The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: social justice

When the Past Can’t Escape the Present

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TODAY THE LONDON FOOD BANK LAUNCHES its 29th Spring Food Drive amid growing doubts concerning this country’s resolve to take poverty, and those mired within it, seriously. Dr. Jason Gilliland, professor from Western University will report at the press conference that poverty and hunger have now become entrenched, not only in our city, but in numerous communities across the country.

This is a difficult spot to arrive at for Canadians, for it effectively moves poverty from being a serious issue to tackle to a permanent class of individuals and families. Effectively, we appear to be coming to an end of what American author E. J. Dionne Jr. calls “the Long Consensus” –  an era where governments from all jurisdictions legally came together to join their forces to battle numerous challenges, including poverty.

In Canada, we call it federalism, which had its foundations established at the Quebec Conference in 1864. It became the basic legal and jurisdictional framework through which the federal government, provinces, territories, and communities interacted and shared resources with one another to face the challenges of such a large nation. Up until the last three decades its strengths were far greater than its weaknesses, resulting in Canada becoming a beacon to the world for the exquisite balance it achieved between social justice and the economy.

Recent years have witnessed the slow dissolution of these partnerships to where we have now reached the point where we are forced to admit that the great nation of Canada can no longer afford to end poverty.

The conditions of federalism were a promissory note to every Canadian. This note was a vow that every man, woman, and child in Canada would be guaranteed the attention of all three levels of government in regards to their welfare and potential. But instead of honoring that obligation, we have been given instead a bad cheque marked “insufficient funds.” This has transcended political ideologies and, because of that reality, every government has failed in the past 30 years to one degree or another.

Author Richard Hofstadtr observed that, “memory is the thread of personal identity, history of public identity.” If that’s the case, then Canada’s rich history is slowly disappearing through a kind of collective dementia. What we built together we are now watching being undone.

Yet all this is transpiring when the wealth generated in Canada has risen remarkably in that same period of time, thanks in part to new information technologies and global reach that now means most of the profits from that growth have gone to a small percentage at the top of income distribution. The result has been financial inequality that has reached troubling levels. It begs a fair question: Why have we – governments, bureaucrats, citizens, media – been unwilling or unable to halt the growth of inequality or to use an increasing amount of that generated wealth for the common good?

The growth of the global economy no longer means opportunity, but “downsizing,” re-engineered jobs. Yet through all this there has been little public protest about the changing power structures of the economic architecture.

The failure of the governors and the governed to protect the responsibilities of federalism, instead leaving us to the fluctuations of the markets, has mean that instead of “opportunity” we have “austerity,” and a re-engineered workplace that functions ultimately for the benefit of those already with great wealth.

Instead of watching over the precarious nature of Canadian federalism, a tendency has grown over many years that caused the power and financial elite to forego at least a measure of their civic consciousness, their sense of ethical obligation to society at large, in pursuit of their own ambitions. For many within this privileged cohort it has gone a step farther with the emergence of predatory attitude towards the rest of society.

This has had a troubling effect on the Canadian dream, especially on those of low-income who can no longer find a way ahead. Those coming to food banks express an increasing concern over what appears to be the withdrawal of institutional support, both public and private. They are experiencing something of a crisis of civic membership, a troubling belief that while the public remains generous in food donations, there is a growing sense that they are being pushed out of the mainstream – a kind of redundancy that leaves them with a sense of hopelessness. They feel that their struggles for individual survival are slowly replacing the sense of social solidarity this country once enjoyed. If the poor are losing hope, can the middle-class be far behind, especially if the current financial trend towards inequality deepens? And just to be clear, the volunteer charitable sector in no way can pick up the slack left when government retreated from the public space in the past three decades.

We had never imagined that the global economy, nor the stock market, nor the profit margin could determine our institutional choices unless we were first consulted as a people and permitted to choose. Politics essentially fooled us, parading federalism’s historic social compact, all the while acquiescing to setting the stage for the new financial order.

We once had a rich Canadian history of a federalism that helped Canada become one of the most humane nations on earth, but that national history now can’t be separated from a financial present run amok. Our national agreements have themselves become unequal and ineffective in the process. Our history is trapped in our present injustice, and the poor are the first to sense it.

Kayla Mueller is Free

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Note:  The blog post is actually from my Huffington Post piece today on Kayla Mueller, the American aid worker who died recently.  Her courage and example are just so palpable that I wanted to send it out as a blog post. You can get to the post directly here.

“We cannot be sure of having something to live for unless we are willing to die for it,” said Ernesto Guevara. If indeed true, then Kayla Mueller would have spent her final hours in deep assurance and firmness of conviction.

Mueller’s death while under ISIS captivity was a situation full of irony. When ISIS officials, in a letter to her family, claimed that their daughter died from a Jordanian airstrike, the world looked on in disbelief since she had been held captive by ISIS forces since 2013. Her tragic death was due to their barbarism first and foremost, and the fact ISIS officials confirmed Mueller’s death through photos only reminds that one party alone is responsible for a senseless death and a tragedy almost too deep to bear.

