A Reflection on Voting (in Canada)

Brian Kiely November 1, 2020

Today, while looking south of the border, I am pondering how utterly undramatic the election process is in Canada. The election itself may have excitement surrounding who will win and by how much, but the actions of voting and counting votes are smooth and generally uncontroversial. Phew!

A fundamental characteristic of democracy is the ability of the people to elect their governments and then to be able to hold that government to account at a later date.  The key instrument of their voice is the vote.  Ensuring that all eligible citizens have the easy and unfettered ability to cast that vote ought to be a cornerstone of a civil society.

In Canada, there is a single federal authority responsible for governing all aspects of the electoral process.  Formally, it is called the “Office of the Chief Electoral Officer” but is better known as “Elections Canada”.  This century old non-partisan office is appointed by and reports to the entire Parliament of Canada, not to the government of the day.  This is a subtle distinction, but an important one.  Elections Canada serves the whole electoral body and by implication the citizenry.  It symbolic of the independence and non-partisan character of the office.

A good sign of the reputation and efficiency of Elections Canada is its largely unknown leadership.  I doubt one in a hundred thousand Canadians know that the CEO is Stephane Perrault who has four years left in his 10 year term.  (Yeah, I had to look it up.  I’m not that one in a hundred thousand.)

With a permanent staff of about 300, the office oversees all aspects of registration and voting in all federal elections as well as overseeing campaign finance.  The work includes training election staff and providing public information.  Want to know if you are registered?  Go to the Elections Canada home page of the website and follow the link.  It took me 90 seconds to confirm that I am good to go.  Registering for the first time takes just a little bit longer.  And, of course, real people are available to help in offices and online.

During election campaigns, which last a mercifully short 36-50 days, Elections Canada staff swell to 190,000 across the country.  I had the privilege of serving as a poll clerk in 2019.  Our eight polling stations were in a school gym three blocks from my house.  I believe the farthest I have ever had to travel to vote was about 1 kilometre.  Our clerk training was good, with an emphasis on non-partisanship and a goal of helping everyone vote.  We each swore and signed an oath to execute our duties properly and fairly.  We were even warned against wearing clothes suggestive of the colours of any of the political parties.  

The polling station itself included the 16 poll clerks, our supervisor, several information officers helping people figure out where to go, and two people tasked with sorting out registration issues (including last minute sign ups- yes we do that!). The clear goal was to try to to say ‘yes’ to voting if possible.

The underlying philosophy of Elections Canada is clear:  Let’s make it easy for qualified citizens to vote.  Period. Full stop.  

When the poll closed, my poll partner (whom I had just met that day) and I were given the go ahead to read the paper ballots and record each vote on well structured sheets. Then we double checked.  Any questionable ballot was set aside for a supervisor to examine.  We had none.  In all, we had about two hundred votes to count.  The supervisor checked our tallies against the total number of ballots cast at our polling station.  Everything was then carefully sealed in envelopes in case a recount was necessary.

Throughout the day I observed only courteous and respectful interactions with voters and a willingness to help people to exercise their fundamental right.

And to go back to my first point; I witnessed, in that long 14 hour day just how completely undramatic the whole process was.  The operation was smooth, no eligible voter was turned away and citizens got the help they needed. I saw nothing even close to impropriety.

The drama of elections should be in the campaigns and the election night parties, not in the process of voting.  Letting the people have their say freely and without fear is one hallmark of a civil society and a functioning democracy.  

There are other aspects of the Canadian system of governance that can and are questioned, but the elections process is not one of them.

Rushing to Judgement

August 30, 2019 By Brian J. Kiely

In these polarized times in North America each new dramatic

headline tends to inspire the rush to judgement. A single quote, a

short video, even a lone photograph ignites outrage. Of course,

one item will fire up the right while something quite different will

light up the left. And along the way those in the centre will be

pulled in both directions. No sooner is a volatile Tweet released

into netspace than it is flashed around the world as undeniable

Truth. Disparate communities looking to bolster already fixed

beliefs grab at the story or the image and fly it like a battle flag

crying, “You see! YOU SEE!” and claim the certainty of their

rightness. Actions, sadly come before questions, certainty before

fully factual accounts. The unnoticed casualty in this rush to

judgement is democratic discourse.

Even in news media, it is increasingly rare to see an outlet holding

a story while awaiting confirmation. Instead they couch their

coverage with phrases like “alleged” and “unconfirmed reports”.

The importance of being first with breaking news has long

usurped the importance of getting the story right.

And so the rush to judgement is allowed and even encouraged.

No wonder foreign governments are finding it so easy to interfere

with elections. A little misinformation goes a long way.

Deliberate disinformation and conspiracy theorizing is a critical

concern, but not my topic. I am more troubled by people from

farthest left to farthest right who are willing to abandon critical

thinking and rationalism. We have entered a new era of

propaganda where the goal is not to inform but to enrage.

Influential individuals take that Tweet or image or video and spin

out a full narrative. Instead of seeking facts, they embrace the

initial clip and begin to promote stories which may or may not be

true.

Take two recent events, both from Kenosha, Wisconsin. The first

is the shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man. There’s a good

chance you saw the video, the man walking purposefully, even

forcefully away from police officers who want him to stay. He

opens his car door and leans in. The White officer behind him

shoots him in the back. Seven times. Pretty horrifying.

The family is soon in front of microphones, with their lawyer. Mr.

Blake was intervening in a domestic dispute. Mr. Blake had his

children in the car and simply wanted to return to them. He was

shot because he was Black.

Much of the world is repulsed. Protests and street violence break

out in Kenosha.

