Monday, August 29, 2011

The Alternative

No one delivers a speech the way Stephen Lewis does. His diction is crisp and clear and his passion is absolutely authentic. But a Lewis speech is more than just a performance. It always clarifies a situation. And, most of the time, it places alternatives in stark relief.

Such was the case on Saturday, during Lewis' eulogy for Jack Layton. If you required proof of Lewis' ability to bring clarity to the moment, all you needed to do was to see the distinct discomfort on the faces of the government ministers in the audience. Stephen Harper seemed less disturbed -- although Lewis' reference to "social democracy" must have stuck in his craw.

However, it was good to have Harper in the room. For his presence and Stephen Lewis' presence personified two visions of Canada -- one that is relatively new and borrowed, the other older than Confederation and at the heart of the country.

In his book, A Fair Country, John Ralston Saul calls Canada a "metis nation" whose founding principles are essentially aboriginal, not European. He says that the Canadian vision owes much to the native concept of the ever widening circle, which makes room for others, rather than a narrow nationalism of the blood, which defines others as outsiders.

Harper's vision of the country goes back to the Enlightenment  -- which is not to say that it is enlightened. It focuses on Jefferson's assertion that the best government is the government which governs least. It defines generosity in strictly economic terms; and, it holds, with Margaret Thatcher, that:

There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It's our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations. There's no such thing as entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation.

Aboriginal society recognized obligations.  But it went further than simple obligations. Those obligations were based upon respect. Jack Layton believed, said Stephen Lewis, in  "the politics of respect for all, respect for the Earth and respect for principle and generosity." Jack Layton believed that, above all else, Canada should be a generous nation. As Lewis said,

if there was one word that might sum up Jack Layton’s unabashed social democratic message, it would be generosity. He wanted, in the simplest and most visceral terms, a more generous Canada.

Those are the essential differences between Stephen Harper and Jack Layton -- respect and generosity. Layton offered Canadians a distinctly alternative vision. Those who require proof should review the now formidable library of Conservative attack ads.

The choice has been defined. The future is about to unfold.

This entry is cross posted at The Moderate Voice.

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