard life?  Husbands and wives or partners often feel their relationship slipping away because of the inability to find a place to just “be”.

The reality is that a home was never just a location or the city you lived in.  It is those things which provided meaning, healing, direction, and support for daily living.  It’s where the people we love resided and where we came together.  It wasn’t so much a room but a moment in time where we found one another.  More moments could be strung together in such a place and a kind of communal life and hope could be established that permitted us to go through the ups and downs of life as people who care for each other.  It was a shelter to nurse our wounds, a museum for our past, a classroom for our learning, a bed for our intimacy, a launching point for our dreams, and a proof of our existence.  It was a place from which we could leave and a destination to which we could return.

In every real and viable instance a secure place to live is perhaps the most fundamental necessity for human existence.  Home is not just a place but a hopeful condition, from which all the challenges of life can be faced and hopefully overcome.  It is hard to locate the desires of our heart when it is ever hovering, unable to land, unable to rest, unable to abide.  Above all, home is an ache – like love or memory.  Without it we lose our sense of belonging and the validity of our being alive.

In our house, I sense immediately when Jane or the kids head out on their various excursions and in that moment they are missed.  I feel a sense of loss, of a desire to put the kettle on as soon as Jane gets back, or to dance with the kids when they return.  Having a home means knowing when someone has left and yearning for their return.

In Canada today we have some 200,000 of our citizens who sense that no one cares that they are alone in communities of hundreds of thousands, even millions, of people.  It remains one of our great national tragedies – no place for the marginalized in our “home and native land”.


Citizen Gifts – Protection

We’ve all been through enough these past few days to understand what happens when a community that perceived itself to be safe suddenly finds out it isn’t. It’s as John Wyndham says in his, The Day of the Triffids: “It must be, I thought, one of the race’s most persistent and comforting hallucinations to trust that ‘it can’t happen here’ – that one’s own time and place is beyond cataclysm.” That’s what the people of Newtown, Connecticut must have thought, until that awful day.

Admittedly, it was hard to detect what was about to happen. It most often is, when some imbalanced individual decides to break out of societal norms and wreak havoc. But there are other influences that threaten our communities that can only be dealt with through citizens having one another’s backs. If we remain detached when we should be on alert, our communities might never be the same.

Sometimes human beings rise to remarkable heights in their willingness to risk themselves for the greater good. The people of Denmark, faced with a Nazi occupation, were suddenly being commanded to turn over any Jewish people in their towns and villages. The penalty for refusal was obvious, yet in spite of the danger local citizens, outraged at the inhumanity of it, established their own hidden network of underground railroads. With roughly 8,000 Jews in Denmark the challenge was extreme, the consequences dire.

It wasn’t really until after World War Two that the world discovered that almost all 8,000 were successfully smuggled out of the country and guided to Sweden, where the Danish Jews were given sanctuary. It was to serve as one of the bright moments in what was clearly a darkened age.

Nor was it just the Danes or Swedes who defended humanity at the very time is was required. A distance away, and in circumstances completely independent from what was happening in Denmark, the people of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, in southern France, devoted themselves to rescuing and protecting Jews and other endangered people. Local citizens did so at great cost and threat to themselves. One of them said after the war, “Saving lives became a hobby of the people of Le Chambon.” It’s rare to find such heroism; rarer still when people make a practice of it.

These were remarkable acts in a time when numerous communities provided passive or active support to efforts at rounding up Jews. There was great collusion, of turning a blind eye, a much larger story in which many Europeans sought to protect themselves and their communities by giving up the innocent to the aggressors. Nevertheless, as British philosopher Richard Swinburne so aptly put it, sometimes communities take it upon themselves to exercise “the divine right of insurrection.”

Regardless of the reality that the Jews were of a different lineage than the Danes, the Swedes or the French, they were still viewed as important members of their respective communities. They filled positions in their communities, contributing to its larger benefit. When the time came to make a decision as to whether they stayed together as a people or separated themselves by their natural divisions, citizens knew they had lived together long enough that differences were transcended by belonging. They were a humanity bound together, and the sheer inhumanity of what they were being asked to do was ultimately beneath their nobility of character and outlook. They were communities and they protected their own, occasionally at the expense of life itself.

In reality, what took place in Newtown happens repeatedly around the world. I have been to African villages where entire populations have been wiped out, or women and children were hauled off into slavery and I couldn’t console myself because of the inhumanity of it. And yet those villages refused to give up; they rebuilt and rebuilt again. Every three seconds a child dies in this world. It’s not here among us and we give it little thought. And then suddenly it happens in a Connecticut town and we feel defenseless and speechless. Our humanity materializes when such things strike nearby, but often remains dormant if travesties happen continents away.

Victoria Solo

Victoria Solo

The carnage at Newtown reminds us that we are human and that we will survive as a species when we look out for one another. Teacher Victoria Soto heard the gunshots and quickly hid her students in cupboards and closets. When the killer entered the classroom she said she had sent them to the gym. He shot her and moved on. Look at her picture. It is the face of a dedicated teacher who did an amazing thing, and in doing so took citizenship to new heights. When a Newtown happens we learn that we, in fact, do possess a deeper humanity, one capable of great exploits to protect others. A test of our humanity will be how we respond to travesties that affect us personally. But the depth of our souls will be measured by how we defend those with whom we have nothing in common.

No community is truly safe until it builds a more noble humanity into its common life, its shared resources, its lofty dreams. A city without security cannot be a community, and a neighbourhood without citizen cooperation can never be a home. Newtown prompted us to hug our kids. Aspirational citizenship will teach us how to embrace each other in building a secure public space.

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