Some Seismic Shifts in Ottawa

As promised last week, I would like to use OttawaWatch, the next few weeks, to look at some ideas that might be radically conflict-resolving and that might take a few years or even decades to implement.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau

This past weekend

As a result of the political activities of the past weekend we have a new ball game, at least insofar as the two opposition parties are concerned. At their convention, last weekend in Montreal, the New Democrats moved to emphasize social democracy more and democratic socialism less than they have done before.

And Justin Trudeau, at 41, has taken over the reins of the Liberal party.

Both parties show few signs of uniting the left, in a mirror image of what happened in the Conservatives almost a decade ago. That was when the five or six different streams of conservative policy came together under Stephen Harper, with a little help from Peter MacKay.

So, in the run up to the 2015 federal election, it is likely that the struggle will be twofold. On one hand, the Mulcair NDPers and Trudeau Liberals will duke it out for control of the ‘Laurentian elites.’ On the other, the Conservatives will continue to broaden their base both centreward and rightward.

The Big Shift

They hope to build on the ‘The Big Shift,’ which was outlined in some detail earlier this year by Globe & Mail columnist John Ibbitson and pollster Darrell Bricker, in a book by the same name.

That tome suggests influence in Canada has shifted from those aforementioned Laurentian elites, so named for that belt of rocky hills and lakes that became the Ottawa/Toronto/Montreal axis. Ibbitson and Bricker acknowledge that it was around this axis that the nation was built, but point out that the influence in the last few decades has been toward the growing west and the large immigrant populations settling both there and in the suburbs of Toronto.

There is much more to this discussion, of course, and a look at The Big Shift will help to bring some focus to the complexities of these fairly seismic changes.

But the radical conflict resolution discussion I would like to encourage among OttawaWatch readers goes well beyond the effect of these seismic shifts.

One sidelight in Ibbitson’s and Bricker’s thinking that might hint at the hesitancy on the part of the Liberals to simply move in with the NDP is the existence of what they call the ‘John Manley Liberals’ those in that party who would sooner co-exist with the centre-right than with the centre-left.

The adversarial arena

The aforementioned seismic conditions go to the issue of the adversarial political arena that the shifts tend to amplify, rather than reduce.

Simply put, the job of the government is to govern and ensure that its governance is understood. The job of the opposition is to oppose and to ensure that voters know it is a government-in-waiting. Throughout 45 years of observing this setup, I have often tried to concoct scenarios that would enable people charged with governance and opposition to find ways to conciliate and collaborate.

The respective roles of government and opposition get complicated, however, when conflict-creating objectives almost hijack the debate or discussion process.

Safe discussions

My thesis, at this point somewhat oversimplified, is to encourage quiet, safe discussions in places that bring together the antagonists and their ‘handlers,’ to talk about the conflicts in ways that diffuse harm and engender understanding. It may be that doing this as a way of life might take a generation or two, just as it took about 40 years for William Wilberforce to end the British slave trade in the early 19th century.

And it may be, as well, that we are looking beyond the present political leaders to change the ways in which politics and governance can be done. ‘Radical’ innovations can be discussed in the kinds of safe places that are being proposed.

They could include such things as:

  • Increasing use of early mediation to shortcut disruptive advocacy ‘theatre’ in the parliamentary arena.
  • Convening of citizens’ assemblies to explore, in depth, parliamentary reforms that would diminish the destructive aspects of party discipline. Such an assembly occurred in British Columbia in the early 2000s. Its recommendations, tested in a referendum held in conjunction with the 2005 provincial election, fell just short of approval.

Bridging the divide

All of which brings us to something that is happening soon, in Montreal, that could start to encourage the kind of discussion to which I am referring.

Dubbed Bridging the Secular Divide: Religion and Canadian Public Discourse, this McGill University event will take place May 27 and 28. It will bring together several Canadian leaders and thinkers who are involved in faith-political discourse. Included are such people as:

  • Mark Adler: Conservative MP and co-chair of the All-Party Interfaith Fellowship.
  • Andrew Bennett: Ambassador of Religious Freedom, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.
  • Janet Epp Buckingham: Director, Laurentian Leadership Centre of Trinity Western University.
  • Bill Blaikie: Former NDP federal deputy leader and director of The Knowles-Woodsworth Centre for Theology and Public Policy.
  • Wes McLeod: Former director of the Manning Centre for Building Democracy’s Navigating the Faith-Political Interface initiative.
  • Lori Ransom: Senior advisor for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.
  • Joe Comartin: NDP MP and Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons.
  • John McKay: Liberal MP and former National Prayer Breakfast Chair.
  • Lorna Dueck: Host of Context with Lorna Dueck television documentary feature show.

These are the names that I believe might be most familiar to OttawaWatch readers. They will be interacting with others from Christian, Jewish, Muslim, native spirituality, Baha’i, Buddhist and Sikh backgrounds, all of whom have experience in interfacing with thinkers, communicators and policy-makers in other traditions than their own.

This next paragraph is taken from the description of the McGill conference, which is available at

This conference will explore the role of religion in Canada’s public discourse, in terms of both thought and action. To many observers it appears that our national discourse is increasingly polarized and the civility of democratic deliberation is eroding. Fundamentalisms of many stripes ideological, religious and secular can drown out the more moderate and considered voices. Within this context, how should perspectives that draw from religion inform the national conversation? How do we judge the legitimate and illegitimate role of religion in our public discourse? How can engagement by religious voices make positive contributions to our pursuit of the common good for all Canadians? Where does responsibility rest for changing the current state of affairs? These are questions that call for reflection on both values and practice, as we explore together how to bridge the secular divide.

