My city of London, Ontario was hit with another economic broadside this past week. Its vulnerability to decline in the manufacturing sector has led to a stubbornly high unemployment rate. When suddenly last week Caterpillar Inc. announced it would be shutting down the ElectroMotive plant entirely and leaving for good, it was an action that would place approximately 500 more Londoners out of work. Caterpillar has garnered itself a significant black eye in both the draconian offer it made to its workers and the tin ear it gave to community leaders attempting to draw it back to the table. We won't forget.
Almost overnight citizens who had previously contented themselves with standing on the picket line with workers in signs of support were now calling for public meetings, offering help with daycare, food supplies, and credit counselling. As London's Mayor Joe Fontana offered: "I haven't ever seen the city respond like this to a labour dispute." Indeed.
Such citizen support ironically contrasted with the lack of attention at the political level, especially from the federal government. While politicians of all stripes, and at various levels, applied themselves to the seemingly intractable problem at ElectroMotive, the Harper governments MPs from London were AWOL.
In what became something of a sad parody, they spent more time shifting the onus onto other levels of government than in actually speaking directly to the problems the community was asking them to address. Especially hard for the workers, and a cause of confusion for many citizens, was that the government MPs refused to visit the line where workers held constant vigil -- a sad testimony to the inefficacy of politics these days.
But that's just the way the political world has been evolving, isn't it? The blind partisanship shown by all parties in the last few years has resulted in ineffective public policies, both north and south of the border. Yet of late we are learning that tribal politics is leading to bad economics. Worse still, it creates financial havoc in the lives of average citizens that eventually cripples local communities.
Not too long from now, as we seek to overcome the class divisions that have been fostered by a rampant capitalism and a rabid kind of politics, we will look back on these days and hold them in a special kind of contempt.
As with the fallout from the Great Depression, we will remember the greed of certain corporate barons with an anger that will not be easily satiated. And a special historic derision will be reserved for politicians who couldn't put their divisions aside for the sake of a country bleeding out from the loss of middle-class possibilities and a poverty that claimed more victims with each passing election.
The vision of politicians fiddling while their communities burned in financial turmoil will not easily be erased, in part because we citizens didn't pay enough attention during the pivotal years of economic decline to demand a political representation of the highest calibre when it came to comprehending the human condition.
In communities like mine, despite all its present obstacles, redemption has already begun. Citizens groups are meeting, demanding politicians wake up to the need of their constituencies as opposed to the venerable halls of the nation's capital. We are coming together in ways uncommon for us, offering assistance to one another and waking up to our more democratic responsibilities. Some of our local businesses have even gone to the length of pulling all Caterpillar products from their shelves.
At some point, hopefully not too far into the future, the citizens of Canada will pull themselves back from the brink of ambivalence and yank their political representatives along with them. And as an engaged and committed citizenship arising from the turmoil, they will look back to these challenging days in London, Ontario as the day when an agitated people took the power of the future back into their own hands. Given the collective pain we are going through at present, that moment couldn't come soon enough.
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