Terrorism and the Inadequacy of Just War

The election is over, but the Green Party Provencher Riding Association isn’t going away. We’ll be hosting an event every other month or so for the next four years, on topics that are relevant to the riding but are also tied to the Green Party of Canada’s platform and policies. We’re doing this because these policies are relevant to our riding, and because sharing and discussing good ideas makes our community a better place. Along those lines we also hope to start a book club in the near future, with the first book of discussion being Elizabeth May’s latest, Who We Are.

Last night was our first event along these lines, and we had a fantastic turnout. For the first half of the event I lectured on nonviolent responses to terrorism; for the second half, a representative from MCC talked about refugees and resettlement. There was great discussion, and it was a lovely pairing of theory and practical action. Next up, sometime in late February, will be a practical workshop on nonviolent conflict resolution – watch our website and email list for more information.

Here’s the text of my lecture. – Jeff


The Nation State and Just War
Western responses to terrorism are based on an outdated understanding of the world and a deluded sense of self-righteousness. Which sounds harsh, so let’s unpack that.

The nation state is used to being the centre of the universe, and of being the sole arbiter of what is right and just. This makes some sense in a world in which the nation state is the supreme power that can control everything within its borders and writes the laws that govern everything that occurs within them. A few hundred years ago, that was the state of the world, and diplomacy arose as a way for nations to jockey for advantage over one another peacefully – or as the saying goes, All diplomacy is a continuation of war by other means (Zhou Enlai, 1954). The nation state as an institution is charged with protecting its population, but it is always in the interests of the nation state to also maximize its internal economy; the nation state is responsible for and to its own citizens, physically and economically, and has little or no responsibility to outside nation states. Or at least, such was the world a few hundred years ago. Alliances were formed between nation states for mutual advantage, and over time some alliances grew so close that national borders began to break down between allies, part of a process that we now call globalization.

In a globalized world, the nation state is no longer the centre of the universe. National borders are porous, either because they are no longer guarded (as between member nations of the European Union), or because of the success of human trafficking, or because of the general ease with which people can move from one place to another to facilitate trade and international travel. In the internet age, borders and physical places do not mean as much as they used to, and regional cultures and ideas now spread at the speed of light across the web. Alliances and treaties have created institutions that function at a higher level than the nation state, such as the UN, NATO, the European Union, the World Trade Organization, and the G20, to name but a few, and corporations have gone international, grounding their headquarters in whatever country has the lowest taxes and planting their factories in whatever country has the cheapest labour. We live in a very different world than the one in which our understanding of just war was developed.

Just War

Christian theology has two traditions when it comes to conflict: Just war, and nonviolence or pacifism. The earliest Christians were pacifists, refusing military service or to work as a magistrate, or any other work that involved killing. The growth of Christianity, and its inclusion as an official religion in nation states, required some sort of reconciliation between the protective function of the state and the nonviolent requirements of Christianity. This happened relatively early on in Christian history, and Just War has been dominant in Western nations ever since, though there have always been nonviolent Christians. The Just War tradition insists that war is a last resort, and subjects all wars to a list of criteria, which includes criteria for starting wars and for conducting them. To start a war, a competent authority (usually a legitimate nation state) may wage war as a last resort to correct a suffered wrong, provided that there is a good chance of success and that the possible good outcome outweighs the damage or harm caused by the war. Once war has begun, the authorities conducting the war must distinguish between enemy combatants and non-combatants; must only conduct actions that are militarily necessary, and then only with as much force as is necessary to complete those military objectives; must not use methods of warfare that are considered evil, such as rape, weapons that cannot be properly controlled (nuclear or biological), or forcing enemies to fight against their own side; and must treat prisoners of war fairly.

There are two problems with Just War theory: first, at its very core it implies that nation states ordering thousands of citizens to kill each other is morally just so long as there are good reasons for it. When it comes to war, just war theory claims, the ends justify the means so long as the means do not exceed certain criteria. The second problem, and I hope this is obvious, is that the criteria are completely impossible to satisfy. War is hell, and the level of control that would be required in order to ensure that no soldiers rape or kill civilians is impossible. The level of intel and precision that would be required to ensure that no non-military targets are attacked is impossible. The greatest so-called intelligence agency in the world told us all that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, which began a ten-year war in which no such weapons were used or even found. And the so-called precision of coalition air strikes in the current war in Syria included bombing a hospital, killing not only civilians but also allies from Doctors Without Borders. And the treatment of captives by a nation that pledges “freedom and justice for all” included the torture chambers of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, waterboarding and sensory deprivation and degrading humiliation. And in spite of all of this being common knowledge, much less known by the highest officials of nation states, the United States of America has been involved in 102 wars or military actions in its history, most of which were against indigenous populations within the US. I have read somewhere, though I cannot find where, that Just War criteria are weighed by a special council to the Commander-in-Chief before the US declares war; in Canada, Cabinet makes the decision to deploy troops, apparently without any such counsel. Clearly in both cases not all just war criteria are met, but the wars are deemed justified anyway, and that justified status reinforces the often questionable notion that we are always the good guys. In many wars, the US has been the aggressor and has had duplicitous intentions, or even bald ambitions. Canada has been involved in 15 wars in our history, though we’ve had token involvements in others, but those 15 include two against the Metis peoples of Manitoba and Saskatchewan, in which Canada was the aggressor as part of racist colonial policies. In Afghanistan, which was ill-advised in the first place and shifted the purposes of its military action regularly, we knowingly handed prisoners of war over to other nations to be tortured – keeping our hands clean, but still getting blood on our souls. We are not always the good guys.

But what does all of this have to do with our response to terrorism?

Terrorism

Terrorism is a term referring to the implementation of psychological tactics in warfare. It is unclear whether psychological warfare is prohibited by just war criteria, but terrorism is also often used to describe guerrilla warfare and insurgency because of the tactics used – often in densely populated areas, using imprecise and unconventional weapons with high possibilities for civilian casualties, and often with civilians as targets. Terrorists are not considered to be authorized by a legitimate authority (i.e., the government of a nation state) either. So terrorism fails the just war criteria in many ways, which has an enormous effect on how we see and combat terrorists.

How are we currently fighting terrorism?

We do not negotiate with terrorists. Doing so would imply that they were a legitimate party, and we dare not give them any sense of legitimacy – after all, they fail so many of the criteria of just war with their military actions. The result of this, intended or not, is that we not only dismiss terrorists as legitimate organizations, but we also dismiss their grievances as being illegitimate. This is a problem, because terrorists often have very legitimate grievances, and very important goals. The difference between a terrorist and a freedom fighter, after all, is which side you’re on; terrorists are often simply the most extreme and committed of a population that is being oppressed, economically or militarily or culturally, by another power. Whether or not we understand or agree with their grievances does not mean that they are unimportant or grounded in real harm and oppression, but when we disregard those grievances because of the way that terrorists attempt to address them, we only feed the oppression that they experience. When we fight them, we legitimize their use of violence and their claims of oppression, which only helps them recruit more frustrated and oppressed people to their cause.

Disregarding the cause of terrorists causes us to make stupid, unsustainable reductions about their motives. We say “they hate freedom,” as if that even makes sense. This general sense that terrorists and their struggles are illegitimate has led us to use the term “terrorist” as a blanket term for anyone we deem illegitimate, even our own people. We use the word, poorly defined, in legislation such as C-51 to refer to anyone who “interferes with critical infrastructure” such as oil pipelines. C-51 and other laws strip “terrorists” of basic legal and human rights, allowing them to be arrested and held without charge, surveilled without warrants, and even possibly tortured. Our attempts to control terrorists tends to stir up more dissent, both abroad and at home, and the broad net cast over “terrorism” keeps getting broader.

Why can’t we control terrorists? Because they do not conform to our nation-state-centric, just-war governed world. Terrorism is warfare for the globalized world, in which combatants are not representative of a nation state with a clearly defined border, but rather represent ideas and cultures that move freely around the world. The tactics of terrorism were developed in insurgencies, where the governing force has difficulty distinguishing between enemy combatants and civilians. Enemy combatants are no longer marching over a border from another nation state, they are springing up among us.

