Satya Brata Das

Satya Brata Das

What do we do after voting “none of the above?”

Canadians will go to the polls next Monday to elect a new House of Commons, and brace themselves for the rancour that will follow on Tuesday. 

The results, no matter how votes are split, will reflect the significant divide in Canada’s political culture. Roughly two thirds of us identify ourselves with parties of the centre or centre-left. About a third of us identify with parties of the centre-right.

This leaves unsolved the issue of whether Canadians are moderate radicals or radical moderates.

A fair question, since even the “far right” party with about three per cent support in polls believes immigration should be capped at 150,000 people per year, and all parties support the principles of affordable public education and state-led universal health care. 

The only significant disagreement is what to do about climate change. Yet even here the argument is about the pace of transition from fossil fuels to other forms of energy – because the marketplace has made the decision, and transnational energy companies are committing themselves to an “all of the above” energy policy, chasing profit wherever it is to be found.

Barring a major shift over the weekend, Canadians will essentially vote “none of the above,” refusing to give any party a strong, overwhelming, absolute mandate to shape our collective future. In doing so, we will be giving full voice and vigour to the motto on Canada’s Coat of Arms: we desire a better country (desiderantes meliorem patriam).

We will ask our representatives to find consensus and unity in the fragmented Parliament we elect, asking them to move beyond a party politics of narrow interest to serve the common good. That in fact is as it should be, when the weaknesses and limits of partisan democracy are leading so many of our citizens to question democracy itself, and declare that our system is broken.

Yet if we are to make the better country we desire, we ourselves must embrace a better way of speaking to and with our fellow citizens. We must resist the feed on our screens full of ranting absolutists who claim only their particular interpretation of the world must prevail. My neighbour and I often have placards for differing political parties on our lawns come election time, yet none of that diminishes our civility and warmth towards one another.

We shouldn’t lose sight of that daily civility, as social media algorithms herd users towards “information” that confirms their biases, and the civic space for reasoned public dialogue diminishes.

As our disunited House of Commons will show next week, we will be forced to talk through – and overcome – our divisions. Finding coexistence among many realities is the heart of pluralism: a mingling that acknowledges and accommodates disagreement, and a continuous search for the trade-offs we are willing to make, until we emerge with common ground.  

That search for common ground is also a Canadian tradition: it is at the heart of our indigenous culture, where for more than 10,000 years we have met in circles where all are equal, all are listened to with respect, where all perspectives are given full consideration.

Pluralism encourages us to connect the better angels of our nature. By creating and nurturing shared values. By looking beyond our passionately-held perspectives to find what united us.  To rediscover the merits of cooperation and collaboration and shared purpose: to foster the common wealth and the common good. 

Pluralism is all about accommodating differences. It is about finding the compromises necessary so that people from very different backgrounds, raised with divergent experiences, each one’s version of “truth” shaded by the perceptions that have made them, can find a way to share a society.

More than that, it creates the civic space to revive Gandhi’s ideals of a just society. In Gandhi’s view, the glue of social cohesion was to be selfless. 

Rather than the pursuit of individual liberty, he believed in the fulfilment of individual obligations. Our obligations to our family, our friends. The responsibility to care for one another, to believe in one another, to build the bonds of love and trust and fellowship and companionship.

Gandhi had no illusions about the chicanery of politics, about the corrosive power of greed and inequality. Giving of yourself, in the service of those in your family and your community, took precedence over gratifying your personal desires and the exclusive pursuit of your personal happiness. And above all, to make these sacrifices without expecting anything in return. This in itself is the polar opposite of transactional relationships. He believed that this willingness to sacrifice makes you fearless.

His second method was to walk in the shoes of the dispossessed, the forgotten, those at the fringes of society. Gandhi believed that the only democracy worthy of the name would put human dignity far ahead of accumulated wealth. Once the poorest enjoyed the same respect accorded to the wealthiest, when the human dignity of the poorest in a society mattered above all, then we could rightly claim that the arc of history would bend toward justice.

Gandhi thought economic inequality was a tyranny with a sugar coating: that the interests of the rich and powerful would always prevail until we all recognised our obligation to uplift the weakest and powerless.

I continue to believe that we Canadians are well suited to be stewards and champions of Gandhi’s ideals: building communities that work for us all.

Canada’s Constitution was never meant to establish democracy as a tribal competition of ideas with winners and losers. Rather, our blend of individual and collective rights is a recipe for meaningful participation in the shared life of one’s community and society.

Agreement and consensus aren’t necessary at every step for social cohesion – there’s no reason to think the  “common purpose” essential to the common good and the common wealth must carry an implicit unanimity. In fact, just as you can find multiple paths to the same destination, common purpose can be achieved by an open-hearted and open-minded to one another.

We will know we are there when you demand nothing more or less of each other than honesty, integrity, transparency, accountability and wisdom. Once that is reflected by us, within us, and among ourselves, nearly everything else is detail. For this is how we take the honest measure of our worth. And demonstrate the value of these values.

Canada is the greatest of human experiments, to bring together many streams of humanity and ask us to build a shared country where all flourish. Let’s not lose sight of that, as we survey the political landscape we face on Tuesday morning.

Satya’s new book Us charts a course from the politics of fear to the politics of love.

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