Click link below for text of Stephen Lewis' Symons lecture, given at Charlottetown, Nov. 21
© Photo special to The Guardian by Farhang Ghajar/CBC
Celebrated Canadian humanitarian Stephen Lewis received the Confederation Centre of the Arts' Symons Medal
Mr. Premier, Lieutenant-Governor Lewis, Ladies and Gentlemen:
It’s obviously an honour to receive the Symons medal in this the Centre commemorating the Fathers of Confederation who met in Charlottetown 150 years ago. I will admit --- I mean no offense by this --- that living in a feminist family, I would have preferred the Mothers of Confederation. But the struggle for gender equality is not contingent on the patriarchs of yesteryear, so my marriage will remain intact.
I am a lifelong fan of Tom Symons. We don’t know each other all that well, but I very much remember him as an educational guru in my days in the Ontario Legislature, then in his remarkable career as the architect and President of Trent University, and later still, in his role as Chair of the Ontario Heritage Trust. In fact, if memory serves, I once made a speech courtesy of the Trust with Tom Symons front and
I hope I do him no dishonor by saying that I always thought him one of
those exemplary Red Tories. I shall have more to say about those Red
Tories shortly, but for the moment let me simply add that they were
positively luminous compared to the prepaleolithic Neanderthals who
followed them. I fear that I will unsettle Tom with the remarks that I
shall make in this speech. But I did write honestly to warn him of my
intemperate nature, and he, perhaps unwisely, gave me
If I may mangle Shakespeare, “The fault, dear Thomas, is not in our
stars, but in yours alone”.
Ten days ago, I had dinner in Montreal --- I’m teaching at McGill this
semester --- with Paul Martin. He was, most of you will recall, the
Symons lecturer last year. It was a very helpful dinner because he
filled me in on all the aristocratic niceties I should anticipate. So I
asked him for a copy of his text. He sent it, and I realized that at the
opening of his lecture last year, in a fashion of wholesome elegance,
the Honourable Paul Martin acknowledged practically everyone in this
room, and by name.
But you see, titular eccentricities aside, Paul knew everyone: I know
no one. He was a successful Liberal Prime Minister; I was a New
Democrat in Ontario whose political career was one of transcendental
futility. So don’t expect elegance from me. As a matter of fact, in order
to avoid listing, by degrees of eminence, all the notables in this
chamber, I shall resort to an old Nigerian tactic employed at the
opening of every speech: “All protocols observed”.
But let me not dispatch the former Prime Minister quite so quickly. His
speech last year on Aboriginal Canada was a tour de force. I want to
touch on a certain aspect of aboriginal reality myself, and reading Paul
Martin was enormously helpful.
But there’s more to it than that. There’s something in addition that
helps me frame my remarks. I want to relate a little known piece of
Canadian history in which Paul Martin played a central role.
In December of 2003, The World Health Organization, in response to
the HIV/AIDS pandemic, launched what was known as the ‘3 by 5’
campaign. It was the brainchild of Dr. Jim Kim, now the President of
the World Bank, but at the time the head of HIV at WHO. The entire
premise was to take the new antiretroviral drugs that had become
available, and pursue treatment doggedly so that three million people
would be receiving treatment by 2005. Hence the catch-phrase 3 by 5.
There was, however, a significant problem. In the high-prevalence
countries of sub-Saharan Africa, there was neither the scientific nor
technical expertise sufficient to get things going. The World Health
Organization had to place a crew of experts in every one of those
countries and the cost overall was estimated at between fifty and one
hundred million dollars. As usual, the WHO was largely broke.
Jim Kim got in touch with me. We had forged a friendship based on our
mutual involvement in AIDS, and he pleaded for Canada’s assistance;
other countries had declined. I went straight to Paul Martin --- then
the Prime Minister --- and asked for help. Within a remarkably short
time, Canada found the necessary millions and 3 by 5 was unleashed.
It didn’t reach the target of three million by 2005. But the tide of
treatment had begun and could never be reversed. It’s fair to say that
millions have lived who would otherwise have died.