In case the point is missed, my reason for including this information in a column about reducing political tensions is that frequently religion or faith is seen as both a divisive and a reconciling factor in public affairs. I hope this might be seen as one way of highlighting faith’s reconciling effect.

The role of pluralism

And, one last point: for those who believe that too much inter-faith or inter-ideology talk is to be avoided, I would recommend a reading of Canadian Brian Stiller’s recent blog on an understanding of pluralism, available at The blog is entitled Reminding those who debunk pluralism: What it really is.

Stiller is currently global ambassador for the World Evangelical Fellowship, a role he took on after years as president, first, of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, then of Tyndale University College and Seminary.

Wilberforce revisited – a conflict resolution study

William Wilberforce

William Wilberforce

The faith-political approach of British politician William Wilberforce –- who fought the British slave trade in the early 1800s -– might have a 21st century counterpart in Langley MP Mark Warawa.

Vancouver Sun Ottawa reporter Peter O’Neil figured that out when he wrote a March 28 story which suggested Warawa was an unlikely candidate to buck the prime minister’s alleged “iron rule.”

O’Neil saved the good stuff for the last few paragraphs. There he reports on some comments from Tim McCarthy, one of Warawa’s pastors at North Langley Community Church, where the MP and his wife, Diane, attend.

Notes O’Neil:

“I think he’s taking a very courageous stand,” McCarthy said, comparing Warawa’s position to that of English politician William Wilberforce, an evangelical Christian who battled slavery in the early 1800s.

While he has his doubts the anti-abortion movement is close to a breakthrough in Canada, which has been without a law on abortion since a 1988 Supreme Court of Canada ruling, he said Warawa’s battle is worth fighting.

“Even if nothing were to change, my perspective is that we’re not only accountable to history or even to constituents. We’re accountable to God and to doing the right thing.

“Knowing where Mark stands on his faith, and I don’t mean this in the abortion sense but in the integrity sense, if you are given these convictions you have to live with yourself and your relationship with God, according to the choices that you make.”

Warawa’s recent actions have zeroed in specifically on gender-selection abortion, practiced in some cultures because of the inclination of parents to favour male progeny.

He was asked to stand down on giving a member’s statement on the subject in the House of Commons. As well, his Motion 408 on the same subject was ruled ‘non-votable’ by the House parliamentary procedure committee.

Much media coverage has attempted to create a rift between the prime minister’s office on one hand and Warawa and other social conservatives on the other. That contention is based on Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s promise, in the 2011 election, not to allow the abortion debate to be returned to the public arena.

From this ‘perch,’ O’Neil’s Wilberforce reference is a fairer assessment, because it tends to play down a governing party’s internecine struggle.

I agree that Warawa is in this for the long run. So he must keep a balance between the need to speak his conscience and his constituents’ wishes on one hand, and the need to understand that debate on the subject can be shrill at the best of times and ferocious at the worst.

It is instructive to note that Harper does not try to ban discussion on abortion. Rather, he tries to keep in check the kind of debate that would turn the House into more of a bear pit than it already is.

In fact, late last week, a joint PMO-Conservative caucus statement announced that a sub-committee would be formed to keep the peace while giving members the free reign they need.

The difference between discussion and debate is essential to understanding what is happening here.

Saint Paul: Reg Bibby

The other two items for this week’s OttawaWatch involve St. Paul University, a Catholic institution a few blocks from Parliament Hill, on the banks of the Rideau River.

Last Thursday, Reginald Bibby, a University of Lethbridge sociologist who specializes in analysis of Canadian religious trends, was at St. Paul to talk about what he dubbed “the resilience and restructuring of religion in Canada.”

Speaking mainly to Catholics in the crowd, Bibby noted that Catholics and evangelicals are benefiting from immigration trends in Canada, while mainstream Protestants are not.

Much of the material in the lecture is contained in A New Day: The Resilience & Restructuring of Religion in Canada, a slim volume that he says is more optimistic – and realistic – than some of his earlier studies ( Readers wanting to get a complimentary e-copy can go to

Saint Paul: Dispute Resolution

Two evenings later, I returned to St. Paul with Edna, to attend the 25th anniversary gala of the Canadian Institute for Conflict Resolution (), a group that specializes, among other things, in short term courses and workshops in Third Party Neutral (TPN) and Alternate Dispute Resolution (ADR).

CICR was founded by St. Paul, with a fair amount of initiative from Vern Neufeld Redekop, a Mennonite who heads the university’s conflict studies program. The CICR director for the past several years is Brian Strom, a Nazarene by persuasion and a western-rooted son of a former Alberta premier, the late Harry Strom.
Faith-based conflict resolution

There was a method in my selection process for today’s piece. There is much going on in Christian circles these days – especially among Catholics, Mennonites and evangelicals -– that relates to getting serious about conflict study, management and resolution. And it is mostly quite biblical, as well as being sociologically and psychologically healthy.

There is more that is common in relating the lead item to the other two. (Hint: North Langley Community Church is a Mennonite Brethren congregation.)
Stay tuned. You may find in the next few weeks that your humble scribe will offer some interesting prescriptions for parliamentary and societal reform in Canada, based on faith-based conflict resolution concepts. And maybe some comments on how the late Margaret Thatcher fits into all this.

