Hemlock

Tonight the unthinkable happened in Canada: a Canadian was murdered at the scene of a political rally in Quebec. As Pauline Marois took the stage in Montreal to thank members of her Party for their victory in the Quebec provincial election, shots rang out leaving at least one dead as I write this.

Canada is not a country that was born out of violence like revolutionary countries that dot this globe. Canada is a country that evolved into the nation it is today through respectful discourse and the adoption of Responsible Government, which places the need for peaceful, deliberative consensus directly at the centre of our political system. When LaFontaine and Baldwin first campaigned for Responsible Government they stared down loyalists in the streets of Montreal, watched as Parliament burned, and did nothing as repeated attempts were made on LaFontaine’s life, as Prime Minister of what was then the United Province of Canada. They did not turn to violence themselves but instead used politics as a positive and lasting tool to counter the hatred hurled at them. And they won.

This is Canada’s legacy: a politics that does not resort to violence but instead champions peaceful discussion between rational citizens. Today is a sad day for Canada and for the legacy of a mostly peaceful political history in in our country.

The Sacrifice

As Pauline Marois was whisked off the stage by her security team, my thoughts turned to my own experiences in politics. If you’ve ever knocked on a door while canvassing, called a constituent of your riding, answered a voter’s email, or had any other interaction with the public because of your involvement and interest in the political process you will know one thing: the time, effort, and concern political volunteers and professionals put into the political process is often met with great disdain by the general public. Politicians are bloodsuckers, they often say, only in it for themselves. Sometimes politicians even turn on one another and say these things about their opponents, despite knowing first-hand the sacrifices involved in political life whether you’re simply a volunteer or the Prime Minister of Canada.

I have spent the last week knocking on doors all day and night, talking to voters about their concerns and their hopes for a better future in Ontario. I truly appreciate these conversations because for me, politics is all about that interaction and really getting down to what matters most to actual people. That’s why I’m involved in politics and it’s why I like to hear from other Canadians about politics. Every once in a while you will step up to a door where the resident will thank you for your effort and your interest in the political process. That’s when politics is the most rewarding.

But it can be a far darker place. I’m not talking about getting an earful at a door or even being exhausted after a long day of volunteering. Those are real sacrifices made every day. But many people devote their entire lives to the political process because they believe in something much bigger than themselves. It is those Canadians who will go to any length to ensure a better tomorrow for all of us, and often do. It is those Canadians who are willing to make great sacrifices on behalf of those around them so that collectively we may all leave this world better than we found it.

We have seen Canadians pay the ultimate price before in service to all of us as citizens of this country. Thomas D’Arcy McGee was assassinated shortly after leaving Parliament one night after a long day of peaceful debate. His funeral in 1868 in Montreal drew nearly the entire population of the city. In 1970 Pierre Laporte was kidnapped and murdered by the FLQ, leading to a second funeral in Montreal for an assassinated Canadian politician. With violence erupting in Montreal once more this evening, it serves as a painful reminder that politics is about service to others and sometimes those involved pay the ultimate price.

The True Gravity of Choosing to Serve

Violence in Canadian politics is uncommon which is why we are so shocked on nights like tonight. But just because tragedy is uncommon does not mean there is not a constant risk in being involved in politics. I do not say this to be dramatic, as Canada is clearly one of the safest countries in the world and perhaps the safest country to get involved in the political process. We decide political differences at the ballot box, respectfully decline or agree to support candidates and parties at our doorsteps, and do not take up arms when our political opinion is not shared by others.

Most of the time. For every rare story of Canadian political violence there are hundreds of frightening threats that never come to fruition. There are aspects about my own job in politics I usually have no interest in discussing. In my position I attend a lot of events but also receive a great deal of feedback from the electorate. It is not an easy thing to receive death threats at your workplace that are directed at your employer and sometimes even at you and still go on about your day as if nothing as happened. To still wade into crowds of people as if the threat doesn’t exist. But I have done that and so have many other people I know.

Most days I hardly think about it. When threats come in I do pause for a moment. But it’s really not until a day like today that it really hits home how very real threats can be. There are few workplaces where such threats are so common and probably fewer still where they are more likely to be followed through on. When I stood with the Premier of Ontario at an event last month, his security detail behind us, I felt no worry at all about what might happen despite knowing full well the threats we receive. This is Canada, after all. I have been present at events with heavy police presence and extremely angry protesters where violence could have easily broken out at any moment. When you choose to involve yourself in something bigger than yourself, whether you are a just a staffer or the leader of the province, fear comes second and hope first.

If we worried about the price we might pay for simply believing in something, very little would be accomplished in the world. And while the politically involved are rarely called on to pay that price, it is important to remember that risk is a serious sacrifice that those in politics make on a daily basis. If there is nothing else learned from this tragedy tonight let it be this: let us show respect for one another and the peaceful legacy of our politics because while some would knowingly sacrifice their lives for our well-being, they should not have to. Senseless violence is only the fault of those who carry it out, but we could all do a little more to ensure our discourse about the political process is constructive and respectful of the very real sacrifices made each day by every day people like you or me.

10 Lessons from the 2012 Liberal Biennial in Ottawa

 

I attended the recent Liberal Party of Canada Biennial Convention in Ottawa (as a delegate and a member of a campaign) and came away with a few lessons learned.

  1. You can run an honourable campaign and still win.
  2. Paul Wells is right. The team having the most fun has the best shot at winning.
  3. When you form a really strong team they will be your friends for life.
  4. The greatness of most people is amplified in person.
  5. The perceived flaws of most people are diminished in person.
  6. You don’t have to be enemies with those you are competing with. You can learn to respect them greatly in contest and become friends regardless of the outcome.
  7. Your potential is your own to come short of, meet or exceed. If you simply ask to play a role you will usually get to.  If you simply act, you will often accomplish. You can determine the impact you will have.
  8. Talent is important but kindness and respectfulness are most important of all. If you campaign that way, volunteers and voters alike will flock to you. If you work that way, candidates will fight over you.
  9. Journalists are human beings, and often not just lively people, but kind ones too.
  10. Relentless faith in the merit of your cause can and does pay off.

