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The deep democracy of a Canadian Town Meeting with Michael Ignatieff

Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff makes himself available. Photograph by Linda Solomon. See more pictures here.

I take my seat towards the back of the Kay Meek Centre in West Vancouver for Thursday evening’s Open Mic Town Hall Meeting, sponsored by the Liberal Party. It’s an older crowd, which is to say people my age, but soon I’m surrounded by high school students—Grade 10, they tell me—a social studies class on a field trip. There’s a good bit of moving around so Dave can sit next to Cheryl and Bob can sit with his buddies. There’s some last minute texting, but they’re also talking about jets and whether or not we’re playing into the hands of the Americans and what might happen if Canada pulls out of the deal.

Already they know more than I do. But then I’m here to learn. It’s time. Next month I’m eligible to apply for citizenship. And what I need is a good high school social studies text and this—to hear what Canadian politicians have to say and—more important—how they say it. 

I am painfully aware that less than a week ago in Tuscon, Arizona, 19 people were shot and six killed at a meeting such as this. Nothing in me is smug about the safety of Canada. I’m here tonight to see how we conduct our political discourse.

There are no police, no visible, menacing presence of armed security guards. No pat-downs or searches. I sign in, am given a ticket, and find my seat.

Not that I’m surprised. But I have to admit I’m relieved. It suddenly occurs to me that I have avoided large public gatherings since landing in Canada in 2007. I needed time away—from all of it: red/blue, liberal/conservative, North/South, black/ white.

I wasn’t cynical; I was exhausted. My last 30 years in America just plain wore me out.

Tonight, it isn’t so much what Michael Ignatieff, Dan Veniez, and Scott Brison say or don’t say, as it is who’s allowed to pose questions and the candor with which they speak, the respect with which their questions are answered, the personal pain expressed, the frustration, the yearning, and the hope.

Most important of all, together we manage to create the atmosphere necessary for free speech in an open forum. Respectful. Safe. Honest. Engaged.

I guess that’s why I attended tonight: to see if that was still possible anywhere in North America.

Not since Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich addressed a similar meeting in the State of Maine have I come away with such hope—no, it’s more than hope; it’s confidence, I think, and a renewed conviction—that real political dialogue can flourish. It’s what must flourish, and, clearly, it’s our responsibility as Canadians to continue to create the conditions for that dialogue; in fact, to serve as models that others can look to.

I’m convinced that this ability lives in the Canadian character. It lives in Canadian’s history of international peacekeeping and mediation. It lives in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It must continue to live in the way we conduct business, the way we educate young people, and the way we engage each other politically.

Ignatieff called this old fashioned politics: “up close and no holds barred.” To my mind the old politics is what we see too much of in the United States and elsewhere. What I experience at tonight’s Town Meeting is emblematic of a new politic that is trying to emerge—not just here, but in the States and in Europe and Palestine and South America and—God willing—even China. What this requires of our leaders is wisdom, eldership, stewardship, emotional and relationship intelligence; not only a clear understanding of the constituents and our needs, but also an exquisite awareness of what goes on in the space between us, and the ability to cultivate the atmosphere we need for fruitful conversation.

The Town Hall was hosted by West Vancouver - Sunshine Coast Sea-to-Sky Liberal Candidate Daniel Veniez.

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