The greatest irony of all is the manner in which this courageous young 26-year-old out-reasoned and out-championed her captors till the very end. For one so young, her sense of compassion, commitment, and desire for justice for all people showed a remarkable maturity. She was a brave woman come to terms with her plight and yet proclaiming the need for the freedom of all people. We know all this because we have it in her own words and insights.

“I have been shown in darkness, light, plus I have learned that, even in prison one can be free,” she wrote in her final letter. “I have a lot of fight left in me,” she continued, “and I am not breaking down. I will not give in no matter how long it takes … I know you would want me to remain strong. That is exactly what I am doing.”

These were the words uttered near the end of her life. Just as revealing were those she wrote to a friend just prior to her capture over a year ago. They represented her reason for being in Syria in the first place and stand in direct opposition to the values of her captors.

“Every human being should act. They should stop this violence. People are fleeing. We can’t bear this. It’s too much. I hope you (her friend Kathleen Day) can tell the entire world what I’ve said here and what I’ve seen.”

What her life couldn’t fulfill, her death has accomplished — we are reading her challenging insights now and her passing is gripping an entirely new generation. Responding to her friend’s words, Kathleen Day noted, “They tried to silence her. They locked her up. They kept us silent out of fear. But now she’s free.”

For those relief and development workers serving in anonymity in some of the world’s most troubled areas, Mueller’s death is a sobering reminder of their own tenuous circumstances. And yet they are there, acting out a compassion and sense of justice that most of us will never discover.

Mueller herself was no novice. More than most, she committed her life to helping others. At home in Arizona she volunteered in a women’s shelter and worked at an HIV/AIDS clinic. Then she branched out overseas, working with humanitarian groups in Palestine, Israel, and northern India. She was captured attempting to rescue troubled families in Syria.

In a phrase, Mueller knew what the consequences could be. And yet she went and she thrived in serving humanity in some of its deepest places. She “showed us that even amongst unconscionable evil, the essential decency of humanity can live on,” said President Obama upon hearing the news of her death.

This world will never get better if we merely observe. In Kayla Mueller we have discovered the very courage it will take to make this world better for our children and other people’s children. Her religious faith helped to carry her through until the end. Whatever it is that strengthens and inspires us, we must now use it to act on this remarkable woman’s words: “We can’t bear this. Every human being should act.” Those who respond to her clarion call have now been given a most marvelous example of human dignity, conviction, and compassion. God bless every memory of you, Kayla Mueller.

A Populist With Punch

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SOMEHOW THE COUNSEL OF THOMAS JEFFERSON doesn’t seem too dated anymore: “The end of democracy and the defeat of the American revolution will occur when government falls into the hands of lending institutions and moneyed interest.” It’s an insight Elizabeth Warren would readily adhere to over two centuries later. And who can blame her, given the troubling rise of Wall Street again.

The crippling economic crisis of only a few years ago, largely precipitated by Wall Street’s incompetence, was supposedly a wake up call to all of us. Those initial attempts at regulation to keep it from happening again have been the object of numerous complaints from financial executives who claim that such constraints only serve to keep the economy from effectively recovering.

For financial institutions, however, the times couldn’t be better. The federal government forwarded Wall Street hundreds of billions of dollars of new capital, and trillions of dollars of credit were made available to keep capital flowing. At the height of this spree, the Fed was buying $85 billion in bonds each month, in what became a massive windfall for Wall Street. All of it happened without Wall Street having to significantly change anything in how it operated. Even worse, the market for risky financial practices is booming again. Huge bonuses to CEOs continue to rise. It’s now assumed that any urgent and necessary reform will have to come after the next great crash.

But don’t tell Elizabeth Warren that. For her the time is now and the need for political reform to effectively match any kind of economic change is essential before it’s too late. Here it is in her own words:

“I know everyone is wringing their hands about the recent election. What went right, what went wrong, what we could have done better, what we need to do now, and these are all very important questions. But one thing has not changed: the stock market and GDP continue to go up, while families across the country are getting squeezed harder and harder. Dealing with this problem requires an honest recognition of the kinds of changes we need to make if families across the country are going to get a shot at building a secure future. This is not about big government or small government. Rather, it’s the deep down concern over who government works for. Say what you like, people across the country, everyday folks with bills to pay and kids to raise, know that this government does not work for them.”

This isn’t new stuff, but it’s powerfully presented and courageously proclaimed. To the great discouragement of many, Warren has opted not to run in the upcoming race for the presidency. Many Democrats, fearful of another elitist candidate like Hillary Clinton or other challengers, are pressing her to jump into the race; she refuses. And the Republicans? Well, Elizabeth Warren is their worst nightmare – a populist with punch. For now at least, she is contented to align herself with the citizen side of politics and in doing so she is gaining some remarkable credibility in an awfully pessimistic time.

She’s come by her financial perspective honestly. A former Harvard Law School professor, she’s an expert on how Wall Street and the financial industry is, in her words, “destroying the middle class.” That intelligence sees her rapidly becoming the most articulate voice in Washington D.C. In fact, Vanity Fair finished a column on Warren titled The Woman Who Knew Too Much.

