Opening our hearts to strengthen democracy

For many years, I had a very rigid and ideological mindset. I filtered information through a partisan lens – all the better to entrench my beliefs and serve as rhetorical ammunition for political debates. I was focused on being “right” instead of listening to others.

Though moving from that mindset is challenging, over time I have come to realize that clinging to ideology obscures truth and leads to a harmful closing of the mind that can blind us to the humanity of others.

This closed mindedness – often expressed through partisan talking points that debase the meaning of communication – weakens our democracy and pushes people away from political involvement. As a result, politics is increasingly dominated by fear and anger.

Fear and anger drive many to seek refuge in ideological echo chambers devoid of dissent. This contributes to a breakdown in our ability to focus on solving problems as we prioritize ideological purity over collaboration and compromise.

Clinging rigidly to ideology also creates the illusion that a complex world has simple answers and causes us to see those with differing views as enemies.

For our democracy to be renewed and strengthened, this negative and fear based mindset has to change.

I believe changing it will require opening our hearts, as author Terry Tempest Williams writes:

“The human heart is the first home of democracy. It is where we embrace our questions. Can we be equitable? Can we be generous? Can we listen with our whole beings, not just our minds, and offer our attention rather than our opinions? And do we have enough resolve in our hearts to act courageously, relentlessly, without giving up–ever–trusting our fellow citizens to join with us in our determined pursuit of a living democracy?”

We are not used to hearing words like trust, equity, generosity and courage associated with politics. But let’s remember that politics is made up of individuals – and we all have the ability to be trustworthy, equitable, generous and courageous. The political system – often so easy to criticize – is a reflection of our internal state of mind. If we want to change politics, we can do so by cultivating change within ourselves.

This isn’t about trying to be perfect or throwing away our beliefs. It’s about being open to diverse perspectives and reaching out to people who see things differently than we do. It’s about listening with less judgment, to hear what led others to the beliefs and principles that guide them.

Through our unique life experiences, all of us have something important to contribute to our democracy – a contribution that goes beyond ideological or partisan labels.

If we can recognize this and begin to open our hearts to each other, we can begin to transform politics from a force that adds to fear and anger, to a force for good that contributes to healing and progress.

Spencer Fernando has been involved in politics at the federal, provincial, and municipal levels. He believes in a “live and let live” philosophy.

Published in Volume 69, Number 12 of The Uniter (November 19, 2014)

With glowing hearts

Violence and terror won’t change Canada’s character

The recent attack in Ottawa – which the RCMP has declared to be a terrorist act – and which took the life of Corporal Nathan Cirillo, in addition to the murder of Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent in Quebec, have shaken many of us.

When violent and shocking events take place, it is understandable that we seek to ensure security. At the same time, it is important that this desire for security does not make us close ourselves off, or lose the openness and inclusivity that is such a defining part of our nation.

Since the attacks, some members of the Muslim community have expressed their concern about what it may mean for perceptions of Muslim Canadians. Mohammed Adam – a Muslim Canadian, wrote about this recently in the Ottawa Citizen:

“The problem for Muslims anytime someone claiming to belong to the faith picks up a gun or a bomb and kills, is not just the stain these mindless acts leaves on the religion. Or the suspicion cast on all Muslims, with women in particular facing harassment because their hijabs give them away. The real problem is the utter helplessness of their situation. If you are a Muslim living in Ottawa, Edmonton, or for that matter Kuala Lumpur, and minding your own business, you are still expected to carry the burden of malcontents like Zehaf-Bibeau, a petty criminal, drug addict, and according to his mother, mentally ill.”

Adam added, “Many Muslims struggle to understand why the collective is often held responsible for the actions of individuals they have never heard of, or agree with.”

Adam’s comment about collective responsibility is important for us to consider. In situations like this, it is essential for us to remember individual responsibility. When an individual takes an action, it is that individual who is responsible for that action, not those with whom they may be loosely associated – especially if that association is so loosely based as to unfairly include an entire faith.

Collective punishment is unjust and contrary to one of the defining ideals of Canada – that all of us are equally Canadian and are judged as individuals based on our actions – not our race, faith, sexual orientation, or gender identification.

In the aftermath of the attack, there is strong reason to believe that openness and inclusivity will endure. In Cold Lake Alberta, shortly after the attack in Ottawa, vandals smashed the windows of the Cold Lake Mosque and put up a sign saying “go home.” Yet, the morning after the Mosque was vandalized, the true character of Canada was shown when residents from Cold Lake came together to help clean up and show their support for the Muslim community. They also put up a sign of their own which said, “You are home.”

That is who Canada really is, and it’s something no act of violence or terrorism can take away.

Spencer Fernando has been involved in politics at the federal, provincial, and municipal levels. He believes in a “live and let live” philosophy.

Published in Volume 69, Number 10 of The Uniter (November 5, 2014)

End the war on drugs, focus on health

The war on drugs has failed.

The punitive approach of criminalizing drug use has seen enormous amounts of money spent in the justice system, with little to show for it.

The war on drugs has expanded the power and reach of government, criminalized many non-violent individuals and diverted money away from a more effective approach to dealing with drug use.