OttawaWatch: Somebody’s place in Ottawa

Canadian Parliament Buildings Ottawa

From my perch, here in Ottawa, one can catch a glimpse of something new emerging in the field of faith-political interfacing. Its working name is “My Place-Chez Moi.”

It may well be Ottawa’s best-kept secret and not because its encouragers are trying to keep it under wraps. Rather, it is because those giving leadership to the idea are trying to lay their groundwork carefully, so that it can emerge into usefulness sometime between now and Canada’s 150th birthday in 2017

Perhaps the best way to introduce the idea to OttawaWatch readers is to link you to Have a look at it. I am certain some readers will say: “This is an idea whose time has come!” Others will scratch their heads.

The catalyst for My Place-Chez Moi is Wes McLeod, who has served quietly over the past two decades as parliamentary assistant to several MPs. Among them were the first ever Reform MP Deb Grey and former Aboriginal Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl. After they both departed the political scene, he directed the Manning Centre for Building Democracy’s Navigating the Faith-Political Interface initiative. Under those auspices, he set up several successful events, across Canada that, among them, brought together hundreds of people to explore that complex issue.

Out of that and several other networking activities that brought together an eclectic range of mostly Christian believers, My Place-Chez Moi began to germinate.

Much of the work done so far has been in the form of brainstorming. Pretty soon, I would guess, some structure will start to form up.

Even without formal structure, MP-CM recently pulled together a series of breakfasts near The Hill, dedicated to providing training in governance and vision for leaders of small faith-based ministries and groups. The commonality of these groups is that they need to interact from time to time with the body politic, in order to do good things to meet human need.

What they do grows out of their Christian commitment. The challenge, on one hand, is to identify how what they have can best be adapted to meet those needs and, on the other, how they can form partnerships with others to bring the necessary resources to bear.

McLeod, in planning the breakfasts, as well as looking ahead to what MP-CM might become, works with a list of over 100 Christian ministries and groups whose leaders have one reason or another to be in touch with Ottawa politicians and bureaucrats. (Full disclosure: This list originated about six years ago, from rudimentary research done by your humble scribe. At that time, there were just over 30 names in the line-up including such familiar organizations as Mennonite Central Committee, Salvation Army, World Vision and the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.)

From this perspective, the genius of MP-CM will be to bring together from across Canada, across denominational structures and across generations, informed and well-prepared people. The need to develop such partnerships and leaderships rests in the fact that the human needs they can meet are, as it stands, much greater than they have capacity to provide.

Sometimes, around this place, I have heard the expression that Christians become “so heavenly minded they are of little earthly good.” Over against this is the emergence of what is sometimes call “social enterprise”. That expression defines the task of meeting needs from the motivation and actions of community, corporate and faith-based enterprises. It creates an opportunity for Christians to enhance the “earthly good” side of the equation.

I would encourage readers to keep an eye on My Place-Chez Moi, and will do what I can from time to time to highlight its progress.

OttawaWatch: Van Loan, Mulcair and Christmas

“We are going to fight hard in all of these by-elections. It’s the only way I know how to do politics. I don’t concede anything to an adversary – ever.”

*  *  *

Those were NDP leader Thomas Mulcair’s words, as quoted in a Canadian Press story by Murray Brewster on October 21. They followed the calling of three by-elections which took place on November 26. The quote was buried in the story’s 10th paragraph.

It was Mulcair’s blunt and fiery “take no prisoners” approach that caught my attention. And I was reminded of them after the dustup between Conservative house leader Peter Van Loan and the NDP leader over a Commons voting procedure last Wednesday, December 5.

Since it is Christmas and all, I hope to use this piece to talk about Christians doing politics Christianly in the crucible called the House of Commons.

While Muclair’s words were most directly applicable to NDP strategy with regard to the by-elections, they reflected the style and temperament that he has often and consistently exhibited.

We will take a look at last Wednesday first. Chronologically, here is what happened, based on a variety of accounts.

  • A few hours before, with deputy speaker Joe Comartin, an NDP MP, in the chair, a vote, in the name of Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, who was not in the House at the time, was allowed by Comartin. The correct procedure, on Comartin’s part, would have been to substitute Flaherty’s name with Van Loan’s.
  • Subsequently, NDP house leader Nathan Cullen noted the procedural error and seemingly aimed it at government incompetence. Cullen’s idea, apparently, was to add this delay to several others that had been used to hold up the votes on budget amendments.
  • Speaker Andrew Scheer ruled that it was a technical error and could not be used to force a delaying revote.
  • During the next break in House activities, when the microphones were off, Van Loan, seemingly doing a slow burn, crossed the floor to Cullen, waggled his finger and knelt down in front of him to improve eye contact. He apparently used the “f” word.
  • According to several reports, Mulcair, who was standing above and beside Cullen, snapped at Van Loan, utilizing similar obscenities and demonstrating the sharp-eyed fury for which he has become quite famous.
  • Fearing that Mulcair’s lashing out might result in some physical or emotional harm to Van Loan, Defence Minister Peter MacKay and Science Minister Gary Goodyear moved in and edged the Conservative house leader back to the government benches.

*  *  *

The point that seemed to get buried in the reporting on this event, was the reason for Van Loan’s slow burn: the ethically-questionable tactic of trying to shift the blame for Comartin’s technical error over to the government.

*  *  *

The government’s attempt to streamline budget debates and the opposition’s seeming obstructionism is bound to fray nerves, particularly when Christmas is coming and everyone on all sides profess to wanting to get home to their ridings and families.

