Evolving Nation

a sermon by Rev. Brian J. Kiely March 31, 2019

I have this very fond memory of childhood.  My dad and I would go to the grocery store and come home with wonderful, crispy lettuce, green onions you could smell from across the room, and tomatoes, bright red and bursting with flavour.

My Mom would take these and produce wonderfully flavourful salads with the fragrance of garlic that she would rub on the old wooden salad bowl.  The tastes seemed so alive!  You just don’t get salad like that today.

What’s missing from that memory is how those salads were mostly only served in August and September.  Strawberry shortcake belonged to June and maybe July, fresh blueberries appeared in July and August.

The other months of those 1960’s years mostly featured canned or frozen vegetables except for the earthy ones like carrots, potatoes, turnips and parsnips.

You see, we pretty much only got those flavourful delights when they were actually growing nearby.  The technology and transport capacity to bring in produce from the places where they could grow year round just hadn’t been developed back then.

While there are lots of legitimate concerns with long distance transportation, preservative chemistry and factory farming, a lot of people forget just how restricted our diets were 60 years ago.  Even in a large grocery store, the produce shelf was seldom even 10 metres long.

Our eating expectations have evolved as technological advances have provided more choices, even if they aren’t quite as fresh and tasty.

Most humans thinking about the past tend to remember only what was good. What wasn’t so good shrinks in size and takes up less memory space.  It’s like pain…it’s very hard for our bodies to remember what physical pain feels like once it has truly gone away.

And perhaps that’s why some folks love to proclaim that everything has gone to Hell and we would be better off returning to a long ago way of doing things.  The past is tinted with a rosy glow that often wasn’t as bright as we remembered. We cherry pick the good moments of the past and ignore the rest.  Perhaps that’s why we so often fail to learn the lessons history has to offer.  As we survive through the silly season of election campaigns we would do well  to remember that.  Our nation has evolved for the better an awful lot over my lifetime.

Consider these often under appreciated facts:

* Federally mandated universal health care only became the law in 1968.  Before that some Canadians could and did go bankrupt from doctor bills.  I just spent a week at a retirement seminar with 30 American UU Minister colleagues.  The largest single anxiety of the group was health care.  How would they be able to continue or replace health benefits upon retirement, especially if they had the infamous “pre-existing conditions”?  

The average unsubsidized American pays $10-12,000 a year in health insurance per year and even then they can expect a $4,500 deductible. And now the administration is fighting to remove many from the insured rolls.  One colleague faces the choice of absolute poverty or increasingly unbearable pain in her declining years because she will be uninsurable. 

Canadians complain about wait times in emergency rooms and for elective surgeries, but we will get treated.  And we won’t be financially broken by the treatments.  Americans have three years less life expectancy than we have.  Were it not for the health care act of 1968, we would likely be in the same position.

Our nation has evolved.

*In 1968 Franco-Albertans in trouble with the law had no hope for a trial in their mother tongue.  French only became an official language in 1969.  Now they can access all federal and provincial services in French.

*In the 1960’s residential schools were still being phased out, though in many places that program was replaced with the Sixties Scoop.  Today many institutions and levels of government are working with commitment on Truth and Reconciliation.  Many of my American colleagues commented on it positively.

Our nation is evolving.

*As I mentioned last week, Canada only began relaxing immigration restrictions on immigrants from Asian societies in the late 1960’s.

*The Royal Commission on the Status of Women met for the first time in 1967.  Today, half of our federal cabinet posts are now filled by women. And we have a female Premier here in Alberta.

*Same sex marriages and Medical Assistance in Dying are now legal.

Our nation is evolving.

It is important to remember that none of those changes happened over night.  Our social safety net took decades to evolve.  Our sense of multiculturalism was and still is a long slow arc of change towards justice.  Our comprehension of the impact of a colonizing past has dawned so very slowly that it remains a national point of shame.  But even this is finally being addressed, though with agonizing slowness.

I am sometimes vexed by those who are angrily impatient with the pace of change.  Any step forward is seldom celebrated for very long. Instead it is supposed to be the beginning of the next step, something to be taken immediately because any remaining injustice is justice denied.

Yes, that’s true, but sometimes it is wise to give those who opposed the forward stride time to catch up.  There is wisdom in letting change become normalized before we start climbing the next hill.   It is fine for activists to remain keen and concerned, but I think they would grow more support by stepping back just a little for awhile after a win.  Progress only happens over time.

