Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Don’t Take Your Freedom for Granted 

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column, Saturday,  October 17 / 09

Zack Gross

Today marks the culmination of a leadership race in the provincial New Democratic Party with a major convention in Winnipeg and satellite meetings in rural and northern areas. 

The winner of this now two-person race will become NDP Party Leader and Premier of Manitoba, after Gary Doer’s ten-year tenure in high office.  Doer’s successor will have two years to prove to Manitobans that he is worthy of their continuing support until a provincial election is held in October 2011.

There has been considerable media coverage of the NDP leadership race, and party ranks have swelled with thousands of new members signed up to support particular candidates or to get involved in the excitement.  After all, Doer was elected leader more than twenty years ago, so this kind of action doesn’t take place very often!  But how engaged is the rest of our province’s population? 

They have their own daily lives and worries, from finding a better job to getting the kids to hockey.  Many, however, are just apathetic or cynical – they don’t see the connection between their lives and politics, or they suspect that the connection can only be bad.  Some Manitobans face such great challenges of poor health, poverty and violence that the political process is nowhere on their radar.

To too great an extent, Manitobans – and people generally who are well off – take their opportunities and their freedoms for granted.  From my travels overseas to countries and communities at the “other end” of the economic scale, I have learned firsthand how desirous and enthusiastic those who are poor or oppressed feel toward getting an education, earning a living, and exercising their democratic franchise.  They are hopeful that, a generation from now, they will be able to “live like us”, while we have, but don’t appreciate, advantages that they lack.

On a trip to Uganda, I was asked by a group of young people to show them how to run a meeting.  They said that they wanted to be able to operate democratically, following some kind of “parliamentary” procedures, in order to formalize their process and be able to keep minutes and accounts, assign duties, and involve everyone around them.  Women and young people, in particular, are often looking for an opportunity to take up an equal role in their community.  They are also looking for sponsorship from “wealthy” visitors in order to access education or training, so that they can get a job, have a family and improve their status.

My daughter Zoe wrote articles home for the Brandon Sun a few years ago, when she took on a “global youth internship”, through Brandon University and the Marquis Project, in Tanzania, working with women’s and youth groups to encourage them to participate in the political process of their national election of December 2005. 

She reported that the Africans, of all walks of life, were excited about their election, in part because it was one of the first multi-party voting opportunities they’d been offered, but also because they were proud of their country and wanted to confront issues such as corruption and poverty.  Here she was, supposedly to get them excited, yet finding they were already much more engaged in politics than her own peers back home.

John Robert Colombo, Canadian author and commentator on the media and culture, once said, in a speech in Brandon, that our country doesn’t take political and philosophical matters seriously enough.  Some might say that our attitude leads to a more peaceful existence, but it also means that the public is uninformed and disinterested. 

Says Colombo:  Remember that uninformed and disinterested people are ripe to become misinformed and passive, losing their ability to shape their society.  We may not want social upheaval, but we don’t want to be sheep either!

For one of the NDP leadership hopefuls, today is going to be “the first day of the rest of his life”.  It can be the same for Manitobans who seize this event as a time to begin to get active, to learn about issues and make up their minds on the challenges of the day, locally and globally.  Remember that those who have no power, education or hope wish they did and are excited when the opportunity is presented to them.   Don’t let apathy or cynicism get you down!

Zack Gross works for the 
Manitoba Council for International Co-operation (MCIC), a coalition of more than 40 international development organizations.

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