Civic Space – into the next 150

Civic Space – into the next 150

Canadians do not know how lucky we are.  That’s my reflection two days before Canada Day in this year of the 150th anniversary of Canadian confederation.

While what we know today as Canada has a wide and diverse history dating back centuries and even, in the case of our original settlers, the indigenous people who once governed this land, more than ten thousand years.  So there are, or at least should be many times at which we stop to contemplate the blessings of this land.

We have been blessed with a raft of gifts in this nation.  Our natural resources, the beauty and majesty of this country,  our freedom and our democratic structures — I’m sure I could go on and on listing the wealth that we as a country have been so lucky to inherit.  The fact that these blessings – this wealth – are perhaps not fairly distributed or that the sources of this wealth were perhaps unfairly taken from others – these are legitimate points of passionate discussion and disagreement.  But they do not change the basic premise – Canadians overall have many blessings.

Another blessing that we have in a world of conflict, albeit one that is again not universally distributed – we have, as Canadians, a tradition of civil discussion and, at least in recent decades, an openness and welcoming of diversity and a compassion for others that in some way defines us.

Yes, we have had our problems.  We have our share, particularly of on-line behaviour, that can make you cringe.  Several months ago I saw a post by one of my relatives – someone I care deeply about.  It was, sadly, a very ignorant and maligning comment about refugees.  My first reaction was anger.  But I couldn’t escape the fact that she was my relative, part of my family.   So instead of anger I wrote an open letter which I called “I’m not giving up on you.”   I posted it to Facebook where her comment had originated (without naming her of course).  It went viral.

Across Canada and even around the world, the post touched a nerve.  I think it did this because the post demonstrated that we can indeed stand up and be counted, we can choose not to accept prejudice, bigotry and ignorance and that we can do this without anger, rudeness or shaming.

The need was never greater.

As a Canadian, I am dismayed at what has happened in American politics.  The nastiness and the vitriol, the ad hominem have brought civic discussion to a grinding halt.  The recent health care debate is just an example.   I’ll accept that there are a few ideologues, bigots or whatever you want to call them amongst US politicians.  But I think it’s likely that the overwhelming number of Republicans and Democrats really want to ensure that everyone has healthcare.   What keeps this larger group from coming together and finding a solution?

What if the core of both Republican and Democratic politicians could agree that their goal is affordable healthcare for everyone.  What if they further agreed that they would suspend their current positions and ideological beliefs and that they would instead focus on finding a core group that they could trust who would engage experts and do an analysis and a truly objective comparison of the different approaches.   And because theories are just that – what if they further agreed to find anyway to prop up the current system while they did some pilots, collected some data and truly determined what was the best solution.

It would make lousy politics.  It would make great sense.

In the US context, I despair of that happening.  The rivalries are too entrenched.  And frankly, it seems like the extremists are leading.  They see their debates as “left” or “right” or “progressives” versus “conservatives”.  They use these terms as if they actually matter. They somehow have come to think that one position is good and that the other is bad.  They use them as if we, as humans, have to occupy one part of the spectrum and one part alone.

How anyone can hold these views is beyond my comprehension.  Why does whether a solution is “left” or “right” even matter – if it’s a workable solution?

I’m not sure where the US will get to.  But I’m not American.  I can be saddened, dismayed or even occasionally either incensed or amused at these foibles.

But I am a Canadian.  In this context, I wonder whether we can engage a type of problem solving based on conversations, empathy, real questions and objective data?   The answer is, I think we just might be able to.

Yes, we have our own ideological zealots.  We have strong opinions.  But we do have a pragmatic streak and a drive to compassionate, tolerant and dare I say it – more civil discussion.

If this is true, then we truly have something worth celebrating.  We have something worth nurturing.  We have something worth defending.

If that were our goal in the next 150 years – how amazing would that be.  If we sought, not to argue ideologies or positions, but to find ways to harness the imagination, intelligence and spirit of everyone in this great country – and to harness these talents in search of prosperity, freedom and preserving the inheritance of future generations.  That would be truly be an accomplishment.   That’s a goal worthy of a nation.

How?