But then a replacement narrative emerges coming, unofficially,

one suspects, from ‘authorities’. Mr. Blake was not supposed to

be there. Word of a restraining order emerged. Police tried to

subdue him for reasons as yet unknown, but could not. Police

tased him to no effect. Someone says he had a knife, or claimed

to have a knife, or maybe he was reaching for a knife, for a knife

was found on the floor of the car.

The President is now engaged, threatening federal intervention

and insisting on going to the protest areas to show his support for

law and order. By and large he avoids the Black community

preferring the company of the business owners harmed in the

mayhem and the police.

People on both sides rush to judgement.

Then, on one of the nights of protest/violence, a 17 year old from

out of state is seen walking down the streets of Kenosha sporting

a semiautomatic rifle (illegally). Reports say he was claiming to

be there in support of the police. He is challenged. The narrative

(and a video) says someone rushed him trying to take away the

gun. The Boy runs and stumbles. Two others joined in and shots

were fired. Two men are dead from the boy’s gun, a third injured.

Alone now, the boy walks down the street towards police, hands

up, gun dangling from a strap. He is allowed to walk away. He

goes home to Antioch, Illinois where he turns himself in. Police

say later that they did nothing wrong in allowing him to go.

So what are the competing Kenosha narratives?

1. Another unarmed Black man trying to help a friend in trouble is

gunned down by racist cops for the crime of being Black.

2. A man with a knife refuses to back down and is gunned down

by an officer acting in self defence. The President allows that it

might be that the officer made a bad decision or ‘choked’.

3. A young law and order advocate comes to help police (perhaps

misguidedly) and is forced to defend his life threatened by

rampaging protesters out to harm him.

4. A right wing Trump lover comes planning to shoot down some

Antifa freaks.

To be clear, I am horrified by both incidents no matter which

account is accurate. None of these deaths should have

happened. There has to be better ways to resolve disputes. After

all, I am a Canadian. Like many if not most of my fellow

nationals, I seldom see guns as the solution to social unrest.

I have no idea which of these narratives, or combination of

narratives is accurate. Very few people, if any, do as yet. But that

has not stopped the incitement on both sides. There has been

anger, and escalation everywhere, with people acting without

investigation or reflection. They tend to choose the story that

supports their own preconceived view. Meanwhile, people are

dead or injured; other kinds of violence have no doubt occurred,

not just in Kenosha, but in other cities as well, all because of the

rush to judgement.

Of course, anger, fear and a historical perspective about the

targeting of Black men help stir emotions, but let us remember,

even the family of Mr. Blake counselled restraint and only

peaceful protest.

Kenosha is just one example. But look elsewhere, almost

anywhere…Covid 19 conspiracies, Trudeau and the WE charity,

Jason Kenney’s government and the ‘rush’ to open schools and

pretty much any story related to the current American president.

The same mad dash to judge without knowledge is becoming a

defining characteristic of this age.

It is an instant age when people find instant rage. The truth

doesn’t matter as much as the cause, especially if we have to wait

for the full story.

But the truth…or at least a complete investigation and discussion

of events… does matter. When an unsubstantiated Tweet

becomes Truth then we are at risk for shallow policy decisions, or

perhaps shallow explanations of complex policy issues. Rational

thought and sound democratic debate gives way to reactive

sound bytes. Rather than being encouraged to become engaged

in constructive thoughtful discussion, the populace is directed by

and towards angry rhetoric and slanted or dishonest social media

claims. The goal is to generate simplistic answers to very complex

problems and interdependent issues. Truth is not necessary

when a good lie is more persuasive.

The rush to judgement reduces every issue to a predetermined

and polarized position. This offends the very concept of

democratic debate.

Ideas or Ideologies

“Ideas or Ideologies”  a sermon on Democracy

Rev. Brian J. Kiely Unitarian Church of Edmonton October 22, 2017

Unitarian Universalism boasts seven Principles that guide us.  The fourth affirms and promotes, “The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.”

So as we continue our examination of democracy, we begin by noting it as a key aspect of our Unitarian religion.  But it is important to remember that this is but one of seven Principles woven together.  Collectively they are meant to help us work through the challenges of living responsibly and as people with integrity.  Without the balancing effects of the other six principles, democracy fails.  It cannot exist without affirming the equality and inherent worth of all our fellow citizens…not just the ones in our church, our neighbourhood or our political party.  It cannot exist if not underpinned by justice, equity and compassion.  It cannot succeed without personal freedom in belief and action.  It is doomed to fail if there is not a larger vision that encompasses peace and justice for all citizens of the planet.

As the Catholic writer Stephen Schneck observed in the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies journal (AUG. 2010)

Democracy requires from its citizens special virtues, without which it fails. Foremost, democracy needs citizens virtuous enough to transcend self-interest in pursuit of what is good for the republic as a whole. For traditional Catholic thought, that good of the whole is called “the common good.” In this sense, democracy depends upon citizens in possession of civic virtue that directs them to the common good.

If I have a criticism of western democracy in the 21st century, it is that this idea of ‘the common good’ has eroded – if not substantially died – in the face of partisan politics.  In federal, provincial and state governments, the common good is now defined as ‘my good’ or, at best ‘our group’s good’.  Instead of being virtuous citizens stepping up to serve the wider community, politicians are now pretty much forced to be professional campaigners whose first job is to seek reelection and whose first loyalty has to be to the party that supports them. Ideologies that defend the party have become more important than ideas that build communities. 

I am not so cynical to say that the needs of the constituents don’t figure in the motivation or their decision-making of all politicians.  There are good people seeking office.  I am cynical enough to think constituent issues might not always be the deciding factor when the time comes to vote..

