Brian Gallant’s legacy for new Brunswick: 4 lost years

Listening to Brian Gallant since the failure of his brief attempt to carry on as premier in a minority legislature might lead one to believe that a grave error had been made. According to him, the four years of his Liberal mandate were evidence of a commitment to people and the province marked by innovative approaches, careful “investment” and a slow climb toward prosperity.

Such an assessment would be sad if it were possible to believe, for even a minute, that Mr. Gallant really believes all that. Only the most generous – or the most ardently Liberal – could possibly ascribe to the last four years of Liberal rule as anything but bordering on disaster.

The more obvious examples of ineptitude would include (but not be limited to): the province teetering on the fiscal cliff of credit downgrades since the Alward government left office; education “results” that have shown negligible improvement even as the concerns of all those with an interest in the system have escalated; the now former premier’s claim that he didn’t mean “net jobs” when he promised 10,000 of them; the property tax scandal that he would have us believe he knew nothing about; flood victims still waiting for compensation. Feel free to add any examples of your own

Brian Gallant’s miserable four years were concluded quite aptly with an election campaign that was judged absurd even by those who didn’t find it disgusting. Hardly a day went by without Mr. Gallant promising money of some kind for anything and everyone if he had any inkling that he might be able to garner a vote by doing so.

But the campaign took a far darker turn when the black and white posters of Blaine Higgs’ shadowed profile appeared. By choosing a view of Mr Higgs sporting a mustache and combining that profile with quotes taken entirely out of context, these ominous posters couldn’t help remind one of the Stephen Harper attacks on Michael Ignatieff. Because I’m, by nature, prone to some even darker reflections, I wonder if some bright light in the Liberal ranks didn’t think the poster’s photo would remind people of any number of historical fascists. It was politics at its dirtiest.

So I’m not buying the revisionist historical account offered by the now former premier. He was young and ambitious and did all that he could to obtain the leadership, undermine the government of David Alward, be elected premier and then proceed to spend in ways he hoped could buy him votes while stirring up the very linguistic divisions he now pretends to hope to heal. Some will argue that he was just being a politician like any other. If so, his defeat suggests that New Brunswick is ready for something – for someone – different. It is my ardent hope (and personal belief) that Blaine Higgs is that person.

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Assessment in education: say what?

I’m going to repost a few of my earlier musings on education. I can’t help thinking that now is a good time.

Knowledge is power. Information is liberating. Education is the premise of progress, in every society, in every family.
Kofi Annan

I read a report in the local paper recently that awakened my frustration with the manner in which the press frequently covers matters related to education. Implicitly (and almost explicitly) the article lends support to the claim that “time on task” is the answer to virtually any existing educational deficit. By doing so such articles continue the trend of simplistic analysis of a very complex issue. It is the instructional equivalent of the oft-paraded boast that New Brunswick high schools graduate more students today than they did 30 years ago. Neither time on task (as a solution) nor graduation statistics (as proof of success in the system) provides the kind of detailed analysis of the system that might help people understand how broken that system really is.
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If we still had investigative journalism that could take the time needed, a story could be told of empty curricula wrapped in theoretical educational dogmatism, schools overburdened with the attempted implementation of social engineering, and classrooms as sites for ongoing experimentation in service of someone’s pet educational theory. It is far sadder and more dire than a simple addition of days can indicate.

As education has struggled, at the university level, to present itself as a viable social science in its own right – on a par with psychology, sociology, history, etc – it has been driven increasingly by the desire to present its claims as rooted in research and the scientific method. In itself, this isn’t so bad. It has long been my contention, however, that positioning education in such a way does little to actually serve students. For all of the talk of “student-centred” instruction, the theories that underpin the actual practice of such instruction view young people more as lab rats or commodities than they do complex and diverse human beings.
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How appropriate that just around the time I was thinking about this issue the Department of Education should release the latest results of its provincial assessment program. Be prepared for any number of follow-up editorials and/or commentaries pointing to the number of days students are out of the classroom, whether it be because teachers are involved in some form of professional development or a particularly harsh winter. In either case (or any other), it remains my contention that pointing to “time on task” is nothing more than continuing evidence of the lack of political will necessary if we are to take a hard look at the state of our educational system.

