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Neither Indulgence of Excuse Nor Excess of License

The Urgency for an Engaged Citizenry
Beryl P. Wajsman 2 March 2004

“The voice of great events is proclaiming to us, Reform, so that you may preserve.”

~Thomas Babington Macaulay


“One man, speaking truth, rallies a majority.”

~Ralph Waldo Emerson


“The most important title in our Republic, and the one with the highest obligation of duty,

is that of…Citizen.”

~Justice Louis Dembitz Brandeis


“Trouvez-moi les citoyens engagés”

~André Malraux


Liberal democracies share the foundational principle that there rests an equal claim on the stock of welfare of the land by all. Through the exercise of their suffrage, the people would exact their full share from the bounty of society's wealth to which their labour has so much contributed, so that they will have a flow of well being from the state to allow for their fullest expression as human beings. Implicit in this creed, is the recognition that in order for  the social contract between government and the governed to find its fullest expression, there must be constant renewal and regeneration with a faith in the people's ability, tempered through the experiences of reason and judgment, to increase for all the amount of justice and freedom and opportunity, which all human life deserves.


But to accomplish this goal we need an engaged citizenry. Sadly, much of our national agenda is influenced by those of shrivelled spirit and hostile heart who fear the future, mistrust the present, and invoke the security of a comfortable past that in fact never existed, as pious excuses for inaction. Too many Canadians are stuck in a smug, pallid orthodoxy characterized by an ambivalence and complacency  that is a manifestation of a preoccupation with parochial interests alone. Yet we relentlessly insist on entitlements that we consider are our due  without honoring the commensurate obligation of vigorous engagement in the public life of our land.


The free ride is over. Canada is at a crossroads today, at home and abroad, facing grave challenges that require a renewal of conscience and a revival of commitment. The solutions to our national failure of faith and retreat of reason will not be found by outsourcing a contract. If we truly believe that our progress as a people is predicated on the notion that we have a sovereignty over our democratically elected government unencumbered by any conditions of special considerations to property or power, privilege or preference, then it is everyone’s responsibility to get involved and reclaim that sovereignty. Complaining is not good enough.




The lessons of our legacy are unselfish ones. They are imbued with an understanding that, with grace and dignity, we must involve ourselves in the struggles for social justice and not hide behind a curtain of self-satisfaction. Again and again Canadians have risen to the challenges of a complex time and our responses were not muted and impotent.


It is to that Canada that we should look to for our resolve today.


The Canada where Louis-Joseph Papineau, while fighting politically and militarily for greater freedom for all, helped lead the struggle that gave full emancipation to minorities in 1832 eight years before England.


The Canada where Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine put aside the narcissism of petty pride and with Robert Baldwin battled successfully for the first experiment in responsible government.


The Canada that nurtured Sir Wilfred Laurier’s vision of an inclusionary and internationalist 20th Century.


The Canada where  labour leaders of different ethnic backgrounds, English and French, Italian and Jewish, together, helped make this one of the most compassionate jurisdictions in the western world.


The Canada that was the crucible that forged the heroism of men like Jean Marchand who broke the back of a revanchiste right and a retrograde clergy.


The Canada that saw Jean Lesage’s “Revolution Tranquille” in Quebec make more citizens feel as true stakeholders in their society and set a model for national governments to follow.


The Canada where Tommy Douglas led a passionate progressive wind from the West to institutionalize a dynamic humanism into our national mosaic.


The Canada of tolerance secure enough in its national character for René Levesque to give voice and vigour to Quebec’s national striving with both sides maintaining the fullest dedication to democratic principles and pluralistic doctrines.


And finally, and most poignantly, the Canada of Pierre-Elliott Trudeau, who brought us fully onto the world stage making us understand that we live in a time of instant communication and instant destruction where pain caused to the least amongst us diminishes us all and commands our involvement with the struggles of those who cling to a transcendent yearning for redemptive change.


We have in this country an institutional memory and witness that compels us to remember that a democracy’s inherent fragility demands constant vigilance. It is the ongoing test of the content of our character and the courage of our conviction as a people.




For fifty years, from the Depression through the Trudeau era, this nation looked to government for relief and redress from many of life’s burdens. But with the onset of the Mulroney administration, the funny-money years of the eighties, the greed decade of the nineties, and the sordid intimacies between big business and big politics, government stopped being the salutary counter-veiling force and became the heaviest yoke on the necks of the workingmen and women of this land.


The historic creative tension between private interests and public rights disappeared, as the former ran rampant with virtually untrammeled privilege and preference. We have lived through a twenty-year public retreat when politics have become merely symbolic.