The Fundamental Importance of Libraries to Civilized Society

I rarely comment on municipal affairs in Toronto as I am not an official resident but eventually there comes a time when the assault on reason grows so strong and offensive that one cannot stay silent. June Callwood once said that “if you are an observer of injustice you are a participant”. I would add that if you are an observer of ignorance you are a participant. Ignorance is bliss only for the ignorant. It is hell for all students of rational thought.

But remember that the Captain belongs to the most dangerous enemy to truth and freedom, the solid unmoving cattle of the majority. Oh God, the terrible tyranny of the majority. We all have our harps to play. And it’s up to you now to know with which ear you’ll listen.

– Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

Anti-Intellectualism

Councillor Doug Ford, brother of current Mayor Rob Ford, has suggested that in order to tame the municipal budget of Toronto, public libraries may be on the chopping block. The Ford brothers have attacked intellectual institutions and persons before and the proposed scrapping of libraries comes as no shock. As revealed in a Globe and Mail article:

Mr. Ford, a rookie councillor who has quickly gained a reputation for headline-grabbing statements, said Tuesday he would close a library in his ward “in a heartbeat,” characterizing a growing movement to save branches backed by Margaret Atwood as an “over-reaction,” led by “library groups.”

Yes, those reactionary library groups, stirring up trouble as they have so viciously and violently for centuries. Please.

The Spark

What could he say in a single word, a few words, that would sear all their faces and wake them up?

~ Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

Libraries have been around for thousands of years, first beginning as archives for city states. At their beginning, libraries were meant to be collections of information to be referred to and passed down through the ages. The continuation of knowledge this allowed for is directly responsible for every great achievement in human history since. The recognition of the value of libraries began at a personal level when Greek citizens began to keep private collections. This came on the heels of the construction of beautiful and epic libraries began all over the world. Library building, compiling and appreciation dates back as far as the emergence of the first truly great civilizations and that is not by accident. Libraries, whether we recognize it or not in modern day society, are the most important institutions we have.

With the invention of the Gutenberg Printing Press, perhaps humankind’s greatest invention, the printed word was able to reach more people than ever and an explosion of library building occurred that is now commonly known as the golden age of libraries. The presence of an impressive library was the mark of a great nation during this time. The wider availability of cheaper books expanded the intellectual pool in society and created a golden age in art, music, literature and philosophical thought. It is not surprisingly that the mass availability of books for the first time in history and the construction of the world’s most magnificent libraries came at the same time as the Renaissance. Libraries and the books they housed were integral to that cultural and intellectual leap forward.

The Flame

In the 20th  Century, the library has been a staple of society. Publicly operated and accessed, libraries have remained that way despite the privatization of almost every other aspect of modern society. I have heard it been argued that if public libraries as an institution were not created in the 1500s but instead in today’s society, they would be private. Thankfully for civilization, libraries came into mass appeal at a time of wiser minds.

Today, libraries are still a part of our everyday lives. Schools are incomplete without them and most homes have a personal collection, no matter how small. Even with increased use of the internet, people still flock to sites like wikipedia, the well known online encyclopedia which functions as encyclopedias always have; as a general knowledge resource when one is in need of a quick answer. Wikipedia is authored by the public and not always accurate but is a modern representation of society’s thirst for knowledge and the turn to text to gain that knowledge.

When I was a child not that long ago, my mother would take her children to the local library almost daily to look at books, master reading, and gain knowledge to be used later in life. It is probably as a result of these walks to the library that I still have such an unquenchable thirst for knowledge now.

The voices talked of everything, there was nothing they could not talk about, he knew, from the very cadence and motion and continual stir of curiousity and wonder in them.

~ Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

The Fireball

In February of 1916, a massive fire engulfed Parliament Hill while politicians fled the building. As Prime Minister Borden crawled out of the building on hands and knees to safety outside, someone had the foresight to close the Library of Parliament’s enormous iron doors and save the precious contents inside. In 1952 the Library caught fire but was saved again, as was the important historical information of our nation within it. If the Library had burnt to the ground, Canada would have been set back greatly.

Libraries are important. They are important to the young minds in society who may go to a library and without cost, drink up all the knowledge they can contain. They are important to the narrative of society so that we can remember the mistakes we have made and continue the path of the right actions we have taken. They are important to the development of a better future for all human beings as so much of our knowledge stems from the expanding foundation we have built within the walls of libraries.

We have known a world without libraries or the written passing on of knowledge before. We still call that time the Dark Ages. A future without libraries and without intellectual thought could certainly be called the same.

Let you alone! That’s all very well, but how can I leave myself alone? We need not to be let alone. We need to be really bothered once in a while. How long is it since you were really bothered? About something important, about something real?

~ Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

The Dousing

This may seem like an overreaction to the threat of closing a library in Etobicoke ‘in a heartbeat’. But the death of intellectualism is something achieved brick by brick until something so integral to a reasoned way of life as libraries is taken for granted and then dismantled. And when the libraries disappear, so to will the intelligent minds so necessary for society.

In Ray Bradbury’s famous 1952 work Fahrenheit 451, the main character Guy Montag lives i a world where libraries do not exist and books are illegal. Guy is a fireman whose job is not to put out fires but to start them with the pages of illegal books and sometimes even the homes they are hidden in.

If there is no public outcry about the assault on libraries and by extension, reasoned thought, then I fear the following quote from Bradbury’s book will feel more authentic than it already does now:

Remember the firemen are rarely necessary. The public stopped reading of its own accord.