Civic government might be an exception, but I will get back to that.

In our reading Eduardo Mendlata spoke of civility in the public sphere, “Civility, in other words, is an ethics of respect for strangers. It therefore follows that how you treat strangers is the measure of your moral excellence.”

There seems to be a distinct lack of moral excellence in the political sphere these days.  In the increasing polarization of partisan politics, the gentle and defenceless virtue of civility has become the first casualty.

It is unfortunate that in both Canada and the United States winning a majority government seems to mean, “We now have a mandate to do it our way!”  Our one vote cast on polling day is license to push their complete agenda, much of which was never discussed during the campaign. 

They don’t seem capable of understanding that the people are complex.  We might be fiscal conservatives and social liberals, or vice versa.  Our one vote does not grant blanket blessing on their ideologies.  And since very few politicians are elected with 50% of the support of the voting age public, their talk of “the people have spoken” or “I have a mandate” is puffery.  As far as governments are concerned, the voice of the citizenry pretty much ended when they marked their X…at least until the next election begins to loom.  And frankly, we citizens are not all that good at holding them to account.

Still, because another election is somewhere down the road, politicos always do have an eye on image.  They want their names recognized.  So, they have become more focused on image than substance.  With the introduction of CPAC and C-Span and other legislative TV channels, thoughtful political debate has been converted to media events. Complex policy discussions have been reduced into one line sound bites designed to demean opponents rather than to advance debate. Question Period has become less an opportunity for challenging government and more a game of “Gotcha!” caught live and in colour.

I have privately often promised myself that I would vote for any politician regardless of party if I could only hear them proclaim of their opponent, “Hey, she has a good idea! Let’s do that!”  Even when they vote in support they won’t typically give credit to anyone else.  

The lack of civility between political opponents in their public discussions is disheartening at best and a cause of personal despair at worst.

Legendary Green Bay football coach once famously said, “Winning isn’t the most important thing…it’s the ONLY thing.”

Should that really be true in democratic politics?  It shouldn’t, but I fear it is.  Ideologies triumph over ideas, and that just feels wrong.

A basic high school text book Magruder’s American Government defines five core principles of democracy

1. Recognition of the fundamental worth and dignity of every person; 

2. Respect for the equality of all persons

3. Faith in majority rule and an insistence upon minority rights

4. Acceptance of the necessity of compromise; and

5. Insistence upon the widest possible degree of individual freedom.

Anyone who follows the circus in the United States might well agree that presently American democracy is failing on all five points.  Freedoms, except when it comes to having guns, is being curtailed.  Minority rights are ignored and protesters like football players taking a knee are shamed.  The President himself routinely demeans the character and person of his opponents.

On the matter of “the necessity of compromise,” the text expands:

Compromise is an essential part of the democratic concept for two major reasons. First, remember that democracy puts the individual first, and, at the same time, insists that each individual is the equal of all others. In a democratic society made up of many individuals and groups with many different opinions and interests, how can the people make public decisions except by compromise?

…Compromise is a process, a way of achieving majority agreement. It is never an end in itself. Not all compromises are good, and not all are necessary.

In the last decade or so there has been a rush to partisanship and winner take all politics in the United States.  It has sadly been creeping north of the border as well.

During the Obama administration, the Republican Party openly declared that their mission was to thwart any legislation coming from the president and the Democrats.  Suddenly ‘compromise’ joined ‘civility’ on the scrapheap of out political principles.

Since the election of the 45th President of the USA Democrats voting as a bloc to impede the Republican repeal of things like health care access have been branded as obstructionist.  Their own GOP senators who voted with Democrats and on behalf of their constituents – you know, doing what they were elected to do?- have been demeaned and branded as traitors.

And now we frequently see attempts at government by presidential order.  The US is slipping towards authoritarian autocracy, and it’s frightening me.

Canada seems to be managing better.  Perhaps it’s because our PM and premiers are aware that they can do little without the support of their caucus, and the caucus members are closer to the people. We saw an amazing thing this week where the federal government rewrote proposed tax legislation because enough people spoke out against the flaws of their ideas.  It was a week where ideas trumped ideologies for once.  Our democracy may be bruised, but it is not yet broken in my view.  Values still seem to matter- at least a little.  As long as some kind of moral imperative guides our leaders, we have a hope that the principles of democracy will still have their place.

So how can we restore democracy?  First we have to rethink the system.

Two weeks ago I described the new rise of cities, how they are major deliverers of service to the population no matter who funds it.  As a former Toronto mayor put it, mayors and council have to be activist because they are the ones expected to do things, to build roads and transit, to build community amenities and so on.

This expectation to actually do stuff marks city politicians as structurally different from their provincial state and federal counterparts.  In order to get things done, they have to compromise, negotiate and discuss the ideas that are best for the city.  And there is something else.

Consider the geography of government spaces.  In Parliament the government faces their opposition across a floor traditionally separated by a distance of two sword lengths …to prevent bloodshed.  The very nature of Parliament is oppositional, argumentative and aggressive.

Consider now the municipal council chamber.  The mayor and councillors sit on the same side of a long curving table arranged so they can see one another.  Across from them are the clerks and administrators who support them and behind them, the citizenry.  The people are on the same level, not tucked up in some second floor gallery.  Unlike Parliament, the people often have a chance to speak directly to council.

This geography says that the council is meant to get along, to literally be on the same side, not of every issue, but on the side of the city they serve.

