In the express aisle checkout at my local independent grocer in Ottawa, a sign popped up this week asking for donations to the Red Cross to help with the Fort McMurray catastrophe. Facebook, now the universal street corner/pool room/beauty salon for the exchange of news and gossip, is filled with opinion, thoughts, prayers and updates on the apocalyptic wildfire destroying the Alberta city and driving its citizens from their homes. Canadians, en masse, are turning their eyes, hearts, mind and donations to the plight of up to 80,000 Fort McMurray residents who would, if this were happening in a different and more distant land, be considered refugees. Curiously, only MPs in the House of Commons seem to have taken a collective decision to turn down the volume on what is happening in Fort Mac. In Question Period on Thursday, Conservative leader Rona Ambrose asked exactly one question of the prime minister about the immolation of a medium-sized town that also happens to be a key economic powerhouse of the country. It was an anodyne question at that, vaguely inquiring as to whether the Liberal government would help to pay for reconstruction once the flames have abated and residents are allowed to return to whatever is left of home. Of course, the prime minister replied, and they were off discussing negotiations around the bailout of Quebec-based Bombardier. Ambrose at least asked one question. The NDP’s Tom Mulcair, leader, pro tem, of a party that historically prided itself on speaking up for Main Street and working people, asked none. He appeared more concerned with the Liberal failure to punish the rich more vigorously in their first six months in office. Watching the silence, so to speak, it was easy to imagine an earlier time when Opposition MPs would have been on their feet, shouting, gesticulating and broadly hinting, if not making direct accusations, that Justin Trudeau himself had struck the match that ignited the inferno. Certainly, there was ample reason to put heat on the PM for his performance at the Liberal caucus meeting a day earlier. He was caught on video laughing and joking about it being “Star Wars Day” before reaching into his bag of acting tricks for his somber face and empathetic voice to express his deep care for the people of Fort McMurray. The CBC, by the way, tactfully edited out the laughing and joking from the video clip it ran. The national broadcaster, of course, knows best what it is best for ordinary Canadians not to know. The strange passivity in the Commons should not, in any way, be misconstrued as a lack of compassion on the part of MPs from all parties. Obviously, these are people who have put themselves forward for public service. They are more likely than most, by definition, to care more deeply about both the public and private suffering from catastrophes such as the one that has befallen Fort McMurray and its residents. To suggest otherwise is a lazy libel. The curious question that arises, however, is whether the heavily muted response to an unimaginable event that has caused the dislocation of a historic number of Canadians, is a good thing or a bad thing. The easy response is to point out the blindingly obvious: that there would be no such tranquility if up to 80,000 Torontonians had to be shipped down the road to London for their own physical safety. True that may be, and yet there seems something fundamentally good in the outpouring of concern and support coming not in the form of political histrionics but from citizens at large. Naturally, the State is there in multiple ways to deal with the emergency phase, and will necessarily be there for the reconstruction and aftermath. But that is just the proper application of the principle of subsidiarity by which contributions come from the social sphere best able to carry out the task at hand: ordinary Canadians can open their hearts and doors; they cannot put Hercules transports in the air. The response, then, owes more to charity than to politics. Politics will eventually intrude, of course. There will be photo ops. But a first response that reaches down to the grocery checkout, and stays there for the time being, must be good for Canada, good for Canadians, and even good for the people of Fort McMurray, difficult as that may be to believe right now.
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