The Courage that Changed Nations

Courage changes lives. We are surrounded by a million acts of personal courage but nearly all are unseen and unsung. There is the courage of the shy boy raising his hand in the classroom and the timid girl clenching her jaw and walking on to the playground when, for many girls, it is a battlefield. There is the courage of the single Mom somehow managing another morning of scurrying kids to school and herself to work while wondering if there will be more month than money. Courage is not the absence of fear but the presence of determination. Courage is the world’s greatest agent of change.

Courage changes also nations.

In 1990, secret meetings between Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and provincial and territorial leaders led to the Meech Lake Accord. The short document detailed a series of constitutional changes that shifted significant power from the federal government. It was designed to seduce Quebec into doing what it had refused to do nine years before and sign Canada’s new Constitution with its embedded Charter of Rights and Freedoms. One by one, provincial and territorial governments ratified the Meech Lake deal before its looming June 23 deadline. No one expected what happened next.

The speaker of Manitoba’s legislature asked for unanimous consent to waive a two-day waiting period and immediately begin the ratification debate. Alone among his colleagues, with an eagle feather in hand, Elijah Harper said no. Harper was an Ojibwa-Cree and former Chief of the Red Sucker Lake Community. His bold action in the House that day reflected the anger of many Aboriginal people who were upset that they had been left out of the process that created the Meech Lake Accord and that its constitutional changes ignored their concerns. Their historic concerns and pleas for respect had not been dismissed by those who designed the constitutional accord. Worse. Their concerns and pleas had not even crossed their minds. Harper’s no paralyzed the legislature. It stunned the country.

The legitimate concerns of Aboriginal nations had not been dismissed by those who designed the constitutional accord. Worse. The concerns had not even crossed their minds. Then Harper’s no paralyzed the legislature. It stunned the country.

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(Photo: Rabble.ca)

The next day, the speaker again asked for unanimous consent. Again, Mr. Harper said no. Eight times he said no until the clock ran out. The debate never happened. Newfoundland’s premier then refused to bring his legislature to a vote. Meech Lake was dead.

Prime Minister Mulroney was enraged, thought Harper was stupid, but understood the magnitude of what had just changed. He set to work constructing a new series of constitutional amendments that would become the Charlottetown Accord. This time, though, Mulroney sought a broader consensus. He ensured that Aboriginal people were part of the consultation and decision-making process.

Native nations spoke with many voices and all were heard. The Assembly of First Nations, Inuit Tapirisat of Canada, the Native Council of Canada, and the Métis National Council all participated in consultations and helped shape the final document.

The accord presented to the Canadian people in a 2009 referendum stated that, after a three-year waiting period, Aboriginal peoples would be granted self-government. Treaty rights would be entrenched in the Constitution. This time, however, for reasons that had little to do with Native participation or promises made, it was the Canadian peoples’ turn to say no.  The Charlottetown Accord was tossed on history’s scrap heap atop Meech Lake.

But a change had happened. Harper’s lesson was learned. The Charlottetown consultations had brought Aboriginal issues to the forefront of Canada’s civic conversation. Afterward, a Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples allowed a national airing of history’s insults, crimes, and atrocities. It led to a federal law that met Charlottetown’s promise: the recognition of the inherent right of Aboriginal self-government and a constitutional recognition of treaty rights. Parliament issued an apology for the unforgivable horrors of the government and church-run residential schools.

Aboriginal nations were now in the halls of power with more of their concerns recognized and better understood. But where laws and hearts must walk in tandem, change is slow. Many infuriatingly complex problems still face Aboriginal peoples and shape their place within Canada. Problems three hundred years in the making are not being quickly solved. But they are no longer ignored, and, despite occasional setbacks, there is steady, often begrudging, but determined progress.

A year after his brave stand in the Manitoba legislature, Elijah Harper received the prestigious Stanley Knowles Humanitarian Award. It was the same award given by the Canadian parliament to Nelson Mandela for the courage he showed in helping to end South Africa’s apartheid. Harper accepted the award with the same quiet, humility with which he had sat with his eagle feather and said no. Courage, after all, is neither brash nor boastful. Courage acknowledges doubt and fear but refuses to be cowed by them. It is the humility of the shy boy, timid girl, and single Mom who summon quiet courage to change and shape their lives. It is the courage of Mr. Harper who changed the Canadian nation and Aboriginal nations by placing them on the road to where they should always have been.

