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Will Canadians embrace and act in the spirit of our times?

23 Feb 2009

If you are at all like me, or the millions of other Canadians stricken with what several polls here are describing as Obama envy, then today has been a day of magic, longing, wonder and apprehension. Somehow, as if divinely inspired, or pre-destined, Barack Obama has captured the imagination of more than just a nation. He has moved the world to belief in a future where cynicism and calculated self-interest give way to a spirit of shared progress and mutual development. While others before him, giants in their own right, have spoken of this day, and forecast its glory with potent imagery, Obama’s words are suffused with the powerful symbol of his own personal example, a testament to the reality of incremental change, and the potential of the improbable.

Little more can be said of what this day means. And, I suspect, even the most skeptical among us is moved today to humble acknowledgement of what is truly possible when we embrace the inalienable dignity of life, and faith in our willful participation in human progress.

At the same time, one senses that the celebratory mood which has swept over lands near and far is infused with a hint of apprehension. What next? Is this real? Is the sort of change we imagine truly possible?

That the figure of a single man is being invested with the hopes and desires of countless millions, is perhaps enough to cause any one with a literal case of “Obama envy” to reconsider such sentiment.  Still, there is something that we can’t quite pinpoint, something captured in the symbol of the man himself, in his consistently inclusive and sincere speech, and in his unwavering confidence that re-assures us change truly is upon us. Though the proverbial pudding of his administration remains unproven, we remain firm in our belief that unprecedented and positive change lies ahead—even in the midst of economic uncertainty.

The implication of this faith in what we are witnessing—that this change is not ephemeral—is that we are more than simply passive observers of a remarkable phenomenon. In fact, we are active participants in the spirit of the times; a spirit crystallized for us in the mood which is sweeping over the United States and will also sweep over us as Canadians, in turn, provided we take our place on the stage in a timely manner.

As Canadians, we need not be envious, for ours too is the glory of this transformation. Our challenge, however, is to embrace it and to set in motion, through our individual and collective action, the simple steps to make that possibility a reality here too.

In our daily lives, our participation as Canadians in this global transformation requires simple acts of community—to give back, to eschew waste, and to make just that little bit more effort to resist the temptations of greed and disinterest in our fellow sisters and brothers. Each of us, in our moments of reflection, senses what this would entail, with our families, friends, neighbours and random strangers who are nonetheless essential members of our communities.

In our political life, our participation in this spirit of change demands that we take bold action, demand bold leadership and demonstrate our clear and unwavering support for an inclusive, progressive and wise government; one that reflects the aspirations and potential of all Canadians.

Presented with a federal budget in just one week, for example, our task as participants in this spirit of transformation, is to demand that our shared resources be spent in a manner that makes possible the future for which we hope.

Our task is to humbly refuse merely ideological actions, such as tax cuts in the face of challenging social and economic circumstances. These are measures which research demonstrates yield little real economic stimulus, but appeal to and fuel our cynical disbelief in the potential of government to steward our resources, to build our country, and to secure our future. Measures such as these, that propose to take away from our union in order to foster narrow interests as opposed to investing in our common good, would be akin to those of days before Canada boasted a national Medicare system—something nay-sayers of the time told us was an impossible dream. And they reflect the outdated sensibilities of an age before Canada began to act upon the global stage as peacekeeper, sound economic engine and respected land of fairness and inclusion.

As President Obama said today of the United States of America, measures that do not invest in us and instead fuel fires of sheer individualism and distrust, are now outdated. They are held by a small class of individuals slow to accept that the ground has shifted beneath them. Here, in Canada, we must participate in the spirit of our times by refusing to allow any such small class, regardless of political party affiliation, to define our path or to prevent us from achieving our destiny. We must call on our government to invest in our schools, our community infrastructure, our public transit, our health care services and by virtue of this, in us the Canadian people. Regardless of political party, our Canadian government will only reflect the spirit of the times we are now embracing if it invests in us, protects the marginalized, and builds the infrastructure and jobs of tomorrow.

As today merges into tomorrow and the coming weeks, Canadians must grasp our belonging in this moment and ask, will we be resistors to change or its drivers? Will we passively observe this renewed spirit of collective action and hold on to our cynicism, or will we place faith in the possible, and demand that our government invest in programs, services and infrastructure that benefit all Canadians, not merely a small group?

Canada is at a crossroads. Shall we choose the path of global leadership, embracing human rights, the power of lived example and moral influence, and a program of forward-looking domestic investment and foreign trade? Or, shall we choose instead to cede the positive role of government in favour of self-regulating markets, narrow private interests, military coercion, and a spirit of each person for himself?

These are the choices before us, and decisions we must urgently reflect upon as we celebrate the unfolding beauty of President Barack H. Obama’s inauguration. We have, in earnest, only a few weeks to make clear to the world whether Canada itself chooses to be a transformational leader or merely a waning relic of the past.