This puts us in an impossible situation, because we are fighting a 21st century war, with 21st century technology, on 19th century terms. We use invasion and occupation to attempt to control enemies whose tactics were designed specifically for such situations. We try to use conventional combat to fight insurgents and guerrilla fighters, not unlike the British and French lining up on fields to shoot at each other in a gentlemanly sort of way, while their Indigenous enemies laid ambushes and hamstrung their supply lines.

This is not to say that we haven’t innovated to deal with the situation. The US has used drone strikes incessantly over the past several years to hit priority targets without engaging in open combat. As Noam Chomsky points out, this is our own brand of terrorism:
“A drone strike is a terror weapon, we don’t talk about it that way. It is; just imagine you are walking down the street and you don’t know whether in 5 minutes there is going to be an explosion across the street from some place up in the sky that you can’t see. Somebody will be killed, and whoever is around will be killed, maybe you’ll be injured if you’re there. That is a terror weapon. It terrorizes villages, regions, huge areas. It’s the most massive terror campaign going on by a long shot.”
There have also been efforts to combat ideology, usually in the form of building schools and promoting educational programs, but more often it’s simply talk. How can we speak meaningfully of undermining extremist ideologies when we’re actively bombing a region? Other less violent solutions involve training locals to fight, and arming them to do so, but that runs into the danger of using local populations to wage a proxy war, as the US did against the USSR in Afghanistan, training and arming Osama bin Laden in the process.

Our conscience and economy demand action, but our outdated mindset on nation states and just war force us into violent conflict against an enemy that does not wage war by our rules and is often indistinguishable from our own peaceful, law-abiding citizens. Perhaps it’s finally time to give nonviolent conflict resolution a chance.

What is Nonviolence?

Nonviolence is a conflict style, an ethical choice, a way of life. For some, nonviolence extends to all aspects of life, leading some nonviolence practitioners (notably Dukhabors and some Buddhists) to veganism; for most, nonviolence is a commitment to refusing to perpetuate the cycle of violence – because violence always begets more violence. But nonviolence is not just a refusal to participate in violence, it is also the active opposition to evil without committing evil. It is not the avoidance of conflict, but rather an attempt to foster healthy conflict resolution that does not escalate to violence.

A prominent myth of pacifism or nonviolence is that it is passive, and that it is weak. It is neither: nonviolent direct action takes incredible courage and enormous amounts of work, just as fighting a war does. Most of us assume that nonviolence involves being vulnerable to the attacks of others, and this is true – but the opposite assumption, that having weapons or using violence provides safety, is not true; nonviolence recognizes that weapons and the threat of violence only increase the danger of any given situation, and works to de-escalate conflict.

An important point about nonviolence is that it sees the very notion of just war as hypocritical: there’s a big difference between violence being necessary to meet a goal and violence being justified. One of my heroes is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and theologian who, in spite of his commitment to pacifism, took part in a conspiracy that ended up attempting to kill Hitler on more than one occasion. While it is not clear whether Bonhoeffer himself was in favour of those assassination attempts, what is clear is that he accepted his guilt, not only before men but also before God. When we commit violence, its necessity does not get us off the hook. We must always consider our own guilt when we count the cost of violent action.

Another important point about nonviolence is that while it should logically precede just war – which is supposed to be a last resort – it rarely does. Nonviolent direct action includes an entire toolkit of tactics and strategies that are rarely used, but when they are used they are found to be at least as successful as more violent strategies. Going back to WWII for another example, the Scandinavian nations were able to save most of their Jewish citizens despite the fact that they did not offer much in the way of violent resistance to the Nazis. Instead, they used nonviolent strategies such as diplomacy, negotiation, and sabotage, making a full invasion too costly to be worthwhile.

Nonviolent direct action was instrumental in the liberation of India from centuries of British rule (thanks to Ghandi), the enfranchisement of Black Americans under the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the fall of South African apartheid through leaders like Nelson Mandela, and the removal of several dictators in the recent Arab Spring, to name just a few. While violent revolutions tend to lead to counter-revolutions as other powers rush in to fill the power vacuum left by the deposed rulers, nonviolent direct action tends to build movements that result in lasting cultural change.

Can a Nation Act Nonviolently?

Nonviolence is easier to understand as a personal choice or way of life than as a national defence strategy. After all, a nation must defend its people, and there may be foreign threats to our safety that are not concerned about using violence against us. But this feeling, this fear of outside threats, is a reflection of our assumptions about nation states and the other – and as we’ve seen, some of those assumptions need updating. In the age of terrorism, a standing army is not a particularly effective safety measure. In spite of having the biggest and most expensive military in the world, more Americans die at the hands of neighbours with handguns than in war on the other side of the world. There are mass shootings every single day in the US, and a vast majority of those have nothing to do with terrorism at all; ideological terrorism is indistinguishable in result from racism, sexism, homophobia, deluded narcissism, drunken arguments, or road rage – all of which end in seemingly random killing. Our primary enemies are not other nations at all, but rather our very selves: whether because of ideologies found online that influence people toward extremism, or simple ignorance, hatred, and drunkenness, our greatest threat of violence is domestic.

Even so, let’s think about what kind of nonviolent practices Canada could employ. Here are a few:

First, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Armed conflict doesn’t come out of nowhere, and helping others to address their needs and crises goes a long way toward developing international goodwill and alliances. Until recently, Canada has always had a sterling reputation: we are global leaders who contribute disproportionately to international causes. We have the opportunity to use trade as a tool of economic development rather than strictly for enriching our own economy, and we should strive to exceed the UN target for aid contributions of 0.7% of GDP (we’re currently at 0.24%, well below the average). The world is better with Canada in it, and we should strive to be more valuable to others than our natural resources and empty land would be if we were destroyed. Our ability to share and to welcome outsiders is the greatest defence strategy we could ever have, and our current opportunity to welcome in refugees is an excellent place to start rebuilding our reputation.

We’ve already seen that terrorism is often home-grown, the result of ideas that spread across traditional boundaries such as borders and cultures and that are fed by legitimate grievances. One prominent grievance is cultural marginalization. Canada has a history of cultural marginalization, from the attempted cultural genocide perpetrated against our Indigenous peoples, to the cultural and language division between English and French, to common attitudes toward Muslims and visible minorities. If you don’t think that Canada is a racist place, you haven’t been on Facebook lately. Cultural marginalization breeds extremism, so a national conversation about our so-called mosaic of cultures is an important step toward not only a more friendly Canada, but also a safer, less extreme Canada. As we welcome Syrian refugee families over the next few years, we have an excellent opportunity to reach out and grow in our understanding of a different culture, and through that to reduce cultural marginalization in general in Canada.

And speaking of legitimate grievances, let’s stop bombing people. Violence begets violence, and the Parliament Hill shooter was very clear in his pre-rampage message when he said that he was doing this because we were bombing Muslims in other countries. He was right – we were. Now we’re pulling out of that mission, in spite of tremendous pressure from our citizens and our allies to continue. I applaud Mr. Trudeau’s courage in doing so. When we begin using nonviolent means by which to address or call attention to our own concerns, we will stop provoking violent opposition.

Second, the use of nonviolent protest, or even government campaigns, to raise awareness about important issues of the other can undermine support for terrorist organizations. People become violent or support violence when they feel like they have no other voice or options; providing or amplifying their voices by raising awareness for their issues can provide a nonviolent avenue for those frustrated by the lack of attention on their legitimate concerns. But this requires listening.

We’ve seen that the just war model cannot negotiate with terrorists for fear that doing so would legitimate an illegitimate government or institution. Nonviolence is not threatened by perceptions of legitimacy, because it is grounded in the value and sacredness of life. In the just war model, something else legitimizes a state, and therefore that state’s actions (divine right, perhaps?); in a nonviolence model, we actually have to be good and show genuine concern for our neighbours. Which means listening, negotiating, and generally treating them as if they were people. The lives of people on both sides are more valuable than nationhood or pride. That said, listening and even sharing concerns does not mean that we must agree: the aims of Daesh are simply wrong, and we should absolutely oppose them. But if we can address and draw attention to the concerns of the people of Iraq and Syria, perhaps Daesh will not be an attractive option, and they will wither from a lack of recruits and support.