Consider: the prevailing view in our system – for the better part of three decades now – is that holding a student back a grade when he/she has failed to meet expectations is tantamount to inhumane. What is far more destructive, in my estimation, is moving a student forward into an environment where the resources to address any deficit are lacking. The young person in question falls further behind with each passing year but “accommodations” are made to ensure that forward progress is not interrupted. I can’t avoid mentioning the occasions, when I was teaching, where transcripts from middle school occasionally revealed students entering high school without having passed a single course in Grade 8. From the system’s perspective, it was simply time for such a student to move on.
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Such practices as “anecdotal report cards” – ostensibly an improvement over the old percentage or letter grades – simply obscure further an already murky picture of achievement. Teachers write accounts of student progress in light of “outcomes” – a term I personally despise because it does not offer anything definitive – rather than assign a “grade”, something that high schools, universities and community colleges will demand as a student moves through our educational system.

And then the anomaly: amidst all the “outcomes”, along comes the provincial assessment results. Reported how? As percentages! Now, admittedly, these percentages are not percentages as most of us of a certain age would remember them. These are not marks per se; rather, they indicate the percentage of students who have achieved an “appropriate” level of literacy. Now I ask you: how many people are truly aware of that distinction? For most, using the grade 2 reading assessment as an example, the results mean that 73.8% of students “passed”. Things are apparently looking up by Grade 9: 80.4% of those students “passed”.
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But let’s look at this from the perspective of another measure. We routinely hear that New Brunswick has an adult functional illiteracy rate of between 50-60%. In other words, when people find themselves in the real world of the workplace and day-to-day living, some 50-60% of adults struggle with basic tasks such as reading instructions, filling out an application, etc. Based upon provincial results, surely that functional illiteracy rate should be closer to 20%?

At what point will someone point to this glaring discrepancy? Surely it suggests that something is amiss in our assessment practices at the very least. But, more importantly, these assessments prevent the kind of careful scrutiny of programs that might lead to real improvement. Where you might ask?
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Curriculum, curriculum, curriculum. Teachers and educational systems need to reacquire an appreciation for fundamental skills. “Educational practice” is virtually the sole concern of education programs at universities. What has been lost in our current system is concern for what it is we expect students to KNOW. Until such time as we return to an appreciation of the central place that knowledge plays in nurturing reading and writing ability, math skills and, most importantly, critical thinking, the disparity between reported “results” on provincial assessments and more objective measures of adult literacy and numeracy will remain. In fact, results massaged in the service of political optics will probably increase any such disparity. In the immediate term, the student suffers; in the long term, we all do.

Educational change and the politics of distraction

Do not train children in learning by force and harshness, but direct them to it by what amuses their minds, so that you may be better able to discover with accuracy the peculiar bent of the genius of each. –Plato

As a former teacher, part of me can’t help feeling good about teachers receiving a raise. I know how long it takes to become certified (and, these days, employed) and I understand the job. At the same time, I’m leery of the New Brunswick Teachers’ Association’s crowing about the guarantee of a fixed number of teachers for the next five years.

Let’s be clear: for all its protestations, the NBTA is not in the business of improving education. Its responsibilities include seeking improvements in working conditions and salaries for teachers and that’s about it. No wonder then that it sees guaranteeing teachers’ jobs as a victory. In light of the current state of affairs in New Brunswick’s public education system, though, this may prove, ultimately, to be a very bad deal.

Speaking from experience, I can tell you that NB teachers are extremely reluctant to criticize openly anything about the system in which they work. Teachers in New Brunswick have a Code of Ethics which prevents them from criticizing their employer. While I happen to think this provision has been exaggerated in its application, that is irrelevant. Speak to teachers privately and virtually every one I know will tell you that the system, in its current form, is, to put it mildly, in crisis. At the same time, don’t expect them to make such a contention in a public forum.

Meanwhile, the public at large must contend with a government and a department that insists that things are always getting better and better. It doesn’t matter if New Brunswick students score abysmally on international standardized tests; it is equally irrelevant that New Brunswick has a functional illiteracy rate in excess of 50%, a figure that hasn’t moved in more than a generation; pay no mind to the proliferation of interventions sponsored by UNB, ELF and any number of other organizations that are trying to compensate for the existing inadequacies of the system.