 

Click here to see images of some of the greatest libraries in the world today.

Bringing Our National History to Life on Parliament Hill

Commemoration on Parliament Hill

Canada’s Parliament buildings were constructed on Old Barrack Hill now commonly known as Parliament Hill. Construction began in 1859 and was finally completed in 1876, grossly over-budget and surviving countless delays. When new provinces joined the federation in 1905, expansion of the building began once more. in February of 1916, fire broke out and destroyed all but the Library of Parliament as its gigantic iron doors had been shuttered in time to save the room and its priceless contents. Parliamentarians, sitting in the House that evening, escaped after hearing of the fire and Prime Minister Borden crawled through the hallways to safety. By 1920 the Centre-Block was rebuilt and by 1927 the Peace Tower was complete. In 1952 the Library caught fire though was not destroyed and repairs quickly began. Maintenance has continued on all buildings since.

Surrounding the buildings today on the grounds of Parliament Hill are several statues and monuments commemorating the contributions of some of Canada’s greatest citizens. Seven Prime Ministers are honoured with their own statues: Macdonald, Mackenzie, Laurier, Borden, King, Diefenbaker, and Pearson. Two Queens, Victoria and Elizabeth II, are honoured. Two fathers of Responsible Government are honoured: LaFontaine and Baldwin. Two slain Fathers of Confederation, McGee and Brown, also have statues. They are joined by another Father of Confederation, Cartier. And one other monument, dedicated to the Famous Five which it represents: Nellie McClung, Irene Parlby, Emily Murphy, Louise McKinney and Henrietta Muir Edwards.

Cartier’s statue was the first to be installed and was done so at the personal direction of his long time friend, Prime Minister Macdonald. Affected deeply by his death in 1873, Macdonald ordered a state funeral and a statue for the Hill. Alexander Mackenzie’s statue was installed in 1901 after being on display in Paris, as was Queen Victoria’s. Brown’s was erected in 1913 and Baldwin and LaFontaine’s joint monument in 1914. Wilfrid Laurier’s monument was decided on in 1922 and his successor Borden’s in 1957, the largest gap in installations to that point.

In 1967, the Centennial year, four statues were to be commissioned to celebrate 100 years of Canada. They were to be of Arthur Meighen, WLM King, Richard Bennett and Louis St. Laurent. All but Bennett’s were constructed, the design for his being rejected. However, in the more stylized 1960s, all but King’s statue were seen as unfit for the Hill. King’s statue was erected, Meighen’s sent to the town he was buried in, and St. Laurent’s left in storage.

It would be another 18 years before a new statue was brought to the Hill. In 1985, a statue of Diefenbaker was raised and four years later joined by a statue of a seated Lester Pearson. 11 years later, a monument to the Famous Five, the women involved in the Persons Case, was installed on Parliament Hill.

R.B. Bennett and the Calls for a New Statue

There has been no Prime Minister purposely ignored more than Richard Bennett. Leading during the Great Depression, he is not simply forgotten like some Prime Ministers before him, but openly derided for things that were largely beyond his control. The lone Prime Minister without a statue despite one being called for, his absence from the Hill is notable.

Former Liberal Prime Minister John Turner and Conservative Senator and historian Hugh Segal have both called for a statue to be commissioned of the millionaire Prime Minister. A teenager from Bennett’s home province of New Brunswick named Jordan Grondin is actively pushing for a statue of Bennett. He has apparently swayed the sitting Prime Minister on the issue which suggests his efforts will likely bear fruit.

I support Turner, Segal and Grondin is their calls but wish to make one of my own. Instead of calls for individual Prime Ministers to be honoured, why not bring history alive on the Hill by creating a fully supported historical walk with informative plaques and brochures to guide participants? Why not support the project with legislation to determine who receives a statue, when and what the guidelines are for its construction? Why not include the path beneath Parliament Hill as a way to commemorate the Premiers who ushered their provinces into Confederation whether it be in 1867 or 1999?

Commemoration Circuit

The grounds of Parliament Hill and surrounding areas beyond should boast statues of every Prime Minister Canada has ever had, not necessarily to celebrate their politics or personal legacies but Canadian history in general and the time in which they played a heavy role in shaping.

Calls for a statue of Bennett should be echoed by ones for Abbott, Thompson, Bowell (yes even Bowell) and Tupper. It should include the underrated Meighen and St. Laurent and continue with Trudeau, Clark, Turner, Mulroney, Campbell, Chretien, Martin and one day, Harper. Each Prime Minister has their official portrait hung in the halls of Parliament and should receive similar treatment on its grounds. Though, it should be noted, Meighen’s portrait was only recently hung despite his service as Prime Minister ending in 1926.

It might be hard to argue the merit of installing a statue to Bowell yet his time in office reflects the issues of his time and mark the only time a Prime Minister was forced to resign because his Cabinet would not support him. That history is worth knowing and sharing.

Trudeau likewise presided over historic times and Patriated the Constitution yet does not have a statue. Campbell was Canada’s first ever female Prime Minister and nearly 20 years after her time in office, still lacks a monument.

Canadians tend not to celebrate their history and at times seem quite adverse to monuments. But if we are to be aware of our mutual history, if we are to celebrate it, and if we are to share it with the world, there is no better place to commemorate our past than on Parliament Hill. But that commemoration should be selective or biased. We should tell our national story in its entirety and that begins with remembering those who have led us.

Path of the Premiers

At the foot of Parliament Hill there lies a walking trail next to the river. It is a nice place to get some exercise and fresh air or just a view of Hull across the water. However, because of its location at the foot of Parliament Hill I think the trial can do more for our national narrative and our awareness of our collective past.