What the Honourable Paul Martin did was truly memorable. It’s one of
those footnotes to history that means more than the text. Why do I
raise it? Because it could never happen today. There’s not the slightest
possibility that a similar appeal would receive a similar response.
And that’s because, over the last decade, the culture of politics has
changed. The political dynamic, the political ‘gestalt’ if you will, has
altered in Canada, perhaps irreversibly.
It doesn’t make me happy; in fact, it throws me into a rage. This speech
is an opportunity to disgorge views, from an unabashed left-wing
standpoint, of some of the ways our country, and its politics have, in
my respectful opinion, hit a nadir of indignity.
I obviously can’t begin to cover every aspect that scars my soul, so I
shall choose --- very selectively --- five subjects that illumine our
present and future Confederation: the decline of parliament, the
suppression of dissent, the aboriginal dilemma, climate change and
international affairs. I will admit that these subjects may not resonate
with some in this audience. My problem is that I have been out of the
country for so much of these past few years, that I’m limited as to
Almost sixty years ago, 1955 to be exact, my father, David Lewis,
delivered a public lecture titled “A Socialist Takes Stock”. In his
memory, I thought I’d give this lecture the same title. I suspect he’d be
Almost at the end of his lecture, my father wrote, quote:
“The modern democratic socialist should proclaim his aims loudly and
passionately. The equality of men and women is the socialist
watchword; the moral struggle against injustice and inequality is the
socialist’s duty; to be a strong and powerful voice for common men
and women against the abuse and oppression of the privileged
minority is the socialist’s function; and to forge an ever finer and
higher standard of values and a richer pattern of life and behavior is
the socialist’s dream.”
I love those words. They’re not some exercise in philosophic
romanticism. They’re a credo worth embracing, and for me, they stand
as a set of principles that should guide political life. Let me cast them,
then, in the real world of political discourse, if I may.
Those principles, and the objectives they reflect, can never be
achieved in a spirit of mindless atavistic hostility. I’m not suggesting
that political bonhomie is necessary to get things done; you can have
deep ideological rifts across the floor of the House of Commons, and
still manage to effect good, positive social change. But a vital
requirement is respect: vitriolic nastiness in debate does not breed
respect, nor does adolescent partisanship, nor do pieces of legislation
of encyclopedic length that hide contentious issues, nor does the
sudden emergence of frenzied TV attack ads, nor does the spectre of a
Prime Minister’s Office exercising authoritarian control.
A legislature that functions with respect accomplishes a great deal. It
has a name; it’s called parliamentary democracy.
These are not mere musings: I have had first-hand experience. I sat in
the Ontario Legislature for more than fifteen years. For the great
majority of that time, William Davis was the Conservative Premier.
I’m not going to gild the lily unduly because I know that it embarrasses
him, and frankly, unsettles me. I’ve never particularly liked showering
praise on Tories, but this is an exception.
William Davis was about as honourable and decent a Premier as one
could face. When I look back, I recall acts of personal and political
kindness, bestowed by Premier Davis that were truly exceptional. I
remember on one occasion his giving me a private warning about a
problem in my own caucus, simply to make sure that I wasn’t taken by
surprise. I also remember, after the NDP launched a heated attack on
asbestos exposure, his sending me a note across the Legislative floor,
indicating that he would announce the closure of a particularly
dangerous asbestos mining and milling facility in Northern Ontario,
thereby saving lives. It was particularly gracious because it gave me
time to prepare a response. And while these are but incidental
examples, they were part of a pattern. Tom Symons knows whereof I
speak … he knew Bill Davis well.
To be sure, there were, inevitably, splenetic political exchanges:
William Davis wasn’t given to angelic perfection, and I was given to
hyperbole. The two were bound to clash. But whatever the heat of
debate, we respected each other, and that sense of respect suffused
the exchange. After the rhetoric was over, we remained good friends …
indeed, we remain friends to this day.
You see, the behavior of the Leader of the Government, the tone that is
set, the messages that go out, mean everything.