But today there is a passionate frustration in the land. The people have not yet found the proper means of expression or ways of response; but they understand there is something terribly, terribly wrong, and when they find their voice there will be a day of reckoning with a severe rendering of accounts.


It is not just about some sponsorship monies gone awry.


It is about one-third of our urban households living below the Federal poverty line.


It is about another third of our gainfully employed citizenry facing tax rates so high that they don’t have more than two weeks of salary to their names.


It is about 4% of our population controlling 80% of the assets in this country and 20% of those paying no tax whatever while having been the main beneficiaries from some $100 billion in corporate and personal tax cuts.


It is about pension surpluses being used to balance budgets. It is about small businesspeople, who create 80% of the new jobs each year, having a hard time getting bank credit much less government support.


It is about the perception that in our land today the supremacy of the interests of the individual over the corporate demands of the state are constantly abridged and infringed.


It is about a sense that the same names seem to pop up in the controlling shadows of our corridors of power regardless of party.


It is about a futility rising from the comprehension that the suffrage of the people has been rendered impotent.


We are living through a generationally disruptive shift in our traditional assumptions, and Canada requires a reconstituted method and message of policy that must be reflected in, and served by, a new imagery and iconography. But none of this can happen with a docile citizenry.




The Prime Minister has called for a new vision. Let’s join him. Let’s applaud it. But let us as citizens assure that it is meaningful and passionate and revolutionary. This is too important  just to be left to the politicians. If ordinary Canadians do not; in our land, at this time, on these issues; live up to their responsibilities to engage, they may well forfeit any legitimacy in the constancy of their plaintive wails of complaint. And their authentic cry for champions will deservedly go unheeded.


To be meaningful, we have to make the beneficiaries of so much of the people’s largesse accountable. We have to eliminate pork barrel programs that last year cost twice as much as the defense budget. We have to reduce the dependence of big business on government grants and subventions that have been greater than the sums spent on UIC, welfare and pensions combined.


To be passionate, we need nothing less than a revival of militancy in the political consciousness of ordinary Canadians. A renewal of the conscience of our nation that will rouse this land toward the ardent advocacy of a national culture of courage and character. Sure in the knowledge that this commitment is our only guarantor of the triumphant expansion and entrenchment of the dynamic humanism of our Canadian experiment. By the same token, the managerial and bureaucratic class in business and government must be shaken out of its passive acquiescence, for it is their very smugness that makes the cynical corruptions and petty perversions of the public’s trust possible.


To be revolutionary, we need a national wakening, and a national will, from corporate employee to government bureaucrat, from trade unionist to small businessman--from all of us--that our primary allegiance is to our personal integrity and to our common weal, and that this revolution is not only in our hearts to yearn but is truly in our hands to forge.




We are a society of laws and not of men. But when bad men make bad laws, and when unprincipled officials compromise good ones, then citizens have a duty to protect their rights and to exercise, in Gandhi’s term, “…responsible agitation…” to keep the powerful from “…moving from wrong to wrong in order to protect their own immortality…”


If we Canadians have one boast, one over-riding advantage, not just over totalitarian regimes, but even over sister democracies, it is that our traditions reflect our national consensus that this country must operate on a broad base of morality and protect our individuality against direct and indirect breach by the unscrupulous so that, in the words of Clayton Ruby  “…we don’t lose sight of what our democracy is all about.”


Not since the “Gilded Age” of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries have we witnessed the growth of such entrenched intimacies between vested interests of the private and public sectors. Their friends are whitewashed and scapegoats are found in the weakest among us by public pronouncements of moral platitudes.


Laws are influenced in order to protect the gains made by those who profited from a yesteryear when these laws did not exist, and now seek to limit access for others. The false pieties underpinning the extraordinary powers that lie in so few hands today  must face a collective revulsion and rejection of the rigid statist culture they seek to impose.


We must decide whether we are to live in a society of compassionate conscience, where responsibility for the general welfare is the common goal, or are we to be a society of icy indifference, where it is every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost. The answer is by no means clear. For as Camus wrote, in today’s world, “…just to be a man is to be heroic…” But in the final analysis, for all the inherent risks to reputation and reward, we must follow the words of Hillel the Sage who wrote so long ago that “Where there are no men, be thou a man.”


We must pledge our eternal resolve to create a society where hope is not extinguished by humiliation, where justice is not compromised by expediency, where truth is not mortgaged to timidity and where honour is not cheapened by avarice. This resolve is our only surety that,


"…the people will always feel the warm gentle breeze of compassion that is prelude to the renewal of a bright spring, rather than the cold stinging frost of complacency that signals entry into a long night of winter…"





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