Thirteen different Premiers either initiated their province or territory’s inclusion into the Federation or became the first representatives of that province or territory after that inclusion. I believe that this pathway should be used to share the history of Confederation, from 1867 until 1999. By understanding how our federation came to be, we can better understand how to navigate its sometimes complicated waters and work to make it stronger.

The combination of Commemoration Circuit and the Path of the Premiers would help bring Canadian history to Parliament Hill to the necessary degree that has not yet been carried out. Canadians need a stronger relationship with their history and our government can help.

Attack Politics and the Future of Canadian Political Discourse

Trine Skei Grande, Leader of the Venestre (Liberal) Party of Norway

Children and the Political Environment

In March I attended the Equal Voice conference in Ottawa and sat in on a wonderful keynote speech by the Norwegian Liberal Party leader, Trine Skei Grande. Equal Voice is of course a Canadian organization promoting the inclusion of women in politics. Grande began a wonderful, inspiring speech by mentioning how out of the seven most supported parties in Norway, five are led by women. Gasps rang out in the hall as these words were spoken in Canada where only one out of the five major parties are headed by a woman and where, at the time, women made up less than 25% of Members of Parliament.

Grande tried to explain why there was such a great difference in gender representation between Canada and Norway. She largely argued that Norway had encouraged its women to be integral members of society for years, both at the polling station and in the workforce. I’ve heard the same argument be made of the women of Newfoundland, a province where each of the political parties are currently run by women. Women in Newfoundland played an enormous role in the day to day life of the province in war-time and never let up afterward. The women of Norway similarly entrenched themselves in the fabric of their society.

The most interesting thing that Grande spoke about was the perception children have of their broader social world based on what they see go on within it. From 1990-1996 Norway had a female Prime Minister. Grande recounted how at that time, canvassing politicians could arrive at a door and speak to a boy and a girl and receive a response totally foreign to Canadian politics. Grande mentioned asking a little boy what he wanted to be when he grew up. The boy said ‘Prime Minister’. The young girl next to the boy laughed and said, ‘You can’t be Prime Minister. Only girls can be Prime Minister’.

Youth and the Political Environment

Only a few weeks earlier I attended a youth political convention and gained a lot of different experiences and insights but one that stayed in my mind after hearing Grande speak weeks later was about how engaged youth often respond to politics.

I spoke with a number of the youth who attended and conversations typically found their way to the topic of the coming federal election and what youth needed to do for the party when it arrived. At one point I witnessed a conversation in which someone suggested making attack videos featuring the Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, some mention of a terrible action he undertook in office, and finishing the whole piece off by calling him ‘Stephen Mubarak’, referencing the Egyptian leader who at the time of the convention had just been ousted.

Attack Ads, Imprinting, and Limbo Politics

Society laments the lack of participation of youth in general but specifically in the political process. When teenagers (and those slightly older) do get involved, they often join youth wings of political parties. I’ve noticed that youth involved with political parties almost instinctively turn into pitbulls for those parties, mindlessly parroting party talking points and (viciously) attacking their opponents. Not only do they take up this role, they relish it. And the older party members seem to both expect it and count on it so that they may stay slightly above the fray since they are the respectable ones in office.

This is not true of all youth in politics nor of the older members of parties. But it does happen. While this is a problem in itself, it is worsened by the fact that older politicians seem to be increasingly crouching deeper into the mud that politicians now regularly sling at one another. If politically involved youth are to be even more aggressive than their elders to fulfill their attack dog role, they will come to understand politics as a purely negative environment. They will decide that the rules of limbo are applicable to politics, that the lower one goes the better.

This does not begin when youth join the youth wing of their preferred party. It begins much earlier and to a much broader audience, that being whole generations of Canadian citizens. When Grande spoke of a little girl who thought only a woman could be Prime Minister the girl thought that because it was the only reality she had known in her short life. She looked out at society and saw the political configuration at the time and inferred the rules of that society. Canadian children are no different.

Youth involved in political parties in Canada today seem to be increasingly showing signs of the psychological concept of imprinting, best seen in the animal world where infant animals learn specific survival behaviours from their parents simply by watching and mimicking the actions of those parents. Youth today have grown up in a political climate of televised Question Period, minority government (until this year), and attack ads. And they have so far seen no proof that parties are punished for their antics in the House, on the airwaves or in politics in general. They have been raised in a politically negative climate and are reproducing that environment in their own political actions. It is no surprise that youth now compare the Prime Minister of Canada with dictators because only months later during the election, Members of Parliament themselves made the same comparison towards an opposition leader.

Raising the Bar on Political Discourse

Instead of pursuing limbo politics, politicians and Canadians in general should aim for a political discourse that better resembles high jump. It seems that at this point in our political society, most have given up on the current crop of politicians and expect the youth of today to somehow drag the entire political process out of the mud and back to respectability. However, it is hard to see this happening when they are learning and being trained by those who have the power to demand enlightened discourse right now but aim for sound bites instead, as if a 30-second clip is the stuff from which legacies and countries are built.

The negative impact our current political environment has on our society is upsetting. But it pales in comparison to the future political world it is informing and imprinting on the next generation of politicians and voters. If today’s politicians do not step up and demand legitimate, respectful discourse, the ones that follow them won’t know how to.

Attack Ads versus Fair Game Ads

“Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it – even if I have said it – unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.” ~Buddha

When you hear the words ‘attack ad’, you immediately think of extremely negative and largely untruthful ads that come out during elections. More recently in Canada, these ads are a year-round event. It is argued that they work in solidifying political opinions in the voters but also that they drive down turnout overall. Attack ads are a terrible component of modern ‘democracy’ which place winning at all costs over serving the public good by having enlightened, reasonable debates about policy direction in this country. Attack ads treat the general public as stupid and suggest that voters cannot handle the truth or serious, full-scale discussions about the future of this country.