Third, we can train Canadians, both civilian and military, in nonviolent conflict resolution. This means developing a pro-conflict attitude in our culture that promotes addressing conflicts in a healthy manner, without allowing them to fester or escalate. I would suggest that we begin with training our police forces in nonviolent conflict resolution, and devoting a considerable portion of our military to the same; from there we could begin national campaigns or support volunteer programs of unarmed civilian peacekeeping such as Peace Brigades International. Peace Brigades is an organization that physically “gets in the way”, providing protection to people in conflict zones by physically accompanying them; another such group is Christian Peacemakers. Another option for our military that is still potentially violent but not necessarily so, is to reinvest Canadian troops in the UN Peacekeeping forces; we used to be the number one contributor, but we haven’t been for a very long time. The Green Party also suggests that a considerable portion of our military forces be retrained as disaster relief forces; climate change will cause disasters to increase, and addressing the needs of the most vulnerable before conflict arises is a solid strategy.

Fourth, we can stop selling weapons internationally. Before losing the 2015 election a few months ago, the Conservative government worked to broker a $15 BILLION dollar purchase of Canadian military hardware by Saudi Arabia, a nation known for harbouring extremism and with a terrible record of human rights abuses. Canadian production of weapons has increased by about 5x in the past few years, we are the 12th largest exporter of weapons in the world, and we have refused to sign on to the international arms trade treaty that would prohibit the transfer of conventional weapons that promote acts of genocide or war crimes, violate arms embargoes, or be used against civilians. Those 15 billion dollars might come in handy economically, but they’re not worth as much as peace. Weapons we don’t produce can never be used against us.

These are a handful of options. There are more, and I want to encourage you all to be creative in your conflict resolution and share your ideas with your MP. But the general gist of nonviolence, as an individual or as a nation, can be summed up pretty well by Jesus: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you; love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. There is no reason why we cannot do all of those things before resorting to violent military actions; I believe that if we actually did, we would never need military actions at all.

The Challenge of Participatory Democracy

Last Friday was the final lecture in our six-part lecture series, and everyone who came was brilliant. I’m going to post my lecture here, but I want to highlight a few things first.

I wrote this lecture to try to convince people to vote, partly because the topic of Participatory Democracy is a big one and I needed to cut it down, and partly because I wanted to combat voter apathy. I wasn’t giving them nearly enough credit. Not only were the people there excited to vote, but many of them already had, and they weren’t satisfied with leaving it there. Without any prompting from me, they started asking questions: “How do we influence our MP?” and “How can we build momentum for a Green movement after the election is over?” I felt a bit embarrassed, even – these people were calling for change, and were ready to commit to making a difference, and I was asking for the bare minimum!

And that’s just it: voting is the bare minimum. It appears that voter turnout is going to be the highest it’s been for a very long time, and that’s wonderful, but the real work starts tomorrow. They say that it takes only 3% of a population to actively change a nation, and even to non-violently take down a government(!), but the key word there is active: it takes 3% of the population working as if their lives depended on it. Voting once in four years is an important thing, but our responsibility as citizens is to remain engaged with the system, and if we want to see real change we’ll need to do even more than that. It means reaching out to your friends and neighbours, discussing ideas and issues, writing letters and petitions, planning and hosting events, and more. In the last by-election we received 3.6% of the vote – that’s enough to change our little corner of the world!

If that sounds good to you, I have good news: the Green Party Provencher Riding Association is happy to have you! We’ll be continuing to work to promote good ideas, important issues, and solutions to our collective problems. I’ll be sending out a mass email to call the Riding Association together sometime soon to discuss what we want to do over the next four years. Do you want another lecture series? A book club? Practical service projects? Fundraising dinners? We can do it together, but we can’t do it alone. If you’re in, let us know!

Now, here’s the lecture:

The Challenge of Participatory Democracy

Hello, and welcome to the final lecture in our six-part series. The lectures in this series were based on the six principle values of the Global Greens movement, an international movement of which every Green Party in the world is a part. We first heard from Karen Ridd about Nonviolence; then Wendy Peterson spoke about Embracing Diversity; Bruce Friesen-Pankratz was scheduled to speak about Sustainability, but was unable to make it, so we had a discussion about it anyway; Mona and Josiah Neufeld presented us with uncomfortable truths and stories about Social Justice; and last week Gary Martens presented on Ecological Wisdom. Each of these lecturers spoke from experience and theory about their topic, and our discussions expanded on them to include policies and economics, social psychology and philosophy. Tonight I will finish the series by discussing the value of Participatory Democracy. If you have any questions or comments throughout, feel free to ask, but we’ll also have discussion at the end.

Democracy is something we take for granted in Canada. I agree with this statement, but not in the way you might think. We’ve all heard it said that Canadians take democracy for granted, and that that’s why only 60% of us usually vote, and there may be some truth in that, but I think it’s actually much more complicated. Some people choose not to vote, or to spoil their ballot, because they take democracy quite seriously and feel that there are no options presented that are worthy of their vote; others fail to take democracy seriously when they do cast their ballot, voting for candidates they know nothing about, voting based on a party leader rather than their local candidate, or voting based on a single policy or issue without considering the overall best interests of themselves, their region, or their country as a whole. Either way, both voters and non-voters often take our democracy for granted, and this puts our democracy in danger: in both cases, politicians are not held accountable for the decisions they make on our behalf. So let’s look at our political system, including its logic, the role of the representative, our method of choosing representatives, the role of political parties, and the nonsensical nature of the political spectrum, before looking at what we can do to preserve and reform our democracy.

The Logic of Democracy

The logic of democracy is fairly clear: it is government by the people. But let’s break that down.

Government is what we call it when we all work together in a formal way to combine resources and set rules that benefit us all, and to thereby accomplish things that we would be otherwise unable to accomplish. Government is us, but we more often hear people referring to government as “them”. This is a sign that our democracy is breaking down, but we’ll get to that; the important point right now is that any time we work together and pool resources, we are acting politically and participating in government. This is true whether we do so voluntarily or involuntarily, and by whatever means a particular government may use to bring such a situation about.

Democracy is when we participate in government voluntarily, and in relative detail by choosing representatives to make decisions on our behalf. Historically most people voluntarily submitted to the king or queen in a monarchical government; but they did not decide who their monarch would be, nor did they have any say in what decisions the monarch would make. A king acts for the good of the people, but not on their behalf; they are his subjects, and he looks after them not unlike the way he looks after his horses – they are his to command, and his to kill if he deems it necessary. In a democracy, our rulers do not own us, but rather represent us and are accountable to us. It is through our representatives that we are able to participate in decisions about how to govern our own society.

Let’s give an example. Most of you are from Steinbach: how many of you think it’s a good idea to build a performing arts centre? How many of you think it’s a bad idea? By raising your hands just now, you’ve done something political. But note the trade-off that comes with democracy: we are all bound by the will of the majority, which means that even if many of us think it’s a terrible idea to build a performing arts centre, we will still contribute to that project financially (through our taxes) if the majority approves it. This is why we tend to get upset when we feel that the government does not represent us, but we’ll get to that. We all have a stake in virtually every decision the government makes on our behalf, which is why communication between elected representatives and their constituents is so crucial. If constituents are not aware of the issues being decided upon, they cannot communicate their interests to their representative; and if the representative does not act in the best interests of his or her constituents, but they never hear about it, there is no possibility for accountability.

The Representative

The role of a representative is to represent their constituents – that much seems obvious. But what does that mean? The Reform Party, which no longer exists, championed “direct democracy” – that is, they wanted a referendum on just about everything, so that we could all vote on nearly every issue that ever came up. That would certainly be democratic, but it would also be difficult to manage: referendums are costly and time consuming, and the purpose of having a representative is so that we don’t need to invest that time and money and mental energy to make such decisions for ourselves. The mental energy is key: political decisions are often complex, and the time and energy and education it would take for all of us to make sound decisions on every issue is beyond the capacity of our society to maintain. In a direct-democracy system we’d either all be philosophers who live in caves because we have no time for anything but debating the issues, or we’d have a government that functions with a mob mentality based on the quick decisions of busy people. Neither is a good alternative.

The point of having representatives is that their full-time job becomes researching the issues, presenting them to their constituents for feedback, and employing wisdom to come to a solution that represents the best interests of their constituents and, if possible, also meets with their approval. It is important to note that these are not always the same thing: sometimes the decision we most need is not the one we want. This is the tragedy of democracy: while it can channel our best tendencies, it can also reflect our worst. More than one good politician’s career has ended because they made the right call even when it was unpopular, and more than one lousy representative’s career has been made by appealing to what is popular. Which brings us to the question of how we choose our representatives.