In all but a handful of cities in Canada, people run as independents, not as members of a party.  After last week’s elections I read a regional newspaper from Red Deer.  In virtually every article the elected mayor said how much they were looking forward to meeting the new councillors and finding out what they bring to the table.  Little gets done at the municipal level without meaningful discussion and compromise.  Councillors perceived as continually obstructionist tend to not get reelected.

We need to rethink the usefulness of party politics and, if not dispense with parties, at least consider ways to push them back to ideas and deemphasize ideologies..

And, what can we do?  We have not only a say in all of this, but a role to play.  I quoted Stephen Schneck earlier, “Foremost, democracy needs citizens virtuous enough to transcend self-interest in pursuit of what is good for the republic as a whole.”  We have to be those citizens.  We have to model an understanding of the common good to one another and then show it to our political leaders.  We have to put our own self interest to the side and look at the issues under discussion on their merit.  

Our city has a goal of creating 10% affordable or social housing in all areas of the city.  In some quarters this plan has sparked bitter NIMBY backlash based on assertions about crime and danger that are easily proven to be untrue.  Sure, our self interest matters, but if we are to support the common good, we need to look at issues from all sides.  And if we don’t adopt a belief in the common good as a virtue, how can we ever expect our elected representatives to do the same?

We must demand civility and responsibility from them.  The best way to do that is to show by our actions that it matters to us. If they won’t consult with us, we must start the consultation with letters and calls, with peaceful protest and petitions.  And we must show them what can be done civility and in a morally responsible way.

Our government will reflect our values.  If we won’t embrace and promote civility and the basic principles of democracy we are fools to think they will.

Diplomacity a sermon

Rev. Brian J. Kiely October 8, 2017  Unitarian Church of Edmonton

On October 16th we have the right and responsibility to go to the polls to elect a mayor, city council and school boards.  Historically these are the lowest turnout elections of the three levels of government we get to choose.  And in years like this when there are few real battles shaping up the turnout gets worse, as low as 25%.  The vast majority seem to think that if any elections matter, it’s the federal and provincial ones.  Civic elections are kind of like sideshows, junior high school in the political pecking order.

I want to suggest that this is getting it backwards. Democracy is fundamentally about the way people make decisions together for the greatest good.  As our children’s version of the Unitarian Universalist Principle puts it, every one should have a say in things that matter to them.  

Casting one vote of 17.5 million in a federal election is not much of a say. Perhaps we should be looking at key decisions being made at more manageable levels than in nation states.  The noted Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams wrote about the value of Voluntary Associations back in the 1960’s and 70’s. In forming his views he drew on his passion for our liberal church approach. 

Says biographer Van Erich Fox, 

 Adams’s conception of the meaning and importance of voluntary associations grew directly from his understanding of authentically free spirit in the free church. He described the free church as a body of believers freely joined in a covenant of loyalty to the holy spirit of love, intentionally inclusive of dissent, governed by its own members and fiercely independent from government control… He interpreted participation in voluntary associations, whatever the character of the government, as the chief means by which beneficial social change has been effected throughout history, and as key to the meaning of human history.

Remember, he was writing in the United States during the era when Black churches were spearheading the civil rights movement and where liberal churches were adding in a powerful voice against the Viet Nam war.  His main point was that grass roots democracy was where real change could take place, small group to small group.

Edmonton, with it’s community leagues, has a positive history where these local voluntary associations have a strong voice in development issues in their neighbourhoods, speed limits, park and leisure program development etc.  Council listens to community leagues.  It is fundamental democracy.

Increasingly, we are seeing a shift of meaningful political activity to the municipal level. This is where change takes place.  This is where things get done, as well will see.  It’s not exactly Adam’s vision, but it is closer than the federal/provincial/municipal hierarchy we are used to seeing. That model is a product of earlier times in Canadian history.

150 years ago, when the British North America Act became law recognizing Canada as an independent nation, fewer that 10% of the entire population lived in the 10 largest cities.  And ‘cities’ might have been an exaggeration.  Ottawa, the seat of the new government only had 26,000 people and the three smallest ‘cities’ would only be recognized as towns today.

In contrast to that 10% of dazzling urbanites fully 1/3 of enumerated workers laboured in the fields and fisheries.  And of course they would have had their families with them.  The vast majority lived in a rural setting. The point is that the the needs of cities didn’t matter all that much in the grand political scheme of things.  Our country was NOT set up either to serve the needs municipalities or to recognize any power they might have.

So given our federal/provincial/municipal pyramid of power, it’s easy to forget that it wasn’t always like that.  In ancient days there were city-states that dominated the political sphere.  

Parag Khan, a University of Singapore academic and author of Connectography:  Mapping the Future of Global Civilization reminds us that in the time before nation states, virtually all power was vested in the cities.  

“It is an ancient phenomena.  The cities of ancient Mesopotamia had trade agreements and decided on religion, currency etc. This goes back 4000 years.”

We do not speak so much about ancient Greece as we speak of Athens and Sparta.  And the western world was dramatically shaped by Rome, a city that became an empire.

The beginning of the rise of nation states as we now know them is debated by historians but the earliest date would be in the late 15th century during the Renaissance, though a more popular date would be about 1650 with the Treaty of Westphalia. 

Now the only important point to take from this historical sidetrack is that the idea of a federal government holding most of the critical powers is a modern concept.  For most of human history, reaching back several thousand years, cities (often built around the great castles) were the major organizing focus of populations.  They provided protection, avenues for commerce, a locus for services and behind high walls, security from marauding bands and armies.

David Miller, in our reading, argues that we are now experiencing a second rise of municipal power. .  