And if the Government Leader is contemptuous of parliament and the
parliamentary processes, then the discourse grinds down into ad
hominem abuse. It’s such a sad loss. The spirit of debate becomes
coarse, surly, inflammatory. It also has the corollary of degrading
political life, of bolstering the cynicism about politics that crushes the
enthusiasm of young voters.
Too often, that’s the definition of the Federal House of Commons. How
the devil does one accomplish great things in that atmosphere?
I’m not asking for a miracle … it just doesn’t have to be that way. I
remember when my dad was in the House of Commons, with Pierre
Trudeau as Prime Minister and Bob Stanfield as Leader of the
Opposition. The level of debate was often awesome: they disagreed
profoundly, but again there was an aura of respect and, I might add,
good fun. My dad could stand in parliament and say that there but for
the grace of Pierre Elliott Trudeau goes God, and no one would take it
Is it too much to ask that a full-fledged effort be made to restore
civilized parliamentary sensibilities. What’s happening to this
country? I can’t believe that the so-called Fathers of Confederation
would have approved.
That leads me to the second point I want to make: it involves the
willful suppression of dissent.
I must admit that it wasn’t until I had the privilege of working
internationally over the last 30 years that I really learned to value
what we call civil society. Before then, I was a shade too cavalier about
All of that changed when I went to the United Nations, and
subsequently worked for UNICEF and then turned to HIV/AIDS in
Anyone who has studied the pandemic will know that the great
breakthroughs came as a result of the pressure from civil society.
From drug research to the roll-out of treatment, civil society has been
behind the advocacy that has made it possible to save countless lives.
Take South Africa as the prime example. The Treatment Action
Campaign (known everywhere as TAC) forced an obdurate and
denialist government to retreat and eventually to abandon its lunatic
stand. South Africa has more than six million people living with the
virus, hence finally to break the barriers to treatment is a magnificent
accomplishment. It was achieved by a country-wide grass-roots
campaign, focused on protests, rallies, demonstrations and legal
interventions when all else failed. They couldn’t be stopped. TAC
emerged as the most powerful NGO on the continent.
And if you need more evidence of an empowered civil society, just look
at Doctors Without Borders and its work on Ebola. Here you have an
NGO that has superseded the World Health Organization. Everywhere
we turn, it doesn’t matter the issue, from child soldiers to child
marriage to female genital mutilation, to international sexual
trafficking, the greatest advances are orchestrated not by
governments, but by the force and intelligence of civil society. It is
impossible to overstate the power of civil society.
But in Canada, of all perversities, civil society is anathema.
Any group or organization that disagrees with the Government, pays a
price. In most instances it’s the withdrawal of funding. Sometimes it’s
mindless excoriation, and sometimes it’s a brazen use of the power of
the state to shut people up, as has happened with so many of the
Federal Government’s scientists who now can’t give an interview
without a junior communications specialist from the PMO standing by
his or her side.
I can’t begin to list all of the civil society organizations that have had
their government funding slashed or altogether removed. Many of
them address international issues --- in particular, if you dare to
disagree with the government’s support for Israel in the Israeli-
Palestinian conflict, then your financial days are numbered --- but it
extends far beyond that. The cuts in funding to women’s groups is
spectacularly egregious. It’s truly unsettling that at a moment when
Canadians --- and incidentally, much of the world --- are preoccupied
with the entire panoply of women’s rights, necessarily focused on
sexual violence, our government sees activist women’s organizations
as expendable, or worse, as foes to be crushed.
I must emphasize when taking stock of what’s happening in Canada,
that we’re not only demonizing civil society, we’re losing the
tremendous intellectual and analytic contribution that civil society is
capable of making to public policy.
Is the word ‘demonizing’ extreme? I think not. Just turn your minds
back to the use of the word ‘radical’, employed by Cabinet Ministers
when attributing a “radical ideological agenda” to environmental
groups who oppose Government policy on the Tar Sands and pipeline
expansion. Make no mistake about it: the phrase “radical ideological
agenda” was laden with malice and threat … it was but one brief step
to accusations of eco-terrorism. And those accusations are now a
matter of public record.
