In the midst of a pandemic, is it too soon to talk about renewal?

In the midst of a pandemic is it too soon to talk about renewal? For some, it’s well past time. Previous Lafontaine-Baldwin lecturers and emerging leaders gather to look upon the fault lines COVID-19 has exposed, and what needs to be done in the aftermath.

Former Lafontaine-Baldwin lecturers and emerging leaders examine the fault lines of COVID-19

An engineer looks at monkey kidney cells as he works on an experimental vaccine for COVID-19, April 29, 2020. As part of the LaFontaine-Baldwin 2020 lectures, diverse leaders and thinkers discuss what it will take to emerge from this pandemic with a more just and inclusive society. (Nicolas Asfouri/AFP via Getty Images)

Ordinarily the Institute for Canadian Citizenship names one person to deliver the LaFontaine-Baldwin lecture on matters of democracy, citizenship and the public good. 

But this is no ordinary year. 

For 2020 the Institute convened two online discussions: one composed of nine previous lecturers, sharing observations and concerns about the time of pandemic and beyond, and one of emerging global leaders, who gave their responses. 


Systemic social ills 

Rt. Hon. Adrienne Clarkson, former Governor-General of Canada: 

"Three systemic problems revealed: deeply systemic racism, systemic ageism and misogyny. Seeing that people, because of their race, and where they live because of their race, are more prone to getting the disease and therefore of dying. That older people, because we have warehoused them, are dying [...] That kind of systemic thing, which we have accepted, has revealed what really has to be changed now... not when the crisis is over, but starting now."

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said people may have different points of view, but when it comes to masks, the rules are the rules. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Naheed Nenshi, Mayor of Calgary, AB:

"I think there's an important assumption that we have to understand here: if the system worked for everyone, they would trust the system. So it's not just a matter of 'I'm being fed misinformation, I'm being amped up or juiced up.' That certainly is happening. But we also have to understand that there are so many people for whom the system does not work. Your grocery clerk gets to go to the same hospital as you, but increasingly in our community, your grocery clerk doesn't get to live in the same neighborhood as you. And consequently your grocery clerk's kids are not actually going to the same school as your kids because they simply can't afford to live there." 

Government complacency

Jana Pareigis, journalist, public broadcaster, Berlin:

"It's very interesting […] how much is possible if there's the political will; for example, now the German government, they see this as a crisis, which it obviously is. And they've mobilized huge funds to support the economy, to support people who have lost their jobs, to strengthen the social welfare system, the health care system. But we don't see the same urgency when it comes, for example, to eradicate racism or when it comes to the climate crisis. So I think this is something we can take from this pandemic, that great social change has come from movements pushing for it. And a lot more is possible than governments make us think there is." 

John Ralston Saul is the co-founder and co-chair of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship, a national charity promoting the inclusion of new citizens. He is also the co-Founder and co-Chair of 6 Degrees, the global forum for inclusion. (courtesy John Ralston Saul)

John Ralston Saul, author and philosopher, Toronto:

"Western governments in particular have become increasingly structured, not simply around ideology and money and markets, but more fundamentally around a utilitarian way of doing things. And that's been a big protection for power. And that, of course, has driven imagination out. You are not rewarded in large organizations or in power for imagination. [...] what they're trying to do is prevent this crisis from turning into real change. They're trying to prevent imagination, and prevent imagination from getting into power."

Zaakir Tameez, Fulbright Scholar, organizer and activist, Charlottesville VA / London UK:

"So many things are breaking up and being pulled apart. And yet one thing that has somehow managed to endure the pandemic, and even do better, is the stock market, because the stock market literally has circuit breakers in place: the market crashes and the Fed has been pumping it with money. Why is that? Because the powers that be have pushed the government to do that for the stock market. And that's not happened for racism. That's not happening for healthcare. That's not happening for education. How do we take a step back from 'more, more, more', and how do we ensure we have systems that are strong enough to withstand a crisis?" 

The fraying of common purpose

George Elliott Clarke, former Poet Laureate of Toronto and of Canada; teacher, and critic, Halifax, NS:

"Part of the rejection of the mask, I think, is also a rejection of those 'liberal elites', as some people might see them. And it's a response that is on one hand nonsensical, and on the other hand, extremely sensible, because the same people who are ordering us to wear masks have also been saying, 'It's OK if your jobs get shipped overseas. Don't worry about it. We're gonna take care of you anyway. You'll have a lower quality of life, a lower standard of living. [But] accept our ruling, because it really is the best for you.'"

Adam Gopnik, Staff Writer, The New Yorker:

"[This] is the essence of Trumpism: to say that we don't have to pay attention to an educated elite, we don't have to pay attention to people who have expertise about something, because through our intuitions, through our folk wisdom, through the charismatic power of the autocratic leader we know already: you can rip people open and shine lights inside them. That'll cure it. You can take patent medicines and that'll cure it. The revolt against organized intelligence is not something that I think we should be sympathetic to. That's Trumpism in its purest form."

