National Newswatch
National Opinion Centre

It was an honour last evening to be asked to offer the benediction at the official swearing in of our new City Council and to place the official chain of office around the neck of incoming mayor Ed Holder.  Similar formalities are going on across Ontario.  Two things remained with me following the ceremony – collaboration and the importance of communities to Canadian life.

Ed Holder and I served as members of parliament in the House of Commons over a few years.  He was a Conservative and I was a Liberal.  We have known one another for almost three decades, long before politics, and in the years following.  But it was in the frequently heated political years that we learned that we could get more done through collaboration than contention.  Holder was in government, while I was in the Opposition.

We frequently travelled together to and from Ottawa and Holder retained his practice of supporting the London Food Bank, which I had been a volunteer director of for the past 25 years.  We made a pact in those days that, whatever materialized, we would always put the London community first and that’s just how it turned out.  Most of this was due to Holder’s affability to reach to those of opposing views.  Still, laying the ceremonial chain over his head last night was, to me at least, a symbol that differing views can still remain in the same room and achieve consensus as long as there is mutual respect.

It was not unusual in Canadian history for aspiring politicians to learn the ropes in local politics prior to moving on to provincial or federal jurisdictions, but the trend in recent years has also resulted in the opposite: former MPs making successful runs for mayoralty positions across the country.  This development merely reflects the increased importance of cities and communities.  Presently, 82 per cent of our national population live in cities.  In the world of politics, this is where the puck is going to be and many former federal and provincial politicians are following that trend.

In the next 100 years, the greatest migration to cities around the world will occur, with some 7-8 billion people becoming urbanites – more than exist on earth right now.  Nothing in history matches this.

When you think about the greatest challenges facing us at present, they have been emerging mostly in our urban centres for a half a century or more.  Climate change, poverty, wealth creation, jobs, unemployment, land use, health, gender equality, crime, political renewal – these key issues of our time have increasingly congregated in our cities and that’s a trend that can only be magnified in the coming years.

The infrastructure investments, wealth redistribution policies, transportation, waste disposal, and sustainable development resources required to hold the next century together don’t receive enough consideration in provincial and federal jurisdictions.  And these investments will be huge, far outstripping any kind of tax structure or development planning in place at present.  Futurists, backed with compelling research on the hurdles we face, have frequently been overshadowed, while politics and temporary policies vie for our attention.  Our fascination with the immediate is forcing us to ignore the essential.

Research of the last decade reveals that those municipalities who have been most successful at generating prosperity have also seen a sharp increase in poverty and homelessness.  Why?  Because the generated wealth went to a few, leaving the rest of the civic population struggling with a flattened or declining standard of living.

Our long-held belief that better economies will lead to benefits for everyone is now deeply frayed – and flawed.  If the future is predicated upon cities generating huge wealth and huge poverty at the same time, then we will have wasted it by idling away the present.

All of this is so huge, so complex, almost beyond comprehension.  Nevertheless, it will be largely driven in our cities – right where the majority of citizens will live and where they can, through collaboration, alter not only their own fate but that of humanity itself.   The reality that leaders like Ed Holder and others from senior jurisdictions now leading in communities understand the need for political and geographic jurisdictions to work together is important.  But it will take maturity, patience, vision and collaboration with upcoming generations to make it work.

We presently worship the strong and wealthy, but as Leon Megginson would put it: “It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change.”  And if we are to adapt, it will be in our cities, where we live, that the fight for our collective future will ultimately be waged.

Glen Pearson was a career professional firefighter and is a former Member of Parliament from southwestern Ontario.  He and his wife adopted three children from South Sudan and reside in London, Ontario.  He has been the co-director of the London Food Bank for 32 years.  He writes regularly for the London Free Press and also shares his views on a blog entitled “The Parallel Parliament“.   Follow him on twitter @GlenPearson.
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