Toronto elections a reminder of institutional fragility

Image: Maia C/Flickr

Pierre Trudeau, Justin's dad, was never happy with the "notwithstanding clause" that got shoehorned late into the Constitution when he "patriated" it in 1982. It undermined his greatest achievement, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which could now be negated at politicians' whims.

Canada's previous Bill of Rights, passed in 1960, was a joke since it had no teeth. Now it had false teeth. Perhaps Trudeau was glad he died in 2000, long before it came to grief this week in Ontario. What's amazing is it took so long till someone exposed that flaw definitively and embarrassingly.

Doug Ford, the Retroman of Canadian politics, did it. He didn't even know enough to be uncomfortable or think it was a bold act: he was elected and the judge wasn't. You don't like that? Vote me out in four years.

He doesn't get and never will, that democracy isn't just about votes. It includes rule of law, free press, minority and human rights -- which can't always wait four years. They take flight pretty quickly.

He makes me miss brother Rob. His inner life was hell and it imperilled everyone he dealt with -- but he had one. Doug is a shell of a person motivated mainly by resentments over perceived slights from snooty downtown leftists who, he said this week, couldn't hold down a job in the private sector.

He, au contraire, quit Humber College after two months, put on a suit and went to work at, er, Dad's company. A model for us all. This may actually be his upside. He's less an aspiring despot than a nasty little man running on payback.

Sadly, we're saddled with Mayor John Tory as Doug's antagonist. The best he mustered this week was, "There are very, very limited options open to us." In other words, "I'll start by taking all my cards off the table."

I'd vote for Jennifer Keesmaat against him even if she hadn't shown some feist, which she has.

The best performance came from protesters who got handcuffed and ejected from Question Period. If the mousy downtown pwogwessives against the original PC neutering of Toronto 20 years ago, had the guts to do that, they might've won. As Peter Paul and Mary sang in "Have You Been to Jail for Justice?:" "A rotten law stays on the books till folks with guts defy it!"

It's been a grim reminder not just of the Charter's fragility but of an entire edifice we grew up assuming was entrenched. It can blow away in a stiff breeze: democracy, civility, tolerance, and Ontario's special target: law. Why are these venerable institutions going back centuries, so vulnerable? Because none of us, the living, go back that far. Each person is a new start on Earth.

It doesn't take much to "forget" something you never lived through personally. True, history can lie on us like a weight, or blessing. Custom and tradition seem formidable. But only personal experience has a living grip -- like the inequality and insecurity of the last 40 years, and especially the last 10.

The young for instance, have no experience of more hopeful times. For them, what's so great about institutions that gave rise to this situation? No matter how far back democratic institutions stretch, in theory or history, none of us were there, we only heard about them after our arrival.

Then what sustains decency and democracy in trying times, if not history and institutions? It's something simpler. Virtual Reality pioneer Jaron Lanier, says he once had an epiphany: every time we trust a traffic light, pay a bill, or "buildings don't all fall down and you can eat unpoisoned food that someone grew" testifies to "an ocean of goodwill and good behaviour from almost everyone, living or dead." We are, he says, bathed in a love that shows itself above all in "constraints" because they compensate for human flaws.

Institutions like law and democracy rise (and rise again if they fall) through that sense of connectedness and need to trust each other, since there's really no alternative. We're nothing as individuals alone, though individuals can be damn impressive. It's the human sense of solidarity, ultimately, that will (or may) save us and make us whole.

This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star.

Image: Maia C/Flickr

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