In April, Omar Aziz, a Commonwealth and Pitt Scholar at Cambridge University wrote in the Globe and Mail about the financial costs of the punitive approach.

“The country can build as many prisons as there is space, but the simple fact remains that criminalizing drug use has not and does not produce results. Illicit drug sales are still somewhere between $7-billion and $10-billion a year while law enforcement costs are over $2-billion annually. The combined value of these expenditures is greater than Canada spends on First Nation health services, veterans’ health care, health research, and public health programs, combined.”

Despite all this government spending, drugs are still widely available. “On the streets, possession of hard drugs has increased by 89 per cent over the last ten years,” Aziz says.

According to the Canadian Alcohol and Drug Use Monitoring Survey conducted by Health Canada, 84.5 per cent of cannabis users say the drug is easy or very easy to get. Over 75 per cent of cocaine users say the same.

While Canada’s rates of imprisonment for drug crime remains below those of the United States, the abject failure of the US approach – even states like Texas are moving away from drug war policies – should be a clear warning against moving in a similar direction.

The failure of the punitive approach has led to calls for a more health-centred strategy. In a policy statement, the Canadian Public Health Association says, “Canada needs a public health approach to managing illegal psychoactive substances that de-emphasizes criminalization and stigma in favour of evidence-based strategies to reduce harm.”

The Canadian Mental Health Association recently released a policy paper calling for the legalization of marijuana.

The paper, while mentioning the $1.2 billion annual price tag of criminalizing marijuana, also features recommendations; among them, “better access to treatment,” and “investment in education and prevention.”

With credible organizations calling for a new approach, we have a chance to stop pouring money down the drain for a failed policy and instead put that money to use in a health-centred approach which could enhance public safety, strengthen harm-reduction, save money, and ensure that the government is more respectful of individual freedom.

Ending mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenders, empowering organizations working to treat drug use, and shifting money from the criminal justice system to the health system would be good first steps in rethinking how we deal with this issue.

Given the cost and failure of the war on drugs, it is time to recognize that we need a new approach.

Spencer Fernando has been involved in politics at the federal, provincial, and municipal levels. He believes in a “live and let live” philosophy.

Published in Volume 69, Number 8 of The Uniter (October 22, 2014)

Why I support a public inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women

The tragic death of Tina Fontaine has brought renewed calls for a public inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women.

There may be some who worry that a public inquiry will turn up things that cast a negative light on our history as a nation. That may be true. But facing the truth will not weaken us, it will strengthen us, both now and in the long run. It takes true courage and strength to face our past in an open and honest way.

The fact is that this is an ongoing problem. So it’s not enough to investigate deaths after they happen. We need to find a way to prevent the deaths from happening, and an inquiry could help achieve that goal.

A public inquiry would accomplish something else of importance as well. It would send a clear message that the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women is seen as worthy of national attention.

Injustice and despair thrives in the shadows. An inquiry could bring these things into the light. An inquiry would send a message that, while we can’t change our past, we are willing to learn from it.

Yes, an inquiry could bring up some dark truths. Yet, by facing those truths with clear eyes and open hearts, we can learn, grow, and respond together, as one nation.

I believe that Canada will not achieve our full potential until all who live within our borders feel respected and valued, and feel like an equal part of our Canadian family.

A public inquiry would be an important step along the road to healing, and greater security for all. That is why I support a public inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women.


We can choose to be more open and kind

It has been disappointing to see some of the negative political comments that have been made after the recent break-in at the home of Justin Trudeau’s family.

At many different levels, politics has become very much filled with anger, leading many people to treat each other as enemies, rather than as people of good intention who happen to have differing ways of seeing things.

When a potential tragedy – which thankfully was avoided – becomes an opportunity for some to make crass and cruel comments, it is a sign that negativity is starting to go too far, and our bonds as citizens could be starting to weaken.

I know first hand how easy it can be to let the anger and negativity in politics get the better of you. I have seen its negative effects in others, as well as myself. But for those of us in politics, let’s try to remember that regardless of our party or our viewpoint, we have a choice in how we speak about each other, and in every moment we can choose to be more open and more kind.

I believe that our future will be brighter, and more peaceful if we endeavour to see the inherent goodness within one another, rather than letting anger get in the way of compassion and respect.

Pride 2014

This Sunday, I had the opportunity to take part in the Winnipeg Pride Parade.

This was the first time I attended the parade, and it was a wonderful experience.

The massive crowd was diverse, welcoming, and energized.

Along the parade route, as I walked holding the rainbow flag, those along the route shared messages of support and thanks for all who marched.

While we have made progress to becoming a more open and accepting society, there is still more work to do. Many people face discrimination and live in fear because of judgemental attitudes.

We have seen that here in Manitoba, members of the LGBT still face discriminatory attitudes. This is why I think that Pride is important, as it is an opportunity to show our acceptance and support for the diversity that is all around us.

To me, accepting people for who they are should be the simplest thing in the world. As I took part in the Pride Parade, I felt part of a group of people affirming our commitment to building a world where all people can be true to themselves and live authentic lives.

I was proud to walk in the Pride Parade, and I will be proud to do so again.