What in the world is happening to this country? David Suzuki and a
radical ideological agenda? Just two years ago, he was a Symons
lecturer for heaven’s sake … have you allowed these hallowed halls to
be infiltrated by tremors of terrorism? And what about the Chief
Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada … is she also concealing a
subversive agenda, given the allegation of improper judicial behavior
hurled at her by the Prime Minister no less?
It amounts to the slow, inexorable whittling away at democratic
norms. And there is no shame. No shame whatsoever. There is a
radical ideological agenda gripping this country, but it’s not the
environmentalists or the other targeted groups committed to the
quest for social justice; it’s the political leadership.
And it gets worse. Honestly, I sometimes feel as though we’re
channeling Richard Nixon’s enemies list. Mind you, his phantasms
were driven by paranoia; ours are driven by malevolence.
How else to describe the use of the Canada Revenue Agency as an arm
of government to harass and intimidate those with whom the
government disagrees? It’s called victimization by audit.
I must admit that I’ve rarely seen anything so pernicious. Nor so
blatant. Left-wing progressive groups, from the Suzuki Foundation to
the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives are under the audit
microscope, while outfits like the Fraser Institute and the C.D. Howe
Institute bask in splendid immunity. The Canada Revenue Agency
claims absolute independence in the choice of those whom they audit.
They should have Pinocchio as their mascot. They’re not telling the
truth, and because they can’t be challenged, they get away with it. It
doesn’t require a cabinet minister to say ‘these are the radical
ideologues you should go after’. Any fool in the CRA can discern whom
the targets should be. So far as I’m concerned, it’s a complete
corruption of financial integrity in the way in which the government
operates and treats its citizens.
Sometimes it descends to the level of reductio ad absurdum. Do you
remember the attack on Oxfam’s charter? The CRA said that
“preventing poverty” was not acceptable, whereas “relieving poverty
could be described as charitable”. God forbid that you should want to
prevent poverty, a goal that is shared by the World Bank, the agencies
of the United Nations, a majority of powerful governments and a
virtual consortium of NGOs.
You can tell, I suspect, that I’m agitated about the direction our
country is taking. That direction leads me to the next subject … the
way First Nations are treated.
Back on September 18th and 19th last year, I had the privilege of being
an ‘Honorable Witness’ at the hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation
Commission in Vancouver. I sat immobilized in the audience,
emotionally leveled by the proceedings.
Two of the three members of the Commission sat on the raised dais at
the front of the auditorium as witnesses came forward to testify. I
want to speak of two of them. The first was a woman in her early
seventies, surrounded by a support group of family and friends. She
spoke softly but clearly into the microphone with only a smattering of
notes; when she choked up, her sister hugged her gently, encouraging
her to continue.
The woman had been taken to a residential school in British Columbia
at the age of five. Her mother had outfitted her in a new white dress
with colourful ribbons in her hair. As soon as the young girl entered
the auditorium of the school, the nuns brusquely stripped her of her
dress, replacing it with a rough, shapeless garment. She then lined up
with scores of other girls, and when she reached the head of the line,
the nuns cut off her hair at the nape of her neck. She had had long
flowing locks that reached to her waist … her mother and
grandmother had told her that her hair was a matter of great beauty
It’s hard to imagine anything more frightening and devastating for a
child. But more there was. It became clear, in the subsequent remarks,
submerged in tears, that years --- literally years --- of physical violence
and rape had followed.
The next witness was a man of similar age, also joined by a clearlydevoted
support group. I shall extract but one sentence from his
testimony. He said, shame etched in every word “I was eleven years
old when they pulled my pants down”.
I’m no sweet innocent. I’ve encountered a lot of horrific stuff in my life.
But I have to admit I was stunned by the revelations that flowed from
the testimony. I kept asking myself, how could this happen in Canada,
my country, when so many people knew exactly what was going on? I
realize that residential schools have been endlessly discussed and
analyzed, but it is an awful truth that the residential school inheritance
remains unresolved to this day.