Choosing a Representative

Anyone who wants to become a Member of Parliament can do so, provided they are a Canadian citizen and can manage to collect 100 signatures to submit to Elections Canada. Choosing a good candidate is arguably much more difficult: with so many issues, and so many ways of approaching those issues, it can be difficult to find a candidate who has the same views that you do. Most of the time we make compromises, finding a candidate whose views are generally similar and living with the differences; this is where political parties come in handy, and we’ll talk about them in a moment. But we also need to consider the candidate’s ability to do the job: are they a good communicator? Do they understand the issues well? Are they wise? Are they successful in their previous or current profession, and does that profession and its required skills and knowledge relate at all to the work an MP performs? Given that an MP is supposed to represent the interests of their constituents, their personal suitability for the job is arguably much more important than their own personal views.

The suitability of the candidate is so central and important that it was traditionally considered long before any party affiliations. Political parties are a way of organizing MPs who are united in basic views, which is very useful for helping voters choose someone with similar views as them but not at all helpful in deciding who is the best qualified candidate. Political parties are not an official aspect of Canadian democracy, do not appear in the Canadian constitution, and until the 1960’s they did not even appear on the ballot after the candidate’s name. It was assumed, back then, that we were paying close enough attention that we would know who the candidates were, including knowing which party they may be affiliated with. The ridings were smaller back then too, so people had a better chance of knowing their candidates personally, but the point is that primary importance was placed on the candidate themselves, not on the party with which they affiliate.

Political Parties

Don’t get me wrong: political parties are useful for providing focus for our ideals and promoting greater cooperation in decision making. But they only remain useful if they are actually doing those things, and we’ve run into a few pitfalls with them. Political parties simplify the process of choosing a candidate because they give us a sense of the views and ideals of the candidate; but if we identify a candidate primarily by their party affiliation, the qualifications of individual candidates matter less and less, and eventually candidates from the same party become interchangeable. This situation is reinforced by the fact that political parties have taken on more and more power by creating internal rules and structures that govern which of their members are allowed to speak, what they’re allowed to say, and how they will vote on the issues. This renders candidates from a particular party completely interchangeable because they are unable to exercise wisdom or discernment in their decision making (as they’re told how to vote) or their communication skills to keep the electorate informed (as they’re required to only voice the official position of the party). This is the state of party politics in Canada today, and the Green Party is the only major party that refuses to put party politics ahead of the best interests of constituents. This is a major reason why I chose the Green Party.

Another serious issue with party politics is that the way in which a party simplifies the voting process by consolidating views and values into one group has a dumbing-down effect. Imagine choosing between several candidates without any party affiliations: you would look at their individual qualities and views, and treat it much like you were about to hire someone (which is effectively what we’re collectively doing). The process is much easier if you can simplify all of a person’s characteristics down to a few categories or issues, which is what party affiliation does. But there are still many different ways of viewing the world, and a political party that wants to reach a majority of voters will try to appeal to as many of them as possible. In order to do so, it must make its categories or issues as broad and vague as possible, to give the most possible people the sense that their views fit best with this party. As parties reach across the political spectrum and become more generic, they inevitably either become interchangeable with each other (yet still competitive with each other), or completely polarized in their views. Or sometimes, oddly enough, both at the same time.
Canada has a number of political parties, but we’ve historically only been ruled by two of them: the Conservatives, or Tories, who have had many different names and incarnations throughout our history; and the Liberals, or Grits, who are the longest-running party in Canadian politics and the party that has ruled the most. They are named after the two sides of the political spectrum: liberal and conservative.

The Political Spectrum

The political spectrum, or vote compass, is another way of simplifying the voting process. In general, liberals value freedom, equality, and fairness while conservatives value authority, loyalty, and sanctity. Of course, both sides value all of those things in different amounts, but the terms liberal and conservative are generally applied to the two ends of the spectrum and used to emphasize differences in views. But what does it mean to be a liberal? Up until the 20th century, it primarily referred to trade: liberals were people who believed in a free market to increase investment, while conservatives preferred systems of tariffs that protected their industries and promoted savings. But around the start of the 20th century, the term “liberal” began to refer to social liberalism, or the belief that the government shouldn’t control people’s private choices. By the end of the 20th century, “liberalism” usually referred exclusively to social liberalism and was associated with socialism, which prefers tariffs to protect industry – a traditionally conservative strategy. Meanwhile, conservative parties have completely embraced the free market, and subscribe to “neo-liberal” economics. So liberals are socially liberal and economically conservative, while conservatives are socially conservative and economically liberal. But the Liberal Party of Canada is socially and economically centrist, and the Conservative Party of Canada is economically liberal and refuses to discuss social issues at all (except crime, I suppose). So what does it mean to be liberal or conservative? Not much.

One of the reasons that I joined the Green Party is that we get out of this tangled mess of terminology. We are often characterized as being a far-left party, which is to say very liberal; but our actual policies fall all across the spectrum. We are fiscally conservative: we want to pay down debt and implement sustainable resource and spending strategies. Socially, we fall all across the spectrum: many of our ideas are quite progressive, but often by applying progressive means to reach traditionally conservative ends (such as trying to make progress on the issue of abortion by dealing with poverty and health issues that often lead to abortions, rather than insisting on controlling women’s behaviour). It seems to me that the other parties have founded their identities on being left-wing or right-wing or centrist, but we’ve founded our identity on fundamental values – the six values that this lecture series is based on. This gives us the freedom to get out of the political spectrum altogether and focus our attention on the issues that Canada faces and the best ways to address them, regardless of which end of the spectrum those ideas may come from.

A Team Sport

So, back to democracy. We’ve seen that the use of political parties and positions on the political spectrum can help us to simplify the task of deciding how to vote. Unfortunately, they can also reduce politics to a team sport: we all choose our colour, sometimes with very little reasoning, and we tend to stick with that colour regardless of the merits of the candidates or the platforms of the parties. Then we can root for our team, and hate on the other teams, without having to make sound judgments about the issues.

If you think that this is a strange analogy, I should point out that it’s not mine: politicians have used the analogy to justify voting against the best interests and will of their constituents for the sake of promoting party politics. And as long as we see it that way, we’ll continue to root for our team even when they’re not winning for us; too often, we become the Leafs fans of politics. But this isn’t a game, it’s our life. And as long as we continue to cheer for our team rather than engaging with the process, our politicians can get away with an awful lot.

This same kind of tribalism also often causes us to hate the other teams with as little thought or analysis as we used to decide which team to cheer for. It also causes us to treat a government led by the other team as a “them” rather than an “us”, and this often leads to a conflicted relationship with our government. We begin to see the government as someone who wants to take our money, rather than as the embodiment of our collective participation and best interests to which we would voluntarily contribute. The only way we can hold the government to account at that point is to tell them how angry we are – but as long as we’re caught up in the team-sport tribalism mentality, they can keep our anger directed at the other teams, and it doesn’t actually affect the actions they take with our money. We can never hold the government to proper account so long as it is a “them”; accountability must be something that we collectively do.

Corruption

When we fail to hold our representatives to account, they no longer need to serve our best interests. When that happens, our system has collapsed. What do you call a representative who isn’t representing anyone? Of course, they continue to represent the best interests of someone, even if it isn’t their constituents: unaccountable representatives usually represent themselves, but also usually other powerful interests, like corporations and the wealthiest Canadians, who are always actively lobbying in their own self interests. Our representatives are supposed to lobby Parliament on our behalf, but they are also subject to lobbying, and if they’re not lobbying for us they end up lobbying for someone else.

We’re seeing the beginning of corruption in Canada right now. The Conservative government and its members have been convicted of corruption-related crimes several times: election fraud, contempt of parliament, breach of trust, and more. The fact that they were convicted says that we still have a judicial system that is able to do its job, to a limited extent; but some of these crimes occurred almost a decade ago, and we voted them in again. Twice. The second time with a majority. The courts are limited in what they can do: Dean Del Mastro went to jail, but there’s no jail sentence for Stephen Harper for his contempt of parliament, and the sentences for Mike Duffy and Patrick Brazeau have yet to be decided. But an unengaged electorate decided that they didn’t care enough about corruption to change the way they voted, or to show up to vote at all. What this shows politicians is that they don’t need to be moral leaders in order to rule our country.