But there is an overarching issue that leads to my wanting to bring some Christian Christmas perspective to this piece.

First, let’s examine the speaker and deputy speaker in this context. As it happens, both Andrew Scheer and Joe Comartin are serious Catholics of the sort who genuinely and consistently try to bring their faith perspectives to bear in the way they behave around the House.

They are members of different parties. So those who would want to detract from their performance would love to point out that they owe their positions to their respective leaders, who, at election time, sign their nomination papers.

Secondly, let’s look at who the “peacemakers and cooler heads” were: MacKay and Goodyear. Both, as it happens are people who quietly seek pastoral care back home in the particular congregations to which they relate. Again, they do so, not to shout their religion from the rooftops, but to help them relate faith-shaped behavior to their work as politicians.

Then, there is Cullen. A British Columbia MP, he has frequently made the point that he wants to bring decorum to the House. He ran fairly strongly against Mulcair for the NDP leadership and was supported, to a small extent at least, by Glen Clark, president of the corporate group led by Jim Pattison, now in his 80s. Clark, some will recall, was the BC NDP premier who got caught up in a conflict controversy in the 90s. He was rescued, so to speak, by Pattison, known for both his faith and his business competence. Pattison took a chance with Clark, knowing that his understanding of both sides of the labour-management coin, could turn him into a very good business leader. Almost two decades later, taking that chance has paid off for both men.

I am sure that Clark knew Cullen had, within him, the ability to build bridges among conflicting political tactics and ideologies.

To return to last Wednesday, if Mulcair could have held his temper and let the two house leaders carry on their conversation for another 30 seconds or so, there would have been no story. They would have made their respective points and carried on.

*  *  *

At Christmas, according to Christian belief, God, the reconciler intervened. We call that event the Incarnation. Many Christians try, with greater or lesser success, to live incarnationally in the communities where they have been placed.

And, here I come to my usual punchline. Part of that incarnational living can involve trying to find ways in which a traditionally adversarial bearpit can be turned into a place where people of differing temperaments and ideologies can walk and work together. And, as usual, my first suggestion is that some of the cultural and class wars that became common in the 20th century could do to come to an end in the 21st.

One small contribution to that discussion could come from a book that is a supplementary reading assignment in my current studies through Tyndale Seminary. Authored by David Cooperrider and Diana Kaplin Whitney, it is entitled Appreciative inquiry: A positive revolution in change.

Briefly, the book proposes means of using appreciative inquiry (AI) for researching an institution’s foundations and basic premises to build on those foundations, rather than dismissing them or tearing them down.

AI is an organizational development technique that focuses on what an institution does well, rather than eliminating what it does badly. For me, this little volume was quite a contrast to the kind of research that is common in and around the political sphere. That research seeks to tear down or kill off the institutions that are on the other end of the spectrum from where the particular “researching” politician or pundit might find him/herself.

Edna and I wish you and yours all the best at Christmas.

*  *  *

Lloyd Mackey is a member of the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery in Ottawa and author of Stephen Harper: The Case for Collaborative Governance (ECW Press, 2006), More Faithful Than We Think: Stories and Insights on Canadian Leaders Doing Politics Christianly (BayRidge Books, 2005) and Like Father, Like Son: Ernest Manning and Preston Manning (ECW Press, 1997). Lloyd can be reached at

OttawaWatch: An unlikely gold mine

Diane Finley

Human Resources Minister Diane Finley calls it a “gold mine.” Some opposition critics believe it to be little more than “budget cuts in disguise.”

The “it” refers to what Heather Scoffield, writing for Canadian Press on November 9, reported as Finley’s “call for concepts”. That call, in effect, asks businesses, not-for-profits and the volunteer sector to come up, basically, with new ideas for partnering financial improvements in the lives of the needy.

It is not the first time Finley has talked about this idea. She launched discussion about it last spring at the annual Manning Centre for Building Democracy (MCBD) conference in Ottawa. At that time, the concept was pretty much a gleam in her eye. Now, she is ready, having done her due diligence, to get some in the non-government sector to make some solid proposals.

As Scoffield points out, Canada is taking its lead from both Great Britain and the United States, in getting into this stuff. And OttawaWatch reported on the idea, under the title of “Big Society”, three years ago, when former British Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith spoke to an Institute of Marriage and Family Canada (IMFC) meeting in Ottawa about work he was doing in Britain in developing Social Justice Centres.

Some readers will suggest that “social justice” is a fair mix of left wing religion and politics, along with the class warfare mindset that is seen to mark a substantial segment of the union movement. The response from this corner is that Duncan Smith and other innovative centre-rightists are taking back the “social justice” idea from the left.

Scoffield’s story described the Finley move as a “tentative step into the realm of social financing, by which private-sector investors are invited to provide up-front money, then collect a return on projects government traditionally pay for, such as homelessness or hunger.”

The reporter quoted Finley, addressing a Toronto forum, thusly:

It is our first official step in inviting your ideas to the table that can help shape future social policy in Canada – in a new way.

It is time for us to unleash individual initiative so that those who are motivated can help others and those who need help are given the opportunity to take more responsibility for themselves.

Finley’s objective is to collect ideas until the end of the year, then put out a call for proposals or identify pilot projects. In time, she hopes to encourage social partnerships among government, business and non-profit sectors.

