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Championing progressive values

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(Part three of a series)

Stephen Harper may have won the election, but a strong NDP opposition raises the possibility that a broader audience of Canadians will be exposed to truly progressive ideas for the first time in a generation.

That, in itself, holds change-making potential.

But how do progressives help sow the seeds for a return to the days when Canada's federal government actually initiates new, internationally respected public services and policies that meet the needs of this and the next generation? Services and policies that address long-neglected issues in Canada: worsening income inequality and sustained poverty, environmental neglect and abuse, and the end of the promise that each new generation will have a better life than the last.

First, we have to help change the conversation from 'who is best able to manage the economy' to 'what kind of Canada will the next generation inherit?'

To do this, progressives need to connect with the emotions that are out there: the worry, stemming from insecurity, and the aspirational nature of Canadians. And they have to do it in a pragmatic, fully costed way or risk ceding that ground to the right.

It helps to confidently root the progressive frame in the Canadian story, which, in many respects has been a history of mutual struggle and support (though in no way complete -- especially considering our treatment of First Nations and immigrant workers).

Our challenge, and it should be a pride-making challenge, is to tap into Canadian (mostly progressive) values. Which values? And how to tell this story?

Everything I learned about Canadian values, I learned growing up in frequently drought-stricken rural Saskatchewan. This was a place where pragmatism had to coincide with dreaming: because you couldn't start a farmstead without having a dream of taming Mother Nature, and you had to learn how to be very pragmatic about achieving that dream.

This was a place where individual responsibility -- the weight you carried on your shoulders, working the fields and trying to keep your kids clothed and fed -- balanced nicely with a deep sense of community, of social responsibility, of interconnectedness -- because everyone knew you couldn't do it alone.

We needed each other to survive. And because we needed each other, it meant we had to be caring, sharing, empathetic, and giving.

When tragedy struck a family, everyone offered whatever support they could: food, visits, taking over the chores on the ranch. And if you were the recipient of this goodwill, you didn't view it as charity, you knew it was the give-and-take of living together, in community. It was part of living for the common good.

That's the Canada I know and love -- those values remain embedded in the Canadian psyche, prairie hound or not.

When we think about how to sell our ideas, it starts with asking ourselves, what is the infrastructure behind those ideas. What are our values? What are the stories that inform them? Once we do that, we're better positioned to connect with each other, to touch people with our ideas, to lead the way into the future.

The right has known this is how to mobilize for years. It's our turn. If we fail to take up this challenge, progressives will find themselves stuck in a conversation someone else set for them -- Conservatives. To stay in the Conservative frame is to remain in reactionary mode, which is to remain in retreat.

Some pundits would read this as a call to 'unite the left'. Here's why it's not: Efforts to unite the left will undoubtedly lead to a suppression of progressive values in the cold hard grab for power. They also contain a whiff of short-term tactical desperation. No, this is not a 'unite the left' rally cry; this is a call for progressives of all political stripes to awaken to new modes of connecting with Canadians because that's the only way to create a lasting and meaningful alternative to the politics of fear.

As it stands, the election of a Harper majority represents the sad end of a chapter in Canadian history: the slow fadeout of the post-war consensus that gave us public health care, public pensions, employment insurance, access to university -- the types of public policies that transformed Canada into an internationally respected nation. We were peacekeepers, we were caretakers, and we were a great country in which to live.

We can still be that, and more. But getting there requires a long-term strategic shift, to help Canadians emerge from the heavy cloak of the politics of fear and awaken to our greater potential.

Tomorrow's blog post wraps up this series with a suggested way forward for progressives.

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