The Fix

So how can we fix this? There are a few ways.

First, vote. Period. Whatever the result of the election is, if we had a 100% voter turnout it would tell the government that people are paying attention. When the people are watching, politicians will behave differently.

Second, make an informed choice. Weigh the track records of the parties, and stop rewarding corruption. Weigh the qualities of your local representatives, and choose someone who can do the job well. This is not the time for a team-sport tribalism mentality. If good candidates from small parties get a big chunk of the vote, it will send a message to the parties that they need to choose good candidates, and having more good candidates will lead to more MPs who speak for themselves. Weigh the platforms of the parties, and choose a party with vision rather than voting for the party that looks like they can win. If people voted for the best platform rather than the front-runner, we’d see a very different result and parties would know that they need smart policies to win rather than just divisive rhetoric.

Third, continue to be active after the election. This election has more hype and promise than any election in a long time, but I’m concerned that a lot of people who were eager to vote last weekend (3.6 million of us!) will be very disappointed on Tuesday, and will check out of the process again. Political engagement doesn’t stop when a representative is chosen, it’s just getting started! Talk to your MP, whether you voted for them or not, and let them know that you’re paying attention and want to keep their ear about issues that are important to you. When constituents do that, it helps MPs to do their job.

Fourth, ask your MP to vote in favour of Proportional Representation. This is a voting system that would replace our current first-past-the-post system. In our current system, the person with the most overall votes gets elected, regardless of the actual total percentage they receive – so it’s common for someone with only around 30% of the vote to get elected, leaving 70% of the population disappointed. In proportional representation, parties would get a share of the seats that is proportionate to their share of the votes. By current polls, the Green Party is estimated to win one seat in this election even though we’d get around 5% of the total national vote; in PR, we’d get 15 seats. But more than that, with PR people would change the way that they vote: as it stands, people want to vote for someone who has a chance of winning, but PR would more or less take that out of the equation, empowering people to vote their heart or their conscience. Polls show that the Green Party is the most commonly listed 2nd choice, which makes me wonder: if they thought we had a shot at winning, would we be their first choice?

Finally, join a political party that inspires you. A major indicator of the strength of a party is the number of members that they have – people who are willing to spend ten bucks and identify themselves with a party. It’s a relatively small step, but it helps the party to identify their supporters and engage them to make a difference in the next campaign. It also sends a signal to the other parties that maybe this party has a lot of good ideas that are worth stealing!

Thanks for taking your time to engage with me tonight; please be sure to take the time to engage the process on Monday and cast a ballot.

Thanks everyone! It’s been brilliant getting to know you. Make sure you vote today, and vote your heart! Vote for vision. Vote Green.

Your candidate,

Jeff Wheeldon

Jeff_Background1

True Diversity is Hard, but So Worthwhile

On Friday evening I hosted the second of our six lectures, this one titled “Embracing Diversity: Living an Enriched Life Within Canada’s Borders” and presented by Wendy Peterson. Wendy described diversity by noting that there are hundreds of distinct First Nations in North America, but that we treat them all as a single entity under the Indian Act and in our culture. She recalled seeing a local newspaper article that referred to two women who were “aboriginal in appearance”, and asked us what we thought that should mean: did it mean that they looked like doctors, teachers, theologians? She showed us a series of photos of her own friends, mostly aboriginal, and while not many of them looked alike, they were all similarly (highly) educated and successful people. She noted that she herself is “pigmentally challenged” (she is Metis), but that her son is often assumed to be Filipino, even by other Filipinos. So what does it mean to be “aboriginal in appearance,” and how can we have a truly diverse society and welcome refugees when we still have difficulty acknowledging diversity within our first peoples?

Diversity is hard. One of the greatest strengths of the human brain is its ability to categorize things: there are so many things and creatures around us, if we saw every single one of them as unique we would not be able to process it all. Our brain simplifies the process by creating categories, which is why we can say “lawn” instead of seeing millions of individual blades of grass. This is handy for lawns and leaves, but less helpful when we’re dealing with people, because categorization requires simplifying something down to a particular characteristic. Human beings are too complex to be simplified like that and still maintain their dignity, and because of this, our ability to relate to them is diminished. We can’t relate to people who are reduced to a single characteristic, especially if that characteristic that we’ve reduced them to is the very way that they are different from us. But that’s precisely the way we categorize people: by the ways they are different from us, rather than the ways we are the same. This makes sense from the perspective of efficient systems of categorization, but it does nothing to help us empathize with people who are different from us. The name for this process is called “Othering”, turning a person who is actually very like us in most ways into an “other”, someone who is very much unlike us.

It’s nearly impossible to get through life without othering people. We all do it, by virtue of our brain functions if for no other reason; but we’re also often raised with certain notions of different people groups or “others.” We tend to gang up on public figures when they let their othering slip out in a debate or interview, but we’re all guilty of it any time we fail to treat someone as a human being with their own thoughts and volition. Is my height my dominant characteristic? I sincerely hope not – I would hope it would be my intellect, my integrity, my attitude, or some virtue – but I once walked down a busy street in Osaka, Japan, and I drew an awful lot of stares, and while I don’t begrudge people for noticing that I stand out, it gets frustrating explaining that I’m not a basketball player. I can’t imagine what it’s like to explain to people that I do indeed have a “real” PhD (one example that Wendy gave on Friday), or have people assume that I’m a terrorist simply because of my skin tone or last name. In our culture, we need to find a balance between recognizing differences and reducing people to those differences. That’s hard to do, but it’s so worthwhile!

In our government, though, we don’t have the limitations of our brains as an excuse for othering. We have carefully crafted policies and laws that should not succumb to any person’s cultural or racial blind spots. Even so, in Canada we have a long history of policies that thoroughly and deliberately “other” indigenous people, and we are currently doing the same to Muslims. A perfect example is the way that our government refuses to allow a woman in a niqab (a garment that some Muslim women wear as an act of religious obedience and devotion, to express modesty) to swear an oath of citizenship. Two courts have already upheld her right to swear the oath without removing her head covering, but the Harper government has appealed to the Supreme Court. Harper’s argument is that the niqab comes from a culture that is anti-women, and that may be; a niqab may be used by many as a way to suppress women. But the moment we assume that rather than listening to this woman’s own story, we have othered her in a way that strips her of her dignity even as she attempts to swear an oath to our nation. We absolutely should support women’s rights, but we cannot do so by removing their freedoms and pigeonholing them based on a single characteristic.

Muslims vote at about half of the national average rate – only about 30%. Indigenous people in Canada vote even less. I have a hard time blaming them, given our history and current policies. We need a government that is willing to replace policies that other entire people groups with policies that truly embrace diversity. This will be hard: it will cost us money, and security. The Green Party of Canada wants to begin dialogue with First Nations on a nation-to-nation basis, rather than treating all First Nations as a single group, and honouring the treaties that we made with them. We want to collaborate with them to solve problems, rather than assuming a paternal stance and telling them how to run their affairs. We also want to support more refugees, and streamline the refugee process as much as possible so that we can adequately respond to the demand. These things will be difficult to do, but they’re so worthwhile! Join us. Vote Green.

Your candidate,

Jeff Wheeldon

Jeff_Background1

On the Possibility of a Nonviolent Nation

Last night Karen Ridd opened up our lecture series with “Swimming Upstream: Being Nonviolent in a Violent World.” Her presentation was by turns enchanting, engaging, challenging, and inspiring. One thing that came up several times, perhaps given that I was hosting the event, is how nonviolence relates to a national stance on ISIS and foreign policy in general. I’ve spent much of today thinking about this. It’s wonderful for individuals to practice nonviolence, but is it possible as a national policy?

Karen talked about the distinction between using nonviolent action and being nonviolent as a way of life (there are many people who would, say, go on strike, without actually committing to nonviolence in any other situation, much less as an ongoing approach to conflict), but in terms of actually executing a nonviolent approach I think it can happen in two ways. First, we can choose to make ourselves weak so that we cannot do any harm; and second, we can maintain our power while exercising restraint. Either can be done by an individual, and either can be done by a nation. Let’s take a look.

