Throughout adult life, we take on various roles, and wear multiple hats. Though perhaps it doesn’t come to mind immediately, one of those roles is citizen.
Several events during my childhood impressed on me both the privileges and responsibilities of citizenship.
Soon after my eighth birthday, the October crisis introduced me to politics and the lengths individuals, groups and governments will go to achieve their goals.
We lived in Petawawa, Ont. and during Thanksgiving dinner the phone rang. My father, a helicopter pilot in the Canadian Armed Forces, informed us he had to leave immediately.
Four days after that initial military deployment, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau enacted the War Measures Act, temporarily suspending civil rights.
I recall being in the car with my mother when it was pulled over and searched. Local authorities considered canceling Halloween over fears of terrorist activity.
Two years later, from the window of my bedroom in St. Hubert, Quebec, I could see the farmhouse where they found Pierre LaPorte’s body. The FLQ had murdered him in the name of their political goals.
It gave me a lot to think about.
In 1976, the Parti Québécois won the provincial election. René Lévesque was the candidate in our riding. My anglophone parents were not enumerated. My mother and several others went to the enumeration office. They were turned away and, as a result, were unable to vote in the election.
The incident shook my understanding of democracy and fairness.
Over this same period of time, my grandfather was first the military advisor to the Canadian ambassador to the United Nations and then the chief of security at the United Nations.
There were always conversations and stories about world politics at my grandparent’s summer home in Muskoka. Mostly, I listened.
I also worried about the Cold War and hoarded canned goods in a backpack, in the hope it might help save my family during a nuclear war.
My parents discussed current events at the dinner table. I longed to understand enough to offer my own opinions. Every day I read the newspaper. How did the actions of governments affect communities and individuals? What influence could citizens have on their elected representatives?
I read also science fiction, checking out books from the library. Within those pages, I discovered new perspectives on issues.
As a teenager, I penned articles and opinion pieces. In 1979, The Globe and Mail published one of my letters. It was an earnest piece imploring the people of Quebec to vote to remain part of Canada. From my 16-year-old perspective, I believed if enough of us extended a welcoming hand, we could tip the balance.
Maybe that was naïve, but to this day I remain optimistic about the potential of communication and community to bridge gaps.
Having children focused my attention on public education. Living in Canada is both a privilege and a responsibility, but effective citizenship requires tools: literacy; an understanding of history, rhetoric and logic; and a grounding in the principles of science.
I lobbied for education reform and ran for a Maple Ridge school trustee position in 1996. I threw my name into the mix because I felt it hypocritical not to. To my surprise, the community elected me.
Nine years as a political representative greatly tarnished my trust that politicians, governments and public institutions looked to evidence and outcomes and generally put the interests of citizens first. I discovered that while accountability and transparency are essential to well-functioning governance, they are the first things to lapse when citizens don’t take their responsibilities seriously. In 2005, I did not run for a fourth term.
The communication possibilities of social media fascinate me, and in 2013 I created the first local politics Facebook group – Maple Ridge Council Watch.
Then three years ago, Mayor Nicole Read asked me to chair a citizen’s committee as part of the Open Government Task Force. Consulting with the community on this issue was eye-opening, and the report we produced can be found on the City of Maple Ridge website.
Communities form around common interests, and the resulting communication and connections lead to understanding.
Antiquated political labels like “left” or “right” wing mostly serve to divide and polarize. As Canadians, most of us share the same goals, but we argue endlessly over which paths to take to reach them.
Today, my writing includes science fiction, and I’m involved in efforts to build a local writing community through Golden Ears Writers. Within language lies power and even magic. A picture may speak a thousand words, but a thousand words can explain a theory, create a world, form a friendship across thousands of miles, or inspire a new passion.
I’m honoured to have been offered this space and look forward to the conversation, fellow citizens.
Katherine Wagner created and moderates the Facebook group Maple Ridge Council Watch, chaired the Citizen’s Committee of the Mayor’s Open Government Task Force, organizes Golden Ears Writers, and is a former Maple Ridge school trustee. She will be writing once a month in this space.