Public Service

Last week I went to events on subsequent evenings that got me thinking about public service. The first was on Tuesday, a farewell reception for Lakehead University’s outgoing president, and in attendance were a number of luminaries, many of whom made a difference in my life, whether they knew it or not. The second, on Wednesday, was the monthly meeting of my son’s school council, which I joined as Treasurer this fall after having attended sporadically last year.

Tuesday’s event was in a sleek office tower at King and University, while Wednesday’s was at my son’s school, near College and Spadina. Tuesday’s had food and a cash bar, Wednesday’s was in the library, on under-sized chairs. Tuesdays had multiple videos, and a parade of guest speakers: in additional to the president himself were the Chancellor, Lyn McLeod, the first politician I ever volunteered for; David Lindsay, one of the best Deputy Ministers I ever worked with, a man whose career I fantasize about emulating, with its rare mix of public service on both the political and bureaucratic sides of government; Bob Rae, the first politician whose election I remembered (I was twelve, and sure that Lyn McLeod, our local hero, would win, so I was as stunned as he was when his victory was announced), David Zimmer, Minister of Indigenous Affairs and Reconciliation, whose Chief of Staff worked with me years ago, and who has worked on files that I played a much smaller role in over the past decade.

Wednesday’s meeting featured no boldface names, nobody who’d won an election or run a Ministry. The co-Principals of the school were there, as were the co-chairs of the council, plus some class and board reps (all parent volunteers), and a number of other parents taking minutes, reporting back from committees, and two teachers. Our agenda wasn’t complicated or ambitious, but the meeting itself was inspiring.

What was clear to me in the school library was that the people who were giving up time with their families for 90 minutes of unglamourous tasks were doing the same work that had given the guests of honour the right to speak the night before. The work differed in degree, in profile - but not in kind. In both cases, people of goodwill took on responsibilities out of a mix of duty, sense of community, and sincere desire to make things better. They weren’t doing it for the money, or the glamour (both in very short supply in Ontario politics; even the pension that everyone slags MPPs for having was actually taken away by Mike Harris after the 1995 election), but because they cared about something - their kids, their community, their neighbourhoods.

The bar to entry is low in politics - in your community, generally. Sure, the spots on a prestigious board usually come with the expectation that you’ll fundraise, and if you’re lucky there are some old hands around to show you the ropes as a new volunteer, but you’re very unlikely to be turned away if you put your hand up to help at school, in your faith community, or in your neighbourhood. You’ll meet people who care - and yes, some of them will be odd, earnest, and maybe even intimidating, but the overwhelming majority will be happy to have your help, and to share their experience and wisdom with you.

You may not think that politics is for you. It can be a cruel business. But I promise you that public service is for you. Whether you do it for a living as a civil servant, in your spare time as a volunteer, or contest an election/get acclaimed on your school council, riding association, or neighbourhood association, you will be astonished at how much you get out it. You’ll build lasting friendships, be inspired by the passion of strangers, and you’ll see the nuts and bolts of civilization; the small groups of people who cared enough to show up, who bothered doing their homework between meetings, and whose enlightened self-interest (improving their kids’ schools, helping their street lower the speed limit, getting a new bike lane) benefits people they’ve never met.

I’d love you to volunteer for my campaign, of course, but that’s not for everyone. You may not want to knock on doors, stuff envelopes, or invite your friends over to talk politics with me. You might not agree with me on the urgency of safer streets for vulnerable road users, or believe that government can do anything about childcare affordability or income security. You may have been burnt by Liberals before, be mad at the Premier, or perhaps you’re already inspired by one of the people who are running against me. Even if that’s the case, I’d still like to ask you to think about your values, your priorities, and your aspirations for your community, and about how you can help.

Trumpism is the scariest thing I’ve witnessed since the Berlin Wall came down, and I believe that the best inoculation against it is engaged, committed, passionate citizens. People who know their neighbours, who build up their communities, and who bring people together instead of sowing division. We’re lucky to live in most exciting and dynamic city in one of best countries in the world - let’s make it even better, together, for us and for the future.