My favourite exemplar in regard to most important issues is Jesus, and this case is no different. Jesus made himself “weak” by taking on human flesh in all of its frailty: the God of the universe, eternal spirit, became vulnerable to the elements, hunger, abuse, and even death. He chose weakness in order to empathize and express solidarity with the weak. Vulnerability is a powerful aspect of nonviolent action; Karen’s stories about the effective use of nonviolent direct action were almost all about little old ladies. Nonviolent action tends to rely on exposing injustice, and there is little that is more obviously unjust than violent treatment of the vulnerable. In that way, choosing vulnerability can create a degree of safety while at the same time appealing to the best in our opponents, humanizing them even while we humanize ourselves by exposing our vulnerability.

At the same time, while Jesus became vulnerable he remained incredibly powerful. When he was arrested by an entire detachment of soldiers, Peter pulled out a sword to try to defend him; Jesus not only told Peter to stand down (and healed the soldier Peter had injured), but reminded Peter that he could have called on a legion of angels at any moment. During his arrest, his trial, and even his execution, Jesus retained the power to destroy his enemies, and yet chose to forgive them instead. His concern for the well-being of even his enemies led him to exercise restraint on that power. That’s what made Jesus’ refusal to use violence so powerful: weakness in itself is no virtue, but exercising restraint most certainly is.

So it’s possible for an individual to choose nonviolence either by choosing to be vulnerable or weak, or by exercising careful restraint of the power he or she has. But what about a nation? Is it possible to be nonviolent in either way? Not only is it possible, but there are clear examples of both.

Costa Rica has not had a standing army since 1948. They have a small armed guard probably more similar to the RCMP than to an army, and they contribute to international peacekeeping, but that’s it. As a nation, they have chosen not to have a military. They have made themselves vulnerable. Since then they have not had any war, even civil war, in spite of the revolutions that occurred throughout the region in the 1980s. Some people may write this off as a benefit of being allies with nations like the US and Canada whose military capabilities make up for Costa Rica’s lack, but perhaps that’s part of the point: a nation without a significant armed force must use other foreign policy tools, and making allies with other nations is an important one. If Canada were to reduce our military capabilities we would be less quick to enter into wars and would rely much more on diplomacy and trade to settle our disputes. By making ourselves vulnerable in one way, we could build on other strengths (and frankly, we’ve always been better at diplomacy than at warfare).

The other example is Switzerland. As gun advocates love to point out, nearly everyone in Switzerland has a gun and knows how to use it. This is because military service is mandatory in Switzerland (for males starting at 19). The amazing thing is, even though every single (male) Swiss citizen is (at least in theory) ready to go to war (their military force per capita is the second largest in the world, after the Israeli Defence Forces), they haven’t violently participated in a war in almost 150 years. Even during the World Wars, their participation took the form of economic and nonviolent tactics. They have an international reputation for neutrality, and therefore as a place to meet for discussion rather than battle; and they contribute to peacekeeping efforts around the world. They pose no threat to anyone in spite of their great power, and they present the world with opportunities for nonviolent conflict resolution.

The Green Party’s plan is somewhere between these two models. We would reduce Canada’s military to a functional defensive force, redirecting funding and personnel toward new forces that focus on disaster relief, and restoring our place as one of the main contributors to the UN Peacekeeping forces. As climate change gets worse, environmental issues will spark conflict. Clean water reserves are depleting worldwide as glaciers recede and sea levels rise, for example. Canada’s ability to respond quickly with humanitarian aid and disaster relief will help prevent conflicts from arising in such situations; and our Peacekeepers will help provide security and space for diplomacy to work in situations where conflict does arise. At the same time, our lack of a significant standing army will give credibility to our diplomatic and humanitarian efforts, and nobody will suspect ulterior motives or fear a humanitarian mission may turn into an invasion force.

Our ability to do good in the world and humanize others is our greatest defence. Promoting peace is more powerful than the ability to win wars. Through a combination of deliberate vulnerability and restraint, and a refocusing on meeting the needs of others, Canadian foreign policy can be nonviolent in very significant ways without leaving Canada defenceless. Then we can restore the reputation that I grew up with, our former international renown for promoting peace.

Join us next Friday for our second lecture in the series: “Embracing Diversity: Living an Enriched Life Within Canada’s Borders” with Wendy Peterson!

Your candidate,

Jeff Wheeldon

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Press Conference: Platform Release, Candidate’s Pledge, and Lecture Series

Last night we had a fantastic evening listening to Karen Ridd’s lecture on Nonviolence titled “Swimming Upstream: Being Nonviolent in a Violent World.” Unfortunately we were unable to record it (though we have plans to record future lectures), but given that it was the first lecture in the series, and that the Green Party had released our fully-costed platform just two days before, I thought it was a good opportunity to invite the press and kick the series off in a more formal fashion. I signed the Candidate’s Pledge, and said a few words.

The world is faced with an unprecedented challenge: we’re consuming beyond our means and beyond what the earth can sustain, and it’s having disastrous effects on the climate. While we don’t feel the effects here so much, the droughts in California and Syria, the wildfires in BC, and even the record-breaking temperatures here in Provencher, are all related. But the greatest challenges are also the greatest opportunities, and Canada faces an unprecedented opportunity in the shift away from a carbon economy and toward a clean energy economy.
There are already more Canadians working in the clean energy sector than there are working in the oil sector, even though the current government is subsidizing the oil industry by billions of dollars a year. Jobs in the clean energy sector are stable and long-term jobs in manufacturing, construction, and maintenance of clean energy infrastructure such as solar and wind farms, and those solar and wind farms provide stable and steady revenue – unlike oil, which rises and falls with the global market and creates a boom-and-bust cycle in the Canadian economy. And while the oil industry only brings dangerous pipelines to Provencher – like the one that exploded a few kilometres from my house last winter, or the one that exploded this week just south of Emerson, or the Energy East pipeline that would run diluted bitumen right through the Whiteshell Provincial Park – the clean energy industry can turn Provencher into a literal powerhouse: we have more sunlight than anywhere else in Canada, we have strong and regular winds, and we have wide open spaces that can be used for clean energy infrastructure. Another key aspect of the clean energy economy is efficiency, and the need for home energy retrofits is high: Steinbach’s number one industry is construction, and a national home energy retrofitting plan would maintain business in construction without fear of a housing bubble. So a carbon economy only offers us risks, but a clean energy economy offers us incredible economic opportunities. As MP for Provencher, I would press the government to invest in the clean energy economy and work with citizens and businesses in Provencher to ensure that the local economy benefits from this opportunity.

On Wednesday, the Green Party of Canada released our full election platform. We were  once again the first party to do so, and as usual our platform is fully costed and has been reviewed by economists to ensure the numbers are right. They are. The Green Party is prepared to eliminate tuition for post-secondary education by 2020, invest in rail infrastructure, phase in a Guaranteed Livable Income, implement a national housing strategy, a national Pharmacare plan, and a national Seniors’ strategy, lower small business taxes, and reverse cuts to Veterans’ affairs, CBC, and Canada Post – and deliver a surplus starting in 2015-16 and every year thereafter so that we can more effectively pay down government debt. These initiatives would be paid for by removing existing subsidies to the fossil fuel industry, legalizing and taxing cannabis, restoring the corporate tax rate to its 2009 level to ensure that it remains competitive with other OECD countries, eliminating tax havens, and implementing cost-effective programs that get better value for our dollar.

But while the climate and the economy are incredibly important issues, the thing that most made me take notice of the Green Party and decide to run as a Green candidate is our attention to the effectiveness and dignity of Canadian democracy. We aim to institute proportional representation, government transparency, and cross-partisan cooperation and respect. That’s why I’m proud to sign the Green Party Candidate’s pledge today: I pledge to conduct myself with integrity and treat others with respect, and if elected, to publish all of my expenses, conduct myself with civility in the House of Commons and never heckle, and to always put the best interests of my constituents, Canada, and the planet before partisan politics and personal interests. I’ve been pleased to have a positive relationship with the other candidates in Provencher even in the midst of this campaign, as we all attempt to better engage and serve the community.