What an attack ad is not is a critical evaluation of the policies and promises of one’s opposition. ‘Going negative’ does not mean taking the low road. It is great to have positive ads which outline your party’s beliefs and their promises to the electorate but it is not wrong to point out the flaws on the policies and promises of another party or the deficiencies in their delivery of those things.

Personal ads generally bother me but at times it is important to point out the poor record of a politician in doing the job they’ve been appointed or elected to. As long as the criticism focuses on the performance and not the person, the ad is not an attack. It’s an attempt to generate discourse about the reality of how well a given person is doing their job. And that is a discussion that should always take place, especially when the salary is paid by taxpayers.

In the work world, one can be fired just like a politician can be in their job by losing an election. Similarly, we may face performance reviews at work and person-specific ads are the political equivalent to this. But they again must be about performance and not the person.

I think too often critical analysis is lumped in with the term ‘attack ad’. Attack ads are distasteful, untruthful and bad for democracy as they take the debate outside of reality and make politics about partisan gamesmanship instead of pursuing the public good. I know many would consider me naive for this viewpoint but politics doesn’t have to be cheap and dirty. It can be enlightened and make a real difference in society beyond turning voters off from the whole process in general.

I encourage all parties and all voters to be as critical as possible about politics but to not be cynical or let that cynicism take over the debate through attack ads. I would even suggest those with entrenched partisan views to take a more careful eye to the actions and policies of their chosen party or candidate(s) and not blindly accept talking points or spread ridiculous attack ads intended to dupe not help the voting public.

“In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.” ~Bertrand Russell

Conservative pre-writ,  personal attack ad on Michael Ignatieff stating that he once formed a coalition government and would do so again. This was despite the fact that he never did this and was not even party leader when what was only a proposed coalition was suggested but never realized as the doors of Parliament were shuttered before a Confidence vote could be held. Additionally the background image clearly shows the three leaders who were prepared to make a deal. None are Ignatieff.

2008 Election personal attack ad by the Conservatives on Stephane Dion which showcased an animated puffin defecating on the Liberal leader. Completely classless and without any sort of point to it, this ad was a particularly low point in Canadian politics.

Conservative 2008 Election personal attack ad on Stephane Dion suggesting the Liberal leader was out to trick Canadians into pay higher taxes on literally everything. The ad was beyond hyperbolic and played on radio and TV non-stop.

2006 Election personal attack ads by the Liberal party about Stephen Harper stating he would put Canadian troops on the streets of Canadian cities. The ad was a ridiculous attempt at portraying Harper as so interested in defence that he would militarize Canada within our own borders.

The Malleability of Political Leaders

I’ve always thought that the best leaders are always just ahead of the pack. Close enough to their followers that they are not standing alone but far enough ahead that they take us places where the rest of us would have never conceived of. Leaders cannot forget the people they are leading and they can also not forget that in the end they are supposed to lead, not follow or submit.

Four primary styles of political leadership

I think there are a few models of leadership regularly used in politics and often times hybrids that combine them.

There is the maverick who is out to promote their own agenda and will take along anyone willing to follow. This leader does not take into account what the public wants but instead bases on decision making on what they alone think the public should want. Consultation is not a word in the maverick’s dictionary. In the philosophical world these leaders would be subjectivists, believing their support for any idea is enough to make it the correct option.

On the opposite end there is the populist who largely acts as some sort of messiah for the peoples’ desires. This leader exists to do exactly what the people want. They are just one voice out of millions and are the servant of those millions of voices. This leader believes the people are always right and popular support for measures means it is both the necessary and the correct action to take because of this popular support. In the philosophical world, these leaders would be relativists, arguing that so long as society agrees on something it is therefore the correct course of action.

In between is the reconciler who has their own views, recognizes the desires of the public, and leads in new directions that are extensions of the public’s desires which they may have not been aware of, based on the leader’s own ideals.  For this leader it is not about the wants of him/herself or the public but about the needs of society at large. The goal of the reconciler is to slowly bring together the needs of society with the wants of society but leading the public beyond their present-focused views. The reconciler would be considered an objectivist in the philosophical world, choosing to evaluate situations based on rational considerations and not just consensus in society or their own gut feelings.

A fourth type exists in the chameleon. The chameleon moves from one of these styles to the other fairly seamlessly without ever really settling in any of them permanently. I would argue the likelihood of a leader being this type of leader increases with power and the need to be all things to all people in order to retain it. Another word for this type of leader is opportunist.

Political leadership in Canada

Reading these descriptions, several names of political leaders likely jump into your mind. Some of those names may even be current federal leaders. You may believe one model to be the best type of leader but for me that would rule out the mavericks and the populists as they both fail at least one basic component of leadership. Mavericks fail to generate followers or at least to retain them in the long run. Populists have followers but they are not leaders, mainly existing as the mouth piece for millions of other voices who cannot possibly all agree on everything anyway.

The chameleon can be respected if only for the reason that it appears to be the most politically viable way to conduct oneself as a leader. Be as malleable as possible so that you can at least appear to be all things to all people or as many as possible. It’s impossible to actually be all things to all people but the appearance of doing so or at least trying can take some politicians far. However the chameleon stands for little other than retaining power.

The reconciler is able to generate followers but also leads them into a society they may never have known without that leadership. They may not always be popular but they certainly stand for something and that something is actually reflected to some degree in the views of society. They do not fall into the trap of power without purpose or purpose without power. How does a leader strike this magical balance?

The reconciler as a road map for political leadership

To be a reconciler you must be all the things other leaders are not. You must be authentic, a trait the chameleon lacks. The public must know who you are and what you stand for and be elected or not accordingly.

At the same time, it cannot all be about the leader, which the maverick does not understand. Leaders are fallible and the relationship a leader has with society is the best way to ensure one is on the right track. Unpopular decisions are at times required, but a leader without support will face mutiny and rightly so (just ask Mackenzie Bowell).