Governments, always with an eye to polling numbers and the next election, feel compelled to claim that they are on the verge of the big breakthrough that is going to turn it all around. They are supported by a bevy of educational researchers and “specialists”, eager to implement the latest greatest approach being bandied about in Departments of Education in universities, primarily and ordinarily, in the US and Canada.

The value of such initiatives to government is the time it provides for the latest upset and/or outrage about poor results or critical reports to fade from public consciousness. Implementing something new allows governments to say “wait, we’ll see the big turnaround once this program is up and running”.

When things fail to improve and public concern escalates, the trick is to implement yet another new approach. If the target is constantly moving and changing, the day of reckoning is endlessly postponed. Neat trick, unless you happen to be one of the students who muddles through the system and finds him/herself unskilled and unemployable. Such is the fate of far too many young New Brunswickers who continue to swell the ranks of the functionally illiterate in our province.

Which takes me back to this latest contract the NBTA has inked with the province. It has long been my contention that the school SYSTEM is the villain in the continuing story of mediocrity (at best) in education in New Brunswick. The successes that occur, in my experience, are the result of the efforts of individual teachers to ensure that the young people in their care learn as best they can in a school system that is often at odds with such efforts.

I mention this because that viewpoint is very much contradicted by editorials and opinions that tend to appear in media. As I read recently in the Telegraph-Journal’s editorial response to the new teachers’ contract, the problem, in large measure, according to the editors, is that teachers are not held sufficiently accountable for results. I can understand the sentiment but I know it is based on a serious misunderstanding of the dynamics of the system in New Brunswick.

Such a situation works very well for governments, providing a distraction and a ready scapegoat, thus ensuring that the difficult job of truly reforming the system never even begins. Such was my experience through my teaching career and nothing I have either seen or heard suggests that anything fundamental has changed. Governments tinker around the edges, the workings of the system become increasingly impenetrable as they are wrapped in the latest eduspeak, and students flounder their way through.

And now we have a guaranteed number of teachers for the next five years even as enrolment is set to decline. While this might qualify as a union “victory” it may prove to be a hollow one. If nothing else changes in the system as it currently stands, the same mediocrity that is evident will continue unabated. Inevitably, the question will arise: “we’ve lowered teacher-student ratios and nothing has improved substantially? What is wrong with these teachers?”

I suppose the NBTA can hold out the hope that the usual strategy of government will apply. When public concern reaches a peak, look for something else to change, something that will promise to bring about the improvement everyone ostensibly wants. And, with the latest promise in hand, public concern will fade for a time. It’s a sad and persistent cycle. Is there someone out there who has the courage to change it?

Electoral reform: it’s not all about you!

Being political doesn’t only or principally mean caring what party wins the next election; to be political is to care about the happiness of strangers.
― Alain de Botton

An article this morning in the local paper caught my eye, dealing as it did with a favourite topic of mine: electoral reform. I’m probably not joined by a great many of my friends and acquaintances when I say that I am satisfied with the system we have inherited from the British. Proponents of proportional representation decry how their votes (and voices) are not counted in a system where a party which receives only 40% (for example) of the popular vote ends up with a majority of seats.

Let’s discount the obvious first. All votes that were cast were, very obviously, “counted”. That’s how a winner is determined in an individual constituency. But that’s not the sense in which the naysayers mean “counted”. In their view, in order for their votes to “count” (what they really mean is “matter”), they must see their collective numbers, across all constituencies, result in someone being elected under their party’s banner.

To my way of thinking, this represents a profound difference in how one values an electoral system and, in fact, government itself. Our current system allows local people the opportunity to elect a local representative. Once that councillor, MLA or MP is elected, he/she becomes EVERYONE’s representative. If you are among those who choose to believe that that is just not true, then I suspect you are more partisan and ideological in your thinking than I am.

Representation and governance are not the same thing. Every vote cast in an election is counted but the hard truth is that elections have winners and losers. Those who long for proportional representation will not consider their voices heard until such time as they have a legislator in place sporting the party colours. Governance, first and foremost, should be effective, and a system which tends to majority governments offers the best chance of that. Those in favour of proportional representation argue that it tends to make compromise inevitable. If you take a look around the world, all too often it ends up leading to gridlock and chaos.

