A version of this poem (or quotation or whatever you want to call it) hung in my parents’ kitchen for as long as I can remember. A daily reminder to speak up, to not stay silent when you witness wrongs being committed. Often those kitchen hangings, over time, become so second nature that you kind of see them but you don’t really see them, you know? They become so familiar to the fabric of the room and as a result can lose their meaning.
With this one, though, I have to say that never happened. Part of the reason is that my parents lived that motto. It wasn’t just a saying or a quote, it was who they were, and who I tried to become. No, they weren’t Holocaust survivors (this is the origin of Niemoller’s poem, for anyone who doesn’t know) but they knew how important it was to be able to stand up for those who cannot, to use your voice for those who have no voice, to ensure the most vulnerable are taken care of.
One year ago today my mother died. On that day her voice, her ability to ensure that she at least would speak up for the ones who can’t, also died. Her ability to convince people that something needed to be done, changes needed to be made. All of that. Just gone.
When we lose someone we love we think in terms of what we ourselves have lost. And believe me, I have spent the past year grieving that loss. For me, for my children, for my mother’s friends and our family. But this week, leading up to the anniversary of her death, I started thinking of some of the other losses – the more global, I suppose you would say, for want of a better word. I started thinking of all the charities she supported – the countless envelopes that arrived daily, and still arrive as her mail gets forwarded to our house now. Of course those charities still exist, but they have lost her contribution, her ability to say “I believe this is important and I will support it”. I think of the animals she personally saved – stray cats especially, that would wander the neighbourhood until they found the right door – her door – where there would be food and a little visit, until ultimately – more times than not – there would be a trip the vet and an announcement that there was a new member of the family.
This week, I have mostly been thinking about the loss of her vote. We had an election in Canada this week, and boy was it something. The Conservative party now rules with a majority government. This basically means they can do whatever they want, to put it bluntly. They can act and legislate with no real opposition, in spite of the New Democrat Party holding over 100 seats in Parliament as the Official Opposition. More in name than action and ability at this point, I’m afraid.
Over the past few years I have seen our country become more and more “Me Me Me” focused. The Conservatives play on fear – fear of immigrants, fear of taxes to support social services, just plain basic fear. They most of all have contributed to the sense that Canada is now an “everyone for themselves” kind of place – as long as it doesn’t affect me it’s cool, amirite?? This is NOT the Canada that I know. Not at all. I remember a Canada that tried to look after its people. A Canada that cared, that welcomed immigrants, that was proud of its heritage as a leader in the world of social safety nets and a fair shake for everyone. Am I colouring this with an idyllic sort of nostalgia? Perhaps. But looking back, even allowing for the rose-coloured glasses of memory and time, I can honestly say that I remember a better, more inclusive Canada. The Canada of today scares me.
The Niemoller quote just popped – actually it jumped – into my head this week as I started thinking about this change in our country, this move to the egocentric. If we, as a culture, continue to give the middle finger to the people most vulnerable, what’s going to happen when there’s no one less vulnerable than us? If we keep turning our backs as a country on those who are in need, at risk and suffering, who can say what becomes of those who are left? It’s a slippery slope, isn’t it? And I think few people really realize how dangerous this line of thinking can be. When you start laying blame and pointing fingers and wanting to find someone responsible, feeding in to a culture of hate and intolerance… History is bound to repeat, isn’t it?
So today, while I continue to grieve for a wonderful mother, grandmother and friend, I am acutely aware of the greater loss that my mother’s death represented. The death of a vote for compassion, for looking after people. For caring about more than just yourself. I believe her reaction to this recent election would have been something along the lines of how the country is generally going to hell in a handbasket. And I completely agree.
In fact, I’d even go a step further and say that we’re already there.