And while it is dangerous to lead without regard for the beliefs and concerns of the people you lead, it is equally as dangerous to sacrifice your own vision for the confusing mess of desires the public holds dear. Leaders are guides and should never take a back seat to the public. If the entire public was in the driver’s seat, society would veer off the road into fiery destruction. We need leaders to concentrate the needs of society and deliver results. The populist does not understand this need.

Ultimately, politicians should be themselves, never apologize for doing so, campaign for things they believe in, respect concerns voters may have and ultimately remember it’s not all about them or even what they believe in, it’s about creating the best society possible for all.

Advice for the current and future crops of leaders

What all politicians should remember is that the most successful leaders in our history were the ones who worked to improve society, not replace it. They had similar views to the people they represented but enough vision to bring society forward as a whole. They were upfront about their beliefs and never hid their personalities. They were honest about themselves and their intentions and voters responded well to this.

When you think of the great leaders in our collective history, the ones who were most successful, Macdonald, Trudeau, Mulroney, and Chretien for example, all had huge personalities and did not apologize for that fact. Between these four men the total time spent governing was a collective 52 years.

Two current leaders are often seen as trying to evade the general public perception of them. Stephen Harper is accused of having a hidden agenda and responds by being extremely reserved in public. Yet his most likeable moments have been when, at the urging of his wife, he’s let loose and just been himself. He is a dad, a man with intense interests in music and sports, and apparently has a wicked wit. Yet publicly he’s seen as dull and mean spirited, the very opposite of the previous description.

Michael Ignatieff in contrast is seen as a stuffy Harvard professor who returned to Canada to be crowned Prime Minister. Yet all accounts by those who have actually met him describe a down to earth, warm-hearted man who will listen forever to anyone wanting to speak with him.

And at the same time as these more humble sides are hidden, the intellectual skills of both men are often derided as being out of touch with the voter. As if having intelligent leaders who understand complicated policy is a bad thing. As if Harper’s seemingly endless understanding of the details of all policies (according to his staff) and Ignatieff’s time at Harvard should be looked down on.

Politicians try to be perceived as ‘common folk’ because we couldn’t possibly respect those who strive to be more than average, which is incidentally a requirement of elected office, at least in my mind. Yet they are afraid to show their truly common sides in fear of being rejected by the voters.

Leaders, Harper and Ignatieff included,  should stop allowing themselves to be over-handled by the party machines. They should embrace their own identities and the relationship they have with the voter and leave the rest up to the electorate. They might be pleasantly surprised.

The Duty of the Parliamentarian

The organization Samara, a “charitable organization that studies citizen engagement with Canadian democracy”, conducted a research project on the role of parliamentarians in Canada by conducting what they called ‘exit interviews’ with retiring or defeated MPs.

The results of the interviews were varied but the former MPs were largely lumped into five distinct categories when questioned on their reasons for becoming Members of Parliament. The results can be found here The Accidental Citizen? .

What the study brings to light is the stunning realization that we sent MP’s to Ottawa with no real direction on what it is they should be doing. We know that they will be voting on, amending, and sometimes even creating legislation. We know that they will bring a mix of  the views of their constituents, their own views and those the party they belong to into their decision making process. We know they might sit in cabinet or on committees. But ultimately there is no one great reason or guiding principle that all MPs are there for. However, I have a suggestion.

MPs and the ‘Do No Harm’ Principle

One thing that all elected officials can or at least should be able to agree on is to do no harm to the political institutions they serve in or the overall civic environment they largely represent. In much the same way that doctors are to do no harm to their patients, politicians should be tasked with and also see themselves as being tasked with protecting democracy, its institutions, and the civic health of the nation. Considering the last election yielded the lowest voter turnout in Canadian history, I would argue that MPs are failing us in this central component of their jobs.

There are many ways in which the government (the worst offender is usually the one with the most power, regardless of party) and opposition parties have harmed the civic health of Canada, including:

  • suing one another
  • suing other parts of the government (Elections Canada)
  • abusing communications tools of MPs at irresponsibly expensive cost to taxpayers
  • ignoring election campaign spending limits
  • submitting fraudulent claims for campaign financing reimbursements
  • bringing puppets into the House of Commons to illustrate points
  • disrupting legislative committees on purpose
  • using bullying tactics to keep the voices of specific parties and movements out of national debates
  • attempting to adjust bodies of parliament without the constitutional reform that is required to do so
  • focusing political attacks on people and not policies
  • undermining the Governor General and the powers of the position
  • having a tunnel vision focus of destroying one another instead of offering up policy alternatives to the public

There are countless other examples but the recurring theme is that many of the people we send to serve in our democracy and by extension protect it, undermine it at every opportunity. This must change.

The Cult of Leadership

Canadian Federal Political Party Website Banners

Above are the headers or banners of the official websites of each of the federal political parties in Canada. Both the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) and the New Democratic Party of Canada (NDP) have a picture of their party leaders right on the front page banner. The CPC, the Liberals, and the NDP all have a category menu for their leader immediately after the home page button. The Greens have such category fourth in their header menu. The Bloc have no primary category for their leader as information on Gilles Duceppe can be found only once scrolling down through the team category.

At this point you may be asking yourself, so what? Parties can organize their websites however they want and it’s helpful to be able to search out information about a party leader especially since they have important roles in the House of Commons and some might even one day be or are currently the prime minister.

A Centralized Prime Minister’s Office

The way the websites or leaders are portrayed are not problematic in themselves but are runoff from a bigger political and civic problem. That problem is that Canadians increasingly do not understand their own system of government or the roles specific political actors and parties play within it. The cult of leadership, which has been growing steadily stronger since Pierre Trudeau became prime minister, has warped how our system is intended to operate and the way in which political leaders operate in that system. For the past forty years, there has been a well-documented shift towards a more centralized power structure (within the Prime Minister’s Office or PMO) and away from the legislative body of government and the representatives elected to it.