No system is perfect and the current one could, undoubtedly, use improvement. Can we please get over the idea, though, that Canadian government is is dire need of an overhaul? We are a peaceful, wealthy, diverse and well-respected country. Surely our electoral system has played some role in making it that way.

As I said earlier, those who oppose the current system don’t like it when someone with whom they are directly affiliated fails to be elected in some way. And the unstated premise is that no one can conceivably represent someone’s interests unless such a person is of the same political stripe. I prefer a more optimistic view, one where the elected representative takes the charge of representing a constituency seriously and realizes that said constituency includes one and all. To me, such a view suggests a respect for diversity that we are, surely, very much in need of these days.

Back to the Future

As educators, we are only as effective as what we know. If we have no working knowledge of what students studied in previous years, how can we build on their learning? If we have no insight into the curriculum in later grades, how can we prepare learners for future classes?          – Heidi Hayes Jacobs

I’ve just had the pleasure of rereading an old report on school improvement, a report commissioned in the early years of Bernard Lord’s government. While it has a somewhat unwieldy title – “Schools Teach – Parents and Communities Support – Children Learn – Everyone Benefits: A Review of the New Brunswick Education System Anglophone Sector” – it is more commonly referred to as the Scraba Report.

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Perhaps “pleasure” isn’t quite the word I’m looking for in light of the horrifying picture of education in New Brunswick that it delivers. Maybe “grim satisfaction” captures my response, a response that really hasn’t changed since I first read this work upon its release in 2002. The author of the report, Elana Scraba of Education Consulting International, provides an unstintingly brutal assessment of the failings of New Brunswick’s system at the time.

The good news, of course, is that the Lord government immediately adopted a majority of the recommendations the report provided and a new golden age in education in New Brunswick dawned. Since 2002, reforms in New Brunswick education have seen language and math skills improve dramatically while the literacy rate provincially has risen astronomically as a result. Employers report that recent graduates from high school come prepared for the work force while those who go on to post-secondary studies are top of their class no matter where they attend.

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And yes, sadly, that last paragraph was entirely fictional. You might even say that it was written with more than a little bitterness. I remember reading the Scraba Report back then with dismay. It managed to identify virtually every issue I had ever had with the system in New Brunswick, most importantly, the lack of emphasis on a core curriculum that was clearly defined and properly aligned with classroom practice and assessment.

But that’s just the beginning. Rereading the Scraba report, almost 15 years later is very much a “déjà vu all over again” experience. It seems inconceivable that I am reading about things that could easily be used as justification for another examination of New Brunswick’s system: core curriculum, inclusion, assessment results, French Immersion, lack of resources. These are the very things that are at the heart of the Scraba Report’s analysis and ultimate recommendations and they are the very same things that preoccupy much of the time of those who continue to care about education in New Brunswick today.

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The fact that most who might read this have never heard of the Scraba Report should tell you what happened to it. Back in 2002, for a brief moment, the report awakened hope that something real and substantial might happen. An article appeared in the NBTA News, disability groups responded positively, and the report, in general, created some waves. But then it was shelved, government moved on, and the report was left to gather dust. I wish I could say I was surprised. Allow me to digress.

Within a few years of the province implementing the English Language Proficiency Assessments (ELPAs) at the grade 9 level, a committee was struck that got together to review the make-up of the assessments. One representative from each district was sent to Fredericton (I was chosen to represent what was then School District 8) and this group came up with over 80 recommendations for improving everything from format to content. In the end, one (yes ONE) recommendation was adopted: changing when the assessment was administered.

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I offer that story of my experience as a small example of the larger travesty and as a reflection on the current controversy over reinstituting Grade One French Immersion. Both the shelving of the Scraba Report, and my experience with ELPAs, point to government’s unwillingness to tackle, in a substantive way, the confused mess that the NB educational system has become. While we have an incredible cohort of well-trained and dedicated teachers, I watched as, year after year, their enthusiasm and energy were drained by a system that cares too often about all the wrong things to the detriment of teachers, the system and, most importantly, to students.

