where is the outrage? and other thoughts on canadian disengagement

I am so disgusted by Stephen Harper's suspension of Parliament. I know a lot of people are. But at the same time, so many more Canadians are completely oblivious to what's going on. And that's why the Prime Minister gets away with it.

Long ago in wmtc history, there was a recurrent debate in comments about the agency of the USian people: how much blame to assign to the people for policies of their government. Were Americans to blame for the Iraq War? Did they, as some believed, "get the government they deserved"? Or were they victims, deceived by their culture, and helpless to affect change?

I argued for the US public as victims, and I came to see that my conception was too one-sided, that the US public does share some responsibility for their government's policies. After all, public protest played a huge role in ending the Vietnam War - once the liberal middle class got involved because it affected them personally. The absence of huge, mainstream public outcry in the US is an important enabler.

But I also felt that my Canadian friends did not fully understand how ignorant USians are kept by the substandard education system, by the grinding poverty that infects huge swaths of the population even in so-called good economic times, and by the media, which by any standard is much worse than in Canada.

And I saw that Canadians had no idea how completely unresponsive the US government is to its people. Government in the US responds to the people who pay its way, and the same corporate money owns both sides of the aisle.

What's Canada's problem?

I have my issues with the Canadian mainstream media, and its degree of consolidation is certainly unhealthy. But in quality and accuracy, it still soars above the US MSM - a poor yardstick, no doubt, but the comparison is my point here.

More importantly, Canadian MPs are responsive to their constituents to a degree that left me flabbergasted for a long time. Writing, calling, meeting with MPs is so easy here - and it actually makes a difference. I heard this saying: In the US, the people are afraid of the government. In Canada, the government is afraid of the people. With the usual disclaimers for generalizations, it's true.

Unlike most USians, Canadians can make a difference in their country's policies. But except for a small percentage of people who are very political and interested in social issues, giant swaths of the Canadian public are completely apathetic.

Now that I'm part of an activist network, I see the same people driving every movement. Peace, labour, environment, reproductive rights, gay rights - you name it - the same people are behind the grassroots activism. In the blogosphere, it looks like a lot of us are busy, but it's easy to forget what a small percentage of the public "a lot" really is. And even among bloggers, how many people are writing and meeting with their MPs, or joining in-person protests? How much of their outrage gets offline and into the world? I don't have an answer to this question. But I think it might be much lower than it should be.

I often look with envy on less developed, more politically volatile societies where political participation among ordinary citizens is very high.

When we were in Peru, we learned that 100% of the population votes. Andean people who must travel for days through the mountains to reach the nearest polling places will not miss an election.

Look at the numbers of people who flood the streets in protest around the world. When I heard Malalai Joya speak in Toronto, Neela Zamani, an Afghan-Canadian activist, addressed the crowd. She was in Iran during the 2009 protests, and she contrasted her two communities. She said: "Here is a country where you can be killed for protesting, and not hundreds, not thousands, but millions of people took to the street to demand justice and democracy. Here in Canada, we are free, but we are also quiet."

I really felt those words.

I'm not romanticizing repressive regimes, or oppressed indigenous cultures. I don't wish I lived in Iran. But here in North America, surrounded by excessive consumer culture - by 140 kinds of breakfast cereal and 75 kinds of chips, by big-screen TVs and iPhones - if not buying them, then wishing we could - we are like helpless children to our government's parental authority. Powerful forces shape our lives according to their own interests, without input from us, and without a peep of protest.

My co-workers, my neighbours, people I meet casually - apathy isn't a strong enough word for their political awareness. They're disengaged. Their main concerns, after their jobs and their families, are Boxing Day sales and paying less taxes.

And that's how Harper gets away with it.

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