*  *  *

If I may, it is a good time to introduce another strand into this piece. It comes from Surrey, BC, just a few blocks from where we lived before moving to Ottawa almost 15 years ago. There, Royal Height Baptist Church has teamed up with a developer to put together an integrated mixed use community in which the church plays a significant part of what happens. The site is close to the SkyTrain on the western edge of one of Canada’s busiest urban renewal projects, known as Surrey City Centre. The project involving the church will be called The River, named for the fact that it will be located on land sloping gently up from the banks of the mighty Fraser.

The church-developer proposal reflects concepts being incorporated into a number of similar British Columbia innovations. Often they operate under the rubric of “campus of care” projects. Some are highly successful. Others find there are bugs to be worked out before they take off properly

*  *  *

That said, it could well be that Finley’s thinking, based on the kinds of responses that will come from her “call”, will constructively reshape the means by which the deepest human needs are met through faith-social-business-labour-government partnerships.

Interestingly, according to Scoffield, Finley’s ideas received guarded support from interim Liberal leader Bob Rae and outright dismissal from NDP whip Nycole Turmel.

Turmel, who come from a public sector union leadership background, suggested that Finley’s proposals were “a public relations exercise to justify new cuts to services for Canadians.”

But Rae described Turmel’s response as “ideological claptrap”, suggesting that P-3 (public-private partnerships), by which some of these concept can be enacted, “have a pattern of success in different provinces in different situations.”

My guess is that, in due course, what Finley is doing will work, not despite union and left wing opposition but because of the willingness of those sectors to strategically collaborate. Further, it will take on real life in direct proportion to the involvement of highly-motivated faith-based movements and organizations – many of them Christian.

*  *  *

By the way, that “gold mine” reference in the headline was an obvious Finley catch phrase. It was meant to get the attention of entrepreneurial listeners. Such people might, on a first attempt, be unwilling to accept that they have both responsibility and opportunity in responding to “social justice” concepts.

*  *  *

Lloyd Mackey is a member of the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery in Ottawa and author of Stephen Harper: The Case for Collaborative Governance (ECW Press, 2006), More Faithful Than We Think: Stories and Insights on Canadian Leaders Doing Politics Christianly (BayRidge Books, 2005) and Like Father, Like Son: Ernest Manning and Preston Manning (ECW Press, 1997). Lloyd can be reached at

OttawaWatch: An E-book project

Lloyd Mackey in front of the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill in OttawaFor some months, I have been weighing the idea of developing an e-book.

The genesis of the idea came with the realization that there are now 360 OttawaWatch columns. The first was written in November, 2004, just a few weeks short of eight years ago. The columns have appeared weekly, with one short hiatus in early 2011.

The OttawaWatch objective has been to provide a weekly look, from my Parliament Hill “perch” at the faith-political interface in Canada, particularly in its capital. A substantial amount of the inspiration for this chronicle has been the “Navigating the Faith-Political Interface” initiative originated by the Manning Centre for Building Democracy (MCBD).

MCBD founder, Preston Manning, has been a source of personal encouragement ever since I had opportunity to write Like Father, Like Son: Ernest Manning and Preston Manning (ECW Press, 1997).

Most of these OttawaWatch pieces are archived at And, through that same website, I hope to be able to make available an e-book, in a few months. The idea is to choose about 30 of the most significant OttawaWatch pieces and tie them together in such a way as tell the stories about many individuals and groups whose faith interfaces with the body politic on the federal level.

My hope is that this project will wrap up about 45 years of faith/community/ political journalism. Out of that could come some context for readers and researchers as to how this interfacing has made a difference in the somewhat historic political events of the past decade.

As many of my readers know, I am now engaged in doctor of ministry studies through Tyndale Seminary. I hope to complete those studies in early 2015. And, along with that will be a thesis and other related projects, most of which are now in the formative stages.

*  *  *

As some will also be aware, the subsequent and pleasurable experience that followed the writing of the aforementioned Manning book was my chance to write a similar volume about the man who became prime minister. The Pilgrimage of Stephen Harper came out in 2005, just prior to Harper’s first minority government stint. At the request of ECW, the book’s publisher, I wrote a new closing chapter, in an around my 2006 heart bypass surgery, and the book was republished under the title Stephen Harper: The Case for Collaborative Governance.

The question as to whether I might want to write a third tome on the prime minister has come up occasionally. My answer is “No, but I know someone who is doing so and I recommend him – MacLean’s columnist Paul Wells – to my readers’ close attention.”

The other day, I went to and found the page where I could order, for a mere $4.99, a 219-page e-book entitled The Harper Decade, written by Wells. He has watched Harper more intensively than have I, on a whole range of issues – not just on the faith-political interface.

Not that he has ignored that aspect of our prime minister’s rapport with his various constituencies. Part 4 has a chapter entitled Those Crazy Christians are Taking Over Ottawa!, an essay that is witty, objective and accurate, rolled into one.

Wells plans to put out a print book on his prime ministerial subject in 2013. Meanwhile, THD is grist for the mill.

*  *  *

All of which is to say that Wells activity in this area is providing me both inspiration and opportunity to do an e-book based on the OttawaWatch pieces I have written since 2004. These will be stories about many of the people who have been involved. Harper’s name will come up in context, as well as many others. And, in every case, the faith-political interface will be implicit or explicit, depending on the context.

But the practicalities are that I will need time to get this project done, as well as to keep up with my studies and research. That calls for reducing the number of OttawaWatch pieces I will be writing over the next few months. I hope to get one out each month or, at least, every six weeks. I will still look forward to getting feedback from readers.

