As we grapple with the regional divisions and partisan reactions that have come out of last month’s election campaign, I’m reminded of a simpler time.
It was a time before smartphones, social media, texting, DVDs, PVRs, reality TV, the Cape Breton and Halifax Regional Municipalities, the territory of Nunavut, and This Hour Has 22 Minutes. It was also a time that saw large chunks of a province’s population threatening to leave Canada.
In the middle of all of this, a unique group of people from all corners of the country descended on Ottawa, determined to learn more about their nation and each other.
No, they weren’t newly elected Members of Parliament; they were high school students participating in the Encounters With Canada program.
And as one of those lucky 144 young Canucks, I learned some of the greatest lessons of my life in that seven-day stay in the nation’s capital during October 1989.
See, I started the week as a politically-motivated young man, still smarting over the imposition of Canada-U.S. free trade deal and federal cuts to transfer payments and various services in Atlantic Canada, particularly the cancellation of passenger rail service to Cape Breton.
I wasn’t especially kind to the Alberta PC MP who unwittingly accepted an invitation to speak to us fresh-faced young’uns during a visit to Parliament Hill. But instead of punishing me, the coordinators for that Encounters week at the Terry Fox Centre gave me a unique opportunity: They made me Prime Minister.
I was chosen to play Brian Mulroney in a mock Parliament debate that would recreate a 1987 free vote on the reinstatement of capital punishment in Canada. Despite the serious subject matter, I chortled at the thought of playing a public figure who I had frequently mocked over the previous five years.
The debate, however, was no joke. I didn’t realize I had to wear formal clothes, like everybody else (I had just enough time to change into a suit and tie before we got going). The Speaker of the House, a Franco-Ontarian firecracker from the Sudbury area, chastised me for not addressing her as “Madame Speaker” in her opening remarks. I was later grilled by several fellow students posing as reporters, and even wound up in a couple of political cartoons for mock newspapers.
This day taught me a lot about fairness and balance in news coverage, commentary, and even political satire. But I learned so much more.
I learned that it’s possible to have friendly, respectful conversations with people who don’t share your political views. This even included a smiling young woman from a small Quebec community who described herself as a separatist in the same matter-of-fact tone others would use to announce they prefer Pepsi to Coke. (It was bizarre for me to recently see her picture in my official photo album from that week and realize, “Oh, that’s the separatist.”)
I learned that people from provinces I had yet to visit were living lives which weren’t really that different from the ones we lived here in Nova Scotia. I got a reminder of this lesson in 1996, when I spent nine days in Alberta and visited three friends that I had met during my Encounters week only seven years earlier.
I learned that, despite our various cultural, linguistic, religious, political and sociological differences, we’re all going to blubbering, sobbing messes when we’ve stayed up all night at a farewell dance with people who’ve made such a great impression on us after only a week.
And I learned that it’s worth investing in relationships with people you’ve only known for a week. Six of the people I met on that life-changing week in Ottawa are still good friends to this day. (A seventh stayed loyal right up to her death from pancreatic cancer in 2013.)
All but one of them has come to visit me and my family in Cape Breton. We don’t always agree on the effectiveness of our leaders, the existence of God, or the best flavour of ice cream. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that we love our country, and each other, and we owe a great deal of that to Encounters With Canada.
The program still runs today, and I’m thrilled to see a new generation of young friends allowing Encounters to shape their lives. But I’m also seeing a lot of angry finger-pointing from certain sectors of the country and its population, ignoring the Encounters spirit and the very principles that make us Canadian.
Do yourself a favour, friends: Log off the Internet, learn about your country, and reach out to other Canadians instead of painting them as the enemy. As we move into the 2020s, let’s all have a true “encounter with Canada.”
It worked – and still works – for me.