Picture courtesy the Prime Minister’s Office of Canada.
I write this on the day of elections in Canada, a country excited about change after a dark period of conservative rule. I have no issue with conservatives as over the years I have supported conservative candidates. However, it is about leadership – a leader who has tried to control everything through a Prime Minister’s Office, the PMO, and no government official can speak or write or be written about before getting clearance from the PMO and, I thought I had left it all behind when I moved to Canada from Sri Lanka in 2011.
A week after landing in Toronto, a good friend organized a meeting with a leading educator, author and activist who ran an NGO for homeless people to be retrained in the hospitality industry in Canada. I was shocked when he said, ”As you are moving to Ottawa, mind your own business and don’t get involved in politics as you settle into your new life. I do not agree with many things this government does, yet I keep my mouth shut and keep my head down or they will cut off my funding”. His NGO was partly financed by the Canadian government and any dissent risked losing his funds, like many NGOs – environmental, aboriginal rights to human rights – have lost in the last ten years.
I was amazed as I wondered as to why this trend is following me. I was in Sri Lanka when President Premadasa decimated the Sarvodaya Shramadana Sangamaya with the NGO Commission, because he felt threatened by Dr. Ariyatane’s popularity. The NGO commission then went onto destroy many organizations that were deemed a threat to the state and its political leadership and the trend continued.
More recently, we know the Rajapakse regime, having liberated the country from war, was not gracious in their victory. They hoarded power, kept the spoils to themselves to get blindsided by an unlikely coalition of Sirisena and Wickremesinghe, aided and abetted by former President Kumaratunga.
The people rose and spoke to prove that the tradition of democracy is well and alive in Sri Lanka. I take a bow to everyone who participated in that election.
I heard it was a nail biter. The stories of President Rajapakse calling on the Elections Commissioner, Chief Justice and Armed Services Chiefs to an early morning meeting to request the annulment of the election as he felt the movement in the air, to a rebuke – “we will honour the will of the people”. Whether true or not, this made my hair stand on its end, as the Rajapakses were certainly planning to stay for long, yet the people’s will prevailed.
Why not learn from History?
However, history everywhere, from China’s long dynasties circa 1 AD and before to Europe, Asia all went through the rise and fall of their emperors and the changes in dynasties. Ironically, even if there was no democracy as we see it today, the will of the people drove the fall of many of these leaders.
As such today, Prime Minister Harper should not be surprised if people rise to the occasion to say enough of mean-spirited politics and an ideology that favours only the free market and the wealthy few. Enough to dividing politics along race and religion, as he takes on the recent immigrants, who he calls second tier Canadians.
We know when a political leader espouses these sentiments of prejudice, unmindful fearful people are swayed to take action and hurt others, as we saw in Sri Lanka with its recent attacks with impunity, by the Sinhala extremists on the Muslim communities, when many innocent people lost lives in the Aluthgama area.
It was the same politics that silenced, assaulted and even assassinated so many civil society voices and journalists over the last 20 years.
Responsible political leaders will not stoke these fires as when they inflame, it spreads like wild-fire to destroy nations. As Canada evolves on the Value of respect and pluralism built by immigrants and now learning to make amends and honour its First People – the Aboriginals, the Inuit and the Metis, we need a more mindful and balanced leadership, as the issues are complex and diverse.
So tonight on 19th October 2015, like we saw an amazing will of the people vote for change in Sri Lanka on 8th January 2015, we may just see the same will saying no to nastiness, division and polarization and yes to a decorum based on unity, harmony and balance.