Thanks for your indulgence during this period of transition. I hope you will find the result worthwhile.

Those other robocalls

Perhaps the most important part of today’s OttawaWatch appears in the latter part of the column. I would encourage readers – even more than usual – to read all the way through.

The “robobcalls” subject has been of considerable interest around the Press Gallery in recent months. It has mostly related to queries regarding whether calls allegedly made during the 2011 federal election campaign by one “Pierre Poutine” were placed on behalf of one particular party.

Last week, the robobcalls question took a slightly different twist. The 2011 campaign organization of Guelph Liberal MP Frank Valeriote (rhymes with “chariot”) was fined $4,900. The offence: Improperly failing to identify a robobcall to several thousand Guelph constituents as being from the Guelph Liberal campaign. In fact, a fictitious name had been used to identify the caller.

When complaints were registered with Elections Canada, earlier this year, Valeriote readily admitted that the calls had been made. And he suggested that some of the fine Elections Canada compliance details had been forgotten in the heat of the moment.

As the Guelph MP put it, that calls had been organized in a hurry, after information coming from local prolife-sponsored polls had indicated that he took a “pro-abortion” stance. He self-describes as a “pro-choicer” who is personally opposed to abortion.

According to Valeriote, some of the poll information was being disseminated by Marty Burke’s campaign. Burke was the Conservative candidate.

A CBC story by Laura Payton, run at the time the Valeriote campaign robocalls were first run, provided the following details:

… Valeriote has confirmed his campaign used an auto-dialed phone message to tell voters in the riding that the Conservative candidate, Marty Burke, opposed abortion. Valeriote said the call was recorded by a volunteer from his campaign who used a fake name because she feared retribution from anti-abortion activists.

The recording, provided by a Conservative supporter, features a woman who identifies herself as Laurie MacDonald, but doesn’t say she’s calling from Valeriote’s campaign.

“The race in Guelph is very close,” the woman says in the message. “Vote strategically on Monday to protect our hard-earned rights from the Conservatives and Marty’s extreme views.”

For purposes of making a point, I have chosen to use bold face type to emphasize certain parts of the CBC story.

According to Payton, Valeriote suggested that the fictitious name was used in the robocall to protect the Liberal campaign from retaliation by pro-lifers. Further, the content of the call is said to have included the quote: “to protect our hard-earned rights from the Conservatives and Marty’s extreme views.”

In the other robocall controversy – the one alleging that calls were being made by someone who might or might not be a Conservative worker – the issue was that the calls were designed to encourage “voter suppression.”

This writer would like to gently suggest that the phrase in the Valeriote campaign call which includes “extreme” is a form of a different kind of attempt at voter suppression – one with psychological roots.

Now in putting forward this idea, I realize that language in the heat of an election campaign frequently takes on extremist and oppressive connotations. And those techniques are bent to the purpose of suppressing a vote for the candidate of another party.

In this case, it would seem that the attempt at suppression was framed so as to pit moderate social conservatives against those who might be opposed to abortion under all circumstances and, as well, to contraception.

*  *  *

Having noted all the above, I would like to present another side of Frank Valeriote – one which, from this particular corner, is much more attractive.

Valeriote, along with Conservative and NDP MPs Harold Albrecht and Joe Comartin served as a co-founder, back in 2011, of the Parliamentary Committee on Palliative and Compassionate Care. They did a fine piece of work, resulting in a ground-breaking 190-page report entitled Not to be Forgotten: Care of Vulnerable Canadians. (Conservative Kelly Block and Liberal Francis Scarpaleggia were also on the founder list.)

At the time the report was produced, I described it as a pro-life document, dealing mostly with end-of-life issues. Further, the founders, working together in a non-partisan fashion, drew heavily on each of their own respective basically-Christian faith stances. It was an instance of the kind of parliamentary work we need to see more often.

Albrecht, Comartin and Valeriote made up a panel last spring, which was one of the events related to the 2012 National Prayer Breakfast. (Keynote speakers, readers may recall, were Nazanin Afshin-Jam MacKay, Iranian-born human rights activist and wife of the defence minister and Father Raymond De Souza, National Post columnist.)

During the panel discussion, Valeriote made the point that he belongs to two churches – one Catholic and the other evangelical. The evangelical congregation, as it happens, is Lakeside Bible Church of Guelph, a 1500-strong progressive Plymouth Brethren group.

Now I don`t know if it is really any more possible to belong to two churches as to two political parties. But the sentiment is good. And I like the side of Valeriote exhibited in his church affiliations and Compassionate Care committee work much more that that which permitted his campaign committee to lash out as it did in the 2011 election.

But it is not all his fault.

The present, adversarial system, together with the too-frequent “class warfare” mindset present in that system militates toward very hurtful public rhetoric.

I don’t know the answer, in terms of the necessary democratic or parliamentary reform. But I do believe that if constructive action could follow principles of co-operation, collaboration, conciliation – and whatever other positive c-words are available – we could embark on some kind of new pace-setting era in both domestic and international politics.

Valeriote would not need to lash out because, in a conciliatory world, the stakes would be much different. There would be no need for what appears, in this situation, to be a prima facie case of psychological voter suppression.

Meanwhile, I will get back to studying to see if I can eventually come up with some suggestions to make these lofty principles possible. But, dear readers, please don`t leave it all up to me.

Mark Carney and David Black

mark carneyMuch has been made, in recent days, of the Canadian Auto Workers’ (CAW) invitation to Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney, to address the influential union’s annual gathering.