Redemption’s road is long and rocky but we must all summon the courage to travel it and to do so together. Let the drinking water be cleaned, let the children be educated, let the murdered and missing women be investigated, recognized, and mourned, let the treaties be obeyed, the land respected, and respect ensured. As the courageous Mr. Harper knew, it’s been too long, but it’s not too late.

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Redemption Earned and Denied

Every novel, play, movie, and TV episode is the same. From Gilgamesh to Game of Thrones they all have three parts. The first act introduces the protagonist and the major conflict he needs to address. The second finds him torn down by difficulties he either creates himself or has visited upon him. The protagonist digs deep into his psyche, revisits what truly matters, recommits to that in which he once believed, and reinvents himself. If the work is done sincerely and well, the third act finds him stronger than ever, at one with his true self, and with redemption earned. The cowboy rides into the sunset, lovers gaze into each other’s eyes, and the mother and child hug as the last page is turned, the curtain falls, or the screen fades to black.

American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in The Last Tycoon, “There are no second acts in American lives.” He was suggesting that Americans want to avoid the hard work of existential angst and introspection. Instead, they seek short cuts from the first to third acts. Fitzgerald observed, “The tragedy of these men was that nothing in their lives had really bitten deep at all.” They want rewards without cost, rights without responsibilities, and redemption without reflection.

Sadly, too many examples afford credence to Fitzgerald’s observation. Consider Richard Nixon. He used dirty tricks to win the presidency in 1968 and again 1972. He then illegally spied upon and attacked enemies whom he considered anyone who disagreed with him or his worldview. He treated questions as disloyalty, senior staff as attack dogs, the constitution as an annoyance, and those he was there to serve as saps. Watergate was unique only because he got caught.

After resigning in disgrace, he tried to ignite his third act by writing a number of books but it didn’t work. In interviews and his memoirs, he admitted mistakes and regret for having let Americans down but insisted that Watergate was simply a low rent burglary that should never have destroyed a presidency. He could never admit that it was never really about the break in. Rather, the scandal centred upon the clumsy attempts to cover up and manage mistakes, his reckless disrespect for political culture and proper process, and his flaunting of the spirit as much as the letter of the law.

Americans instinctively recognized that Nixon was attempting to pull a Fitzgerald and skip from acts one to three. They had none of it. They have still not forgiven him. For Richard Nixon, there has been no redemption.

Redemption has no shortcuts. This is a tough truth. We have all done something for which we feel regret and perhaps shame. To move forward there is simply no option save entering the dark and difficult second act and then demonstrating, not just talking about, fundamental change. In January 2011, Dr. Alex Lickerman wrote in Psychology Today, “We must fully recognize that we’ve done wrong; fully accept responsibility for having done it; determine never to do it again; apologize to those we’ve done it to (if appropriate); and resolve to aim at improving ourselves in the general direction of good.”

We can’t say we’re sorry if we don’t really mean it and it won’t matter anyway if we can’t or won’t change. We can’t fool others and, in the end, we can’t fool ourselves. After all, if a faulty steering wheel put us in the ditch, then saying sorry without fixing the wheel will have us off the road again in no time. We become childhood’s refugees, blaming colleagues, bosses, staff, parents, spouses, the stars, an interfering or absent God, and anything and anyone but ourselves. Our families, organizations, or companies, unfortunately and unfairly, pay the highest price for our obstinacy. In such circumstances we deserve to be removed from the driver’s seat through dismissal, divorce, social exile, or, in Nixon’s case, resignation.

For what it’s worth, I think Fitzgerald was wrong. I sincerely believe that most of us are willing and capable of undertaking a second act journey. Right now there are many among us struggling to rescue relationships, marriages, leadership positions, and ultimately themselves. Celebrate them. But watch warily. Those willing to do the work with humility and sincerity, and who are of sufficiently sound moral rectitude, will find old enablers and habits gone but ultimately see second act efforts rewarded with forgiveness earned and redemption deserved.

May we live and work with these people. May we be these people.

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