Sure, there was an apology. But an apology is ultimately gratuitous,
ultimately self-serving and devious if it’s not accompanied by root and
branch educational reform. And as things currently stand, and as Paul
Martin eloquently pointed out, the shortfall in educational expenditure
per capita for aboriginal students is 20 to 30 per cent, compared to
non-aboriginal students in Canada. It dooms great numbers of
aboriginal kids to a flawed and fractured educational experience:
unqualified teachers, crummy facilities, dilapidated buildings, no
libraries, gymnasiums or computer labs. It was ever thus.
Yes, there is a parliamentary Bill waiting in the wings. But First
Nations leadership is split on its utility. In absolutely indicative
fashion, the government will not compromise.
It’s not the only area where the Government holds fast despite the
clamour of aboriginal voices. For me, the worst example is the refusal
to establish a Commission of Inquiry into the one thousand, one
hundred and eighty-one murdered and missing aboriginal women.
Every organized aboriginal group in the country has asked for an
Inquiry, as have all the Provincial and Territorial Premiers. Most
important, the Native Women’s Association of Canada has pleaded for
an Inquiry: it takes consummate political arrogance to refuse, but
dogmatic refusal there has been.
Even in the face of renewed horror, and renewed calls for an Inquiry,
has obduracy ruled the day. You will recall the words of the Prime
Minister on the death of Tina Fontaine: “We should not view this as a
sociological phenomenon. We should view it as a crime. It is a crime
against innocent people and should be addressed as such”. The
Premier of Ontario called the remark outrageous.
If the RCMP had chronicled 1,181 murdered and missing nonaboriginal
women, do you think the same language about a
sociological phenomenon would have been employed? Not a chance.
It’s selective language for selected groups.
So what are we left with? A request for a roundtable as a desperate
effort to get the Federal politicians to participate. That was agreed
upon two months ago, here in Charlottetown, with Premier Ghiz
indicating that at least it would mean a discussion would be underway,
and the wishes of aboriginal leaders marginally acknowledged. The
roundtable is now scheduled for February and we will see soon
enough what, if anything, it yields.
However, the demand for an Inquiry is not off the table. Should things
change in the next Federal campaign, there is no doubt in my mind
that an Inquiry will take place.
Let me be clear. The refusal to hold an Inquiry, the refusal to deal
urgently with such a continuum of tragedy --- just look at Rinelle
Harper, the refusal to recognize the singular vulnerability of aboriginal
peoples in Canada, the refusal to respond to a maelstrom of physical
and sexual violence … it all runs counter to all the current priorities of
the international community. It is as though Canada had decided, like
some mindless national curmudgeon, to be a permanent outlier on
issues of minority rights and women’s rights.
It does us damage. It does us shame.
Please don’t think for a moment that the world is unaware. It’s very
aware. The world has a legion of diplomatic representation in Canada
and the diplomats report back to their capitals. More, Special
Rapporteurs appointed by the UN Human Rights Council write
scathing reports about the situation on reserves, and those reports are
And talking of reading, go back and re-read Paul Martin. The
conditions for First Nations in this country are far too often appalling:
the health and welfare indicators on reserve are scandalous. You can’t
write off Attawapiskat. You can’t dismiss the Idle No More movement.
There is a crescendo of aboriginal resentment growing. Paul Martin is
a restrained and moderate man … when he looks at what’s happening,
he invokes the word paternalism. I’m neither restrained nor moderate.
When I think back to my political experience with the struggles of
Treaty Nine and Treaty Three in Ontario; when I recall my postpolitical
days helping to represent the Council for Yukon Indians in
their land claims negotiations with the Federal Government, when I
view the contemporary landscape for First Nations in Canada, the
word paternalism does not come to mind.
For me, the applicable word is racism.
It’s a terrible mistake to devalue the strength of the aboriginal
community. The fetishism around resource development and pipelines
of the present government is going to have to depend heavily on
aboriginal partnership. If that partnership is resisted, the government
is in severe trouble and, as it turns out, that trouble, on other fronts,
may be increasing with every passing day.
