After the election: of kittens and cabinets

The opinions that are held with passion are always those for which no good ground exists; indeed the passion is the measure of the holders lack of rational conviction. Opinions in politics and religion are almost always held passionately.
― Bertrand Russell, Sceptical Essays

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I found this “Kittens against Stephen Harper” posted on a fence in uptown Saint John and I just had to have it. I hope the poster can forgive me for absconding with it but it made me laugh so spontaneously (it still raises a chuckle) I couldn’t let it go. For me, whether deliberately or not, it captured the frustration I felt throughout our now-concluded federal campaign. As a number of my recent blogs have argued, that campaign showed signs of Canada drifting toward an American-style polarization of right and left that scared me. As a Canadian, rightly or wrongly, I have long treasured what I, and many others, see as our long history of moderation and tolerance. I’m hoping that the extremes we saw over the last few months are an aberration and that we are now “back to our old selves”, you might say.

Kittens against Stephen Harper? For all of the apparent exaggeration, it really did start to feel that way, at least among a number of the people I know. I can’t recall a time when so many were so animated in their “hatred” (is that too strong a word?) of a public figure in this country. It seemed as though the election was repeatedly drawn in the starkest of terms, very much an “us vs them” or, dare I say it, “good vs evil”. Some will say I am, myself, exaggerating the extremity of opinion but I don’t think I’m that far off. Mind you, much of what I’m using as the basis of my view is social media but the more mainstream media and personal conversations I had seemed to support my contention overall.

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And the thing is, I’m happy to acknowledge that many things that Harper’s government did were objectionable to me personally. I was no fan of Omnibus Bills, extremes of message control, half-hearted action on climate change, paranoia on many fronts, mandatory sentencing, etc. That being said, I also hold that such actions were undertaken out of a view that they were in the interests of the country and its citizens. But, as I’ve had occasion to say to a few people lately, we live in an age where outrage is fashionable. As the words from Bertrand Russell above suggest, one of the easiest alternatives to a meaningful argument is strong feeling. Personally, I would have much preferred to hear more of the argument and less of the outrage. As for any final verdict on Harper’s contribution to the country, I’ll leave that to time and historians.

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As I said earlier, though, I’m hoping that Canada, in the meantime, can return to its senses. And the actions of our new Prime Minister, so far, seem designed to restore all kinds of faith for all kinds of people. The optimism is near universal although, predictably, some have found things to complain about, most notably the composition of the new cabinet. The naysayers point to gender balance as inappropriate and a false requirement imposed at the expense of merit. My knee-jerk reaction to that one is to go “Really?!?” with a look of dismay plastered on my face but, in line with my own argument, an explanation is the better way.

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A Cabinet Minister in Canadian legislatures – federal, provincial or territorial – certainly has a job to do in a specified arena of interest but to imagine that the background of an individual can somehow be the sole measure of qualification for the position suggests a misunderstanding, in my view, of both the role and the nature of the job itself. Justin Trudeau has done an admirable job of lining up ministers with portfolios that match elements of their professional and educational backgrounds – and that is certainly one thing to think about when making such choices – but the media has made me laugh with their comments on one appointee, comments that supposedly highlight this minister’s appropriateness for the portfolio. The minister in question? Marc Garneau, incoming Minister of Transport. He is, according to Peter Mansbridge and others, eminently qualified because, after all, as a former astronaut he’s been to space. You get it: he’s traveled a lot, so he’ll make a great Minister of Transport. Right?

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To be clear, I’m not criticizing the choice. I am, however, pointing to the absurdity of imagining that one’s experience as an astronaut prepares you for such a role. Does anyone really think this compares to Harjit Singh Sajjan and his background in the military being chosen for Minister of Defense? Now THAT pick really does seem to line up.

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In terms of the bigger picture, though, the composition of Cabinet has always been based on more than any apparent qualification based on background. Language, region, ethnicity, affiliation – any number of things can serve as legitimate considerations if you view cabinet composition as an effort to reflect the country it purports to represent. When you have 184 MPs to choose from, qualification, to my mind, is a given. Nothing I have read suggests to me that anyone in Cabinet lacks capability. That Justin Trudeau decided to proclaim through his choice that women deserve an equal representation at the table is a move I applaud. Does that mean such composition should be writ in stone? I would argue no. The message has been sent and we can move forward from here. The symbol can spread the message, even if the reality (true equality across the spectrum for women) will take time to come to pass.

And so Canada moves on and revels in the fresh blush of a new government and the end of any number of policies and attitudes that were found objectionable. Many who might have said they weren’t are once again happily and proudly Canadian. I hope we can hold on to that and never lose sight of the fact that each of us – if we find ourselves citizens or residents of this country – truly won the lottery just by virtue of being here. For now, the kittens are content but, make no mistake, they’ll be watching.

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