Even Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledged that in June at the 12th Metropolitan World Congress in Montreal.  He noted that unlike 1867, today 80% of the Canadian population lives in cities.  He also acknowledged that the existing federal system does not fully recognize that reality. “Cities and large cities are delivering 60 percent of services with only 10 percent of tax revenues.”

Think about that.  Cities deliver 60% of the public services we use to make our daily lives better: infrastructure, food delivery, medical services, education, housing and social housing, transportation, first responders, arts and culture.  Sure, some of these are co-funded and managed by other levels of government, but the services could not be delivered without city involvement.

There was an interesting example of the cities flexing their collective global muscles surrounding this World Congress.  It opened two weeks after the US President’s bold announcement he was pulling the US out of the Paris climate accord.  He said, “I was elected to represent Pittsburgh, not Paris.”

But Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto tweeted back instantly, “Fact: Hillary Clinton received 80% of the vote in Pittsburgh.  Pittsburgh stands with the world and will follow the Paris agreement.”  And this was followed by Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo tweeting, “Paris and Pittsburgh do stand together for the Paris agreement.”  

Within days 200 US mayors had stood up with Mr. Peduto and protested the president’s decision.  The push back was furious and powerful.

Now as much as I do enjoy seeing the US President being hoisted on his own petard, the tweet war reveals a more important fact:  City leaders around the world have realized that they have power to make real and meaningful day to day change, much more so than federal governments.   Why?  Because they are closer to the people and held to account by the people.  They rub shoulders with their electors every day, the interactions are far more direct.  This is one reason why city leaders are talking with each other and bypassing federal governments in the process.

Anne Hidalgo, who is also the current Chair of C40 the climate change body David Miller once chaired, said that “urban diplomacy” is needed because cities are on the frontline of global events.

“Cities need nation states but we can also be active on the international level,” she said. “Cities are on the front line of globalisation, where we see all the effects, from refugees to climate change. We don’t say that we are a counter power to national governments but we can still be a vocal power.”

Professor Parag Khana who compares ancient and modern city states has coined the term ‘diplomacity’.  By this he means both the ways cities reach out to each other and form ties and share policy initiatives on common causes.  But he also refers to how cities have to negotiate their way to meaningful power within their nations.

“The key issue is how much autonomy a city will have to pursue its own agenda. Also their capacity to get and spend the money they need to do what they have to do.  

“The action on climate change in cities is global.  More than 50% of the world’s population live in cities.  The demographic concentration and the economic resources have changed the balance of power…  Countries of even 100 or 200 million people with a mega city (Manila or Jakarta), their fate depends on what happens in that one city.  The progress in that city often depends on the mayor.  Sustainable urbanization is probably the single most global priority in the 21st century…Mayors are the ones on the front line. …Mayors just know better than anyone else how to run that ancient political unit that is the city.”

Khana’s comments are supported by former Toronto Mayor David Miller.

“… the job of being a mayor is an activist one. People expect you to produce results.  They don’t expect you just to say the right thing, they expect to see things really happen whether it’s building mass transit or changing the electricity grid.  They have that expectation, so mayors are impatient and action oriented.

“…I do see the rise of cities.  …We see (the) C40 being far more influential on …(climate change) and issues like inequality and I think as you see national boundaries (becoming) less and less relevant because of globalization and trade agreements, you’re going to see cities become more and more relevant.  They are already taking a place on the international stage.  Citizens who live in cities look first to the city … for services.  The services they deliver touch people in every way from health to transportation to libraries…  I see cities rising …”

Here in Edmonton we have seen a shift through the last two mayors to a more liveable city, a more global city and a more activist city.

Not everyone has liked that change and that’s fine.  As James Luther Adams wrote, voluntary associations only work if there is an intentional inclusion of dissent.

And so it comes back down to us.  The real question for each of us on October 16th is what kind of city do you want?  And maybe a second question is do you want this city to become a player in this new age of rising cities?  There sure are a whole lot of candidates out there and their platforms are available.  

Our Principles affirm and promote the use of the democratic process in our church and in society at large.  That means we are all called on to exercise our right and privilege when we are asked to set a course for the future of the city.  It’s not just a civic duty.  For Unitarians it’s a religious one as well.

Autism

Autism

“Autism” a diversity-theme sermon by Rev. Brian J. Kiely  Unitarian Church of Edmonton September 11, 2016

Introduction

This month we are asking “Where Do I See Diversity?”  In addressing this theme in Sunday services I wanted to stay away from some of the more obvious areas like race and gender and orientation.  Today we consider individuals who are not ‘normal’ – who are ‘damaged’ in some way.   This could include people with physical restrictions, mental illnesses, who live with the effects of brain damage and a few other categories.  In short I am thinking about anyone you encounter in the street who might cause you to start…or look away in embarrassment.

Of  course this is an enormous field of play, and so I have chosen to focus on a specific example trusting your intelligence to apply the basic principles to other situations.  I picked something about which I am just learning for personal reasons: autism.  Later I will define this condition, but first I would like to invite you to experience two video clips about what it’s like to live with autism.

Sermon

It’s possible you haven’t noticed this, but I am kind of a verbal guy.  Words matter to me. Shaping words, organizing words, speaking words.  Some people communicate through art or music or touch.  I primarily use words.

So when someone can’t use words in return, I am thrown.  I get out of my element.  I get uncomfortable.

I don’t think that’s particularly unique.   In last week’s service I suggested that embracing diversity requires that we stretch out of our comfort zones and our familiar habits.  In order to become truly accepting of diversity we have to open ourselves to really getting to know someone who is very different from us.  We have to strive to build a connection in ways that meet the needs of the other person as well as our own.  In order to do that we have to understand this person with whom we are trying to build a relationship.