It is in the service of our community that we’re here today at the Jake Epp Library, where in a few minutes we’re going to start the first of six public lectures. These lectures are sponsored by my campaign and the Green Party Provencher Riding Association, but they are non-partisan lectures about issues that are important to the community. The lecturers do not represent the Green Party, and approach their topics from a number of perspectives; they were chosen because of their expertise and experience in these issues, and because they are from the riding or from close by. The lectures will run every Friday evening from tonight until the election, and will cover the topics of nonviolence, embracing diversity, sustainability, social justice, ecological wisdom, and participatory democracy. Admission is free, and donations will go to offering the lecturers an honourarium and, if there is a large interest, toward renting a larger venue. We welcome anyone and everyone to engage with this conversation.

Conversations are incredibly important, but they need to lead to action. When it comes to the climate, the economy, our democratic institutions, and our global leadership, it’s time for action. A vote for me is a vote for fair and active representation in Ottawa; for a clean energy economy that will create and maintain jobs in Provencher while reducing greenhouse gases and dependence on oil; and for a cleaner, healthier Canada.

Thank you!

Candidate's pledge
BIG smile – I’m happy to pledge to be dignified and respectful!

 

After that we had a lovely Q&A session about the platform before turning it over to Karen, who challenged us all with her experiences of nonviolent action and her perspectives on how Canada might embrace nonviolence in our policies moving forward.

Watch for a story about this great event in the Carillon on Thursday, and be sure to come out for our next lecture on Friday – Wendy Peterson will speak on “Embracing Diversity: Living an Enriched Life Within Canada’s Borders.” See you there!

Your candidate,

Jeff Wheeldon

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On the Cusp of Greatness

Yesterday was Canada Day, and a very busy day across the country. I attended community events, talked with strangers, collected some signatures, and most of all, reflected on what I was seeing. I deeply and dearly love Canada, but on a day all about loving Canada, I wondered why. Why do I love this nation? Allow me to explain.

Canada Day is a time for nationalism, sentimentality, and political speeches. At Steinbach’s Mennonite Heritage Village there were speeches from the MP, the MLA, the Mayor, and the Reeve of the surrounding municipality, one after another. Each of them repeated the phrase “Canada is the greatest country in the world,” some with gusto, others with solemnity. I heard the same words from Stephen Harper on the radio afterward, in a clip from the celebrations in Ottawa. I tend to agree, Canada is great – but what does that mean? How are we great?

The thing that caught my attention, that made me question our seemingly obvious greatness, was the comments of a speaker from the Mennonite Heritage Village. He also said that Canada is great, but he said something else that stood out. He pointed out that when Mennonites first came to Canada they were promised the ability to run their own schools and teach their children in German, with their own curriculum. Not too long after that, however, the Canadian government decided that they must use Provincial curriculum, in English. Many Mennonites moved on to South America to maintain their cultural freedom, but many stayed. And in spite of this betrayal by the Canadian government of that day, this speaker didn’t think that any of the Mennonites who stayed in Canada would wish today that they had moved on, or returned to places like Ukraine and Russia. He’s probably right, but I immediately felt that his repetition of the Canada Day mantra, “Canada is great,” was different from the other speakers. They all spoke about Canada today, our position in the G7, the great things our current government is doing, etc., so that “Canada is great” sounded like self-congratulation; he spoke about the past, and in a way that caused his “Canada is great” to sound like a hope, or even a compromise. Like Canada is great because things turned out okay, but it’s great in spite of past double-dealing and conflict.

But not everything has turned out great for all Canadians. Some conflicts continue. Is Canada great for everyone?

Each of the speakers commented on the number of immigrants and new citizens at the event, noting how this Canada Day must be extra special for them as newcomers. I met a man in the park yesterday who is trying to improve his English quickly enough to renew his work permit, so that eventually he can get Permanent Resident status and continue on the long road to citizenship. I know enough newcomers to Canada to know that achieving citizenship is a powerful, joyful event, and that Canada Day has a different significance for someone who cannot take their citizenship for granted. But that’s just it: many newcomers cannot take their Canadian citizenship for granted, even after they’ve achieved it, because of a new law that allows the immigration minister to revoke Canadian citizenship from dual citizens. Also, not all newcomers receive as warm of a welcome as the ones celebrating at the Heritage Village yesterday: the Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, has been quite vocal in his opposition to the idea that a woman whose face is covered as an expression of her religious beliefs can take an oath of citizenship. Pledging allegiance to Canada is not enough, apparently; new Canadians must also express their faith in ways that align with someone else’s view of what Canadians should do.

That’s now, but Canada’s history of cultural assimilation goes back to before there was a Canada. Several articles online yesterday reminded me that Canada Day is not a day of celebration for our First Nations, whose history predates Canada’s by centuries. Canada is one of the richest nations in the world, it’s true, but our privileges are not shared by our Indigenous citizens, who were systematically stripped of their land, rights, and culture. To them, Canada Day is a celebration of the subjugation and disenfranchisement of their people, which remains an ongoing struggle. Mennonites were once betrayed by Canada, but now enjoy its benefits; First Nations are still betrayed by Canada, subject to the patriarchal Indian Act and the general refusal of the Canadian government to acknowledge and act upon the treaties signed so long ago. Is Canada really great? Were we ever?

Yet I have hope. Several years ago, the Prime Minister issued an apology on behalf of the government for enacting the Residential School system that took so many Indigenous children from their families with the goal to “kill the Indian in the child.” Recently the Premier of Manitoba apologized on behalf of the Province for the “Sixties Scoop,” in which Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families and adopted by white families in Canada, the US, and the UK. And we’ve also recently celebrated the end of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which issued a powerful report about the extent of the abuse that First Nations have suffered at the hands of colonialist Canada. Survivors have had a chance to tell their stories, and we’ve had a chance to listen, and mourn with them.

Sharing stories gives our Indigenous people a chance to heal, but it doesn’t change the current situation. Apologies are an important symbolic step, but they haven’t led to any changes in the status quo. On one hand, they’re even quite negative: they remind us that, from the perspective of our vulnerable people, Canada has rarely been anywhere near “greatness.” But reports and apologies are incredibly important, because they give us a glimpse of what Canada could be. They give us a glimpse of Canada’s true greatness.

We are on the cusp of that greatness.

Canada is not great, but we’re so close that we can taste it. We’ve always been there, on the brink, able to see and celebrate the best in us even if it’s just out of our grasp. The Canada I so deeply love is not the Canada that was, or even the Canada that is (though they each have their moments), but the Canada that may yet be.

We’re not perfect, and we never have been. We’ve been downright awful at (far too many) times, but we’ve always been just a choice or two away from doing the right thing. We signed treaties, some of them in bad faith and some of them in good faith, and either way we have failed to honour them. But even to this day we remain just one or two good choices away from doing the right thing and making good on our old promises. We can honour the treaties, and doing so would make Canada truly great.

We pride ourselves on multiculturalism, but we press our newest citizens to conform to our ways of life and dress. We can be a truly multicultural nation, welcoming outsiders and celebrating difference, and doing so would make Canada truly great.

We pride ourselves on our international reputation as peacemakers and peacekeepers, yet we’ve reduced our involvement in the UN (we invented UN Peacekeepers, and used to contribute up to 3,300 at a time; now there are 34) and increased our involvement in NATO and interventionist wars on the other side of the world. We’ve pulled out of climate treaties, and frustrated the processes of international climate talks so much that we’ve been the repeated recipients of the ironic “colossal fossil” award. Our reputation has become more tied to the oil economy than to the natural beauty, conscience, and compassion that once defined us around the world. Yet we still have a place at the international table, we still have the ability to be leaders in peacemaking and care of the earth, and doing so would make Canada truly great.

I could go on. We are always, and have always been, at the cusp of greatness. I can see what it would look like for Canada to truly be the “greatest country in the world” as so many politicians said yesterday, and it’s because of that vision that I love Canada. It’s because of that vision of peace, justice, compassion, and honour that I continue to work toward those good choices, to try to bring out the best in our nation, to unlock that greatness. We’re not that great, yet, but we could be.

Today is the day after Canada Day, the day after the celebration of our greatness. Let’s make it the day we get to work, to build a better Canada that builds on the wrongs of the past by righting them, so that we can someday earn the title of “the greatest country in the world.”

Your candidate,

Jeff Wheeldon

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Let’s Run

This morning I participated in the Let’s Run 5k race in Steinbach. What a humbling experience!

I’ve always had relatively poor cardiovascular health. As a child I was diagnosed with exercise-induced asthma, which made running difficult. Like many people, I’ve had good intentions over the years to become a regular at the gym and get into shape, which led to more than one gym membership that went unused.