It leads me to my next issue: climate change.
Allow me, once again, to speak personally about another little known
episode from the past.
As I was about to leave the role of UN Ambassador, Prime Minister
Mulroney asked me to be involved in one last departing event (well, he
didn’t really ask; he just told me what I’d be doing). He appointed me
to chair the first major international conference on climate change,
titled “The Changing Atmosphere: Implications for Global Security”. It
was held in Toronto at the end of June, 1988, and was addressed by an
astonishing group of scientists and politicians, ranging from Dr. James
Hansen, of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, who came
directly to the conference after testifying before a Senate subcommittee
in the United States, through to Gro Harlem Brundtland,
the Prime Minister of Norway, who had just completed her landmark
World Commission on Environment and Development.
The conference was extraordinary. There were three hundred in
attendance from 46 countries and international organizations. The
discussions were knowledgeable and intense. Fascinatingly, the
targets that were set back in 1988, and never reached, are in many
instances the same targets we are internationally re-negotiating today.
When the conference was over, I was instructed to draft a Conference
statement. I did so, along with a close colleague from the Department
of External Affairs. Allow me to read an extract from the opening two
“Humanity is conducting an unintended, uncontrolled, globally
pervasive experiment whose ultimate consequences could be second
only to a global nuclear war. The Earth’s atmosphere is being changed
at an unprecedented rate … these changes represent a major threat to
international security and are already having harmful consequences
over many parts of the globe. Far-reaching impacts will be caused by
global warming and sea-level rise, which are becoming increasingly
evident as a result of continued growth in atmospheric concentrations
of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. The best predictions
available indicate potentially severe economic and social dislocation
for present and future generations … it is imperative to act now.”
That was more than twenty-five years ago. As you know, we haven’t
acted. The words crafted back then, could well have been used in the
most recent and final report of the Intergovernmental Panel on
I shall not review the evidence of what our reliance on fossil fuels is
doing to the planet. Surely everyone is familiar with the actual and
looming consequences. It’s incomparably depressing. I teach this
material at University, and I am persuaded that we’re heading for an
apocalyptic event before 2050 that will eclipse every Tsunami, every
hurricane, every explosive climatic onslaught we have thus far known.
The inescapable need to shift, urgently and dramatically, away from
coal, oil and natural gas to renewable sources of energy seems to be
recognized by virtually every country on the planet, save Canada. We
are religiously devoted to the Tar Sands regardless the consequences.
This is a massive mistake in public policy for five reasons.
First, there is a resurgent climate movement underscored by the
United States-China agreement, by the extraordinary response to
Naomi Klein’s new book “This Changes Everything”, by the massive
divestment campaign underway and by the four hundred thousand
people on the streets at the end of September when the United Nations
held its climate summit.
Second, and already referred to, is the resurgent indigenous rights
movement in Canada, affirmed most recently by the Supreme Court
itself. The pipeline multinationals can no longer get away with
unilateral trampling over indigenous lands.
Third, there is the unprecedented over-supply of oil in the United
States. As President Obama has just said in response to the Keystone
XL pipeline controversy, Canadian oil from the tar sands is not
destined for the United States; it’s just using the US as a conduit to
markets in Asia. The shale gas generated from fracking now renders
the Tar sands redundant.
Fourth, renewables, whether wind, solar, biomass or nuclear, are now
ready for prime time. Germany’s economy is powered 25% by
renewables and growing … China is aiming at 20% of energy supply
from renewables by 2031. It may well be that at the point the tar
sands are ready for increased production, the oil will no longer be
wanted, even by Asia.
Fifth, the drastic drop in price makes all further tar sands
development problematic. In the last number of months, expansion
plans have been cancelled by Shell oil, the French company Total ($11
Billion) and Norway’s Statoil ($2 Billion). They also cite limited
pipeline capacity, and they know that it’s only a matter of time before
a carbon tax is levied.