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What does government care about in education you might ask? Quite frankly, I don’t think they know, except in the most general terms. As the Scraba Report emphasizes in many places in many ways, the kind of change NB needs will take many years. Among the recommendations at the time was “Declare a moratorium on curriculum change for four years”. From the political perspective, that would be a hard pill to swallow.

Education in New Brunswick has long been a way for political parties to claim that they are willing to “invest” in the future. Imagine being prevented from making any education related claims for an entire mandate. Imagine leaving education more properly in the hands of educators. Imagine a system that focused on essential skills and measured its success by students’ obtaining them. Dare to dream.

 

Learning to listen

The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.
– G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936)

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If you’ve been following the fallout from Donald Trump’s election, one designation has been increasingly prominent in the analysis: “progressive.”

Perhaps you have long been familiar with this term (in the sense I am using it) but I first encountered it a couple of years ago. Progressives commonly define who and what society should champion, defend, promote, even believe. They commonly hold that they are beyond meaningful challenge by virtue of their positions’ intrinsic righteousness and, in fact, they are seldom challenged (at least until recently) because they tend to be on the “politically correct” side of many issues we commonly encounter in the press and other public forums.

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And the thing is, I commonly agree with their core assertions: climate change is real; LGBT rights are human rights; Islam is a religion, not a terrorist organization; women, for all the strides they have made, are still subject to misogyny, double standards and sexism; etc.

Unfortunately, for all of their good intentions, the progressives or, perhaps, the “liberal left” are victims of their own conviction and certainty. Any number of analysts have pointed to the tunnel vision of those who felt that Donald Trump was unelectable. While I share their despair at Trump’s election, I was never convinced that he couldn’t win. I fear those who were entirely disbelieving haven’t paid enough attention to history.

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And while we are fellow travelers in so many ways, the progressives and I diverge at a fundamental level. Progressives are too often, to my way of thinking, ideologues. As an idealist myself, I think it is important to recognize that someone can share many of the ideals proclaimed by progressives without falling into the ideologue trap, a trap that prevents the ideologue from carefully considering a reality that is, perhaps, staring you in the face.

The ideologue claims a position on an issue, commonly social/political, that is essentially unassailable, a secular version of fundamentalist religion you might say. Watching mainstream media outlets, particularly CNN, on election night in America was fascinating. I had been watching CNN in the weeks and months leading up to the election far more than I ever had.

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And make no mistake, the preference for and expectation of a Clinton victory was predominant. However much the various anchors tried for balance, each and every segment involved those who were defending Trump being exactly and exclusively that: defenders. And to be clear, I get it. Everything about Trump, his campaign, his rallies trended toward the repulsive – for me! At the same time, attention needed to be paid to the reality that a huge segment of the population found Trump to be preferable. The New York Times – giving credit where credit is due – has gone so far as to admit that they need to get out of the newsroom more and talk to people on the ground.

Progressive ideologues play easily into the hands of the so-called alt-right. The progressives’ ideological righteousness and the accompanying dismissal of any point-of-view that diverges from theirs contribute to the radicalization of what might otherwise be simply different opinions.

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Listening for and seeking to grasp differences, however, have become casualties of our preference for being pseudo-informed. When the public forum is dominated by 140-character tweets, headlines and sound-bites, the effect is insidious. Increasingly, few have time for a lengthy consideration of anything. Slogans take the place of arguments, positions become hardened and unassailable, and extremes become the norm.

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Canada, so far, has avoided this trap but we cannot be complacent. Conservative leadership candidate, Kellie Leitch – she of the “Canadian values test “ who wants to eliminate the CBC – has her followers and dismissing those who are sympathetic to the positions she brings forward will not convince them to give either consideration further thought. If we don’t learn to listen to one another, we risk outcomes a great many prefer not to imagine.

Let’s meet, before it’s too late

In the middle of the journey of our life I came to myself within a dark wood where the straight way was lost. – Dante

Recent events in the U.S. as well as an interview with one of the federal Conservative party leadership candidates has convinced me all the more that we need to see the emergence of a truly Progressive Conservative option in this country. I know this will distress an equal number of friends on either side of this paradoxical descriptor but it remains my preferred position.