Not the least of the exclamations of surprise was the report that Carney had received a standing ovation from the gathered unionists, following his address.

On reflection, I would like to suggest that the CAW’s invitation might be a sign of efforts on the parts of some sectors of organized labour, to move from a “class warfare” stance to one of a little more collaboration with others sectors of society.

*  *  *

Before moving to Ottawa, close to 15 years ago, I mildly suggested, in some of my writing, that unions often seemed to function as “religion substitutes”. My stance had come as a result of being in a newspaper-related union early in my journalism career and, later, being in a management position, sometimes sitting across the table from union negotiators.

At the time, I sometimes wrote about “conciliatory journalism” – the effort to use reporting and editorializing to help different groups in society to understand each other a little better. Occasionally, I would – perhaps imperiously – suggest that reporters who were members of unions had a particularly responsibility to contribute to such understanding.

I also wrote at times about the opportunities for both labour and management to break out of the strike/lockout mentality and to engage the then-emerging mediation and conciliation approaches designed to lower the heat and get better and fairer settlements.

When appropriate – and perhaps immodestly – I explained that my views on mediation and conciliation grew out of my particular take on the Christian faith.

*  *  *

After 45 years of journalism, my views are basically unchanged, although I have to offer the caveat that my involvement in labour-management issues became much less direct when I transitioned from community to Christian newspapering, 30 years ago. All this is to say that I might have both the advantage and the disadvantage of detachment from the everyday employee-employer relationships in the mainstream media.

But, in my defence, I am prepared to assert, at this stage of semi-retirement, that, as long as I was involved in Christian newspaper work on the west coast, I tried to encourage those working with me to see that BC Christian News was printed on presses operated by union members.

*  *  *

Part of the reason for that encouragement was a publisher named David Black, who has received some extensive ink recently for his proposal to build an oil refinery near Kitimat, to process oil sands product headed off shore.

My observation always was that Black and his managers – in an operation that now includes 150 community and daily newspapers and at least a dozen newspaper printing operations – have operated with clear integrity in their relationships with both customers and unions.

Does this relate at all to the Christian faith? I won’t say so categorically, but it is worth noting that both Black’s late wife, Annabeth, and his late parents, were devote and serious in their particular affiliations of the Christian faith.

Black (no relation to Conrad) does not wear whatever faith he might have on his sleeve. But I can say, with some assurance that his organization has dealt with integrity with the folk at BC Christian News and both its de facto successors, Converge and The Light Magazine. And, from this particular perch, faith is likely not entirely absent from that integrity.

Church on a Hill

Flash mob Church on the HillThere were few signs of religious demagoguery, when close to 200 United Church youth commissioners and Youth Forum members and some of their “elders” appeared on Parliament Hill Wednesday (August 16).

The young people took a break from the General Council meetings, the church’s once-every-three-years’ legislative gathering. The Carleton University meeting site in Ottawa afforded fairly quick access for a Hill appearance.

Your humble scribe, burdened down with three major papers to be ready for month end, in connection with my Tyndale Seminary studies, begged off taking in the Carleton events. But when the youth crowd assembled within 300 feet of my Press Gallery desk, it provided a good opportunity for an OttawaWatch word picture.

*  *  *

This was an orderly event and not overtly political. It was billed as a “pilgrimage of learning and prayer”. The “teachers” stood at the microphones mid-way up the steps in front of the Peace Tower. The young people, bright-eyed, seemingly happy, cross-legged, and listening carefully, sat below them on the wide Centre Block sidewalk.

The lead “teacher” – or “elder” – was Mardi Tindal, a genial sunny-faced woman whose three-year term as UC moderator ends this Friday. She talked a little about the opportunity to learn about the political process and the ways by which young people could prepare to engage in that process.

Three five-minute talks were delivered, intriguingly, and respectively by a Catholic member of parliament whose riding abuts on the parliamentary precinct, the president of the Canadian Council of Churches (CCC) who is a major in the Salvation Army, and an El Salvadorian Baptist pastor who talked about his nation’s social justice martyr, Bishop Oscar Romero.

The whole session was pretty pro-Christian in the faith’s broadest sense, but appreciative, as well, of an interfaith approach. If there was any more-than-Christian bias, it was toward native spirituality. That was triggered by a prayer led by Stan McKay, a past UC moderator and the first aboriginal to serve in that post.

The high points of the 45-minute session included:

  • The assertion by Ottawa-Vanier MP Mauril Belanger (the aforementioned Commons member) that United Church young people should be encouraged toward political involvement not only because “you can” but because “you must.” He included a hit on bankers who take big bonuses. But otherwise, he stayed non-partisan, suggesting that all parties would welcome the involvement of United Church aspirants.
  • The note by Major Jim Champ, (the aforementioned CCC president) who suggested that the Council, co-founded by the United Church, can be said to represent 85 per cent of Canadian Christians from 25 denominations.
  • The comment by Miguel Tomas Castro (the aforementioned Baptist pastor) which referred to the Canadian national anthem phrase that prays: “God keep our land, glorious and free”. Castro, as a self-admitted non-Canadian, suggested that both the glory and the freedom could legitimately be built on the base of the “values of the kingdom of God.”

The session began with what Moderator Tindal referred to as a “flash mob”, in which the young people sang vigorously about taking “every word of every story to every corner of creation” and “live lives to testify to love.”