Another title would also have been appropriate: “The Woman Who Experienced Too Much.” Read her book, A Fighting Chance, as I did over the holidays, and you’ll immediately pick up the narrative of a young girl (Warren) personally witnessing her normal middle-class family decline in income, stature, and hope. A sad tale, it is also the story of millions of families who looked to government for a sense of balance and who came to the understanding that they were alone. It was that experience, unfolding over difficult years, that lit the fire of challenge that eventually wound its way to the U.S. Senate. That mix of the personal, the passionate, and the principled, is what makes her a modern force to be reckoned with – her story is like that of millions.

At a time of record corporate profits, a time when 14 million Americans are out of work, when millions have lost their homes and, according to the Census Bureau, the ranks of those living in poverty has grown to one in six, Warren has turned this development into a just cause. She has become the living embodiment of advocate Elie Wiesel’s observation that, “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” And protest she does – a voice to the voiceless, an oracle to the outcasts, and an enemy to the elites. But she’s intelligent enough to know that unless millions of others follow suit she will remain a voice crying in the wilderness.

Planned Poverty

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It all sounded to good to be true, and it likely is.  A column this week in the Atlantic held the captivated heading, “How To Cut Poverty Rate in Half (It’s Easy).”  If only.

The piece proposes something like a Guaranteed Annual Income (GAI), or Basic Income (BI), for those living in poverty.  Other nations have explored such possibilities and many in Canada are holding it out as a new way to defeat poverty.  I agree and support the initiative, but have come to see that it is likely the only way ahead due to a lack of imagination and resolve in this country.

In 1992, I was asked to address some members of the Mulroney cabinet on a paper I had written regarding food security in Canada.  At that point there was some serious exploration as to the possibility of a Basic Income, appropriately led by Mulroney’s Chief of Staff, Hugh Segal.  In his discussion with me, he was articulate, impassioned and a firm believer in the right of all Canadians to have a basic quality of life.  Later, he was appointed to the Senate by Paul Martin and continued to be an effective voice on the initiative.  He was one of the good public servants and was respected across the board.  He continues to talk about it today, except that all the attention is on some of his peers with names like Duffy, Wallin, Harb and Brazeau.  It’s a shame because we need to hear his voice.

In 2010, writer Erin Anderssen wrote a piece in the Globe and Mail on the BI, and it rightfully gathered a large following.  She goes into the effect of such initiatives in other nations and quotes Segal.  It’s an impressive piece that you can read here.

I have slowly come to the conclusion that this will be the only way ahead if we are to take a serious bite out of poverty in the future.  But it does represent a failure across many sectors.  Reducing poverty is never as easy as the Atlantic piece claims.  Its contributing factors are multi-layered, complex, and represent a failure of public policy on numerous levels.  It will remain impossible to build an equitable social policy out of a deeply flawed financial model and a crippled form of politics.  We learned just yesterday that 95% of any new income generated in Canada from 2009-2012 went to the top 1%.  If that remains the backdrop for any new social initiative, it will only be because there is no longer the will or resources to deal with our deeper issues of injustice.  The poor will become a permanent class merely because we never developed the levers necessary to seek for a broader kind of national justice – socially, economically, culturally, or even legally.

I want to explore more on this in the next post, but for now it is important to admit that we are not losing the war on poverty because we quit, but because we have slowly retreated from our own collective possibilities.  Confucius was poignant on this point: “In a country well-governed, poverty is something to be ashamed of.  In a country badly governed, wealth is something to be ashamed of.”  President Obama’s chair of his Council of Economic Advisers, Alan Krueger, was more modern in his conclusion:

In considering reasons for the growing wage gap between the top and everyone else, economists have tended to shy away from considerations of fairness and instead focus on market forces, mainly technological change and globalization.  But given the compelling evidence that considerations of fairness matters, I would argue that we need to devote more attention to the erosion of the norms, institutions and practices that maintain fairness in the job market.  We also need to focus on the policies that can lead to a more widely-shared – and stronger – economic growth.”

There we have it: planned poverty.  We cannot hope to decisively defeat poverty by providing a basic income to poor families and individuals while at the same time promoting an economic and financial system that refuses to effectively distribute wealth.  In his presidential bid, Mitt Romney termed this as, “taking it from the job creators to give it to the freeloaders.”  He got caught and he was wrong.  The great problem is not how the wealth is being distributed, but how it isn’t being equitably distributed at all.  In fact, every effort and serious bucks go into the safeguarding of all that wealth at the top.

People in poverty aren’t automatons heading to a bank machine.  They have disabilities, mental health issues, chronic sickness in their families, have lost employment, can’t afford retraining or childcare, are immigrants unable to crack the financial culture barrier, are elderly on fixed pensions, are aboriginals with little hope of higher education, women mired in homelessness and abuse, children with unemployed parents, people with no housing, and a sector with no hope.  This is the face of modern poverty, and we have lost the courage and imagination to assist them where they live.  Out of options, and increasingly claiming we are out of money for expensive social and medical programs, we must see a Basic Income for what has sadly become: a measure that has only become needed because we lost the will to defend and strengthen our social contract with one another. It will be better than what we have, but so much short of what we once dreamed.

 

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.

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