Last year I was facing the imminent birth of my first child, Sam, and I realized that I couldn’t put it off any more. Both of my grandfathers died at age 70, one from a heart attack and one from a stroke, so I knew I had a good chance of clocking out early too unless I put in some significant work. Also, I’m 196cm tall, and people my size and larger tend to have shorter lives (the oldest people in the world are usually tiny women). For Sam’s sake as much as my own, I don’t want to have my heart give out on me when I’m 70. So I started running, but didn’t take it too seriously until I signed up for Let’s Run; apparently all I needed to get in shape was the threat of public embarrassment.

Using the “Couch to 5k” plan, I worked my way up to running 5k. On the advice of colleagues who run regularly, I decided to run for five minutes and walk for one minute, and found that I could maintain a rough 11-minute mile average. Because running has always been a struggle for me, I was incredibly proud of myself for even being able to finish 5k, let alone at that pace. And I still am proud of myself – and I’m proud of everyone who participated this morning – because no matter the pace, committing to physical fitness is hard work worthy of pride. But I was definitely taken down a peg or two today.

I said out loud that I only hoped to finish, or maybe to finish in the middle of the pack, but in the back of my mind I envisioned finishing near the front with energy to spare. So when the race started, I made sure to pace myself carefully. Most of the pack moved ahead of me quickly, but I thought “slow and steady wins the race; I’ll be blowing by them when they run out of steam.” I especially thought this of the large number of kids who were ahead of me, some of whom looked to be about seven years old and were setting a gruelling pace.

Boy was I wrong. I didn’t see those kids again until they crossed the finish line a few minutes after me, finishing the 10k in only a few minutes more than it took me to finish the 5k. I crossed the line moments before the first 10k runner, and less than a minute before a mother pushing a double stroller with two kids who looked to be 4 or 5. Oh, and the half dozen firefighters who ran the 5k in their full gear (in the hot sun) were out of sight ahead of me by the second kilometre. All of my assumptions about my own level of relative fitness crumbled pretty quickly.

My assumptions about fitness in general also crumbled pretty quickly, as the people I thought were slower than me were actually just pacing themselves for the 10k, or as I noticed a woman with one leg completing the race on crutches, or as people celebrated completing a walking 5k with even more pride and sense of accomplishment than those who stood on the podium for the fastest times. I realized that this wasn’t really a race, that times or distances or other ways of comparing ourselves to others didn’t matter. What matters is that each of us went there with a personal goal, whether it was just to complete the event, to get a certain time, or to support a friend, and we accomplished them in the context of a supportive community.

And what a community! This event was run entirely by volunteers, and members of the community lined the route to cheer us on. It was well-planned, too: I was pleased to see that there were plenty of recycling bins and compost bags to collect the remains of the healthy snacks, and health and safety were an obvious priority with volunteers directing traffic and a well prepared first aid team on site.

All in all, I was inspired by this event. It’s incredible to see people work together to accomplish a great thing that benefits the whole community. That’s what politics is supposed to look like: all of us working together to accomplish great things that we probably couldn’t pull off on our own, and for all of our benefit. And make no mistake, Let’s Run is a political event: it has a direct impact on the health of the community, and a sustainable health care system is one that focuses on promoting health rather than just treating disease or injury.

Here’s how the Green Party would integrate promoting healthy living with our health care program (from Vision Green, page 102):

7. Promote fitness, sport, and active living:

  1. Promote a broad-based national program of active living as a prescription for better health and lower health care costs, to be delivered in partnership with provincial, municipal, and non-governmental bodies to achieve the goal agreed to by all ministers responsible for physical activity across Canada of increasing physical activity by 10% over the next five years;
  2. Introduce a national standard of daily, quality participation in physical activity in schools, colleges, and universities to combat the epidemic of youth obesity;
  3. Make a strategic investment through Health Canada of $500 million over five years to aggressively address inactivity and obesity;
  4. Re-introduce a national school-based fitness-testing program;
  5. Promote the ‘Walking School Bus,’ as developed by the Toronto Atmospheric Fund, in which adult volunteers supervise neighbourhood children walking to school, thereby reducing pollution, improving fitness, and promoting community street safety;
  6. Endorse and promote the Olympic Movement’s Agenda 21 for Sport, which advocates sport and recreation management practices that are sustainable and encourages sustainable practices at all sports events and facilities;
  7. Support the development of high-performance athletes both by encouraging broad-based participation in sport and by contributing to the provision of essential facilities, coaching, and medical support for high-performance athletes, as outlined in the 2003 Canadian Sport Policy;
  8. Structure the spending for sports to ensure there is a practical progression of long- term financial support for sport at all levels in the sports continuum;
  9. Establish a Canadian Sports Spending Accountability Act, to ensure the effective long-term use of tax dollars provided to high performance sports programs.

Healthy lifestyles are not only better for us, they reduce the amount of medical care we need. Health care is not only one of our biggest expenses, it’s also the national expense that’s rising the fastest. Let’s Run and programs like it are what we need to head this health crisis off at the pass, and I’m so glad I took part in it today. If you’re up for it, join me for the Imagine Run in Niverville September 26th, where I’m going to attempt to kick it up a notch to 10k!

Also, next weekend there’s an event called Walk the Line, a hike along the route of the proposed Energy East pipeline. Registration ends Tuesday, so sign up as soon as you can. I hope to make it, and I’ll be talking more about Energy East and what it means for us in the near future.

Your candidate,

Jeff Wheeldon

Jeff Wheeldon

SETI Spring Supper

Last night we had the privilege of attending the South Eastman Transition Initiative‘s Spring Supper in Steinbach. It served as a wonderful reminder of the value of community and local food, and it raised money for Fruit Share Steinbach, a local non-profit.

Fruit Share exemplifies a number of Green values: cooperation, efficiency, local food, and caring for communities, to name a few. It is a local non-profit organization that specializes in connecting people who have fruit trees but aren’t able to pick or use all of the fruit with people who are willing to pick it for them. Fruit Share then splits the fruit three ways: 1/3 for the owner, 1/3 for the pickers, and 1/3 goes to local charities; they even make sure to compost the waste. Last year they connected 150 volunteers with 49 fruit owners and donated to 15 different local organizations! Fruit Share also works to educate fruit owners about the value of their fruit trees and ways to use the fruit, with information and instruction on how to process and preserve the fruit.

SETI (South Eastman Transition Initiative) is another fantastic organization that exemplifies Green values. They serve as a community of shared knowledge and resources to help themselves and their communities to transition to a more sustainable lifestyle, running reskilling workshops (my wife Andrea is leading one on fermenting foods next weekend), documentary screenings, a weekly newspaper column, garden tours, regular “Green Drinks” gatherings, and more. I first joined SETI about five years ago, attending a viewing of the documentary Food Inc. Over time I began to get more involved, writing for the Rethinking Lifestyles column in the Carillon and joining the public policy committee, which makes policy suggestions at a municipal and provincial level to encourage governments toward more sustainable initiatives.

As I grew more interested and involved in politics, my engagement with SETI decreased as my engagement with the Green Party increased. I often regret that: SETI is still a very important organization to me, and helped to form me in my commitment to a more sustainable lifestyle and a more sustainable politics. SETI is a non-partisan organization, so they go out of their way to promote sustainability connecting it to any other banner; they recognize that people of all political stripes care about sustainability, and don’t want to limit their impact by unnecessarily aligning themselves with one party. In spite of the fact that I would love the political support of a group like SETI, I love that they’re non-partisan. In fact, I think this is one of the features of SETI that exemplifies Green values. Putting aside differences to work with as many people as possible toward a more sustainable future is at the core of the Green understanding of what Parliament is supposed to be about, and SETI serves as an example of what it could be: a group of Canadians working together for the benefit of us all. So while SETI isn’t linked to the Green Party in any way (other than an overlap of members, like me!), I see them as an incredible ally who is able to reach people that the Green Party may not be able to reach, and give people practical skills to continue moving us toward sustainability on an individual level even when partisan politics in Ottawa prevent us from moving in that direction as a society.

So thank you, South Eastman Transition Initiative and Fruit Share Steinbach, for your service to your community and your ecosystem. You are inspirations, and great resources! Oh, and that supper last night was delicious.