Over the last nine months I have been slowly getting to know a severely autistic young man named Hunter Slevin.  You have seen him around the church, no doubt, accompanied by his family and his service dog Linus.  Hunter is non-verbal, nor can he write.  That’s not to say he can’t communicate.  He can, and very well on a limited number of subjects and feelings.  But for someone as verbal as me, building a relationship with him has been a challenge.  My prejudices, my fears, my lack of creativity keep tripping me up.

You have probably heard of the phrase Autism Spectrum.  This suggests that this particular condition touches people in a wide range of ways.  In fact each person’s autism seems to be unique to them.  The videos we saw are attempts to give some sense of what it might be like.  They are not definitive or absolute.  They are just a first step in helping the rest of us understand the kinds of things that affect people with Autism.

Some people with milder forms of this condition find ways to function successfully in the world of the majority. In fact for some the qualities that accompany their autism – qualities like intense focus – are what helped them become so successful in their fields. Actor Dan Ackroyd, Director Tim Burton, Actor Darryl Hannah,  Wolfgang Mozart (whose music we hear today), Isaac Newton, Emily Dickinson and Andy Warhol are people who have acknowledged or are suspected of having Asperger’s Syndrome or Autism.

And increasingly people farther along the spectrum are standing up and demanding to be heard.  Temple Grandin is an aggressive activist for autism and a frequent talk show guest.  With the hep of her Dad Carly Fischman wrote a book and produced the video you saw earlier.

Donna Williams is autistic but wrote a very compelling book in 1994 entitled Somebody Somewhere.

800px-donnawilliams2011
6808303-l

She offers this definition of Autism:

After twenty-five years of wondering what sort of stupid, mad or disturbed person I was, I had stumbled across a word that helped explain “my world”.  That word was “autism”.

All I knew of the word had been a dictionary definition – “withdrawn”.  So what, I had thought, knowing I had been withdrawn throughout much of my life.

From library books, I found a handful of conflicting theories.  Throughout the ages, autism had gone from being seen as being caused by everything from possession by fairy spirits to bad parenting.  From psychosis to emotional disturbance.  From retardation to a sleep disorder, and most recently as a developmental disorder occurring from either before or shortly after birth that affects how the brain uses incoming information.

There is a bit of truth in most theories, but the total truth is probably to be found in none.  Theories weren’t relevant to me.  What mattered to me was how my difficulties crippled and tied up the me inside.

Autism had had me in its cage for as long as I had ever known.  Autism had been there before thought, so that my first thoughts were nothing more than automatic, mirrored repetitions of those of others.  Autism had been there before sound so that my first words were the meaningless echo of the conversation of those around me.  Autism had been there before words, so that ninety-nine percent of my verbal repertoire was a stored-up collection of literal dictionary definitions and stock phrases.  Autism had been there before I’d ever known a want of my own, so that my first “wants” were copies of those seen in others (a lot of which came from TV).  Autism had been there before I’d learned how to use my own muscles, so that every facial expression or pose was a cartoon reflection of those around me.  Nothing was connected to self.  Without the barest foundations of self I was like a subject under hypnosis, totally susceptible to any programming or reprogramming without question or personal identification.  I was in a state of total alienation.  This, for me, was autism. 

So my first learning is that autism is not ‘retardation’ but more of an information processing problem. For most of us stimulus or information goes in, is processed and filtered for awhile and then a response comes out.  It seems that autistic people have problem with one or more steps in that process.

In the first video we saw, the little boy being overwhelmed in the mall caught me off guard.  I am so used to tuning out the distractions in malls and public places that it simply hadn’t occurred to me that others might have a problem with that.  Most of us have some ability to decide what we will attend to and what we will shut out. It protects us from being overwhelmed with sensation.

Some autistic people do not have that safety feature installed. Can you imagine what it might be like to be unable to filter extraneous sights and noises?  I think it would be a continuous assault and very disorienting. When it becomes too overwhelming, there is a meltdown.  Those can be quite scary for everyone.  So it’s important to help autistic people find coping mechanisms and to recognize the signs that the pressure is building.

But it’s not about managing the person or restricting them.  It’s about helping them find what they need.  As I said earlier, “We have to strive to build a connection in ways that meet the needs of the other person.” We have to!

Hunter, with help, has developed coping mechanisms.  In the video clip the little boy had a small stuffed dog that gave him something he could control.  In Hunter’s case you might see him with an iPad usually showing either Pride and Prejudice or an Esther Williams musical.  He knows how to call up his movies.  He gets to control that input.  The familiar sounds comfort him.  You might also see him with a belt or leash that he twirls with marvellous dexterity.  His mom calls that his flippy.  By twirling this familiar thing in his peripheral vision he is able to control some of that stimulus and manage his world.

I have learned these few things about Hunter and that has helped me grow more comfortable wit him.  And that’s the point when we are striving to accept diversity.  The inability to connect across some gap, whether its cultural, linguistic or medical is as much our problem as it is anyone else’s.

The other thing I appreciated about both videos were the expressions on the people observing the struggles.  Fear, suspicion, frustration, distaste, disgust at what was judged to be poor parenting.  All of these crossed the faces of the people in the videos.  I know those expressions because I have worn them from time to time.

It might be that the majority of the population can filter outside stimulus better, but we seem to have a tougher time filtering and managing inner judgementalism.  That’s one of the biggest barriers to increasing acceptance of diversity.  But we can do it.