But when all is said and done, there is a paramount reason to jettison
the existing love affair with the tar sands. We simply cannot
compromise life on this planet. We have no right to endanger
succeeding generations. And that’s what the tar sands development
will do; that’s what bitumen extraction will mean. No matter what the
soothing rationalizations, increased production from the tar sands
means increased carbon into the atmosphere, and that means we are
contributing to a planetary meltdown. It may not come until 2100. But
on the present trajectory, it will come, and that means that we
consciously put our grandchildren and great grandchildren in mortal
Who in the world wants to do that? How can we continue to allow
Canada --- with the possible exception of Australia --- to be seen as the
worst carbon culprit among all western nations. When international
negotiators speak of the possibility of an international climate change
treaty in Paris in December of next year, they have a caveat: the caveat
is Canada. Will we ever sign a Treaty?
So what is the answer to all of this? Well, I do have an answer, an
unpopular answer. I want to emphasize that this is a personal
conviction; it has nothing to do with current NDP policy on the tar
I’m waiting for the day, hyperventilating for the day, when some
Canadian politician has the courage to say: LEAVE IT IN THE GROUND.
That isn’t meant to be irresponsible. It’s not meant to be done
overnight. It’s meant to be phased in over a given limited period of
time, with an herculean commitment to finding alternative
employment in negotiations with the local unions. But as important,
coincident with the phase-out, would come an equally herculean
commitment to the development of renewable energy. If Germany can
do it, so can Canada. We have significantly higher annual levels of
sunshine, and an astronomic wind power potential. Do you know that
thirty-three per cent of Denmark’s energy needs are now derived from
wind power? We haven’t begun to explore the renewable energy
possibilities, not to mention the exponential growth in employment
that will accompany development of renewables.
But for the moment, the profits from the tar sands trump the
prospects for the planet.
Would that it were otherwise, and that brings me to my final point.
Canada’s position on the world stage is in free-fall. People should not
assume that obsessive devotion to a militaristic culture and a sharp
crack at Vladimir Putin constitutes international kudos. It may win a
few points here and there among like-minded western states, but
everyone understands that it’s meant for domestic consumption on
the eve of an election year.
We lost our run for the UN Security Council: that was almost beyond
belief. We were humiliated by Portugal: I could understand that in
soccer, but this was multilateralism. The defeat reflected the adverse
way in which we’re viewed by so many countries. Our position on
climate change speaks directly to that perception; our obsession with
trade agreements is not seen in a flattering light by developing
countries; our freeze in foreign aid is bewildering to many … there was
a time when CIDA was the pride of international development
assistance, now it’s an object of ridicule; our abrupt severing of aid to
a number of African countries won no plaudits; our relatively paltry
response to Ebola has not gone unnoticed; our reluctant embrace of
family planning and refusal to deal with abortion prompts legitimate
questions; our thoroughly nasty treatment of refugees, our ugly
response to asylum seekers … that raises flags about human rights in
many forums; our partisanship on the Middle-East … obviously that’s a
Yes, there is some admirable support for maternal and child health,
but even there it’s terribly difficult to figure out exactly what’s going
on; everything lacks transparency.
Is it an ephemeral dream to think that Canada could be a voice among
nations, counseling hope and principle and resources and policies that
embraced the public good? Is it an ephemeral dream to think that
Canada might provide peacekeepers once again instead of bombs for
ISIS? We’re almost silent at the UN; we’re almost nowhere to be found.
How many people in this room can tell me the name of the Canadian
Ambassador? I won’t embarrass you by asking for a show of hands. It’s
not his fault. He maintains a low profile because he’s only allowed a
I’m happily in my dotage. I turned seventy-seven this month. I’m not
running for public office; my views and my convictions blessedly
count for little.
But somewhere in my soul, I cherish the possibility of a return to a
vibrant democracy, where equality is the watchword, where people of
different ideological conviction have respect for each other, where
policy is debated rather than demeaned, where the great issues of the
day are given thoughtful consideration, where Canada’s place on the
world stage is seen as principled and laudatory, where human rights
for all is the emblem of a decent civilized society.
The Fathers and Mothers of Confederation would approve.
Is it too much to ask? I’ll let you know after the next Federal election.
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