I want to suggest a constructive example for your consideration:

Medical Assistance in Dying has been something I actively supported for 30 years.  Others worked for it much longer than that.  Along with a few others I helped craft the CUC’s policy supporting this option a full 25 years ago.  And you may not know that Dying with Dignity shared an office with the CUC for a longtime before that.  I used to have long chats with Marilyn Seguin, one of the organizations founders in that tiny Toronto office.  She was my teacher.

We knew back then how sensitive the issue was.  So we worked on education and taking small incremental steps, like improving palliative care and enshrining the right to refuse treatment or have others refuse it on our behalf in law and more importantly in the consciousness of the doctors and nurses who serve us.  DWD patiently brought court cases based on human rights concerns and shared evidence from other jurisdictions.  In short they understood that this would be an evolutionary shift and that they would have to wait for society to catch up to each stride they made.  Society did and the law has been changed.

Still, the leaders know that the new law only goes part way.  There are still further steps to be taken, some barriers to overcome and yes, some terribly thorny ethical and moral issues to be resolved.  Though a longtime advocate, even I’m not sure I can go all the way with what is being discussed…at least not yet. I will have to reflect upon the proposals.

The thing is you don’t hear all that much from the choice in dying lobbyists right now.  They know how much they achieved, and how long it took.  So the conversation about what’s next is low key.  The issues are being discussed but not with anger or frustration.  They understand that first Canada has to get used to the new status.  Canadians have to see the impacts and effects of the new world of MAID.  It will take time for the country to learn that the dire slippery slope predictions of opponents have not come true.  The time for further action will come when Canadians are ready for the next debate.  And then another potential human rights court case will arise and MAID supporters will present it.

Our nation is evolving.

Over my lifetime I have attended many protests over various issues.  And I have often angrily joined in with that popular chant: 

What do we want?

(Insert cause)

When do we want it?

NOW!!!

It might be that the demanded social change did come about shortly after, but I am having  hard time remembering when that ever happened.

“Connections are made slowly”

I am not devaluing or opposing the protests.  I do think they are an important tool in pushing society along an evolutionary curve.  But that’s how we have to think of it, in my view,  change is evolutionary rather than immediate. 

The demand for startling and rapid change can get tripped up by the law of unintended consequences.  One of those consequences is likely to be a defensive backlash and an entrenching of opposing views. 

I think we saw this with the spectacular arrival of the #Me Too movement. Though the intention of stopping sexual harassment and abuse of power is laudable, the rush to judgement that accompanied the first highly public accusations may have harmed more than helped the cause.  As researchers Strauts and Blanton observed about language, 

“… if language reform is sufficient to promote more tolerant attitudes and beliefs, then the backlash against such reform might just as easily promote less tolerant attitudes and beliefs.”

Peaceful protest changes minds but usually only a few at a time.  They might have a faster effect on people who already lean in that general direction, but who just haven’t thought about this particular issue much.   But tidal waves of change often cause sceptics to hunker down and resist.  They close their minds to the possibility of change. 

On the positive side, the process of evolution speeds up as consciousness is raised.  We do need to talk about the issues, but I think we need to do so with a measure of generosity and even patience. Our First nations peoples have waited a long time for the start of justice making, but the never stopped talking, or bringing court cases or negotiating.  They understood that change is a slow thing.

We are in the midst of a provincial election, one developing as the most bitterly contested event in living memory. It’s nasty out there.  Generosity and patience in the public sphere are pretty much non-existent.

There are certainly different policy approaches in play in this election, but sadly, they are not really debated or even discussed.  Instead we get sound bytes, written in a way to stir up the already committed and maybe play on the interests of the uncommitted.  

“Our party will give you this thing you want.  Those guys won’t, in fact they will tear up all that is good and wonderful about our glorious province and it’s glowing rosy past.”

What’s ignored is that policy can’t be implemented overnight.  Our current government learned a few years ago that what they thought was a simple change to health and safety rules on farms just wasn’t so simple.  They had to backtrack and rework it.  There were too many interconnected threads for it ever to be simple, but they got it done.

Should they be elected, the opposition party will soon learn that repealing the carbon tax or cutting middle management in order to reduce wait times will be far more complicated than they imagine.

We Unitarian Universalists affirm that we are part of an interconnected web of all existence.  Well a version of that same web exists within the structures of government, economy, health care, environment and education. They are all tied together.  Pull one strand and the entire web reverberates.. 

Wishing that it was all as easy as returning to what we wrongly remember as the simpler times of decades ago is short sighted and false.

Believing that whatever we want to protest we can have the day after the election is naive and wrong.  Just ask Mr. Trump about his first day in office promises of a wall and repeal of Obamacare.

Connections are made slowly.

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