Last week I told you of my elder daughter not seeing racial or religious difference as a ‘thing’.  This week it is younger daughter’s turn.  As our families have grown closer, she has simply embraced Hunter.  She sits near him in church,  guides him when he needs it and is able to help him focus and stay calm just by looking into his eyes – by seeing him as a person.  He is clearly growing closer to her.

img_4250

Last week our DRE Lauren Kay said that Hunter would be welcome to try the children’s program.  He was given the choice and immediately went with Elora into the class, a big smile playing on his face.  I’m told it went well.

Like most people, Hunter just wants to be included sometimes.  He might not be able to do all the same activities, but he can do some and perhaps even more importantly, he can feel a sense of belonging.

I don’t know where this natural skill and empathy comes from in my daughter…certainly not from her Dad, but I am very proud that she has it and can serve as my teacher.  I asked her what she wanted me to say to you about Hunter and other people with autism.  She said, “He is just him. We just have to see him for who he is and learn to just be with him.”

Author Donna Williams says much the same thing:

Autism is something I cannot see.  It stops me from finding and using my own words when I want to.  Or makes me use all the words and silly things I do not want to say.

Autism makes me feel everything at once without knowing what I am feeling.  Or cuts me off from feeling anything at all…

Autism makes me feel sometimes that I have no self at all, and I feel so overwhelmed by the presence of other people that I cannot find myself.  Autism can also make me so totally aware of myself that it is like the whole world around me becomes irrelevant and disappears…

The most important thing I have learned is that AUTISM IS NOT ME.

Autism is just an information processing problem that controls who I appear to be.  Autism tries to stop me from being free to be myself.  Autism tries to rob me of a life, of friendship, of caring, of sharing, of showing some interest, of using my intelligence, of being affected…it tries to bury me alive.

The world is filled with people who challenge our ability to affirm their inherent worth and dignity.  Some are ill, some are broken physically or spiritually, some are just nasty people.  The challenge for Unitarians remains:  How do we find a responsible way to affirm that inherent worth and dignity?  It is not easy, but when we have the opportunity to build a bridge to someone new, someone very different, I believe we are morally obliged to try out best.

Brian’s Blog

a collection of columns, sermons and musings on a variety of current issues

Autism

“Autism” a diversity-theme sermon by Rev. Brian J. Kiely  Unitarian Church of Edmonton September 11, 2016

Introduction

This month we are asking “Where Do I See Diversity?”  In addressing this theme in Sunday services I wanted to stay away from some of the more obvious areas like race and gender and orientation.  Today we consider individuals who are not ‘normal’ – who are ‘damaged’ in some way.   This could include people with physical restrictions, mental illnesses, who live with the effects of brain damage and a few other categories.  In short I am thinking about anyone you encounter in the street who might cause you to start…or look away in embarrassment.

Of  course this is an enormous field of play, and so I have chosen to focus on a specific example trusting your intelligence to apply the basic principles to other situations.  I picked something about which I am just learning for personal reasons: autism.  Later I will define this condition, but first I would like to invite you to experience two video clips about what it’s like to live with autism.

 

Sermon

It’s possible you haven’t noticed this, but I am kind of a verbal guy.  Words matter to me. Shaping words, organizing words, speaking words.  Some people communicate through art or music or touch.  I primarily use words.

So when someone can’t use words in return, I am thrown.  I get out of my element.  I get uncomfortable.

I don’t think that’s particularly unique.   In last week’s service I suggested that embracing diversity requires that we stretch out of our comfort zones and our familiar habits.  In order to become truly accepting of diversity we have to open ourselves to really getting to know someone who is very different from us.  We have to strive to build a connection in ways that meet the needs of the other person as well as our own.  In order to do that we have to understand this person with whom we are trying to build a relationship.

Over the last nine months I have been slowly getting to know a severely autistic young man named Hunter Slevin.  You have seen him around the church, no doubt, accompanied by his family and his service dog Linus.  Hunter is non-verbal, nor can he write.  That’s not to say he can’t communicate.  He can, and very well on a limited number of subjects and feelings.  But for someone as verbal as me, building a relationship with him has been a challenge.  My prejudices, my fears, my lack of creativity keep tripping me up.

You have probably heard of the phrase Autism Spectrum.  This suggests that this particular condition touches people in a wide range of ways.  In fact each person’s autism seems to be unique to them.  The videos we saw are attempts to give some sense of what it might be like.  They are not definitive or absolute.  They are just a first step in helping the rest of us understand the kinds of things that affect people with Autism.

Some people with milder forms of this condition find ways to function successfully in the world of the majority. In fact for some the qualities that accompany their autism – qualities like intense focus – are what helped them become so successful in their fields. Actor Dan Ackroyd, Director Tim Burton, Actor Darryl Hannah,  Wolfgang Mozart (whose music we hear today), Isaac Newton, Emily Dickinson and Andy Warhol are people who have acknowledged or are suspected of having Asperger’s Syndrome or Autism.

And increasingly people farther along the spectrum are standing up and demanding to be heard.  Temple Grandin is an aggressive activist for autism and a frequent talk show guest.  With the hep of her Dad Carly Fischman wrote a book and produced the video you saw earlier.

Donna Williams is autistic but wrote a very compelling book in 1994 entitled Somebody Somewhere.

800px-donnawilliams2011

6808303-lShe offers this definition of Autism:

After twenty-five years of wondering what sort of stupid, mad or disturbed person I was, I had stumbled across a word that helped explain “my world”.  That word was “autism”.

All I knew of the word had been a dictionary definition – “withdrawn”.  So what, I had thought, knowing I had been withdrawn throughout much of my life.

