“Well, the one on the right was on the left
And the one in the middle was on the right
And the one on the left was in the middle
And the guy in the rear burned his driver’s license”
– Jack Clement, recorded by Johnny Cash 1965
Who’s on the left side of the Almonte right wing? Or who’s left on the right after leaders dropping out like Patrick Brown in Ontario and Paul Ryan south of the border? The second question has an easy answer; Doug Ford and Donald Trump. The first question is a bit harder.
The right-left divide is muddier and less coherent than ever, particularly at the neighborhood level. Dividing lines can be drawn to split a community; right/left liberal/conservative, city/country. There are several labels and issues to classify the way people think, but only one way to include everyone.
No matter how we divide ourselves, any line we draw goes through each one of us. Our own individual views can be grouped into right and left. We may pretend otherwise to live in a partisan space. When we often make much ado about the other ‘side’. United in a firm belief that half of us are idiots.
Negative campaigning has resulted in people have an exaggerated view of the perceived conservative-liberal gap. People exaggerate the views of the ‘other’ to make straw man arguments, or exaggerate the values of their own ‘side’ to make them unique and more pure than they truly are.
The waves of hyper-partisanship and the rise of negative campaigning are not contained south of the border. For decades negative ads have been taking up more space with each successive election cycle. Almonte is no exception. One major effect is to turn people off politics. But there is more.
Hyper-partisanship is leading to a crisis in leadership. Polls show a startling number of people in agreement on the fact our world has a leadership crisis. The deeper we go into negative partisanship, the harder it is for any effective leaders to emerge. Government, religious and media leaders especially.
This begs the question, what leadership qualities have to be cultivated to reverse this trend? For many the answer is prioritizing coaching, training and education. It is involving our youth more in leadership. It’s the ability to remain positive in the face of adversity and harnessing the skill of consensus building.
If we know what sectors are perceived as especially lacking in leadership, what are the ones that are seen as having the best? The same polls rank non-profits/charity, education and business as sectors with the most effective leadership.
Almonte had leaders in these sectors. I asked a local business leader how he saw the yawning political divide in our community. He saw himself between two sides, with one side wanting to canoe to work and prioritize puppet festivals. The other group abhorring any interference from legislators at any level.
His views gave me a laugh. They may be exaggerated, but have more than a kernel of truth to them. It struck me that he could not identify himself firmly on either side. Is the rise in hyper-partisanship a symptom of a larger identity crisis in society? If it is what do we replace these identities with?
Growing up in Almonte, identity was often about what we aren’t. We ain’t Carleton Place, we aint’ Ottawa, we ain’t Quebec, we ain’t the US. Lately I hear people talk about how they are glad they do not have to live through the US political climate. Yet the same political waves crash on all these shores.
Hearing the comments of this local business leader brought to mind Indigenous ways, and the deeper understanding of identity that comes with it. In the old days you could canoe to work and there were no legislators to interfere. All we have to do is go back to the old ways and everyone will be happy!
In Canada we have a tendency to think of ‘Indigenous’ as a synonym for ‘First Nations’, the Natives of Turtle Island. Yet we are all Indigenous to somewhere. We all have a connection to an Indigenous earth culture. It’s just some are more aware of it than others.
Have you ever heard someone say they want an ‘Indian name’? Not names like Patel or Bogdan Shree Rajneesh. I’m talking about those descriptive names that have a deeper meaning. There are birth names, nicknames, honour names, special deed names, secret names, spirit names.
Esmerelda Villa Lobos: “What is your name?”
Butch Coolidge: “Butch.”
Esmerelda Villa Lobos: “Butch, what does it mean?”
Butch Coolidge: “I’m an American, honey. Our names don’t mean shit”
– Pulp Fiction
Being disconnected from the history of our names creates a vacuum of identity. It creates a hole where less meaningful and more divisive identity like left/right can seep in. Yet our names do have meaning. Why are there so many Smiths? European names often described avocation, many were blacksmiths.