For the previously-enunciated personal reasons, I will leave it to other media, who were present at the General Council debates, to report on those events. There was some drama and conflict reported from there, and also, underlying, some of the kind of diplomacy that I saw demonstrated in front of the Peace Tower.

Tindal, for her part, will return, after her moderator term, to her previous work of holding retreats that are committed to “sustaining courageous leadership in all vocations,” for United Church ministers and lay people.  I will try, in a few weeks, to provide a bit of a profile of the new moderator and his or her role in the Canadian faith-political interface.

To torque the story

Nazanin Afshin-Jam and Peter MacKay at a function

It was fascinating to watch the little dustup between Nazanin Afshin-Jam MacKay and Charlotte Guardian reporter Jim Day last week, over what is sometimes called, in the journalistic trade, “the torque of the story.”

Simply put, to torque is to twist the story from what subject initially intended to what the reporter wanted it to be.

Day interviewed Afshin-Jam MacKay, an Iranian-born human rights activist who recently, by the way, married Defence Minister Peter MacKay. She was being interviewed, apparently, because she has a new book out, Tale of Two Nazanins, about the efforts of her human rights organization, Stop Child Executions, to rescue an Iranian rape victim from being put to death. The other Nazanin’s crime: she had killed her attacker.

But the reporter twisted the interview, so to speak, by getting Afshim-Jam MacKay to express an opinion on that Canadian citizen Omar Kadhr, who is being held in Guantanamo Bay for killing an American soldier in Afghanistan. Day quoted his interview subject as favouring Kadhr’s early return to Canada to serve the rest of his sentence.

Afshin-Jam MacKay was unhappy with the story resulting from the interview on three counts:

  • It appeared, in her view, to be an attempt to get her to express an opinion contrary to the present stance of the government in which her husband is a cabinet minister.
  • It ignored, for several paragraphs, the fact that she has a name and a background of her own, apart from her marriage to a Canadian politician.
  • It virtually ignored that one of her main “jobs” at the moment is helping encourage sales of her book, in the interests of greater human rights for Iranian women.

*  *  *

Afshin-Jam MacKay is entering into a phase of life that could well have been predicted when she married MacKay. She has been quoted frequently in recent weeks on human rights matters, often from an angle that seems intended to put her in philosophical conflict to the government of which her husband is a part. So far, it is emerging that she is respected both for her own opinions and for the fact that she and her husband complement each other.

My own experience in covering the Afshin-Jam MacKay story came out of the sort of approach I have taken in recent years in trying to cover the faith-political interface.

As OttawaWatch readers will be aware, I have been reporting faith-political nuances for most of my journalism career, including the last 14 years in Ottawa. And it has always been interesting to me how a fairly simple faith-based story about a politician with the exercise of a little journalistic torque, can turn into one of political intrigue.

Lawrence Martin did a pretty good “torque” job today (July 31) in the Globe and Mail when he tackled the six-year-old story of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s long time careful and generally constructive rapport with Christian and Missionary Alliance churches. As the one who did some of the early reporting on this connection, I would suggest that Martin’s coverage is like the fable of the fellow who caught the big fish. The size of the fish grows greater with the telling.

Not to disparage Martin. He is a great story teller.

But to get a less-torqued version, it is worth reading a Maclean’s piece on the subject written shortly after the January, 2006 election when the Conservatives were first elected with a minority. Here is the link: The Church of Stephen Harper.

*  *  *

There are a couple of faith-political interface stories I would like to tell before shuffling off this mortal coil. But I am not holding my breath, because the subjects are smart enough to ensure they are talking to a journalist who will not torque the story.

One is British Columbia premier Christy Clark, who did a couple of years of religious studies at the University of Edinburgh (UE) before going into politics. UE is roughly equivalent to Regent College, the evangelical graduate school at the University of British Columbia. Somehow, I think that her current perspectives might have been shaped in part from that study experience.

The other is Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall. He is fairly seriously and devoutly connected with a Mennonite Brethren congregation. To those who know him well, his faith and practice is real, but he is careful where he talks about it and with whom.

Both have stories to tell, I am sure. But best, for now, to watch the lives they live and try see if faith and governances match up.

*  *  *

To wrap, with Afshin-Jam MacKay: she has something to say that she has earned in her own right, and much of it has to do with a solid grounding in biblically-based social justice, learned in a Catholic setting. And she has married a practicing Presbyterian who will admit, cautiously, when appropriate, that he appreciates the pastoral care he receives.

I hope I have learned a few things over 14 years about when to cover something myself, in my semi-retirement, and when to pass it on to other journalists who might be able to give a little more energy.

At the time of her marriage I read an excerpt from a talk Afshin-Jam MacKay gave in 2009 at the BC Leadership Prayer Breakfast. I chose to pass it on to Charles Lewis, the faith/ethics writer at the National Post, feeling sure he would tackle the story straight, rather than torque it. I never heard back.

But that does not mean the NP ignored whatever clues they had received. This year, she spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast in Ottawa. And the Post did pick up on the story – without torque – by astutely having columnist Father Raymond De Souza, the other speaker at the prayer breakfast events, effectively summarize what she had to say.

No further comment is necessary, except to suggest to those of my readers who covet the opportunity to pray: I would encourage you to cover MacKay and Afshin-Jam MacKay with your prayers, as the still-newly-weds walk their faith pilgrimage together. A lot of what is happening with them is none of the political world’s business. But, given goodwill and pastoral care, what they do together and separately can make a difference to the Canadian faith-political interface.