The focus on leaders instead of political teams, of prime ministers instead of cabinets, and of the executive instead of the legislative actors in government has created several misconceptions in the political understanding of the Canadian electorate. Parties first created this misunderstanding by romanticizing their leaders in the public eye. Parties have become increasingly less about grassroots development and caucus wide decision making in favour of what was intitially cabinet contolled policy development and more recently, the PMO alone. As voters grew to identify parties more with their leaders than with their teams or even policies, political parties in Canada began to put their leaders in the spotlight even more.

It is hard to come up with a list of five to ten cabinet ministers in the governments of Chretien, Martin or Harper who will be remembered in history books not for scandal but for influence approaching the level of the prime ministers they served. Finance and other high profile ministers may be remembered as may ministers who later became (or will become) party leaders themselves. But those cabinets will pale in comparison to those that Pearson, St. Laurent, and King (amongst others) surrounded themselves with. It is unlikely that the current cabinet will produce names that echo in history like Clifford Sifton, C.D. Howe, or Paul Martin Sr. As for anyone beyond cabinet in caucus or even in opposition, it is unlikely any beyond party leaders will be heard from again.

Misconceptions about the power of the Prime Minister

The centralization of power to the PMO since the 1970s has created the following misconceptions:

  • The Prime Minister is the Head of State for Canada
  • The Prime Minister is directly elected by the populace
  • The Prime Minister is the leader of the party with the most seats
  • The Prime Minister makes all government decisions
  • The Prime Minister can call an election
  • The Prime Minister can only be removed by an election
  • The Prime Minister is all-powerful

I added the last point for fun but the way things have progressed this might not be as far off the mark as one would hope. Clearly, the following is true instead:

  • The Queen is the Head of State for Canada (her federal representative is the Governor General while at the provincial level it is the Lieutenant-Governor)
  • Canadians vote for Members of Parliament at the riding level and then the Governor General selects the party which holds the confidence of the House, meaning it has enough MP support to pass legislation; it does not need to be the party with the most MPs and certainly not the party who the most individual Canadians voted for; the party the GG selects to govern only does so as long as it maintains the confidence of the House and this party general selects its party leader to lead the government ie. be prime minister
  • The prime minister is the person selected to lead by the governing party which is in turn selected by the GG after obtaining the confidence of the House
  • The prime minister directs policy decisions within his own governing cabinet (which he selects but is sworn in by the GG) and puts forward government bills to be debated by the House and eventually passed or voted down by the members of the House; opposition members may also table legislation though it cannot have monetary requirements attached to it
  • The prime minister can request an election to be held but must ask the GG who can refuse the request and ask another political party or formal coalition of parties to form a new government so long as it has the confidence of the House; if no party has confidence the GG will call an election
  • The prime minister can be removed from office by a vote of non-confidence in the House which results in the GG finding a new party to govern with confidence; the prime minister may remain in office if an election is instead called  and may remain in office after the election should his/her party receive the confidence of the House once more after the election
  • Clearly, the prime minister is not all powerful

The difference between what is popularly believed and what is actually the case in regards to prime ministerial powers is startling and worrisome. However, political parties have latched on to this idea and put their leaders front and center, offering promises to the Canadian electorate as if he/she himself/herself can adopt those measures unilaterally. They admit they will have some help from cabinet and will take some input from caucus but ultimately this strong, amazing leader will get your every desire done, mostly on their own with their super human skills.

This leads to two things: a disappointed electorate as leaders are not the super humans we want them to be, and ineffectual political representatives that are supposed to do the work of their constituencies but are either sidelined in opposition or the backbenches of government. With this cult of leadership power is increasingly concentrated in one office that houses a prime minister and his/her political staff and not where it is supposed to be, the legislature in the hands of your own representative. Party leaders themselves have frequently mirrored this power balance (or lack there of) in their own party structures to the point where even in political parties, members do not have much say. They and the electorate at large would not necessarily gain any more say if their chosen party is elected.

The role of political parties in the cult of leadership

So back to the image of the banners. All parties emphasize their team more or less but mostly the image of the party is centred on the leader. For the CPC and NDP, this means going as far as plastering their leader’s mug on the front page of the website in the banner. For all parties but the Bloc it means specific navigation on the front page that directs party members and would be voters directly to the party messiah.

Bloc Quebecois

Why is the Bloc’s website lacking in such overt cult leadership promotion? I would suggest that it is because that party is more about a movement than any specific members. There are not multiple visions for the BQ, it is only about separation from Canada. Anything else can be discussed at a later date. For the BQ, it makes sense to highlight the team instead of the leader because the party’s whole argument surrounds the idea that citizens of Quebec as a whole think they are getting a raw deal and wish to leave Canada as a unit. Parading around a single man does not convey this message as well as many party members would. This is why they list the entire team, including the leader, the shadow cabinet, and the party organization beyond the House of Commons.

Green Party

The Green party, with its placement of the link to information about Elizabeth May fourth on the menu, is also a sort of movement party. While it has grown over the years into more than just an environmental party, that is still the main focus of the Greens. That party is less about a specific leader and instead about a general view of where should society should be going.

New Democratic Party

The NDP does not lack strong members but its leader frequently polls as a strong leader that Canadians trust and therefore the party has put him under the spotlight.

Liberal Party

Both the Liberals and the Conservatives are the only parties with a history of governing at the federal level and have former leaders to invoke when discussing their plans for the country. With leader-related scandals in more recent governments of each party (Mulroney, Chretien), the current leadership is more interested in going forward than looking to recent history. For the Liberals this means introducing Michael Ignatieff to Canadians and making him the focal point of their party and what it has to offer.

