Start-up Weekend New Brunswick held recently in Saint John is an island of optimism in New Brunswick’s sea of economic and political malaise. (photo: Michael Hawkins/Wicked Ideas)
I am living a double life. For the past 18 months I have swum in the warm currents of Atlantic Canada’s start-up culture and been inspired by others who, like me, are trying to build companies out of their (hopefully) original ideas. This is an optimistic crowd. They believe they are going to succeed and that belief propels each of them forward in pursuit of investors and customers.
It is heady to be surrounded by so many optimistic people – and then I return to my world. Public affairs. Here, the news is not so cheery. In the past couple of weeks we’ve learned that New Brunswick’s net debt sits at $11 billion, housing starts are down significantly as the province’s middle class continues to empty out and the province recorded zero per cent GDP growth in 2013 – placing it last in Canada for economic growth.
Dive a little further into New Brunswick’s ongoing economic challenges and you will discover a community being riven apart by deep cultural divisions of class, race and belief. That was not the promise of the new century. This was supposed to be the post, post-modern era. The time when we would move beyond identity politics and build a global network of people united in building a better world.
So far, we’ve managed to get it half-right. We have indeed built large networks of people united by their singular vision for the world. However these multiple visions are often competing, rather than complimentary and our networks do a better job of insulating us from opposing views than introducing us to a different way of thinking.
It is why, for the past year New Brunswickers have been exposed to one dominant emotion: anger. Anger about shale gas. Anger about public sector pension reform. Anger about university professors’ salaries. Anger about logging on Crown land. With an election four months away, that anger isn’t likely to dissipate as political parties and interest groups try to sell New Brunswick voters on their particular vision for the province.
We are not alone. The ongoing political circus that is Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, the sudden resignation of Assembly of First Nations chief Shawn Atleo and the town of Kitimat’s rejection via referendum of the Northern Gateway natural gas pipeline are all evidence of the profound social changes taking hold in Canada.
It is tempting to shut it all out – but we can’t. We must face it and then together, we must push back this rising tide of anger. We will not do this with a raised fist, but rather it will only work if we offer an open hand. Politics is about building big tents, not small tribes and that is no easy feat in the era of digital communications and social media, where it is so much easier to like those we agree with then to engage with those whom we don’t.
Take for example, the battle between middle-income and low-income New Brunswickers. Rob Ford’s ongoing battle with ‘the elites’ of Toronto is a familiar story here, where voters who elect populist candidates do so because they see it as a a battle between the ‘little guy’ and ‘them’. If they feel their candidate is under attack from the elite, being judged not acceptable by the elite, they tend to double down and defend that candidate, even if privately they don’t necessarily approve of their actions.
The only way to punch threw that is to connect with those voters on another level, around an issue that we can all agree on and which transcends our divisions. That’s how you invite the small tribes into one big tent – by learning to swim together.
Lisa Hrabluk is an award-winning journalist and the founder of Wicked Ideas.