I imagine I’m not the only one who found themselves looking at the date lately and thinking, “It’s only February.” Our long January was particularly jarring given the hope and anticipation many of us felt in December.
January had other plans of course. COVID-19 cases across the country spiked. News of more infectious strains and their inevitable proliferation added to the urgency of our need for vaccines — vaccines that would soon hit distribution delays here in Canada and around the world.
Our sense of collective malaise was only amplified by the scenes of the violent riot in Washington, D.C. on January 6. Images of shattered windows and police officers helpless to stop a surging mob descending on this symbol of democracy only added to the sense of dread that perhaps 2021 would not be the year we turn things around.
But then, just two weeks later, a young woman by the name of Amanda Gorman walked to a lectern and stopped us in our tracks with words of hope and promise. Many of you no doubt listened to what she had to say — and if you didn’t, I encourage you to seek it out — but one phrase has stuck with me:
And yet the dawn is ours before we knew it.
Somehow we do it,
somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed
a nation that isn’t broken,
but simply unfinished.
These words have a wisdom and a meaning far beyond their intended audience and have steeled my resolve as we face down these coming months, and even years, of promise and uncertainty. I am hopeful and grateful.
Indeed, Canada is not broken, but has remained unfinished for a great number of our citizens for some time now. This pandemic has exposed more than ever the inequality of health and living standards in a number of Indigenous communities. The present debate in the Senate on medical assistance in dying has been an education to me on the lack of support available to our disabled Canadians and the concerns of those with significant mental health issues.
We must work toward tomorrow now. Vaccinations and continued economic supports will remain our focus for the time being, but we can’t lose sight of those problems that will remain, and even arise, as the pandemic abates. Thousands of Canadians will continue to suffer from the long-term health effects of their encounters with COVID-19, swelling the ranks of Canadians who are not receiving the supports they need. Thousands more will have lost their livelihoods and will require continued economic supports to get back on their feet and rebuild their lives.
These challenges cannot be met if leaders and politicians fall into the trap of polarized political thought and an increasingly adversarial approach to doing business. We must work together, listen, respect different viewpoints and find common ground. Canadians will not receive the support they need if gamesmanship and cynical political stunts rule the day. This pandemic has shown that no politician in any jurisdiction is perfect. Mistakes have been made at both the policy and personal level, and when the time comes it will be up to voters and peers to decide if those mistakes are forgivable or warrant a change. Whatever the case, these coming days and months are too important to approach politics as a zero-sum game of victory over one’s political opponents.
Disagreement is important. Our democracy relies on it. But disagreement can give way to detestation, and the scenes south of the border in January show where this leads. These coming years are too important to behave with an “us vs. them” attitude. Governments of all stripes must be seen as speaking for all their constituents if policies and practices are to be seen as legitimate and good for everyone. Opposition parties must hold governments to account, but they must do so by offering alternatives. They must question policies, not motives. Undermining the public trust in government will not only hurt the party in power at the time, but governments that are to follow as well. And trust has never been more important than it is right now.
We are all Canadian, and it’s only through co-operation and compromise in the present that we can lift those up for whom Canada remains “unfinished.” So — together — let’s do this!
Senator Marty Deacon represents Ontario (Waterloo region)