Phil Jenkins, September 6, 2015
There used to be an annual wine-out and shmooze fest on the Hill, in Room 200, called Politics and the Pen. Local authors and professional politicians, one of each, were invited to grace large round tables otherwise populated by groups from other sectors of society – finance, high-tech, real-estate and such. (One time, I was on a table of bankers. When one of them asked me to sign a book I had published, I added the epigram, “It is a greater crime to own a bank than to rob one, Bertolt Brecht,” which he enjoyed.)
Another year, I was seated next to the leader of the New Democratic Party. During our conversation, I lightly suggested that she change the name of the party, the “New” now being redundant, to the Compassionate Party of Canada. Then during an election, such as the one we in Ottawa are now trudging through, when anyone said they wouldn’t vote for them, she could say, “So, you are against compassion as a basis for governing?” I was serious, but we both knew it was a whimsical notion.
Prior to that evening I had evolved the one maxim that I hope will make it into a book of Canadian quotations, under Politics: “It is the duty of governments to administer compassion and govern greed, not the other way round.” The fact that successive governments as far back as I have voted, beginning with the 31st election in 1979, have all for the most part done it the other way round, has not dented my hope that Ottawa as a city and Canada as a country will evolve towards a political ideology based on the golden rule. Which is what I was really talking about with the NDP leader. Karen Armstrong, author of Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life and the originator in 2008 of the Charter for Compassion, considers the golden rule as good a basis for a nation state and the cities within as any. In 2010, Seattle became the first city in the world to sign on to the charter. At last count 64 communities have done so, and Ottawa is listed on the Charter website (charterforcompassion.org) as being one of the communities moving towards doing so.
So, when the electioneering Justin Trudeau mentioned the word “compassion” a few days ago in connection with the Syrian refugee crisis and the ministerial response, it caught my ear. The word, and its subheadings Health, Environment, the Arts and Education had been largely conspicuous by its absence up till then in the election marathon, and it took an overseas crisis to infiltrate it. As if there was no compassion crisis here at home. The Dalai Lama, who was in Ottawa 25 years ago on Sept. 30 to unveil the Human Rights monument on Elgin, wrote a small book on compassion, and in it he says that, “Compassion is the radicalism of our time.” Wise man, that Dalai Lama. Fiscal crisis management, consumption boosterism, corporate subsidy, militarism, Big Brothering, fear mongering, Partying and maintaining a hold on power have replaced the administration of compassion as the business of government. The ship of state has sailed a long way from the golden rule.
Which doesn’t mean that turning the wheel back on a course towards a compassionate society is a naïve, hopeless task. The opportunity to do so in the Ottawa federal ridings is just over a month away. Were I able to vote early and often in all of them, and could get a couple of radical, fading hippie questions in at an all-candidates meeting in each, they would be: “How do you intend to raise the quantum of compassion in Ottawa?” and, “How about we sign the Charter for Compassion?” I would then sit down quickly before the rotten fruit from the right side of the room reached me, and then leave shortly thereafter to picket the nearest private health clinic. Meanwhile, I dream on.