Conservative Party

While the current Conservative government has some able ministers, the focus is on Prime Minister Harper and government messaging is his almost solely. What disturbs me about the CPC website beyond the others is that under the leader heading it lists the prime minister but also his wife. I’m sure Laureen Harper is a fantastic human being but she was not elected by the public in any way nor even by the party apparatus. She is simply married to her husband, the prime minister. Her role in policy development and implementation is presumably as large as that of her children. Why this is disturbing is because it reflects an American viewpoint on the leadership of the country. On the CPC website, Laureen Harper, simply by being covered, is portrayed as a sort of Canadian first lady which makes the prime minister come across as some sort of Canadian president.

The President of Canada

And that is ultimately what this cult of leadership is getting to. The idea that the Canadian political leader is not just leader of the party or government but of the state itself, pushing out the Governor General and the checks on the system that have existed for nearly 150 years. The leader is becoming all there is and as Canadians do not elect this leader but do elect their representatives that are frequently sidelined, this is a problem. The prime minister, and not just the current one, increasingly takes more and more power away from the people and their representatives, concentrating it instead in his own office with only himself and his staff to consider what is important to Canadians.

We should demand strong leadership with clear vision and a road map to achieving that vision. But we should also demand that leadership mean something more than the individual. That it not be one voice silencing all others but the answering of what all the voices of the nation collectively call for.

Conservative Party of Canada Website

Liberal Party of Canada Website

New Democratic Party Website

Green Party Website

Bloc Quebecois Website

History Wars: The Royal Ontario Museum

The Monarchy is a Dangerous Relic of the Past

Thursday, January 20, 2011, 6:30 – 8:00 pm

Has the idea of “The Crown” run its course in Canada? Does it reflect Canadian values? Does it weaken or strengthen the Canadian constitution or has it been the quiet reason Canada has survived as a country for nearly 150 years? Should we leave well enough alone or find a practical way to end it all?

Moderator: J.L. Granatstein

Speaking for the motion will be Michael Bliss, author and historian. Bliss, born and raised in Kingsville, Ontario, is University Professor Emeritus at the University of Toronto, the author of numerous books in Canadian and medical history, and a prominent public intellectual. He has garnered numerous honours, including membership in the Order of Canada.

Speaking against the motion will be John Fraser, Master of Massey College. Educated at Upper Canada College and Newfoundland’s Memorial University, Fraser had an outstanding career as a prize-winning journalist and foreign correspondent with The Globe and Mail before entering academic life at the top. In 2010, he was widely-rumoured to have been one of the candidates considered for Canada’s governor-generalship. He, too, is a member of the Order of Canada.

Multiculturalism has put Canada on the Wrong Course

Tuesday, February 22, 2011, 6:30 – 8:00 pm

Few issues are as controversial in Canada today as Multiculturalism. But where did the concept come from? How has it changed? How did it get into the Constitution? And, in an age of terrorism, reconcilable differences, and rising immigration, what does it portend for Canada’s future?

Moderator: Michael Bliss

Speaking for the motion will be J.L. Granatstein, a historian of Canadian politics, foreign policy and defence. Born in Toronto in 1939, he taught at York University for 30 years and has published extensively. He is an Officer of the Order of Canada, has a number of honorary degrees, and has won prizes for his writings.

Speaking against the motion will be Haroon Siddiqui, born in India in 1942 and came to Canada in 1968. He joined the Toronto Star in 1978, serving as news editor, national editor, and editorial page editor. Since 1998 he has been a columnist. He has published books and articles on subjects ranging from 9/11 to political cartoons. He is a Member of the Order of Canada and the Order of Ontario.

Pierre Trudeau was a Disaster for Canada

Tuesday, March 22, 2011, 6:30 – 8:00 pm

He was handsome, smart, loved beautiful women, and almost always won. But was Pierre Elliott Trudeau a good Prime Minister? Did he unite Canadians or divide them? Improve the country or nearly bankrupt it? Does he haunt us still as an ideal Prime Minister, or as an arrogant failure for whom we’re still paying a fearful price?

Moderator: J.L. Granatstein

Speaking for the motion will be David Frum, one of North American’s most prominent conservative journalists and commentators. A native of Toronto, Frum was educated at Yale and Harvard, has written for The Wall Street Journal and Forbes, as well as the National Post, and was a speechwriter for President George W. Bush. His books include, How We Got Here, a history of the 1970s.

Speaking against the motion will be John English, author of the highly-acclaimed two-volume official biography of Trudeau. Professor of History at the University of Waterloo and general editor of the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, English has also written the biography of Lester Pearson. He was a Liberal Member of Parliament in the 1990s and is a Member of the Order of Canada.

Louis Riel Deserved to Hang

Thursday, May 5, 2011, 6:30 – 8:00 pmNo figure in Canadian history is as controversial as Louis Riel. He led the 1869-70 rebellion and ordered the judicial murder of an opponent, but he also created Manitoba. Fifteen years later he sparked the rebellion in the Northwest that required the dispatch of an army to put down. The government sent him to trial and, when he was found guilty, refused to exercise the prerogative of mercy – right or wrong?

Moderator: J.L. Granatstein

Speaking for the motion will be Tom Flanagan who has taught political theory at the University of Calgary since 1968. Best known for his role as a key aide to Stephen Harper, Flanagan is one of Canada’s leading Riel scholars. He has written a number of books including the Donner Canadian Prize winning First Nations, Second Thoughts.

Speaking against the motion will be Pat Martin, the NDP MP since 1997 for Winnipeg Centre and author of a private member’s bill that calls for Riel’s conviction to be reversed and for the Metis leader’s recognition as a father of Confederation.

Buy Tickets:

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