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Kellie Leitch, federal Conservative MP and leadership hopeful, spoke with the host of Sunday Morning on CBC, largely trying to defend/avoid her position on a “Canadian values” test for prospective immigrants. According to her, some two thirds of Canadians are in favour of such a test. Really? I would need to see the question that led to that result or some other kind of evidence before I would even begin to believe it but I won’t make the mistake of dismissing such a claim.

That’s where the results of the U.S. election come into the picture. I was among the many here in Canada, the U.S. and around the world who just couldn’t believe that someone as apparently vile and unsuitable for high office as Donald Trump could possibly win the presidency. At the same time, for all of my personal revulsion, I am enough of a student of history to know that people can make choices, to put it mildly, that are not necessarily in their best interest.

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So I’ll pause right there. Chances are I’ve offended someone by now. Trump’s victory tells us that some 60 million people in the United States were able either to embrace whatever it is he stands for or, at the very least, to see him as preferable to the alternative, regardless of his flaws. So I’ve potentially ticked off 60 million. Perhaps someone who agrees in general with Kellie Leitch’s idea will see me as elitist. Someone else might think I’m going too easy on Trump and his supporters. Who knows.

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What I absolutely believe, however, is that the only way forward is to walk the middle ground. While Canada has not succumbed to the drastic polarization that we see in the U.S., I fear that we could be subject to the same forces as led to the rise of Donald Trump. I was never confident that he couldn’t win, however much, in my heart of hearts, I wanted to believe that he couldn’t. Through my experiences in politics, I know there are people who are quietly applauding a Trump victory (or, like Kellie Leitch, not so quietly). I don’t fully understand how anyone could but then neither can I fully understand much of what has happened in the world that I consider horrifying.

I’ve written, in other contexts (mostly surrounding education), of the dangers of fanaticism. While “progressives” might not like to hear it, I happen to think they fall into that category far too often. They believe that they occupy a moral high ground to which others might hope to ascend and, filled with the warmth of righteousness, disregard those who are, for whatever reason, unwilling or unable to climb that mountain with them.

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Conservatives (most Trump supporters, Tea Party and Kellie Leitch variety) are equally ideological. They contend that their view is sacrosanct, and that they alone represent what is righteous and good. Too often, especially in the U.S., a somewhat bizarre form of Christian fundamentalism is mixed in. Whatever the case, in the same manner as the progressives I’ve mentioned, they alone possess the “truth”.

Hence my affection for the “progressive conservative”. Some will, no doubt (some already have), argue that I am simply remaking the designation. I choose to leave that argument for another time. For now, I simply want to suggest that the paradoxical quality of the Progressive Conservative brand points to a much-needed balance. A great deal of ink has been spilled in the U.S. crediting Trump’s victory to the deafness of the progressive left to any voices but their own. Personally, I think that is overstating the case but I might take that up at another time as well.

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For now, suffice to say that I think that tunnel vision has become the order of the day all across the political spectrum. Sadly lacking just about everywhere are nuance and an acknowledgement of divergent positions that cannot simply be dismissed out of hand. When you ignore the FELT opinions of millions of people, don’t be surprised by a backlash.

Can we move to a middle ground? Can we imagine ourselves as progressive in some things (socially is the most commonly mentioned) and conservative in others (fiscally being the usual)? Such a clear division is, itself, an oversimplification. I would rather think of “progressive conservative” as a state of mind, one where you are always open to new information, hoping to clarify situations and understand more thoroughly and deeply.

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As an idealist, I refuse to adopt a stance which demonizes either the left or the right. I do not think anyone possesses some absolute truth to which all others must ascribe. Canadians rightly pride themselves on their overall fairness and respect for difference. At the same time, complacency fueled by a sense of moral superiority is a sure way to alienate lots of people. If Kellie Leitch’s claim to have 2/3 of Canadians supporting a “Canadian values” test is even somewhat true, then we need to have a national conversation. If someone objects to the designation “progressive conservative” then I’ll put it this way: please, let’s meet in the middle. And let’s do so before it’s too late. If you need an object lesson, consider this: you can’t unelect Donald Trump.