Seeking honour beyond Parliament
by Margret Kopala

Published in the Ottawa Citizen, June 4, 2005

The damage done by the sponsorship scandal and recent events surrounding parliamentary defections can't be minimized. Calculated acts for personal gain betray the public trust and undermine the system.

We can be encouraged, however, that while certain of Parliament's honourable members were behaving dishonourably in Ottawa, honour's institutional and democratic incarnations, the British monarchy and British Columbia's Citizens' Assembly were hard at work in Western Canada.

As American sociologist Peter Berger notes in "On the obsolescence of the concept of honor," from his 1973 book The Homeless Mind, honour is usually understood as an aristocratic concept. It has survived in modern times in hierarchical groups or institutions such as the nobility, or traditional professions.

Social and religious, as well as political and professional, institutions provide meaning and stability for individuals, he says, and by performing institutional roles "the individual participates in history" according to prescribed rules of conduct and behaviour.

One elevated manifestation was recently on display during Saskatchewan's and Alberta's centennial celebrations, as Canada's Head of State, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, discharged her duties as she has for over half a century.

At a time when few inhabitants of political office appear capable of transcending personal interest, the Queen's presence reassured us of our place in the continuum of history and of the superiority of our parliamentary system (if not all of its individual members or political parties) as no elected or appointed official could. Free of ambition, malfeasance or corruption, the legal embodiment of Canadian sovereignty, by dint of office and character, personified the integrity of one of the world's most durable institutions.

To be sure, other honourable persons and institutions exist, even in politics, but is it possible for the general citizenry to be motivated by a culture of honour?

Arguably, an outraged sense of political honour has been the basis of all populist movements from the Boston Tea Party to the response to Winnipeg's betrayal over CF-18 maintenance contracts. Yet in perverse testimony to the malignant depth of our cynicism, not only is there no sign of a mass protest about Canada's current scandals but public figures such as Stephen Harper are criticized for being angry.

Still, it is no accident that among the few members of Parliament to have honourably departed one political home for another were former populist-inspired Reformers Chuck Cadman and Keith Martin. By becoming independents, both deferred to their constituents before, in Dr. Martin's case, seeking the Liberal nomination in his B.C. riding.

British Columbia is also the home of Canada's first Citizen's Assembly. Participating in the world's most advanced experiment in what Professor James Fishkin of the University of Texas has coined "deliberative democracy," the assembled citizens were, jury-like, randomly selected and mandated to recommend changes to the province's electoral system.

That their recommendations failed in May's provincial referendum is a measure of the process's strengths and weaknesses, but not its indisputable success in distancing politicians from a fundamental conflict of interest issue. This suggests citizens' assemblies -- institutionalized populism, if you will -- are one way of addressing similar problems that rawer forms of populism (recall, widespread use of referendums), ethics commissioners and the criminal justice system can't.

Few would dispute the right of a politician to leave a political party. The only issue is the manner in which he or she does so. On the question of rights, for politicians and others, Mr. Berger's 1973 essay offers yet more timely analysis and cautions.

The general moral coarsening of our times, he says, has been offset by new moralities in the area of human rights. Those who fail to understand an issue of honour easily "concede the demands for dignity and for equal rights by almost every new group that makes them." These relate to the intrinsic humanity of individuals, divested of all socially imposed roles or norms, but they have been achieved at a high price.

In today's rapidly changing world, we are in a period of de-institutionalization which has seen the demise of honour and in which man's fundamental requirements for order are no longer being met. Without order, all must descend into dehumanizing chaos. The ethical test of future institutions, Mr. Berger concludes, will be whether "they succeed in embodying and in stabilizing the discoveries of human dignity."

Throughout the Western World, that test is well underway. For Canada, an honourable result lies somewhere between its aristocratic, and newly emerging democratic, institutions.

MARGRET KOPALA’s column on western perspectives appears every other week.

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