Arnold Chan’s Final Words in the House of Commons

On Wednesday, September 20th, 2017 in Climate Change, Democracy, Speeches

A Clarion Call for Democracy

Mark Holland, the Member for Ajax, paused debate on Bill S-2 yesterday to deliver a moving reflection on his twenty-plus years of friendship with the late Arnold Chan. Following this, he read the speech Arnold had hoped to give himself, outlining the challenges that Canada’s democratic institutions face in the coming decades: climate change, accelerating technological change, and social polarization. The text of his speech follows.

 

Mr. Speaker, from the beginning of my parliamentary career, I have been preoccupied with issues of the exercise of democracy. This has been a passion of mine since my youth, and is a touchstone for all of my work as a Member of the Parliament of Canada. It is fitting that I address these issues once more today to my colleagues.

My inaugural speech in Parliament focused on the theme of democracy, since I rose in the House that day to discuss the Private Member’s Bill introduced by the Member for Wellington-Halton Hills to reform the Canada Elections Act and the Parliament of Canada Act. I had the opportunity in that speech to address what I felt were important elements of change that were needed in Parliament, which would hopefully help to reverse a trend of dysfunction that had been growing during the tenure of the previous government.

On June 12th of this year, I had the opportunity again to direct my comments to issues of democracy, and of the conduct of our business in Parliament. I wish that my children could have been present, but of course June is a time for examinations in school. Nevertheless, I had them and their generation very much in mind that day, and I do so again now as I consider the critical challenges of the future, and the role of democracy and democratic institutions in meeting those challenges.

I believe that we as a society and a government are just beginning to grapple with the three existential threats that will face my children’s generation: climate change, accelerating technological change, and the parochialism and social unrest that arise in reaction to these first two forces.

Climate change is undeniably the focus of attention today, as it should be.

The recent flooding in Texas, hurricane in the Caribbean and Florida, violent monsoon rains in Bangladesh and northern India, and closer to home, the BC wildfires all point to an increasingly unpredictable and potentially destructive pattern of changes to which everyone must adapt.

This is in part why I continue to appreciate the presence and advocacy of the Leader of the Green Party, the Member for Saanich-Gulf Islands, along with the leadership of the Minister of Environment and Climate Change. Their tireless work is to be commended and supported.

Climate change is not just about storms, flooding and heat. It is also about crop failure, food shortage, water scarcity, mass displacement of people, and the violent conflicts that can arise out of those situations. It is imperative that we stop treating climate change as solely an environmental issue, but recognize it as an all-encompassing priority that we as a society and a government must confront with the utmost urgency.

One potential response to climate change is to focus on technological solutions, but technology itself represents a second challenge. In particular, the confluence of artificial intelligence, robotics and genomics, which represents the potential for profound changes to the relationship between people, machines and their environment.

There has been much discussion recently of the impact on human employment of self-driving cars and the increased use of robots for everything from manufacturing to personal services. This has led to speculation about the future of work itself, and the possible dislocation of social relationships that have existed since the founding of cities ten thousand years ago. These are issues that we are just beginning to grapple with, but which will be profoundly important for my children and their generation.

In the face of relentless technological change and economic competition, how resilient will our social institutions be? How will our communities manage the potential for mass unemployment, or even just the fear of those kinds of changes?

Therein lies the third challenge: reactionism. In the face of climate change, accelerating technological advancements and the disruptions that they are causing, the tendency of people and communities is to “circle the wagons” and, even worse to “fear the other”. We have already seen evidence of this around the world: increasing nationalism, religious fundamentalism, and isolationism. Rising sectarian violence in many countries. Distrust of elites, and strife based on economic class.

So what do we do?

We are Members of Parliament, a body which is ultimately about civilized discussion and debate. The word “Parliament” itself derives from the French word “parler”: to speak. Our task is to exercise democracy through communication, deliberation, and ultimately decision-making. Not in our own interest, but in the interest of the people. We are representatives of and we are responsible to the people of our country, and it is our responsibility and our duty to try and meet the challenges of the day through our best collective effort.

In facing the challenges of climate change, accelerating technological change, and the forces of reactionism, we must remember that our greatest strengths lie within our civility to each other, our humanity in the face of our own limitations, and our own willingness to serve. We can adapt to change, we can respond to challenges, but we adapt and respond best when we do so after reasoned debate with an open mind and through listening carefully to the needs of those we are so fortunate to serve.

But there is one more step to take in thinking about managing the problems of the future, and that is to consider who the “we” of Parliament should be?

Historically, our great Parliament has been predominantly composed of men, and largely of European descent. It was only in 2014, just short three years ago that there was a Chinese Liberal MP in the GTA – me, an Asian male. On the issue of gender balance, despite it being nearly 100 years since the first woman was elected to Parliament, we are still far from balanced. Our government has taken some good steps to address this, but we can and should do more. We owe it to ourselves, our community and our children to continue to strive for improvement in our democratic institutions, so that we can better serve our communities, and better meet those challenges of the future.

Diversity is healthy, and increases the chances of survival and success, a truth known at least since Charles Darwin. The greater the range of ideas and opinions that are brought to bear on the problems of our day, the more likely that we as an institution will be able to come up with workable solutions that serve our communities. And a greater diversity of members will in turn bring those broader ideas forward.

Mr. Speaker, my call to action to my colleagues is to constantly be open to new ideas, to be willing to adjust the assumptions that ground one’s viewpoint, if the facts of the world and the challenges of the day require it. I would also call upon greater empowerment of diverse voices as a foundation of addressing the challenges that face us.

But my call is not only to my colleagues in Parliament. It is also to other Canadians of visible minority descent: we should not be satisfied with the status quo; we should expect more for ourselves and our children. But at the same time it is up to us to be braver, to go beyond our comfort zones and engage with people of other backgrounds, to diversify and broaden our relationships, and to seek the betterment of all. We have to take a chance, to engage and to participate. That will help to strengthen the institutions that serve us all.

The triple challenges of climate change, accelerating technological change, and social reactionism are extraordinary and radical, and our ultimate responses may have to be as well. However, if we maintain our commitment to our democratic traditions, and broaden and diversify our institutions to reflect the range of voices present in our society, I’m confident that we can take the steps necessary to meet these challenges and to flourish, one step at a time.

While I wish I could be there for you and with you to contribute more to the great work of our Parliament, and to better the world for my children and yours, I will have to leave this to you, my colleagues.

I wish you all well.

Several of Arnold’s colleagues responded to this powerful message, including Elizabeth May:

 

Mr. Speaker, I was so moved by the letter, I did not know if I should rise to say anything, but I thank the member for Ajax for reading it.

What is striking about it is the power of analysis and the thoughtfulness of looking at the perils of climate change, technological change, and social reactionary trends and analyzing them at the same time as he was aware that his time with us was running out. His thoughts turned to what we should do as a society, as a human family.

A brilliant mind wrote that letter. It was someone who was fully engaged with the life of the human species as a family on this planet. I will read it over again.

I hope all of us can, as we have said more than once recently, live up to the challenge he put before us.

I really thank the member for Ajax. I certainly would never rise on a point of order that it was not relevant to Bill S-2. It was about time we heard that letter.

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