Director of multiculturalism of the Spicer Commission
ORIGINAL TITLE: Inside the Citizens’ Forum: Dreams and nightmares
Former Citizen editor Mohammed Azhar Ali Khan joined the forum last November as senior policy adviser and director of multiculturalism. He is now a communications and multicultural consultant.
“What does it matter to me what Canada’s future will be like,” said the visitor from Toronto. “I know that I and my children will always be second- or third-class citizens.”
The words still haunt as I look back at my experiences with the Citizens’ Forum on Canada’s Future. His statement was typical of the mood of Canadians last winter — one of anger, suspicion, even despair.
What the visitor said drew assenting nods from most of the leaders present. But one leader offered a dissenting view. “We are Canadians,” he said quietly. “We cannot be indifferent to the country’s future. We have to stand by our country.”
The others debated the subject and agreed to co-operate with the Citizens’ Forum, grudgingly. For me it represented an opening. It was the sort of conversation I would have with ethnic leaders across the country many times in the next few months.
When the Citizens’ Forum on Canada’s Future was established last November, Keith Spicer asked that I take charge of the forum’s multiculturalism work.
He explained that the job he had undertaken was next to impossible — consulting the Canadian people on their future. Consulting not merely the elites, as royal commissions did, but the grassroots.
The task had to be completed in about eight months, the time most royal commissions take merely to complete the plans for their work which generally lasts two to three years.
So why, I asked Spicer, did he undertake that difficult task. His answer was emphatic.
“Canada, without Canadians even recognizing it, was being torn apart by carelessness, self-centredness and cynicism.” Perhaps the forum could have Canadians start talking to each other again, improving the climate of dialogue in the country, getting to understand each others’ aspirations and, possibly, coming up with some ideas on how to rejuvenate the country. “We just can’t let the country drift into an abyss.”
Quite early it became clear to the forum staff that the forum would succeed, in spite of the obstacles. There were two reasons why we all felt it could not fail. One was the attitude of the people. Originally skeptical about the forum, they rallied to it with an enthusiasm that delighted us. The other reason we felt the forum would succeed was because Spicer convinced us we were working in the service of Canada. So we did what we had to. It wasn’t easy.
The media reported that some commissioners were charging for working seven days a week. What was not said was that some commissioners were working seven days a week, usually from early in the morning till late at night. So were many staff members, some not charging for overtime.
When the budget crisis erupted the staff kept working overtime, but without charge. When travel was frozen, some people kept travelling, sometimes by car and staying with relatives. This minimized the cost, but ensured that the work got done. Many moderators, and others, refused payment for their services.
I had started with determination and optimism. The chairman and the first executive director, Alain Desfosses, had a clear vision of Canada as a tolerant, civilized nation with all of its citizens living in dignity and equality. The forum was to restore the Canadian people’s faith in their country.
Some months later, the chairman was out of town. The media and some opposition MPs were hounding us. There were fears that the forum would shut down and leave the country more despondent than ever. The new executive director, David Broadbent, called all forum members and said: “The chairman will not quit. The forum will not fail. It will do its job.” We returned to our work, determined not to fail.
We often worked as a team. I remembered our bus trip back from a moderators workshop in Peterborough. I told field offices director David Jones that of the provincial co-ordinators he had appointed only one was an aboriginal and not one was from the visible minorities. Stunned, he told me to recommend a regional co-ordinator and he’d hire the person. I recommended a Canadian of Asian background, with good contacts with women and with labor. He hired her, and she did a great job.
When Laurier Lapierre was appointing moderators for the group discussions he asked me to recommend an ethnic moderator for each province, and two for Ontario. I told him that this would divert most of our budget to hotel and travel bills and we wouldn’t be able to cover all the communities. I suggested we hire numerous moderators but pay only for the work they did. That way we would save money, and cover all the territories.
He agreed, and this worked out nicely.
Most of my encounters at the forum were extremely positive. But there were several negative experiences too that many of us had.
For example, there was very little planning at the forum initially, partly because the commissioners could not agree among themselves — or because they changed the plans made by the staff members. The senior managers were so busy placating the chairman and the commissioners that they had no time to guide the staff. In my area, decisions were sometimes taken without consulting me — or ignoring my advice.
I believe most of these problems were the result of the pioneering job entrusted to us, and the ridiculously small time given to us.
Still, as the forum’s work ended, I felt gratified that it had done a magnificent job, and that ethnic Canadians had played their full part. Gone is the despair and the anger that Canadians were experiencing last fall. There is a new mood of accommodation. Give at least some of the credit to the forum.
June 27 was a day those who worked with the forum will never forget. In the morning the forum’s report was presented to the government and the people. For us it was a dream that had miraculously come true.
But, in the forum’s short, turbulent life, dreams and nightmares had become inseparable. So it was on this day. The chairman was at the Museum of Civilization, presenting his report, with the commissioners seated behind him. Then, just when reporters were asking questions, the sound system went dead.
Two weeks earlier, I was in the same hall, attending a traditional Hindu wedding. It lasted for six hours and was followed by an exotic mix of eastern and western dancing. The microphones never failed. But, when it came to the forum, anything that could fail always did. So while the audience were perplexed by the power failure, the forum staff present merely glanced at each other knowingly, and shrugged.
That night forum members gathered at a cafe to celebrate. At the forum, we had worked long hours, shared ecstatic joy and painful despair. At this, the last of the get-togethers that began last Christmas, there was unadulterated joy pouring forth uncontrollably from tired bodies.
But my thoughts turned to the missing ones — who had welcomed me when I joined the forum in November, and others who had come later. Some of these colleagues ended up in hospital, others dropped out because of exhaustion, many left when their work ended. They had contributed as much to the forum’s success as any of us who had stayed on till the end, or almost the end. Their absence filled me with emptiness, even though I rejoiced, as my other colleagues did, in the forum’s success.
So while my colleagues ate, drank or danced, I got up quietly from my table, went to my car, and drove back home, saying a silent prayer of gratitude — that the forum had succeeded and that I had the privilege of being a part of this noble enterprise.
My admiration also went up for two men. For Keith Spicer, who never gave up even when he was being clobbered from all sides. For Brian Mulroney, who established the forum to consult the Canadian people and provided it the resources to do its job.
Fairly early in the forum’s work it became clear that the Canadian people would use the prime minister’s own chosen instrument, the forum, to signal publicly their distrust of him. But even when the media and the opposition parties were calling for the forum to be shut down and for Spicer to be fired, Mulroney stood by the forum and ensured that it completed its task.
As an ordinary citizen who loves his country, I feel grateful that these two men didn’t buckle under pressure and they enabled the people of Canada to have their say. Now I only hope that the authorities will pay attention to what the people said. If they don’t, then the cynicism and skepticism that we had encountered earlier will return and leave the people angrier than they were ever before.