From library books, I found a handful of conflicting theories.  Throughout the ages, autism had gone from being seen as being caused by everything from possession by fairy spirits to bad parenting.  From psychosis to emotional disturbance.  From retardation to a sleep disorder, and most recently as a developmental disorder occurring from either before or shortly after birth that affects how the brain uses incoming information.

There is a bit of truth in most theories, but the total truth is probably to be found in none.  Theories weren’t relevant to me.  What mattered to me was how my difficulties crippled and tied up the me inside.

Autism had had me in its cage for as long as I had ever known.  Autism had been there before thought, so that my first thoughts were nothing more than automatic, mirrored repetitions of those of others.  Autism had been there before sound so that my first words were the meaningless echo of the conversation of those around me.  Autism had been there before words, so that ninety-nine percent of my verbal repertoire was a stored-up collection of literal dictionary definitions and stock phrases.  Autism had been there before I’d ever known a want of my own, so that my first “wants” were copies of those seen in others (a lot of which came from TV).  Autism had been there before I’d learned how to use my own muscles, so that every facial expression or pose was a cartoon reflection of those around me.  Nothing was connected to self.  Without the barest foundations of self I was like a subject under hypnosis, totally susceptible to any programming or reprogramming without question or personal identification.  I was in a state of total alienation.  This, for me, was autism. 

So my first learning is that autism is not ‘retardation’ but more of an information processing problem. For most of us stimulus or information goes in, is processed and filtered for awhile and then a response comes out.  It seems that autistic people have problem with one or more steps in that process.

In the first video we saw, the little boy being overwhelmed in the mall caught me off guard.  I am so used to tuning out the distractions in malls and public places that it simply hadn’t occurred to me that others might have a problem with that.  Most of us have some ability to decide what we will attend to and what we will shut out. It protects us from being overwhelmed with sensation.

Some autistic people do not have that safety feature installed. Can you imagine what it might be like to be unable to filter extraneous sights and noises?  I think it would be a continuous assault and very disorienting. When it becomes too overwhelming, there is a meltdown.  Those can be quite scary for everyone.  So it’s important to help autistic people find coping mechanisms and to recognize the signs that the pressure is building.

But it’s not about managing the person or restricting them.  It’s about helping them find what they need.  As I said earlier, “We have to strive to build a connection in ways that meet the needs of the other person.” We have to!

Hunter, with help, has developed coping mechanisms.  In the video clip the little boy had a small stuffed dog that gave him something he could control.  In Hunter’s case you might see him with an iPad usually showing either Pride and Prejudice or an Esther Williams musical.  He knows how to call up his movies.  He gets to control that input.  The familiar sounds comfort him.  You might also see him with a belt or leash that he twirls with marvellous dexterity.  His mom calls that his flippy.  By twirling this familiar thing in his peripheral vision he is able to control some of that stimulus and manage his world.

I have learned these few things about Hunter and that has helped me grow more comfortable wit him.  And that’s the point when we are striving to accept diversity.  The inability to connect across some gap, whether its cultural, linguistic or medical is as much our problem as it is anyone else’s.

The other thing I appreciated about both videos were the expressions on the people observing the struggles.  Fear, suspicion, frustration, distaste, disgust at what was judged to be poor parenting.  All of these crossed the faces of the people in the videos.  I know those expressions because I have worn them from time to time.

It might be that the majority of the population can filter outside stimulus better, but we seem to have a tougher time filtering and managing inner judgementalism.  That’s one of the biggest barriers to increasing acceptance of diversity.  But we can do it.

Last week I told you of my elder daughter not seeing racial or religious difference as a ‘thing’.  This week it is younger daughter’s turn.  As our families have grown closer, she has simply embraced Hunter.  She sits near him in church,  guides him when he needs it and is able to help him focus and stay calm just by looking into his eyes – by seeing him as a person.  He is clearly growing closer to her.

img_4250

Last week our DRE Lauren Kay said that Hunter would be welcome to try the children’s program.  He was given the choice and immediately went with Elora into the class, a big smile playing on his face.  I’m told it went well.

Like most people, Hunter just wants to be included sometimes.  He might not be able to do all the same activities, but he can do some and perhaps even more importantly, he can feel a sense of belonging.

I don’t know where this natural skill and empathy comes from in my daughter…certainly not from her Dad, but I am very proud that she has it and can serve as my teacher.  I asked her what she wanted me to say to you about Hunter and other people with autism.  She said, “He is just him. We just have to see him for who he is and learn to just be with him.”

Author Donna Williams says much the same thing:

Autism is something I cannot see.  It stops me from finding and using my own words when I want to.  Or makes me use all the words and silly things I do not want to say.

Autism makes me feel everything at once without knowing what I am feeling.  Or cuts me off from feeling anything at all…

Autism makes me feel sometimes that I have no self at all, and I feel so overwhelmed by the presence of other people that I cannot find myself.  Autism can also make me so totally aware of myself that it is like the whole world around me becomes irrelevant and disappears…

The most important thing I have learned is that AUTISM IS NOT ME.

Autism is just an information processing problem that controls who I appear to be.  Autism tries to stop me from being free to be myself.  Autism tries to rob me of a life, of friendship, of caring, of sharing, of showing some interest, of using my intelligence, of being affected…it tries to bury me alive.

The world is filled with people who challenge our ability to affirm their inherent worth and dignity.  Some are ill, some are broken physically or spiritually, some are just nasty people.  The challenge for Unitarians remains:  How do we find a responsible way to affirm that inherent worth and dignity?  It is not easy, but when we have the opportunity to build a bridge to someone new, someone very different, I believe we are morally obliged to try out best.

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