The limits of science

Louise Arbour, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights:

"I think what we're missing when we talk about 'us' — the rational neoliberals, and so on — who think about science providing a lot of guidance, if not all the answers, is that we have found no replacement for having evacuated faith from our way of thinking. I come from a society, from Quebec society, which in the last decade or so has been obsessed with secularism. And yet people of my generation, rational people, were prepared to accommodate their rational reliance on science with their faith in God, even in the Immaculate Conception. And we managed to live with a high level of irrationality. It provided us lots of good things, social cohesion, comfort...and we've rejected that in many others. And we've found no replacement for the fact that science doesn't provide all the answers."

Louise Arbour was the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, a former justice of the Supreme Court of Canada and the Court of Appeal for Ontario and a former Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. (REUTERS/Vincent Kessler )


Relationships and solidarity

Michael Hart, Fisher River Cree Nation, Vice-Provost (Indigenous Engagement), University of Calgary:

"The tendency is to look [to] those who are facing oppression to be resilient, but not necessarily to look at the oppression or the issues that are causing the need for resiliency. I think a key [...] is the whole concept of relationships between peoples, between communities, between groups. Relationships provide the opportunity for people to see that our individual actions or community actions, our nation's actions, are impacting others. So I think a key piece I would look at is relationships over resiliency. 

Ruth Mojeed Ramirez: Journalist, Organizer, The Inclusion Project, Victoria, BC:

"We need to agitate a bit more. We need to move the needle a bit more. I would say there is a brewing emergence of solidarity. As a person of color, as a Black person, [I think of] the Black Lives Matter movement; how people across the board, Indigenous people, other allies came to the streets. I think there is an erosion of trust that we're seeing in traditional systems and we need to start to rethink. It might not be as organized as we probably want it to be, but I think that people are starting to take the bull by the horns and at best we can all just ensure that we're at the table and ready to go when the opportunities present themselves."

Re-imaginging institutions and structures

Rt. Hon. Beverley McLachlin, former Chief Justice of Canada:

"I'm hoping that as we come out of this crisis, we will be doing a lot of thinking about how we can make our institutions better. You know, we're all very good at saying it's wrong; we've got to do something. But I think that we've been working with, in many cases, outdated institutions, institutions from the 19th century, ideas from the 19th century. I think we need to modernize the whole system when this is all over."

Beverley McLachlin was the Chief Justice of Canada for 17 years. She was the first woman to hold that position and the longest-serving chief justice in Canadian history. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Mariko Silver, President and CEO, The Henry Luce Foundation, New York:

"People have said this moment requires the full force of our imagination. [...] But we need to dig into what that means. What does that mean in the doing? What does that mean in the work? What does that mean about who we're centering, who we're listening to, and how we reflect on our own complicity in our own culture, frankly, with the systems as they are; with our own privilege in the systems as they are. And how do we then think about how to disrupt them? And what kind of moral courage and moral imagination does that take?"

Jessica Bolduc, Batchawana First Nation, Executive Director, the 4R's Youth Movement:

"I hope that people might ask themselves to pick up this conversation about imagination. How am I going to carve out space for imagination today, for myself, for someone in my family, for someone in the institution or organization that I work with? Shifting how we show up personally and professionally, I think is crucial; practicing showing up in solidarity for someone you know?  Show up, show up, show up." 

Political involvement/engagement

Nicolas Langelier, journalist, co-founder, Atelier 10, Montreal:

"One thing this pandemic has done for me is rekindle my desire to get involved at a political level that is above the strictly local or the small scale, which are still important. But with the climate crisis looming also more than ever, I feel like we need social democratic governments that will make our societies stronger by taking care of their individual citizens, redistributing wealth, taming social divisions, et cetera."

Renata Àvila, lawyer, activist, Guatemala:

"I think there's this fascination with the grass roots, but I have to be very bold in this: we need to seize power. We need to not be shy, as civil society, to get into politics. We need to be empowered. We need to encourage young people to be political, and to form political parties. Political parties [are] demonized. And it's kind of like this, silly division: politics is dirty. Politics is dangerous. Politics is corruption. It is the only way to access fast changes. I get angry when people become shy of power." 

Using power to challenge the status quo

Yasir Naqvi, CEO of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship, former Attorney-General of Ontario:

"With power comes a lot of pressure to defend the status quo. Because that's how you maintain power. How do we resist that temptation so that we can continue to effect change, is something we also have to remember.  [...] We have to build an inclusive society. We have to bring those who are excluded, the marginalized, in. I think that's the task before us." 

* This episode was produced by Sean Foley.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now