Democracy: the stimulant of the masses

The seventh annual Lafontaine-Baldwin Symposium welcomes thinker and award-winning author George Elliott Clarke to Calgary to put fire in the bellies of the city’s political activists, especially those milling about campus. Founded by John Ralston Saul and the Dominion Institute, the symposium travels to a different city each year to discuss the future of our nation’s democracy. The Gauntlet spoke with Clarke about the details of his speech, “The City of Justice.”

Gauntlet: How did you get involved with this year’s symposium?

George Elliott Clarke: John Ralston Saul! [Laughs] He called me about a year ago and said that he thought I’d be a good person to deliver the lecture, and so then the problem for me was, okay, what am I going to talk about? But it’s a great honour to have [been chosen by] him–one of our leading intellectuals as well as a very inspiring public servant. So I look forward to trying to say something extremely provocative and semi-intelligent. [Laughs]

G: You’ve worked as a parliamentary aide as well as a legislative researcher in Ontario. How has that experience influenced your writing, views, and in particular your speech for the symposium?

GEC: I think that every citizen, and especially artists, have got to have one ear attuned to politics–you just have to. Because if you don’t, we’re going to end up with governments that are just not very good. I think it’s the responsibility of every citizen, but especially of intellectuals and artists, to try to make sure that the governments that we end up with are actually pretty decent governments. That means that we have to think about public policies, we’ve got to think about social issues. You pay taxes and put up with this government policy and so on, so I do think you have to pay some attention to secular affairs.

G: Looking at a synopsis of your speech that I have here, you mention that in “The City of Justice” initiatives are undertaken to ameliorate past injustices. So what are these past injustices that you would refer to?

GEC: One of the ones I had in mind was definitely the whole question of the status of Aboriginal real estate [Laughs]. I think that’s not a bad phrase: the status of Aboriginal real estate. Let’s just get right down to the nitty-gritty of fundamental justice. Land was taken and was not really adequately compensated for or paid for, which means that we should start thinking about how we start paying for the land that we have taken, that our ancestors took, and that means again that some kind of funding that is going to basically represent the kind of rent that should be paid for First Nations people. I think that we as a society can practice that kind of fundamental, economic justice. I don’t think we’ve ever had an Aboriginal premier, not counting the territorial leaders and Nunavut. I don’t think we’ve ever had one, and nor have we ever had an Aboriginal prime minister in this country, and I think it’s about time.

G: Since the symposium kicks off with an on-campus dialogue at the U of C, what do you hope is the role university students will play in the symposium? What do you hope they will take out of the symposium?

GEC: Right now, one of the ways in which our society is suffering is that university students are not playing a large enough role in bringing about progressive social change. If you look at history, and I’m not just thinking of the 1960s, I’m thinking of the 1920s, I’m thinking the 1930s, the Great Depression, I’m thinking of 1950s, in terms of battling for women’s rights, battling against racism, and also the 1980s, battling against Apartheid.

Look, it’s just a fact: students can do a lot to make change happen, and a large reason why is the fact that for the most part they’re not yet tied down to family and employment responsibility, so they have a little bit more free time. Keeping in mind they also have part-time jobs, keeping in mind students also have to do a lot of schoolwork and also have to have time for leisure, but put all that stuff together, knowing that you’re a student and going to spend more time with others, you’ll be at the forefront of driving social change. There’s nothing wrong with that, and we need more of it. We need a whole lot more student activists, a whole lot. And yes, that’s got to be around tuition fees, but also around issues of citizenship. How can we improve Canadian society? What kind of policies do we need to make society better? What kind of leaders are we going to have? These are all questions that university students must take up because they have the energy, the idealism and even the power to place the ultimate vote to make change happen. It’s something we don’t talk about enough in society, we got to start looking at it to actually make change happen.

One thing that makes a city great is having a great university, or two or three great universities. I mean, New York would not be New York without Columbia, and dare I say Toronto would not be Toronto without the University of Toronto, I’d better say because after all they are employing me. Great universities help make great cities because university is also a centre where you bring in people from all over the world who bring new ideas and dynamic energy and so on. They can change the way the city operates, the way it thinks, how it goes, by providing new ideas as well as with a whole lot of entrepreneurial energy and skills and talent, and that’s what the university should be trying to promote.

I think in the last 20 years students have been forced into a position of quietude because of the increasing debt load that they have to carry, and that’s deliberate. The more debt students carry, the less likely they are to be radical. I think it’s atrocious that our society is allowing students to walk around with tens of thousands of dollars in debt on their hands. I think that’s criminal. A truly just society makes it possible for people to go to university without having to starve and without having to go into tremendous debt. You want your workers, you want your managers, you want your intellectuals to be people that have been trained, that have attended a university or college. And that means that you want people to be actually able to go to university without having to drown themselves in debt. Wouldn’t it be great if some of Alberta’s oil wealth got channelled into debt payment for students? That would be so wonderful. It might even get the Tories elected for another 40 years [Laughs]. I really think that’s something our society really needs: more student activism, informed student activism. People do need to study and know their history, but they also need to experience the age of society they live in, in order to make a better, more decent and more just place to live.

G: I was just thinking that with the burden on students to pay for school, they’ll have to take part-time, even full-time jobs to pay for it, and they won’t have time to participate in extracurricular activities like writing for the student paper or getting involved in political rallies, and school doesn’t become this activism that you’d hope it to be, it just becomes this sort of mechanical, I-got-to-do-this, I-need-to-pay-for-this situation.

GEC: You’ve helped me arrive at another image, and that is the image of Paris in May of 1968 when students took to the streets and were protesting, basically, the kind of careerism they were forced to adopt very early on in their university career, which also had the effect of stifling their political ambition and desire for change. So they took to the streets and tore up the cobblestones in Paris and fought against the establishment, but the result was that they finally got a more liberal education. More people got to go to university to do more things and learn more things and that was great, but it did take a revolt in the streets of Paris to make that happen. Fast-forward almost 40 years later and the streets of Paris are burning again, but not really Paris this time, it’s the suburbs, and for the same reason: folks want in. And that reminds me, that was the Reform Party slogan, ‘The West Wants In.’ Well, you know, students want in, minorities want in, Aboriginal people want in. So what I am suggesting is that we all need to do more to get aggressive and active. Knock the door down, not just open it up, but knock the door down. [Laughs]

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