The last week saw the transition of power in Great Britain, as the office of prime minister passed from David Cameron to Theresa May. Cameron dutifully and appropriately resigned after leading the unsuccessful Remain campaign during the referendum on the U.K.'s membership in the European Union. I always liked David Cameron. Maybe it was because we're both fans of the rock band, The Smiths, but also (and more importantly) because he tried to use the privileged position of prime minister to appeal to the better angels in our nature with the "Big Society" initiative of his early government.
The Big Society ideal was first referenced by Cameron in 2009 and became part of his coalition government with the Liberals in 2010. In a nutshell, the Big Society philosophy recognizes that a country and its communities are built as much by passionate volunteers, community groups and service organizations as it is by departments of the government.
In the spirit of this ideal, the Cameron government wanted to empower communities, modernize the public service and leverage the contributions of the charitable and non-profit sector. They created the Big Society Capital Fund to help support the goodwill of service clubs and organizations across the country and engage citizens in the process of government. Sadly, it had only moderate success, but this was likely due to the minority parliament situation and the difficult economic times that gripped the country in the 2009 to 2012 period.
As a veteran and a passionate volunteer, this recognition of volunteerism and community activism resonated with me a great deal. When Cameron launched the initiative I was a lawyer working in Toronto but deeply invested in and dedicating a lot of time to causes I was passionate about, whether support for military (True Patriot Love), Parliamentary Democracy or community building. I had joined the Canadian Armed Forces at 18 because it represented an institution and ideals that were bigger than the men and women who serve within it. I was raised in a home where being involved in your school, church and community organizations was essential. If you were able to donate time, energy or money to a cause building your community, you should do so. My father often liked to remind us of the biblical verse that is expressed as to whom much is given much is expected.
The Big Society has always been with us long before Cameron articulated and promoted its expansion. In my three years as MP, I have talked about this regularly. Service Clubs like Rotary, 4H, the Lions, the Shriners, Kin Canada and the Royal Canadian Legion embody the concept of Service Above Self and are premised upon good people gathering together to leverage the strength of a group towards a positive aim.
I often say that two per cent of our citizens volunteer and contribute to ensure that the 100 per cent enjoy a positive and inclusive community.
The collective power of groups gathering together for a cause is what built the country and shaped our destiny far more than any department of the provincial or federal governments. The suffrage movement pushed to help women gain the vote, the Union Movement grew to ensure that workers gained collective rights, the abolition movement organized the end of capital punishment, and the temperance movement temporarily halted and eventually controlled the sale of alcohol.
These movements and gatherings of citizens did not wait for the government to ask them to step in. They were often pushing a government to act or were building upon what government could do. These groups and the people that belong to them represent the collective pursuit of advancing public policy goals and volunteerism in the very best sense of our society. Our history shows that the idea of the Big Society has always been with us in a positive way.
I remain a huge proponent of the Big Society because I see it in action every day in our communities. I often say that two per cent of our citizens volunteer and contribute to ensure that the 100 per cent enjoy a positive and inclusive community. In the last week I saw this firsthand as two young girls in my riding organized lemonade stands to support causes they care about. This is an innate part of our society from an early age and it should be celebrated.
If we can formulate policies and reforms that bring five per cent into this level of community volunteerism, just think of the amazing impact it could have on our country. Think of the projects that could be built, the people that could be helped and the sense of ownership it would engender in our cities and towns.
This is why I worked with several colleagues to make service club dues a charitable expense in the policy document of the Conservative Party in the last election. I remain convinced that this is the proper recognition of these dues, which members of our society pay to be part of groups that organize our festivals, build our recreation facilities and even teach our children how to play hockey or soccer (our son Jack learned to play hockey this year due to a three-decade-old program from the Kinsmen). This is also why my office recognizes the contributions of citizens to their local community by awarding Community Service Medallions.
While David Cameron will now fade into his post-politics career, he can count on a member of Parliament in Canada to continue to promote the idea of a Big Society, which in many ways just recognizes the amazing work done in the past and present by our neighbours and friends. I will continue to recognize and support their work which reminds us that we don't have to wait for government to have a positive impact on our community and our country. Carpe Diem.
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Introduce your children to books that encourage compassion and generosity toward others. Try “The Lorax” by Dr. Seuss for its message about the environment, “The Legend of Bluebonnet” by Tomie De Paola for its focus on sacrificing for others, and “Something Beautiful” by Sharon Wyeth, which is about seeing beauty in the unlikeliest places. Biographies about inspiring figures (“Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” by Doreen Rappaport) can also spark important conversations on how they can pitch in.
A great way to get your family invested in volunteering is to use it as a way to explore their interests and talents. Are they into sports? Volunteer to coach a youth league or help them start a collection of unused gear to donate to a school or organization in need. Are they crazy about animals? Pitch in at a pet shelter or with an animal welfare organization. To foster an even deeper sense of togetherness, participate in activities that explore your family’s heritage, whether it’s volunteering at a museum or reading stories at your local community center.
What sparks excitement in a teenager may provoke boredom or confusion in your grade-school child. Try to turn younger children on to volunteering by starting with simple visit to a food bank or clothing drive where they can sort items. Alternatively, you can help them start an ongoing collection (glasses, old cell phones, etc.) to donate. For older children, activities that connect to their interests and skills will help them develop their talents, stay out of trouble and serve others.
It’s too easy to lose out on the real spirit of the holidays when you’re caught in a whirlwhind of materialism. How about finding a way to make your holiday about slowing down and spending time with your family? There are plenty of food banks, hospitals, homeless shelters and retirement homes that welcome volunteers on holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas. It’s a great way to establish a ritual of volunteering with your kids that could well extend through the rest of the year.
Even if your family can’t devote a whole day to volunteering, incorporate giving as a routine. Make service both a long-term commitment and an everyday occurrence. And the benefits are long-lasting: According to Tanisha Smith, a national director of volunteer services for Volunteers of America: "Two-thirds of youths who volunteer become active adults who volunteer."
We admit that it’s a hard sell to get your kid to sacrifice the allure of the traditional birthday party, but Volunteer Guide has some great pointers for making volunteering -- and fun! -- the main attraction. Encourage guests to donate a small sum to a charity of your family’s choice in lieu of an extravagant gift. And instead of useless party favors, kids can leave knowing that they’ve made the world a little brighter, whether they’ve written a letter to a sick kid or planted a tree.
Volunteering is a great opportunity to model good values and have important conversations with your kids. Make it meaningful by asking them questions before, during and after: What do they hope to get out of this day of service? What did they learn? Go to DoingGoodTogether.org for more great discussion-starters.
Follow Erin O'Toole on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ErinOTooleMP