There is a story behind every name. What is the story behind Snelling I hear you asking? Well, ‘snel’ is Dutch for ‘fast’. The metro in Amsterdam is the Sneltram. If someone asked me for a story behind my name, I would tell a story that stuck with me. One that came from my father and grandfather:
Our Snelling cousin made a living going through the village with a cart collecting sewage from caravans. At lunch he would sit on the cart eating his lunch. A passerby asked him “Art, how can you eat your lunch with that smell”. His response? “It may be shit to you, but it’s bread and butter to me.”
That story from England informs my identity more than any right/left label could. Our names also accumulate local associations. People ask me if I’m related to the Snelling Paper & Sanitation Snelling’s in Ottawa. It’s a question I recall when I direct a stream onto a urinal cake with my name on it.
As a community we have these associations. Who is the first person you think of when you hear a name? If I said Fulton would your first thought be maple syrup? Take Sadler, my first thought is the farm that used to occupy the commercial development across the street from the grocery and Equator.
When I think of Sadler I think of wisdom about the local land. A story told long ago about collecting trees in the Burntlands swamp, how cart tracks there left ruts that are still there decades later. For another friend the name Sadler recalls the memory of a first girlfriend.
There are also negative associations. A friend who was my age recently passed accidently. His mother spoke at his funeral. She talked about being a teacher and tough classrooms. She related how she wanted to give her son a name that did not have associations with any of her students.
It was an observation that broke my grief with a momentary smile. She had no kids called Darryl in her class. She named her son Darryl Christopher. His memorial was a mix of Anglican and Mi’kmaq traditions. The presence of both traditions was comforting and grounding for all groups.
In his adult life he no longer wished to be known as Darryl and asked everyone to call him Chris. He was adamant and stubborn about it. It meant something to him. I wondered as I sat at his memorial if any of his struggles in life related to reconciling his identity. Maybe I was just projecting my own feelings.
Regardless, our search for identity is no trivial matter. It is a life and death struggle for many of our youth to find a place in the society we’ve created. The more space we make for our kids to develop and grow, the more we include our youth in leadership, the better off we will be. It is happening.
Mayor is a leadership position we talk about in Almonte. Since I’ve been around the mayors’ names have been Gomme, Pettem, Finner, Lunney, Levi, and McLaughlin. What all those names have in common is that growing up there was someone in my grade or the next that had one of those names.
The student’s name and the mayor’s families may connect in a few generations. They make connect back many generations. Regardless, common names link us together on some timescale. These names have meaning – more meaning than an L or a C next to a name.
Some say Almonte’s heritage is right/conservative politics. Is that really true? Certainly not at the level of municipal politics. Mayor and council are historically non-partisan. We don’t put letters next to our names when neighbours run in campaigns together. But how about federally and provincially?
The first federal and provincial elections in Lanark saw what party elected? Drum roll please… The Liberal-Conservatives and the Liberals. In actual fact both provincially and federally the majority of the first Lanark elections contested locally were won by… Liberals.
In more recent times most candidates have had a C next to their name. Provincially it has been 95 years of Conservatives since the United Farmers party won the seat. Federally it is more balanced. Lanark had a Liberal win in ’68 during Trudeaumania, as well as Liberal and Alliance wins post Brian ‘GST’ Mulroney.
Governing inevitably moves leaders to the middle; the left towards the right wing, the right towards the left wing. Canada’s leadership is a near constant Liberal-Conservative / Conservative-Liberal. Representing a group of people effectively means seeing more than one side, it means building coalitions.
Some in the community seem interested in moving towards increased partisanship. Should local candidates start running with a letter next to their name? Is it shrewd politics? Is it neighbourly? Do adjectives like left/right, liberal/conservative really tell us enough about who someone is?
Or are they convenient over-simplifications that save us the work of judging the merits of individual human character? Who’s right on the left, Kathleen Wynne and Hillary Clinton? These terms are just not enough to define us. Society is using them more to define what we aren’t rather than what we are.
Increasingly people are identifying as independents and shedding left/right labels. To move beyond political partisanship, voters need to do the work to evaluate people as individuals on their character. Evaluate the work they do, the history of where they came from. Our names have meaning.
Who’s left on the Almonte right? Who has shown a willingness to do the work to build consensus? Who has shown a desire to move beyond polarization? Who is demonstrating local grassroots leadership? Who is motivated to be involved despite the climate? My answer is Tracy Stimpson.